Apple Watch Series 6: 8 Weeks Later

There has never been a better time to buy an Apple Watch. The ecosystem is more vibrant than ever with plenty of options in terms of customisation. When you buy an Apple Watch you’ll have a variety of choices in terms of case materials, bands, watch faces and more to personalise the product and make it feel like yours. Now with the low entry price of the Apple Watch Series 3 and the recently announced (and highly capable) Apple Watch SE, the Apple Watch is becoming more and more competitive in terms of value. I’ve been using Apple’s latest and greatest Apple Watch Series 6 every day for the last 8 weeks. Here is my complete in depth review including design, health features, sensors and more.

Design

The Apple Watch series 6 retains the updated design language introduced in 2018 with the series 4. The display extends to the edges of the watch case and slopes gently into the devices curved edges. It’s an attractive design and one that Apple sees value in retaining. Maintaining this same design is greatly beneficial for compatibility with the massive ecosystem of watch bands that has spawned around the product. Both first party and third party watch bands play an important role in the success story of Apple Watch. Apple almost certainly won’t want to break that compatibility anytime soon as the decision would likely prove unpopular.

This year Apple cemented that commitment to band compatibility by introducing even more first party band styles including a ‘slip over the wrist’ solo loop and a fabric based, braided solo loop band. They’ve also introduced a brand new style of leather band, the leather link. The solo loop bands come in a number of sizes and require you to use a sizing tool to determine the correct size. The leather link is available in a small and large sizes and wraps symmetrically around your wrist. It seems clear from the introduction of these new styles that Apple isn’t planning a huge overhaul of the design anytime soon.

As always there are a number of material design choices that you can pick from. The ever present aluminium models start the lineup and are the least expensive. They feature an ion exchange cover glass over the display. The Aluminium casing is available in silver, space grey, gold and new for 2020 are Product (RED) and blue. Moving up a price bracket we have the polished Stainless Steel case with a sapphire crystal covering the display. Sapphire is second hardest transparent material after diamond and offers exceptional scratch resistance. I’ve owned every single Apple Watch and always the sapphire variant. I have yet to see a single scratch. The Steel case is available in silver, space black a new graphite and an improved, brighter shade of gold. Finally at the high end is the Apple Watch Edition, created from brushed Titanium and also featuring sapphire crystal. The Titanium case comes in silver of space black.

Personally I really like the design of the Apple Watch. It feels friendly and organic. Almost like a pebble sitting on my wrist that just so happens to have a screen, radios and a suite of health sensors. Some might like to see Apple change the design perhaps to feature a rounded display like other smart watches and traditional mechanical watches. This does present a problem though. The squared display of the Apple Watch is more efficient for presenting text compared to a circular shape. I’m sure Apple has prototyped all sorts of shapes but for now, I continue to be a fan of the current design language.

Fitness Tracking and Wellness

The Apple Watch for many people is first and foremost a health and fitness device. Apple has really leaned in to that in the last few years and the Apple Watch Series 6 is no exception.

For a while now the Apple Watch has been capable of tracking how much you move and how many calories you burn through your daily activity. It can also measure how much you stand and how many minutes of exercise you complete each day. Apple refers to these as daily Activity Goals. With the latest version of watchOS (7), you have more control over your daily goals. It was only possible to change the move goal in past versions but you can now customise the stand and exercise goals too. I really enjoy the ability to share my activity goals with friends and family. It can be a useful motivator and the ability to compete using the ‘activity competitions’ feature is really fun!

Tracking exercise has been available on the Apple Watch since day 1 but this year it is capable of tracking an even wider variety of workouts. Support has been added for Core Training, Dance, Functional Strength Training, and Cooldown (in addition to support for all of the old workouts such as running, cycling etc). Of course there are also a ton of third party apps that expand upon this even further and some even offer greater functionality.

The built in ‘Breathe’ app helps you to focus your mind and can help bring down your heart rate. I love this feature and use it whenever I’m feeling stressed to get an instant daily dose of calm. A great benefit of using the app is that it also records your heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a very useful measure of your body’s response to stress. Generally speaking the lower the number the more stressed your body might be under. However different people have different ‘normal’ values. So just because the number seems low, it might not mean you’re under stress. That might just be your bodies own natural rhythm. The Breathe app is a great way to keep a check on this and monitor patterns over time.

