Now in its fifth iteration, the Apple Watch has gone from strength to strength since its launch, adding new features and refining those features where possible. In 2018 we saw a huge step change in what the Apple Watch offered.

Whether it's the easy to use fitness app, the ability to stream music directly to your AirPods or Bluetooth headphones, or using the Apple Watch to pay for things with Apple Pay when you're on the go, there is plenty to like. The heart rate monitor is one of the best on the market, the ECG and fall detection stuff is saving lives, and even features like the Breathe app is allowing users to just slow down and take things easy. To say it's a game changer for many is probably an understatement. 

With such huge momentum where does Apple go next to keep the pace of change on target? The response is the Apple Watch Series 5 that brings new features like an always-on display and digital compass. But is that enough to make you want to upgrade or dip in for the first time?

Same design, but new materials

  • Titanium and ceramic options added
  • New Hermes and Nike models
  • Still available in 40mm and 44mm sizes

The Apple Watch Series 5 design hasn't changed. It's still the same as the Series 4, which means it still comes in two sizes - 40mm and 44mm - offers a digital crown and touchscreen display to control everything, and is very much focused on health and getting messages when on the go without looking at your iPhone.

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The design might be the same as last year, but this time around it will come in many different materials, two of which will be brand new to this device. The materials to choose from now include aluminium, stainless steel, titanium and ceramic - and within those material choices, Apple is also offering different colours and finishes.

The titanium model will come in two colours: a silver - which showcases the metal in more natural light - and space black titanium which gives the watch a very masculine and edgy feel to proceedings.

The titanium model is some 13 per cent lighter, not that you'll notice, and for those who geek out about these things, it could have been lighter still because of the strength of the material, but that would have meant changing the layout of the internals, but that would have meant changing the production line to accommodate it.

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The ceramic version - which is a return for the material on the Apple Watch - is only available in white, but the polished finish is perhaps the most desirable of the bunch. It's also the most expensive.

In addition to new case materials, Apple will also introduce new Hermes and Nike Watch versions of the Series 5, and again these are designed to appeal to certain audiences. They take the same technical specs and design, but are customised towards the relevant brands with dedicated straps, watch faces, and prices to match. 

If you liked the Apple Watch Series 4 look and feel, you'll love the Apple Watch Series 5. We've been wearing the Series 4 since its launch in 2018, and the bigger display works really well, allowing you to see much more information at a glance without being overly cumbersome on your wrist.

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The Series 5 continues that, with a choice of new materials that, if you've got the budget, will appeal to many. The other good news is that straps from previous models will still fit the new Watch so that Watch owners can bring those to the party.

Always-on display 

  • Adds new glanceability 

The overall design hasn't changed, but the OLED screen functionality has, and the Apple Watch Series 5 embraces a feature we've been asking for since the beginning - an always-on display, so you can glance at the watch just like you can an analogue timepiece or most other smartwatches.

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Rather than going black when not active, as has been the case since the first Apple Watch, the Watch now dims slightly, allowing you to conserve battery, but still see the information on the screen. The difference is stark especially if you're one of those people who likes to keep an eye on the time without having to vigorously move your wrist every time you want to do so. Whether the screen is on or off the high-contrast screen really pops showing those vibrant colours be it your exercise rings or a message from a friend. 

We've also found we can stop doing that crazy wrist flick that you see Apple Watch owners do, and means on a run when you raise your hand the screen is on ready for you to read without delay.

To help conserve battery and make things easier to see at a glance, many of the Watch faces change colour when not active. The new California watch face goes from a coloured face to black and white for example, Mickey all but disappears apart from his hands, while others lose other elements accordingly.

You can of course turn the always-on functionality off. Understanding that some "complications" offer sensitive data, there is a setting that can be hidden when the screen isn't active so you aren't revealing calendar appointments to all on sundry.

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According to Apple, the feature won't affect the battery life, but of course it does. The Apple Watch Series 4 has constantly delivered a good day and half of battery life for us since 2018, and so far, the Apple Watch Series 5 only gets us to the end of the day (around 18 hours). That's disappointing, but still in line with Apple's promises. But be warned: if you forget to charge it nightly you won't make it through to the next day.

