The RW Takeaway: Very little has changed from Series 4, but runners will like being able to see their on-the-run data without lifting their arm.
- Series 5 has the same big screen introduced on Series 4.
- Battery life with GPS, Bluetooth, and cellular active is still too short for most marathoners.
- Series 3 watches are still available, starting at $199.
Price: From $399 (40mm) and $429 (44mm); add $100 for cellular version
The newest Apple Watch is now available, and we’ve had it for a week of round-the-clock testing. Series 5 can be generously described as a minor update to Series 4, the watch it replaced. Like that previous model, it comes in the same physical dimensions (40mm and 44mm), has the same expanded screen (which is easier to read than the one on the Series 3 was), and has safety features like fall detection and EKG. So what’s new? Most obviously, Apple added an “always on” screen and a compass. And there’s a lot under the hood that’s been improved, but you’re unlikely to notice most of it. That’s basically it.
That said, this is still the best Apple Watch yet. I’ve tested every version since the original was released and put heavy mileage on the three most recent models (all with cellular connectivity). I ran 1,124 miles while wearing the AW4, and have already run 112 miles with this model, most during the final big week of marathon training. Here are my impressions of its usefulness for runners.
The New Display Shines
As mentioned, the AW5 has the same big screen that the AW4 had. It’s easy to read—especially for those of us with aging eyes that require cheater glasses. More applicable to everyone, though, is that the watch’s clock or Workouts app is always available at a glance thanks to the screen that stays on, meaning you don’t have to exaggeratedly raise your arm to see the time or view your exercise data. At night, when driving in a dark car for example, the ambient light is a bit annoying, but most other times I appreciate it.
To ensure the display doesn’t chew through your battery life, the screen refreshes only once per second when it’s inactive, and it dims considerably. For example, in Workouts mode, when you raise your hand and look at the screen, you’ll see your run time, accurate to hundredths of a second. But as you jog along, the screen gets darker and everything after the decimal point disappears. The time (formatted as h:mm:ss) still refreshes, as do distance and pace. Likewise, if you’re using the regular watch face at any point during the day but not looking at it, the second hand and some of those fancy complications disappear.
The Battery Life Still Isn’t Great
The Watch still runs for only 18 hours, Apple claims, so you’ll have to plug it in overnight. In my testing, I wore it all day, used it on runs of five to seven miles, then tossed it on my bedside table to charge while I slumbered. But the battery isn’t suited for extremely long runs, and forget using it for a marathon with all the sensors and connectivity active. On my recent 20-mile-long run that lasted 2:35:37, I had cellular service active, was streaming songs from Apple Music to my Bluetooth headphones, and of course fired up the GPS and optical heart rate monitor. That’s a lot of processing, but I’m still disappointed that the watch had just 17 percent battery left at the end. That means, if you’re any slower than three hours in a marathon, you’re going to have to throttle some of those functions to extend its life or—as I’m likely to do—wear a marathon Garmin on race day. But, for anything shorter and daily training runs, the Apple Watch 5 is great.
Thankfully Apple didn’t overhaul the case at all, so your old watch straps will still work with this update. It’s available in 40mm and 42mm sizes with an aluminum case, or you can cough up even more money for titanium, stainless steel, or ceramic. The most pressing choice, however, is whether to get it with or without cellular connectivity. My recommendation: Get the cell model. In addition to the $100 extra you’ll pay up front, it adds $10 per month to your Verizon bill but allows you to leave your phone at home while still remaining connected. 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, say you’re tired of the songs you have saved to the Watch, you can easily say “Hey, Siri, play Gary Clark, Jr.’s newest album” and get some fresh beats. Plus, since it acts like a phone, you can take calls and send text messages if you really need.
Of course, I realize that’s a lot of dough. If you want an Apple Watch at a fraction of the cost, consider the Series 3. Apple has kept it available and dropped its price to just $199. The same options as above are available at that price, but you lose the bigger screen and the processor is just a bit slower—most noticeably, it takes longer to power up in the rare occasions you shut it down.
How’s the Accuracy?
In a nutshell: the GPS is good, the HR is bad. Let’s rip off the Band-Aid first. I still hate the optical heart rate sensor while running. I’ve always found the Apple Watch to suffer in this area, and its measurements are wildly inaccurate for me—especially during the first mile. On one recent lunch run, the AW5 said I averaged 210 bpm for the first mile. Not a chance. In more sedentary life, the optical heart rate sensor is a nice feature, but if you truly want to train by heart rate, get a chest strap.
On the other hand, I’ve found the GPS is as accurate as anything else out there. I like to keep “rolling mile” and “current pace” active on my display, so I can see roughly how fast I’m running right now and have been most recently. Both numbers have proven fairly stable and reliable. And the end of the run generally comes in at the distance I’d expect and matches the measurements of my running partners using Garmin, Suunto, and Coros watches.
A quirk is that Apple has done something inside the watch to smooth out the recording and data it captures in the Workouts app. I live in a city with a lot of tall buildings and not a day goes by where my Garmin doesn’t jump around wildly at a couple spots on my neighborhood loop. The recorded distance, too, is erratic so that my total distance is off and my pace for that mile displays ridiculously fast. The Apple Watch hasn’t done either. And the maps it produces are smooth, not herky-jerky.
Of course, one limitation of the Workouts app is that Apple wants to trap you in its ecosystem, making it a little tricky to get your data shared onto sites like Strava. A workaround is to use the RunGap app, which reads your activity data and can share it to a wide variety of online training logs. It’s a manual process—open the app, refresh workouts, click share—after each run, but it’s quick and RunGap does a great job keeping its app up-to-date with any iOS upgrades to ensure a bug-free experience.
The Bottom Line
The Apple Watch Series 5 is a legit fitness device, and holds its own against watches from Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. It’ll accurately track all but your longest runs. If you’re an ultra marathoner or want to monitor your sleep, look elsewhere. Likewise, if you already own the AW4, don’t bother upgrading now unless you absolutely must have the latest toys. For everybody else shopping for a new watch, give the AW5 a serious look.