New for 2020 and long awaited is sleep tracking! Apple has taken a somewhat conservative approach to this feature, offering a more basic set of data including time spent in bed and time awake vs time asleep. It doesn’t offer more comprehensive data such as the stages of sleep and time spent in deep sleep for example. By contrast what it does offer is a very simple and elegant user experience. You start by scheduling your preferred sleep and wake time each day and the watch will enter ‘wind down’ mode thirty minutes before your scheduled bed time. During this time, certain functions will be locked out (you can override it if you want to) to get you into the mind set of preparing for sleep. Once your scheduled sleep time begins, notifications are paused and sent straight to the notification centre and the display turns off. If you tap on the display you can quickly see the time and check when your alarm is scheduled. When the alarm goes off, your watch wakes you up with a series of subtle taps on your wrist. It’s very effective and preferable to a loud, unpleasant alarm clock!

Sensors and Medical Features

Since the original Apple Watch, Apple has built in an optical heart rate sensor that is capable of tracking your pulse. The watch can also detect a low heart rate and when your heart has taken too long to recover to a resting pace after exercise. This can be an indication of certain underlying health problems. The feature can be enabled or disabled but it’s great to think that this little device on your wrist is keeping a check on pulse and nudging you if something doesn’t seem quite right.

The Series 6 like the 4 and 5, also comes with an electrical heart rate sensor. This enables the Apple Watch to take a lead 1 ECG. Electrodes built into the ceramic back of the watch and on the side of the Digital Crown create a circuit that measures the electrical activity of your heart. This can even detect Atrial Fibrillation. The ECG function has FDA approval, the certification required of a medical device offering an ECG function.

New for the Apple Watch Series 6 is the addition of a Blood Oxygen Sensor. This works by taking readings periodically through out the day but can also be taken manually. It’ll show the saturation of oxygen in your blood as a percentage. The higher the number the better. Generally anything under 90 should be considered problematic and you may want to seek medical attention if you consistently see readings in this range. I’m not a medical professional and this feature of the Watch is not FDA cleared, meaning it should be used for general wellness more so. However it’s widely accepted that readings under 90 ‘may’ be an indicator of an underlying condition. As it turns out, in 2020 with the ever present COVID-19, a low blood oxygen reading can be the result of the other symptoms of the disease. Low blood oxygen can’t detect COVID by any means but it can suggest a link to some of the more prominent symptoms.

The blood oxygen sensor on Apple Watch Series 6. Credit – Apple

Now here is a little secret. The Apple Watch Series 6 isn’t the first Apple Watch to have a blood oxygen sensor. Yep, that’s right. Apple has been experimenting with this for quite some time. In fact the very first Apple Watch that featured the original sensor layout contained a Blood Oxygen sensor. As did Series 2 and 3. Don’t believe me? Here’s some evidence from the folks over at iFixit.

“Apple’s heart rate monitor is actually a plethysmograph—it looks and acts like a pulse oximeter, but Apple isn’t claiming it can measure your blood oxygen level. Why? Beats us. Our best guesses involve FDA regulations.” – iFixit

I can help clear this up. Quite simply Tim Cook made it clear that he didn’t want to put the watch through FDA testing in 2015. The process is long and the regulatory approval time can vary from country to country. That’s why some countries still don’t have access tot he ECG app on their Apple Watch series 4, 5 or 6. Apple decided to add the capability to read blood oxygen this year without regulatory approval however this does mean that they can’t describe it as a medical feature. Instead it can be referred to a sensor for ‘general wellness purposes’. Perhaps Apple decided that the process they underwent for the ECG function would be less beneficial for Blood Oxygen tracking. After all an ECG can detect Atrial Fibrillation where as Blood Oxygen can be more of a general indicator of health problems.

Here’s a shot courtesy of iFixit of the blood oxygen sensor in the original Apple Watch.