Some of that comes down to having a vibrant and glorious display and since the bump in size on the Series 4, there are few watches that can really compare on quality of display - although that's what eats into the battery.

Compass to help find your way 

  • Digital compass
  • Will work with third-party apps

The only other real new feature to write home about in the Apple Watch Series 5 is the addition of a digital compass. There's a digital compass app for those orienteering moments or seeing how high that run actually took you.

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The compass app will be able to record and show heading, incline, latitude, longitude, and current elevation. Where it's most likely to be of use is seeing which direction you are facing when looking at the maps app. That might just save you walking down the wrong street, or taking the wrong turning. It certainly helped us during our testing.

We've yet to see how the feature will be implemented by other developers, and at the moment it's very much a "that's nice" rather than something you'll be using daily.

Tech specs

  • Almost the same as the Series 4 model

The Series 5 is identical to the Series 4 that's been on sale for the last year, aside from the always-on display and the digital compass. The new Apple Watch will come with the same S4 processor, same battery, and same W1 chip for connecting to your iPhone and headphones like the AirPods or Beats PowerBeats. It also retains the same wireless charging functionality as the Apple watches before it. Internally the Series 5 has changed slightly to make way for the new compass. Surprisingly, given Apple's quiet push on including the U1 chip in the new iPhone 11 models, that chip hasn't made it into the Apple Watch.

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As previously the Watch features the ability to make and receive calls. Series 5 still retains this feature, alongside Walkie-Talkie mode, but travellers will be disappointed that while Apple added international emergency calling for the cellular model to let you phone local emergency services in over 150 countries, it hasn't added roaming for regular calls. That's a frustrating omission for travellers and one we were expecting this time around.

Elsewhere the Series 5 continues the good work of the Series 4: the heart-rate monitor is incredibly accurate, meaning you still have access to a full range of metrics, while GPS does a solid job of tracking your location, so the Apple Watch will turn its hand to being a fitness tracker or running watch if you want it to. There's no support for sleep tracking - perhaps an odd omission as it's common on other devices - but that remains elusive. 

WatchOS 6

  • New Noise app
  • Cycle tracking for women 
  • New Watch faces

WatchOS 6 adds new Watch faces like California and Numerals Duo, both of which we really like, as well as some new apps and functionality including an app store app so you can search for apps on the Watch itself rather than needing your iPhone to hand.

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On the health side WatchOS 6 brings cycle tracking for women, and a new Noise app that will let you see how loud your environment is. Now you can really see how noisy the restaurant is for example. There's also Activity trends so you can see how your activity metrics are trending over a longer period of time and there's even a Calculator app for that nostalgic 80s throwback moment, or more likely working out how to spilt the bill and what tip you should give.

All of the WatchOS 6 features are available on older devices, taking away some of the need to upgrade, especially when you think that all the above is available on the now incredibly cheap Apple Watch Series 3 for just $199/£199

Verdict

With so many big advances in 2018, the Apple Watch Series 5 looks to hone and refine the experience that we saw with the Apple Watch Series 4 - which is no longer on sale. The changes, while welcomed, are fairly small this time around suggesting that Apple is putting the brakes on to avoid adding too many features too quickly.

Of course, there is plenty they could still add or improve on. A better battery now the screen is always-on, sleep tracking, and improved wireless charging without having to take the "charging puck" with you wherever you go, are a few features that spring to mind.

As an upgrade from the Series 4 there is definitely no need. The always-on screen is lovely, and now we've started using it, we would struggle to go back, but if you've not yet experienced it, you really don't need it.

But for Watch Series 3 or earlier owners, the combination of the bigger screen, improved functionality and WatchOS 6 make this a cracking smartwatch upgrade to, then wear and enjoy.

Apple's smartwatch is still the one to beat but this year Apple is taking things a little bit easy in terms of new innovations and features.

This article was first published 10 September 2019 and has been updated following full use to reflect its full review status.

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No, we're not trolling you, the Samsung watch does work with iOS. That said, while it's a great watch - that looks like one, rather than a smart device - it has limited compatibility with Apple and, frankly, the larger screen of the Watch S4 is much more alluring.