With the launch in September 2020 of the Apple Watch Series 6, Apple has cemented its credentials as architect of the superlative smartwatch. The new model is faster, brighter, and equipped with a brand-new sensor, making it the most slick and sophisticated smartwatch on the market. The watch offers a wealth of health and fitness tracking tools, along with sleep monitoring and, this year’s standout new feature: a blood oxygen monitor.
The watch is available in two sizes: 40mm (for wrists 120mm and larger) and 44mm (for wrists 130mm and larger). There are a wide variety of case materials and colours from which to choose, and the entry level model (in aluminium) is priced at a remarkably modest £379. I chose a 40mm gold stainless steel model with a black sport band, which costs £699. For me, the price differential is justified on two counts. First, and most significant: the stainless steel (and titanium) model utilise Sapphire Glass, which is more durable than the Ion X glass on the aluminium version. Second, aesthetically I prefer the shiny stainless-steel finish to that of the matte aluminium. For all models, it should be noted that the Apple Watch requires an iPhone (version 6 or later) and is incompatible with Android.
The Series 6 incorporates all of the outstanding features of the superb Series 5 of 2019, such as the always-on display, but also introduces several enhancements. Foremost amongst these is a new blood oxygen saturation sensor on the reverse of the watch. In addition, the watch features a faster chip and a screen that is two-and-a-half times brighter when in ‘always-on’ ambient mode. The improvement is particularly apparent outside. There is also a range of new case colours, including a red or blue aluminium. The Apple Watch Studio, which invites you to ‘create your style’ is a fabulous tool and enables customers to simulate the breathtaking array of permutations of straps, sizes and cases. I had an inordinate amount of fun tinkering around with the different options before settling on my watch design – the aforementioned Gold Stainless Steel with black sport band. As a gym bunny, the sport band is without doubt the best choice for me, however there are an assortment of strap options to suit everyone, including leather, braided loops and stainless steel.
Battery life and performance
The battery life is impressive. With the always-on display feature deployed and sleep tracking on overnight, plus two manual ECG recordings, two manual blood oxygen recordings, a steady stream of notifications and a 45-minute session on the elliptical machine, my Series 6 lasted over 40 hours in between charges. Sleep tracking overnight was fairly energy intensive, consuming around 12% of battery life, whilst my workout used a further 5%. The battery takes 83 minutes to charge from 0 to 100% and only 56 minutes to reach 80% using a 2A USB power adapter: much faster than the Series 5.
The Series 6 boasts Apple’s latest S6 chip, which is high-speed, fluid and surpasses even the best performance from rival smartwatch makers. It is up to 20% speedier than the S5 chip in the Series 5 and is significantly faster than the chip used in the Series 3.
The Series 6 comes with the latest version of Apple’s watchOS 7, which also runs on the Series 3, 4, 5 and Watch SE.
The new software also supplied on-device voice dictation, which means that speech is converted to text faster, with enhanced privacy and without the need for internet connection. This goes for message replies and talking to Siri, too. Setting a timer using Siri is now virtually instantaneous; by contrast, Google’s Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby on their smartwatches are much slower on the dictational uptake.
Notification handling – comprising calls, texts and replies to messages is great. The integration between the Apple Watch and phone is far better than any other smartwatch with an iPhone; the relationship is almost symbiotic. Besides Apple Pay and Siri, there are thousands of good third-party apps, too, including Google Maps, Strava and Spotify, but no dedicated WhatsApp app, so you can only reply to notifications, but not initiate conversations from your wrist.
Connecting the watch to the internet – and therefore using apps to their full potential – is done either by the watch being within Bluetooth range of the iPhone, being on Wi-Fi, or having a 4G eSIM in the device. Once you are connected by one of these means, everything works. Most of the watch’s functions, such as health and fitness tracking, also work offline, which means that if you are out running without your phone, the watch tracks where you are and can still provide the stats you need; the only catch is that you won’t receive messages or see where you are on Apple Maps unless you have a 4G plan for your watch.
In addition to the heart rate and electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor from the Series 5, the Series 6, this year’s headline innovation is a blood oxygen saturation monitor – a fantastic new feature, especially for altitude training. In order to measure the oxygen saturation of your blood (known at Sp02) you have to activate the sensor manually on the Series 6 and keep your wrist still and flat for 15 seconds. It worked well for me and consistently delivered readings in the expected healthy 95% to 100% range.
Blood oxygenation levels are indicative, by inference, of how well your lungs are working, or how well your body is adjusting to high altitude, which is where SpO2 sensors are typically used. SpO2 can also be used in conjunction with other sensors whilst sleeping to detect breathing disturbances, such as sleep apnoea. The Series 6 measures your SpO2 periodically throughout the night. While the Series 6 does measure your SpO2 intermittently through the night, it doesn’t currently combine readings with sleep data as it is currently for wellness purposes only and not a medically certified device.
The software update also added a helpful handwashing feature; especially useful when, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are being exhorted to wash our hands with increased frequency. On-device AI detects when you are washing your hands, using your motions and the sounds of water and soap, timing you 20 seconds, and logging it in the Health app. A reminder can be set to wash your hands when you return home.
Another exciting development is Fitness+, the first fitness experience designed for Apple Watch, which is arriving later in 2020. Apple Fitness+ employs metrics from Apple Watch for users to view on their iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV, offering a first-of-its-kind personalised workout experience. Using a custom recommendation engine, Fitness+ screens previously completed workouts and suggests new options that match the workouts users select most frequently, or something novel to refresh their current routine. Customers can also use a filtering tool to select the most important workout criteria for them, such as workout type, trainer, duration, or type of music. Each week, a new batch of workouts, across a range of lengths, disciplines and music genres, devised by the team of Fitness+ trainers, will be made available, so there will always be new workouts to explore.
Apple has gone to great lengths to boost the eco credentials of the latest iteration of the Apple Watch. For example, a standard USB-A cable on its wireless charging puck is supplied in lieu of a power adapter. (Adapters can be purchased separately). Moreover, the Series 6 uses 100% recycled aluminium in its case and 99% recycled tungsten in a variety of different components. In addition, Apple is using renewable energy for final assembly of the watch, and offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products. The battery can be replaced for around £80, while the watch can be repaired for between £280 and £380, depending on the model.
Conclusion: Apple Watch Series 6 is the best smartwatch on the market
The Apple Watch Series 6 has better integration with the iPhone than any previous model, and is fast, fluid, and responsive in a way that many rivals simply aren’t. It is extremely comfy to wear and receives meaningful software and feature updates – and will do for an extended period of time.
The Apple Watch Series 6 is best-in-class across the board for heath-tracking functionality. Apple’s fitness activity tracking is superb, taking into account battery life, utility, data and practicality. The always-on screen is noticeably brighter when not actively using it and the battery life consistently sees you through a day and half.
With outstanding haptics, great always-on screen, ECG, health and activity tracking, 50m water resistance, solid battery and comfortable, quick-swap straps, the Apple Watch Series 6 is the best smartwatch you can buy right now.
For further information, or to configure and buy your Apple Watch Series 6, please visit: www.apple.com
Elisabeth Rushton is a former banker who swapped her career in equity sales for journalism and has over a decade of experience as a luxury lifestyle and travel writer.
Photographs courtesy of Apple