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The evolution of the Apple Watch has been a slow process. While it rapidly became the world’s best selling smartwatch shortly after its release in 2015, Apple tends to take its time adding radical new features, preferring to make smaller, iterative tweaks each year.
The Apple Watch Series 6 is, surprisingly enough, the sixth generation of the wearable, and the first to be announced in an online-only live broadcast when many keen Apple watchers were hoping for confirmation of the next iPhone.
Apple’s laser-sharp focus on health (and away from the more generalised ‘lifestyle’ features of previous years) means the new Watch is designed to appeal to both fitness fanatics and those dipping their toes into health tracking and wellness for the first time. So, how does it fare?
Design – business as usual
It’s getting harder to tell the Apple Watch generations apart and this year’s release only complicates matters. It’s virtually identical to the Series 5 and Series 4: coming in 40mm (small) and 44mm (large) face options, a thin red loop on the digital crown on the cellular-enabled models and the ever-present side button.
This is no bad thing, Apple is clearly satisfied with its design and how it looks, and it’s as stylish and compact as ever in a field where its rivals tend to resemble either bulky sports watches or basic circular timepieces. The new model comes in a choice of three materials too: lightweight aluminium, stainless steel and titanium.
The main difference in terms of how the Series 6 looks is four new colours: bright red and navy blue for the aluminium range and graphite and gold for the stainless steel models, with prices starting at £379 and ranging to £1,119.
I tested the gold stainless steel version, which Apple says was achieved using an entirely new coating process. The final result is a subtle, muted gold that resembles gold jewellery, avoiding the brassy yellow finish that other wearables can end up sporting.
Blood oxygen sensing
The major update in the Series 6 model is a new sensor and accompanying app to measure your blood’s oxygen saturation. While this is typically measured using a pulse oximeter device attached to your fingertip or earlobe, the Watch shines red and infrared light through your skin and onto the blood vessels in your wrist thanks to four new green, red and infrared LEDs set into the crystal on its underside.
The more saturated with oxygen your blood is, the brighter it will appear, while darker blood indicates it is less oxygenated. The Watch uses an algorithm to estimate your saturation level, which is typically between 95 and 100 per cent.
While it measures your blood oxygen level periodically throughout the day, you can also trigger a measurement yourself through a new blue and red app on the Watch home screen.
The Watch suggests a series of tips for taking an accurate measurement, including ensuring the strap isn’t too low on your wrist, not moving and keeping it facing upwards throughout the 15-second measurement. It will then return a percentage, which is stored in the Health app on the paired iPhone.
Why is it important to know your blood oxygen saturation?
How useful you’ll find the ability to monitor your blood oxygen will depend largely on whether you have an existing condition that can be better monitored by tracking it, such as sleep apnea or problems with your lungs.
People with lung conditions may exhibit lower blood oxygen levels than those without, according to the British Lung Foundation (BHF), and can also help experts to measure how badly someone’s lungs are affected by an infection or ongoing condition.
The BHF’s current guidelines dictate that anyone with a resting stable oxygen saturation of 92 per cent or less should be referred for a blood gas assessment to work out whether they should have oxygen therapy, although it’s generally accepted that oxygen levels drop while someone is sleeping. My reading told me my oxygen levels range between 78 per cent and 100 per cent with a daily average of 93 per cent – 97 per cent, demonstrating how widely they fluctuated while I was asleep.
There has been much discussion lately around how some coronavirus patients have been treated with blood oxygen levels at 50 per cent or lower, as pulse oximetry helps doctors to assess who may need oxygen therapy or even ventilation. Doctors in the UK have been distributing pulse oximeters to patients with Covid-19 symptoms to help them monitor their oxygen levels, suggesting a Series 6 Watch could prove helpful for certain groups of people.
However, it’s important to point out that while Apple Watches and other wearables can be handy for tracking certain aspects of our health, they should not replace proper consultations with doctors and other health experts. Just like the Series 4’s ability to take an electrocardiogram, it’s essential to treat the Series 6’s oxygen sensor as a monitoring rather than a diagnostic device. The vast majority of users will probably try out the app a couple of times before forgetting about it, but others will feel it’s essential. If you’re worried about any of your results, contact your GP to discuss your concerns.
Altimeter for tracking altitude
Another new feature is an always-on altimeter, which measures fluctuations in your elevation up to one foot above or below ground level, according to Apple. Housed within the compass app, my elevation told me I was 17m above sea level while on the first floor of a building and 14m while at street level, which would probably be much more useful if I was hiking.
Apple says the Series 6 is able to track your elevation in real-time without affecting the battery life and works with the inbuild barometric pressure sensor, GPS and nearby Wi-Fi networks to triangulate where you are in the world at any given time. While interesting, it’s a feature that will be of limited use to most people unless you’re a casual mountain climber in your spare time.
