Reviews

Apple Watch Series 6 review: So good, but so extra

The Apple Watch is the best smartwatch (again). But you'll get more bang for your buck if you buy the Apple Watch SE, or older Series 4 or 5 (at a discount).

Let's address the elephant in the room first: Android. If you don't have an iPhone or don't want to switch to one, stop reading right now. Cause you need an iPhone for pairing an Apple Watch. Yes, there's a cellular version of the Apple Watch (and Family Sharing), but you still need an iPhone to set it up.

So Series 6. It looks like Series 5... and Series 4... and the new SE model. It comes in the same two sizes: 40mm and 44mm. Small and big. Take your pick. Exclusive to Series 6 is a blue and Product(RED) version. I'm more of a stainless steel guy, but the blue aluminum looks really nice. A good dark blue that sometimes looks black in low light.

The red is too loud for me, but 100 percent of its proceeds go to the Global Fund’s COVID‑19 Response (until September 30) so there's that.

Apple

There isn't a lot of new stuff to be honest. Most of Series 6 features are available in watchOS 7, which is available for older Apple Watches. Yay for new watch faces like Animoji and Memoji?

And watch faces with a tachymeter (if you even know what that is or how to use it).

Raymond Wong / Input

“It can be used to conveniently compute the frequency in hours of an event of a known second-defined period, such as speed (distance over hours) based on travel time (seconds over distance), or measure distance based on speed.”

Wikipedia

Yeah... I don't think many people consider a tachymeter convenient in the age of Siri. Which, by the way, is more responsive and genuinely more useful than ever in the COVID-19 age.

Raymond Wong / Input

Series 6 has new features like a 2.5x brighter always-on display (👍), always-on altimeter, and a more powerful S6 chip (👌). It's also got all your usual health and fitness tracking and heart monitoring (like the ECG app). But the most important new feature is a blood oxygen monitor built right into the underside.

Most blood oxygen monitors usually look like this. You stick your finger in this finger-clamp device called a pulse oximeter and light passes through your blood to get a read on your oxygen levels.

Jackyenjoyphotography/Moment/Getty Images

Now, it's in the Apple Watch and you don't need to clamp any fingers. To get a blood oxygen reading, you just open the app and keep your hand steady for 15 seconds. And I do mean steady or else it'll likely fail. I had more successes resting my arm on a table, but even then, sudden movements could cause the blood oxygen monitor to fail.

15

After 15 seconds, you get an SpO2 (oxygen saturation) reading.

Between 95-100% is a good sign that your health is "normal" with a sufficient amount of oxygen flowing from your blood throughout your body.

But your SpO2 can fluctuate. Sometimes it might be lower and sometimes higher. The point is: If you notice a pattern of unusual SpO2, something may be wrong and you may want to consult your doctor.

Raymond Wong / Input

At this time, the SpO2 measurements could mean any number of things. It could be linked to detecting asthma problems, respiratory issues like the flu or even — yep — COVID-19, or heart failures, according to Apple.

Right now, SpO2 readings aren't useful. But in a few years? Maybe. Apple says it's working with researchers to find applications for it. Until then, the Series 6 joins other wearables like Fitbits that have a blood oxygen monitor, which also take readings, but stop short of being linked to much beyond general "wellness."

Apple

Important to note: The blood oxygen monitor is NOT a replacement for a doctor. Just like the ECG app isn't, either. Like the heart rate sensor, the BOM is good for potential early detection and prevention. The intention is that you're collecting consistent daily data you can bring to your doctor as opposed to periodic data when going in for a visit. Only time will tell if the BOM saves lives the way the ECG app, irregular heart rhythm notifications, and fall detection features have.

Raymond Wong / Input

I'm not going to lie. I got really scared when I saw SpO2 readings lower than 95%. A few times it was 88% and it was concerning enough for me to go outside and get some fresh air. My SpO2 levels returned back to 95% levels. But if it had fallen to the 80s again you better believe I would have gone to my doctor. It could be nothing, but it could also be something. That's the the thing: you don't really know.

Raymond Wong / Input

A blood oxygen monitor is nice to have. More data is always good. But at the same time, constantly checking it is unhealthy. It can create more stress, especially when there's no definitive meaning to the SpO2 readings. They could mean nothing or a multitude of health conditions. It's kind of on you to decide if you need this feature in your smartwatch.

