Apple Watch Series 5's always-on display is a game-changer

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Fri September 20, 2019

In 2018, the Apple Watch got a big redesign. Series 4 ushered in larger displays in Apple Watches as well as a faster processor, an all-new display and an overall better experience.

For 2019, the Apple Watch Series 5 has one hallmark feature: an always-on display. Every model before Series 5 always went to sleep, meaning the clock face or app open would fade away when the Apple Watch wasn't in use. It was one of the main differences between the Apple Watch and a real watch -- the clock face wasn't always there. It has the same processor as the Series 4 paired with a larger amount of internal storage.

On paper, Series 5's upgrades might seem small, but after just a few days of testing, it's safe to say the always-on display is a game-changer. Let's dive in.

Always-on functionality is huge

I've been using an Apple Watch since the original was launched in 2015, and I never realized how much I would enjoy an always-on display. It changes the experience and pushes Apple Watch into the realm of real watch. It's always had a bunch of features, such as the ability to text, view photos and even take calls, but now it's a true timepiece as well.

Whether you buy the 40-millimeter or 44-millimeter version of the Series 5, the display is a low-temperature poly-silicon, or LTPO for short. This technology was first used on 2018's Series 4. It has been updated to include a new display driver, power management circuit, and an ambient light sensor, which adapts the display brightness for optimal viewing. So in a darker location, like a movie theater, the always-on will be dimmer than in a bright room or in sunlight. It's a combination of the LTPO, the display driver and new power management systems that enable the always-on functionality. And that's why the always-on feature can't be added to other Apple Watches -- the hardware isn't there.

So now, when you put your wrist down, the LTPO dims the display, and when you lift it, the brightness goes back up so you can check the time like you would on any other watch. Even neater is the refresh rate capabilities on this tiny but mighty display. Essentially, frame rate refers to how quickly the watch can produce an image and change it. A higher refresh rate can let you watch a video, display an animation or let a second hand fully makes its way around the clock. A lower refresh rate not only conserves battery but also increase the span in between updates.

When the watch is in always-on mode, faces that normally have a second, minute and hour hand will remove the second hand. This way the screen doesn't need to refresh as quickly, which conserves battery life, but still gives you access to the content on your Apple Watch that you care about.

It's neat to see in-person and works with all watch faces. For instance, Meridian is an analog-style face featuring a second, minute and hour hand and four complications. In normal mode, that is set on a plain white background, whereas in always-on mode, the background turns black and the second hand goes away. This uses less battery, thanks to minimal backlighting and lower refresh rate. If you're in a workout, the watch switches to always-on mode, but the timer will slow and gray out less important statistics.

In all these cases, it takes less than a second for the screen to come back on fully, so it's a seamless experience when you raise your wrist to check an incoming notification, for instance.

Only the watch face and workout screens are able to show up in the always-on state. It remains to be seen if this will change with future updates. During my testing, I did find myself wishing there was an always-on state for other use cases, however, like when streaming music, for example.

Overall, the always-on functionality is very cool, as well as useful. When I'm in a meeting or sandwiched between people on the NJTransit during rush hour, it's handy to be able simply glance at my Apple Watch to get the time as opposed to having to raise my wrist or tap to wake it. (Very obviously raising your wrist for a time check isn't the best look in the middle of a work meeting.)

Always-on is also helpful for accessing complications. Be it looking up the current date, checking the weather, or even seeing how much is left to fill your Activity Rings (Apple Watch's real-time tracking of calories burned and times standing and exercising), the convenience of always-on makes a substantial difference. The functionality also works with third-party app complications, like Dark Sky, and calendar apps. This way if you have them on your watch face, they will still work in that ambient mode.

Series 5 also comes with new privacy features, like limiting the amount of detail that shows up on a notification, similar to how you can hide surface notification content on your iPhone until you unlock it. Now that you have a watch that is always on, this prevents you from broadcasting to the world every message you receive..

Always-on display might not seem like a big update, but once you use it for a couple days, you'll see it's actually a game-changer that makes the Apple Watch feel more like a real watch.

