The smartwatch sees marginal gains by adding a blood oxygen sensor and a faster chip.
The RW Takeaway: Apple refreshed its smartwatch to be faster and brighter, and packed in a blood oxygen sensor, which runners may not find as useful as other Watch users.
- The new blood oxygen sensor is a general wellness tool, but runners might find it most useful to indicate how well they’re adapting to a change in altitude.
- A new S6 chip improves performance—apps launch 20 percent faster.
- The battery still lasts only 18 hours, but recharges faster.
Price: From $599
Last year, I said the Apple Watch Series 5 could “generously be described as a minor update to Series 4.” The same holds true this year, to be honest, when it comes to the Series 6’s performance as a running watch over the 5. On its surface, the 6 isn’t a huge leap forward from what we’ve been using. There are some good changes unseen, however, but how do they rate for runners? I’ve been testing the Series 6 for a week now, so here’s an initial look at the updates.
Mostly Remains the Same
Since the Apple Watch Series 6 is much like the previous model, let’s start with the runner-friendly features that carry over this year. The watch still comes in two sizes—40mm and 44mm—along with the expanded, easier-to-read screen that debuted on Series 4. It also includes the fall detection and EKG features that have been around a couple of years now.
Runners in particular will like the always-on display, so you don’t have to exaggeratedly lift your arm to peek at your pace. That was introduced on Series 5 but has been made brighter (we’ll get to this shortly).
And finally, battery life tops out at only 18 hours, even though the watch’s performance has been improved. We’ll touch on that, too, later.
Apple Watch Series 6
The big headline at the launch event was that Series 6 has a blood oxygen sensor. That may not be the most exciting news for healthy runners, though. Apple says the feature lets users “better understand their overall fitness and wellness,” but cautions that “measurements are not intended for medical use, including self-diagnosis or consultation with a doctor.”
So, why would a runner want a blood oxygen sensor? Those measurements could be useful if you live at sea level but are going to spend time at a higher elevation. Monitoring your blood oxygen levels can tell you how you’re adapting to the altitude change. But, beyond that, if you’re like me, you’re probably never going to use it. Even so, do you need an Apple Watch to get this data? Nope. The Garmin Fenix 6X has a blood oxygen sensor, as do the Forerunner 245, 745, and 945. The new Fitbit Sense does as well.
One update that we can appreciate, however, is the better performance thanks to the new S6 chip, which allows apps to launch 20 percent faster without negatively affecting battery life. Compared to early Apple Watch models—which were painfully slow, especially on startup—Series 5 marked a huge improvement in speed. Series 6 is faster still, even if just barely perceptibly so.
The display, too, has received a boost. Like I mentioned earlier, the last generation added an always-on display, so you could see the time or your running pace without having to raise your wrist. It worked pretty well, but could be a bit hard to read in bright sunlight. Apple has bumped the display on the Series 6 to be 2.5 times brighter in the inactive mode.
The launch event presenters quickly highlighted some features that might make it seem like the Series 6 got exciting new updates. For example, you might have learned that the watch can track VO2 Max now. Well, technically, that’s been the case since Series 2—you can access your measurements via the iPhone Health app. But what’s new is that it will be able to detect lower VO2 Max scores. We haven’t yet seen this feature, but all existing Apple Watches are going to get it later this year with a software update.
Likewise, you may think this is the first Apple Watch with an altimeter. Nope. Apple Watch has long had a barometric altimeter, but now it’s “always on.” The update allows Watch faces to show you more accurate elevation measurements at a glance.
Colours: You can now get your watch in a red or blue aluminium case, in addition to the standard silver, gold, and space grey.
Battery & GPS Performance
The bad news: The battery still lasts just 18 hours, and you’re going to have to charge it every day. The good news: It charges faster—from zero to 100 percent in just 1.5 hours. For years, I’ve just put the Apple Watch on its charger on my bedside table while I slept. But with the new blood ox sensor and sleep-tracking tools being rolled to watchOS, Apple wants you to wear it overnight. So this is actually a handy update. Toss it on a charger while you shower and get ready after your morning run, and you have a fresh battery to get through the rest of the day. Another helpful update is that your iPhone will notify you when the watch is fully charged.
Apple reports that the new S6 chip performance delivers an extra hour of workout time with GPS running. Workout duration has long been a complaint of mine—I couldn’t wear the Apple Watch to get through a full marathon with GPS, cellular, and music playing. But if it lasts for another hour, it could be more useful to many of us. Unfortunately, I don’t have four-hour fitness right now, so I haven’t been able to fully test this. Still, I’ve been impressed with early performance on shorter efforts. One six-miler used up just 8 percent of the battery.
The watch’s GPS tracking accuracy remains about the same as I had found with Series 5. I like to keep “rolling mile” and “current pace” active on my display, so I can see roughly how fast I’m running at the moment and have been most recently. Both numbers have proven fairly stable and reliable in early testing, and I find they generally register the same distance I get when using Garmin and Suunto watches.
The results I see on a map post-run also still tend to be far smoother than what I get from other devices. I live in a city with a lot of tall buildings, which make GPS watches lose signal and the resulting map track to jump around wildly at a couple of spots on my neighbourhood loop. The recorded distance, too, can be erratic on those other watches so that my total distance is off and my pace for that mile displays ridiculously fast. The Apple Watch Series 6, just like Series 5, hasn’t done either.
We’re happy to learn that the case sizes remain unchanged from previous generations, so old watch straps will still work with this update. The Series 6 is available in 40mm and 44mm sizes with an aluminium case, or you can pony up for titanium or stainless steel. (Ceramic has been discontinued.) The most pressing choice, however, is whether to get it with or without cellular connectivity. My recommendation: Get the cell model. The Watch piggybacks on your data plan and shares your existing phone number. I regularly head out the door for my morning run, fire up NPR, and stream the news. Or, if you like to rock out, you’ll never have to worry about listening to only the music you’d previously downloaded to the device. Instead, if you get an urge to hear the Marcus King Band mid-run, just tell Siri. It’s an effortless, hands-free luxury that truly sets the Apple Watch apart from other running watches. Plus, since it acts like a phone, you can take calls and send text messages if you really need.
Apple announced a new watch band, called Solo Loop—technically, two versions: a standard silicone band and a braided version that’s woven with recycled polyester. These watch bands are much like the stretchy Road ID band that many of us wear, without any clasp. But be sure to get the right size (Apple offers measuring tips on its website). I prefer the watch to fit a bit more snug when running than I do when worn casually. If I were to use Solo bands, that would require me to have two different sizes, owning an Apple Watch could get pricey quickly. Because of this, I’ve been using the older sport strap more often, to be honest.
Should You Get It?
If you have an Apple Watch Series 5, skip this update. The processor speed and blood oxygen sensor aren’t likely enough to justify the expense. But if you’re using anything older, go for it. Then again, I’d suggest you save yourself money and get the all-new Apple Watch SE. It’s basically a rebranded Series 5—it doesn’t have a blood oxygen sensor or ECG app, features most healthy runners don’t need and won’t use. It also has the older S5 chip, which seemed plenty fast until just last week.