Raymond Wong / Input

watchOS 7 comes with several other new features like automatic handwashing, which is super underrated IMO, and sleep tracking. It's fact that getting good sleep means better health. And I was excited for the Apple Watch to finally get sleep tracking.

But the tracking isn't as robust as I'd hoped for. There's a sleep app, which you can use to schedule bedtime and wake-up time. You set it to wind down your day and prep for bed. Do Not Disturb automatically kicks on and the display is disabled until you turn the Digital Crown to unlock it.

But the sleep tracking only works during the sleeping schedule you set in the app. So if you set your sleep time from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and you sleep within that time frame, it'll track the hours you slept by detecting motion. Fall asleep earlier or sleep extra and the Apple Watch doesn't log those hours.

I know this because I was on vacation and took naps and slept in many days. My Apple Watch never recorded naps and stopped tracking sleep at 7 a.m. even though I slept in on several days.

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However, my Motiv smart ring, which I wore on my other hand, and also has sleep tracking, always logged the additional sleep I got. The Motiv also showed more detailed data down to the minute when I was restless while sleeping.

The Apple Watch's sleep tracking is more about helping you build a routine for getting consistent daily sleep. I wish it told me more about the quality of my sleep like the Motiv.

Raymond Wong / Input

This is the sleeping data collected by my Motiv ring. It shows how many hours I slept in total and the various points when I was restless. I can see that I don't sustain deep sleep for very long. Then, it's up to me to figure out how to improve that. Like many wearables, the app only records the data. The Apple Watch doesn't tell me this kind of detail at all, which is disappointing.

On the bright side, the new Solo Loop and Braided Solo Loop bands are super comfy and the best ones to wear to sleep. They're very elastic and they spring back to original size. Just make sure you get the right size (it's kind of tricky). The Solo Loop is my new favorite band after the Sport Band. The Braided Solo Loop is a touch classier, but also $100. Eek.

Raymond Wong / Input

I'm pretty sure the reason the Apple Watch is so conservative on sleep tracking is because battery life would take a big hit. Apple still advertises up to 18 hours on a charge. But with sleep tracking on, I could only make it through one day as opposed to two days with it off. My Series 6 drained between 10% battery life overnight.

Raymond Wong / Input

You absolutely have to charge it up before bedtime and maybe again after waking up or you'll feel low-battery anxiety all day. The good news is the Watch charges faster: 80% in 1 hour and 100% in 1.5 hours; it used to take 2.5 hours for a full charge. The bad news: there's no ultra-fast charging that gets, say, 40% in 10-15 minutes. That would have been killer for late night and early charging. Maybe next time!

To buy or not to buy?

Yes, if you want the newest and the very best, and $399 and $429 starting prices for the 40mm and 44mm, respectively, don't scare you away.

No, if you don't need the blood oxygen monitor, faster chip, or brighter display. A Series 5, 4, or SE are sufficient for most people since they run watchOS 7, too. Meaning, they all have sleep tracking.

How to choose an Apple Watch

Series 4:

✅ECG app, sleep-tracking, auto handwashing, irregular heart rhythm notifications, fall detection ❌Always-on display, blood oxygen monitor

Series 5:

✅ECG app, sleep-tracking, auto handwashing, irregular heart rhythm notifications, always-on display, fall detection ❌Blood oxygen monitor

SE:

✅Sleep tracking, auto handwashing, irregular heart rhythm notifications, fall detection ❌ECG app, blood oxygen monitor, always-on display

Mind you: Series 4 and 5 are no longer sold as new from Apple. So you'll have to buy refurbished (basically new and honestly more environmentally friendly) or new/refurb from other retailers. Also, it's while inventory lasts.

Steven_Kriemadis/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images

I own a Series 4 and have no reason to upgrade to the Series 6, which feels like it's an "S" model. Do I love the always-on display? I do. Is the blood oxygen monitor neat? Sure. Do I need it? Probably not. Do you need any of the Series 6's features? It feels like a cop-out, but it's your health, and only you can decide for yourself what you want more data on.

The great thing about an Apple Watch is you don't need to buy a new one every year. My Series 4 is still my pandemic survival gadget. My advice: only upgrade when you think it offers a meaningful new health feature.

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