Maps now show your direction

I've always been a fan of navigating with the Apple Watch. The light haptic feedback for when I should turn. and the ease of grabbing a quick glance for direction has made commuting easier. Especially for someone like me, who isn't the best with walking directions, it was much simpler than pulling out my iPhone every time I got confused (or lost).

For Series 5, Apple has added a compass to Maps, so you always know which way you're headed. I tested it while walking through New York City and found it very helpful when exiting the subway. Maps generally tell you to turn left or right, but anyone familiar with subway travel knows how disoriented you can feel that moment you emerge from the depths to the bustling sunlit street level. I found that being able to see which way I was facing was a big help in quickly getting me on track with the navigation support.

There's now also a full-on compass app that gives your direction, longitude, latitude, elevation, and even your incline, along with the time still present up in the corner. This should come in handy for hikers.

The compass will be open for developers and. I'm eager to see how they will take advantage of this.

Battery life is about a day and a half

Even with the always-on display, Apple still claims you'll get around 18 hours of battery life. In my testing, I could almost get to a day and a half, if I tried to stretch it. For the most part, it ran from when I woke up at 6 a.m. through midnight, and was dropping to about 10% by about 11 p.m..

I do a wide variety of tasks on the Apple Watch, but this battery performance is on par with my experience on the Series 4. That means the always-on display didn't impact battery life for me, and indicates that the technology and attention to detail Apple has put into this watch was worth it.

Series 5 takes full advantage of watchOS 6

With watchOS 6, we got new watch faces, performance improvements, and of course, new apps. Namely, the App Store is now on your wrist, and apps for the Apple Watch are easier to find. You can even download apps from your wrist, but be advised, not all apps are made the same. And performance can vary from type to type, with some being more optimized for an on the wrist experience than others.

Cycle Tracking, a Noise app, and Activity Trends round out watch OS 6's health features. The Cycle Tracking app tracks your menstrual cycle, and it integrates into iOS 13's Health app on your phone as well. With the Noise app, your Apple Watch detects decibel levels that could potentially damage your hearing. Apple uses the World Health Organization standards to identify the decibel levels that fall into that range. You can choose to monitor the noise via the app or add it as a complication to your watch face.

Activity Trends acts as a coach to help improve your activity metrics. For instance, it might recommend that you stand more each hour or pick up the pace while walking. After a few days, it identifies areas for improvement as well as areas where you excel. It's a nice way to push you to close your Activity Rings and has the potential to make a meaningful impact on people's health.

The best health features are still here

The Apple Watch Series 5 keeps all the health features that make it such an excellent smartwatch. It can track your steps, calories and exercise. With the workout app, you can track almost any exercise, even swimming. Those include walks, runs, cycling, elliptical, rowing, stair-stepping, high-intensity interval training, hiking, yoga and many, many others.

All of those workouts and data that the Apple Watch collects not only stay on the device in an encrypted format and sync with your iCloud in a secure way, but they also help to fill your activity rings: move, exercise and stand are a good goal to meet each day. You can also customize your goal and update it on the fly via the Watch app on iOS.

Series 5 can also take an ECG, or electrocardiogram, right from your wrist, thanks to the optical heart rate sensor on the back and nodes embedded into the digital crown. The heart rate sensor can also regularly monitor your heart rate and alert you if it gets fast during no activity or if it notices an irregular pattern.

The only thing the Apple Watch is still missing is native sleep tracking, and while it was rumored to come with Series 5, it is still just that.

Bottom line

The Apple Watch Series 5's always-on display shines. It cements the Apple Watch as stand-alone iPhone accessory that feels more like a traditional wristwatch you strap on every day.

You still get the much larger display that the Series 4 introduced with an S4 processor that gets the job done amply. WatchOS 6 complements the Series 5 quite nicely, and $499 for GPS only, or $599 for GPS + Cellular, is a decent price for everything you get.

Whether you opt for the Series 5 or go with a lower-priced previous model all depends on how much you value the new features, like the ability to take an ECG on your wrist, the compass and the always-on functionality.

CNN Underscored has determined that Apple's Series 5 is the best smartwatch on the market, though we do advise you to also take a look at Series 3, which starts at $199 and is a very good deal, if you can live without the latest features.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.