Apple Watch Series 6 review: Better than the best
Truth be told, the concept of a smartwatch (has) baffled me for a long time. Having to charge one more thing habitually was a concern at first, sure, but that wasn’t really the deal breaker. The real deal breaker was the lack of motivation. Smartwatches were just not compelling enough. But then in 2018, Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 4 and just like that, I became a believer.
It wasn’t so much about hardware, or battery life, or even the design for that matter, but how Apple, conventionally a computer—and phone—brand, was able to crack the smartwatch code and somehow managed to find the secret ingredient to make them tick, all through thoughtful—and mindful—software.
The fact that it took Apple four generations to get to it—despite its rapid strides in hardware—perfectly sums the whole thing. Smartwatches are hard. Or at least they were before the Apple Watch Series 4 happened. Apple has launched a follow-up every year since then, bringing subtle yet very useful improvements, while keeping much of the core Apple Watch Series 4 tenets intact. You can say Apple found a good thing and kept calm (enough) to not mess it up. For two years and counting. Though this year’s model, aka Apple Watch Series 6 also tags along a more affordable sibling, the Apple Watch SE which is so close to the Apple Watch Series 4 in spirit, it feels like the circle is finally complete.
Whether or not that means we’ll have a fresh new take on the Apple Watch next year is something that only time will. Right now, all I can tell you is, there’s no other smartwatch in the market quite like the Apple Watch Series 6. It is so good I find it off-putting to even add the obvious disclaimer “for iPhone users only” because for the longest time I have been an Android user, and it’s just sad that something like this does not exist in that universe to this day.
The Series 6 looks exactly like the Series 5, which is to say that it looks same as the Series 4 too. Which is to also say that it is very polarizing. Regardless, it’s a design that grows on you eventually. You start to appreciate its many quirks once you start to interact with it on a more frequent basis. It’s so light and compact—for a smartwatch packing so much tech inside it—it becomes almost like second nature to you. That bit is more relevant now than ever, with the arrival of sleep tracking—finally—on the Apple Watch.
As is usually the case, Apple has a few more additional hues (red and blue aluminum, graphite and gold stainless steel) and bands (solo loops that interestingly have no clasps or buckles) that it is launching with the Series 6. There is no dearth of third-party bands either. Basically, you’re free to tailor-make one for your own unique style and preference, the only plausible limit is your imagination —this is something unique to the Apple Watch.
The real change, if you can call it that, is coming on the back. Only and only if you’ve crossed paths with previous generation models will you notice that the Series 6 has a new sensor array on the back to facilitate its headlining feature, blood Oxygen measurement. Before diving into the details, it is very important to understand two things.
- The Series 6 is not a replacement for your tried and tested pulse oximeter.
- Apple maybe investing in studies to test if blood oxygen can be used to detect people with COVID-19, but the Series 6 must not be confused with a gadget that can detect early signs of coronavirus.
Nothing sums that Apple probably included Oxygen saturation (SpO2) tracking in the Series 6 to fill in a spec-sheet—there are just way too many smartwatches in the wild already doing that—rather than for ‘actual’ real-world use cases, like say heart rate monitoring, more than how it is going about positioning it as a ‘wellness’ feature. Same reason why, it hasn’t sought any regulatory approval from the government—the feature just works right out-of-the-box. Same reason why, the Series 6 doesn’t send out ‘irregular’ SpO2 notifications. Same reason why, it isn’t advisable for you to rush to your doctor just because your Series 6 recorded a reading below 95 percent (normal oxygen saturation is between 95 to 99 percent for most people). Same reason why, you should have a pulse oximeter on you, if you’re serious about keeping a tab on your blood oxygen saturation.
While pulse oximeters pass light through the skin to detect the colour of the blood in your fingertip usually, a smartwatch like the Series 6 uses a combination of LEDs and photodiodes to make an ‘estimation’ based on light bouncing off the blood vessels in your wrist. Simply put, the mechanism isn’t designed for 100% accuracy. It is also subject to few limitations.
