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Apple Watch Series 5 brings a completely reinvented screen

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

The Apple Watch is the best-selling smartwatch in the world, according to Strategy Analytics and Counterpoint Research, and has become as much a status symbol for Apple fans, as it is a digital companion for the iPhone.

The all-new Series 5, which starts at $399 for the 40mm version and $429 for the 44mm model, brings with it a handful of updates including a new on-board compass, a built-in decibel monitor to warn wearers of potential hearing damage from ambient noise, and software enhancements including female health tracking.

But the biggest addition to the Apple (AAPL) Watch Series 5 is its new always-on display — a reinvented screen for the Apple Watch that continuously shows the time and your complications.

The Apple Watch Series 5 brings incremental improvements, but it's worth the buy for newcomers, and those with older models. (Image: Dan Howley)

While the changes are incremental, they are welcome improvements. And if you've got an older model or are looking to buy your first Apple Watch, they could entice you to grab a Series 5.

Always-on display

With the addition of an always-on display to the Apple Watch Series 5, your watch will now permanently display the time without your raising your wrist or tapping the screen.

Novel-ish?

Okay, yes, mechanical watches have always done this, but it’s a feat for smartwatches. The additional battery drain from the screen always running can significantly cut back on usage time for smartwatches, which is why Apple hasn't offered an always-on display until now.

Competing smartwatches also have always-on displays, but they have drawbacks. The Fitbit Versa 2's always-on display changes the watch face to a simple digital read-out rather than lowering the brightness of the existing face you're using. Samsung's always-on display functions similarly to Apple's in that it lowers the display's brightness. But the feature isn't on by default, and will drastically cut into the watch's battery life.

For the Series 5, Apple says it added the always-on display feature without having to also sacrifice the watch's battery thanks to a new screen technology and improved power management. In fact, the company says the Apple Watch Series 5 gets the same 18 hours of battery life as the Series 4, which doesn't have an always-on display.

In practice, the watch's always-on mode doesn't look all that different from the normal mode. For the most part, the watch faces simply dim and you lose the second hand. Animated faces like those from Disney's "Toy Story" or the Liquid Metal and Motion faces dim to a standard digital readout, though those are the exception to the rule.

While complications, like the date, weather, and activity tracking, are always visible on the display, notifications aren't.

The Apple Watch Series 5's always-on display lowers the screen's brightness and removes the second hand, saving battery life. (Image: Dan Howley)

Apple said this was a purposeful decision, as having notifications appear on the always-on display would mean someone sitting next to you could see your texts. You can also set it so sensitive notifications like your mail messages and heart rate are hidden.

The always-on display feature only applies to the watch's face and the Workout app. When used then, you'll still be able to see all of your important workout information, but hundredths of a second on the timer will be hidden until you raise your wrist.

It sounds almost ridiculous to say as part of a review of a watch, but being able to see the time without having to tap the screen or lift my wrist made the always-on display especially helpful. I don't know that I'd want to go back to not having one.

As for its overall design, the outside of the Apple Watch Series 5 is the same as the Series 4, save for the availability of ceramic and titanium as casing options that cost between $799 and $1,399. Hermes versions of the Apple Watch are also available for a starting price of $1,249.

Compass, Noise, and health tracking

In addition to the always-on display, Apple has added a compass, ambient sound detection and female health tracking features to the Series 5.

The compass, available to view as a standard compass, or used in apps like Maps or Yelp, is meant to help you more accurately navigate via your wrist. For instance, if you pop out of a subway in a major city, it's often difficult to get your bearings. In that instance, the watch's compass can get you pointed in the right direction for your next destination.

It's also likely to help those users who prefer to spend their time in the great outdoors rather than in front of a TV or at the bar. In that case, I can see the compass being a major plus, especially given how much Apple pushes the device as a fitness companion.

The Noise app on the watch, meanwhile, detects the sound level of ambient noise and lets you know if you're in an area where long-term exposure can impact your hearing. Apple, notably, doesn't record, save, or share any of the audio levels it measures.

The Apple Watch Series 5's Noise app lets you know if you're in an environment that could hurt your hearing in the long term, such as this subway station. (Image: Howley)

Female health tracking gives women the ability to track their menstrual cycles by inputting information about their periods and when they have them. Over time, the feature, which is also accessible via the Apple Health app, will help users plot their upcoming cycles and fertility windows.

The addition of sound level notifications and female health tracking helps build on the Apple Watch's pedigree as a health device. The watch can already check your heart rate, heart rhythm, detect if you've fallen and alert your emergency contacts, and warn you if you're showing signs of an increased or decreased heart beat, or atrial fibrillation.

Where the watch is still lacking is in the sleep tracking department. While other watches from Samsung and Fitbit have native sleep tracking capabilities, Apple's watch doesn't. You can download third-party sleep tracking apps, but I'd prefer Apple built the feature into its watch just as it does its EKG monitor.

Apple Watch Battery life

Apple says the battery life clocks in at approximately 18 hours, but that's a huge understatement in my experience. I wore the watch for 14 hours and its battery still had a 48% charge left.

Measuring battery life for the watch, however, also depends on how you use it. If you're the type of person who receives a never-ending slew of notifications on your watch, you'll run down the battery faster than someone who doesn't.

I, for example, receive notifications for text messages, credit card purchases, Slack, fantasy football, when the Mets lose, my calendar appointments, calls, and more. I also use my watch every time I work out, and share my fitness tracking information with my dad, who is currently crushing me in our ongoing competition.

Even with all of that, I still manage to get plenty of usage out of the Apple Watch's battery.

That said, the battery is still limited to just two days, which means I can't go on vacation without bringing a charger. Ultimately, I'd prefer a longer battery life — but without sacrificing features, that might be asking too much.

Should you get it?

There's a reason the Apple Watch dominates the smartwatch market: It's a great product. Its design, apps, and functionality put it well above the competition. The Series 5 only adds to that.

But the additions to the Series 5 aren't exactly necessities. If you've got a Series 4, you've still got a fantastic smartwatch with a powerful processor and the same level of battery life as the Series 5. If you've got an older model, though, or are looking to get your first Apple Watch, the Series 5 is the ideal choice.

If the Series 5's $399 starting price is a little too high, however, you can also get an Apple Watch Series 3 for $199, which is a heck of a deal.

Still, the Series 5 is the top offering in Apple's stable of watches, and definitely worth snagging.

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoofinance.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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