Image credit – iFixit

Apple also added a second new sensor this year, an always on altimeter. This tracks elevation in real time. You can even add a complication to a Watch Face that will show you your elevation at a glance. This can be really valuable in conjunction with the Blood Oxygen sensor. Typically at higher altitudes, Blood Oxygen saturation tends to dip. Combining the data together can help you keep an eye on these metrics on hikes.

Personally I haven’t found too much value in the new sensors right now. Perhaps that’s a result of our self imposed national lockdowns for much of 2020. But it is nice to have the ability to keep an eye on the trends that the data shows. Blood oxygen for instance tends to vary quite a bit when we sleep compared to in waking hours. So I won’t complain that Apple has added functionality, even if I haven’t necessarily found use for it right now.

Speed and Performance

Since the Apple Watch series 4, the complaints of the original Apple Watch have become a distant memory. The speed and performance is excellent. Apps launch instantly thanks to the new S6 chip based on the iPhone 11 Pro’s A13 Bionic chip. This is great because the Watch is intended for quick, light interactions. If it takes longer to do something on the watch compared to getting your phone out of your pocket, then you’ve already failed. Fortunately that isn’t the case. Everything from animations, to app load times and workout tracking is instant and very snappy.

Battery life for me has been great. I wear mine all day and night and comfortably make it though a whole day. Even with the always on display enabled for watch faces. I’ll put the watch on the charger for an hour or so each day and I don’t ever need to charge it again during the day. Just as well with the addition of sleep tracking! Apple recommends 30% battery to track a nights sleep. In my experience it rarely loses more than 10% battery over night.

Apple has also added fast charging to the Apple Watch Series 6. They claim it can charge 20% faster than last years Series 5. I’ve found that claim to hold up and charging is so quick that I’m often pleasantly surprised when I check on the progress of charging and find that it’s shot up to 100% in no time.

Connectivity

New for 2020 is 5Ghz WiFi support. While previous models supported WiFi, they didn’t operate on the 5Gz band. 5Ghz offers higher speeds, better range and greater bandwidth allocation to your Apple Watch. The watch supports Bluetooth 5.0 and still requires an iPhone for initial pairing. You can also pair it with wireless headphones and with watchOS 7, the watch supports automatic switching with AirPods and audio sources. In my testing I’ve found the watch maintains a better connection with WiFi networks compared to my Series 5 from last year.

For an extra charge, you can choose to add a cellular modem to your Apple Watch. This comes as standard on the steel and titanium models and allows the watch to connect with LTE. No 5G support yet sorry. It’s nice to have the option of an LTE connection for features like music streaming, texting and the ability to take a call without the need to keep your iPhone nearby. In all honesty the lighter weight interactions that take place on Apple Watch means that 5G would just be overkill. And would likely kill the battery of your watch quite literally.

Summary

The Apple Watch Series 6 is a great smart watch. Probably the best smart watch and certainly if you’re in the iOS ecosystem. It isn’t a must have upgrade compared to the Series 5 but if you own an older model, the additional features that have been added in the last couple of years make this a really compelling device.

Each year the Apple Watch becomes even more capable as a health and fitness companion. With more sensors, a faster processor, improved GPS and more, the watch can gather more data with greater accuracy. These things combined can offer you some genuine and meaningful insights into your health and wellbeing. What I love is that the watch does this without seeming too ‘techie’. It just does its thing in the background without you needing to constantly pay attention to it or take manual readings (though you can if you want to).

It serves as a handy companion for notifications, quick interactions and sourcing information at a glance. Replying to messages on the fly is convenient. Being able to ask Siri a question without grabbing your iPhone is genuinely useful. And all of the conveniences of the watch while small in isolation, add up to make for a meaningful suite of features.

The Apple Watch still isn’t a ‘necessity’ per say and I don’t see it replacing your iPhone just yet. But for what it does, it adds real value and has even saved lives thanks to its medical and safety features such as ECG and emergency SOS. The device motivates you to move more and be active and it does all of these things in a beautifully designed package.

If you’re upgrading from a Series 4 or previous, you won’t be disappointed. If you haven’t ever owned an Apple Watch now is a great time to jump in.

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