Improved battery life
Apple says the new model has some ‘meaningful battery life improvements’, which I found translates into ending a full day of wear (between 8am to midnight, with a minimum of half an hour working out daily) with around 50 per cent battery instead of approximately 20 per cent.
This is good news for sleep tracking and a welcome overall improvement. Apple always vaguely says the Apple Watch’s battery is around 18 hours when it tends to average closer to 35, presumably because it’s concerned people will skip charging the device overnight. If you’re wearing the Watch overnight for sleep tracking, this presents the new dilemma of working out when to charge it, which I remedied by chucking it on to charge when it started warning it had just 10 per cent battery left (typically by around 3pm the following day).
The Series 6 tended to regain around 10 per cent for every 10 minutes of charging time and regained 80 per cent of its charge after an hour of charging, meaning I was back to full capacity within an hour and a half. While this is relatively quick overnight, you have to make a concerted effort to remember to recharge it in the middle of the day.
A new processor means switching between apps is also faster, which you may not necessarily notice if you’re used to a Series 5, but is a big improvement on older models.
The Series 6’s always-on display is also brighter than its predecessor, though I admit I generally turn off the always-on function as I find glancing at digital elements distracts me. This is purely a point of preference though.
What’s new in watchOS 7?
watchOS 7 contains a raft of features for Apple Watches older than Series 6, including new faces Artist, Stripes, Typograph and GMT. You can even make a watch face out of your own Memoji if you feel like it.
Official sleep tracking for the first time
With the release of watchOS, Apple Watches can finally officially track sleep when worn overnight as part of the iPhone’s Health app. Once you’ve set up your sleep schedule in the Health app, the Watch detects your micromovements to work out when you’re awake or getting a bit of shut-eye and relays the duration of your sleep and how many times you wake up during the night to the app.
The Watch wakes you through a series of little haptic pulses that feels a bit like someone gently gripping and releasing your wrist to let you know when your alarm is going off. It’s a fairly gentle way to wake up, though it’s definitely easier to slap the digital crown to turn it off and keep snoozing than it is to get up and turn off a phone on the other side of the room.
As sleep tracking goes, it’s pretty rudimentary. While the Watch knows when you’re awake or asleep, it can’t tell you when you’re in light, deep or REM sleep stages like Fitbits and other health and fitness trackers can. It’s merely designed to help you work out the duration of sleep you’re getting each day and keep an eye on it in subsequent weeks and months. It’s fine for someone with a casual interest in monitoring how much sleep you’re getting, but people hoping for deeper insights into their sleep cycle may be left disappointed.
Handwashing reminders in the age of Covid-19
Given the state of the world at the moment, a new ability to detect when someone is washing their hands and encourage them to keep going for 20 seconds is extremely timely.
Once the handwashing alert is enabled in the Health app, the Watch will automatically detect when you’re holding your hands under running water thanks to a combination of motion sensors and its inbuilt microphone. A little 20-second countdown pops up on the face for the duration, and chides you with a warning that washing your hands can prevent you from becoming ill if you stop before the timer has finished.
You can also set the Watch to remind you to wash your hands within a few minutes of returning home if you haven’t already by giving it permission to track your location, which I found accurate.
It’s a clever feature that could well help to shame people who normally quickly rinse their hands before making their exit into washing them properly, just like the Watch’s stand reminder has in the past.
So, should you buy the Apple Watch Series 6?
When it comes to awarding a verdict on the Apple Watch Series 6, it’s important to think of it in two ways: holistically reviewing it as a smartwatch and then contextually comparing it to its predecessors.
Generally speaking, it’s still a brilliant smartwatch. It relays calls, emails, texts and WhatsApps while allowing you to reply straight from your wrist, you can log your step count and track your workouts, set timers and make queries through Siri handsfree seamlessly. For many people it will strike the perfect balance between fitness and lifestyle – Fitbit and Garmin may offer deeper and more detailed workout information but the Apple Watch’s handling of calls and messages is head and shoulders above its rivals.
However, when compared with last year’s Series 5 model, I can’t help but feel as though Apple is coasting slightly. The oxygen sensor works well, but won’t be a viable reason for the vast majority of us to rush out and buy it. Just as the ECG sensor was the Series 5’s main selling point, this year’s model is another iterative change – useful but lacks real mass appeal. First time Apple Watch buyers are far more likely to consider a £269 Apple Watch SE or a the still-very-good Series 3 model for just £199, leaving me slightly confused as to why any current owners would be compelled enough by the Series 6 to upgrade. So while the Apple Watch Series 6 is still the best smartwatch on the market right now, let’s hope Series 7 has something major instore.
- A sleek, good-looking smartwatch that’s a fantastic all-rounder
- Longer battery life and speed bump
- The super sharp display is now even brighter
- New oxygen sensor may not be a compelling enough reason for current Apple Watch owners to upgrade
- Looks exactly the same as previous iterations
- Still pretty expensive