The Series 6 can track SpO2 both manually and automatically. For it to work, the watch needs to be worn slightly higher up—relative to how one would normally wear it—with just the right amount of grip—that is neither too loose nor too tight— and ideally your hand must be at ease on a stable surface. If all goes well, the Series 6 will show you a reading in 15 seconds. Since the system demands a great deal of accuracy—and patience—on your end, be prepared for a lot of misses, at least initially. That’s precisely why I still can’t bring myself to trust its readings in idle/sleep state during which it almost always gives me lower than expected results.
That’s not to say that SpO2 tracking on the Series 6 isn’t useful. My friend, who happens to trek a lot, feels it’s great to have the Apple Watch (also) do this, in addition to all the things it already does so well. It may be not very accurate but having SpO2 tracking helps Apple serve a dual purpose. It helps it check a box and gives it something to build upon in the future generations—something that Apple is known to do so well. What’s important is that Apple isn’t going all gung-ho about this feature just yet, and you shouldn’t either. For me, it’s pushed me into getting a pulse oximeter, so everything worked out well in the end is how I see it.
Apple may not be going all out on Oxygen saturation tracking, but with the rest of the core hardware, it is just showing off. Apple says the Series 6 is 20 percent faster than the previous generation thanks to its new dual core S6 processor which is based on the A13 Bionic chip inside the iPhone 11. The S6 brings fast 5GHz Wi-Fi and Ultra Wideband connectivity to the Series 6. Always-on functionality that Apple launched last year with the Series 5 is getting an update in the Series 6. It is claimed to be two and a half times brighter now. The series 6 also charges slightly faster.
All this only gives the Series 6 more legroom for future. Both Series 5 and Series 4 are still fast and fluid with class-leading OLED displays. The Series 6 is all that and some more. I am surprised that despite having a theoretically brighter screen and sleep tracking, I have been averaging around one to one and a half days which is roughly in the same ballpark as the Series 5. So technically, battery life on the Series 6 is good.
Like the previous models, the Series 6 is also available with and without LTE. Cellular works through eSIM, which means you can make/receive phone calls directly from your wrist. Connectivity and reception have been great so far. So has the speaker on this teeny-tiny marvel.
Coming to the main reason why the Apple Watch is probably the only smartwatch that matters today—watchOS. The latest version of watchOS called watchOS 7, brings new watch face customization options (and the ability to also share these watch faces easily with others), new workout modes including dancing, Siri translations and dictations, and more. But three features stand out. Sleep tracking, handwashing, and family setup.
Sleep tracking has been a long time coming to the Apple Watch. Now that it’s here, I have mixed feelings about it—though, largely they are positive. Apple says any watchOS 7-based Apple Watch is smart enough to identify subtle movements associated with breathing so it can differentiate between sleeping and waking states for seemingly more accurate tracking.
The feature when enabled, automatically turns on Do Not Disturb (and keeps your screen from waking). It can help you wind down by opening a meditation app or dimming your lights—and in the morning it can wake you up with the weather report. All this works in consonance with its own dedicated Sleep app that can help keep tabs on your sleeping habits, right from the moment you go to bed to the time you wake up. It can create routines and help you achieve sleep goals (that are also accessible via the Health app) and show them by way of sleep analysis charts for instance. Sleep tracking works as advertised though the end-result, which is the culmination of all your ‘efforts’ is rather plain and simple, which is so unlike the rest of the package. It feels almost like an afterthought. Third-party sleep tracking apps for the Apple Watch can give you more substantial data, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Handwashing is another feature in watchOS 7 that makes a lot of sense in the ongoing pandemic situation. Using its motion sensors and microphone, an Apple Watch with watchOS 7 can detect handwashing and automatically start a 20-second timer. Should you stop washing your hands early, the Apple Watch will also encourage you to keep washing for the full 20 seconds. The Apple Watch can also remind you to wash your hands once you get home.
Lastly, Apple is also debuting Family Setup with watchOS 7, a feature that will allow parents to setup and manage kids’ Watches in case they do not have an iPhone of their own.
There’s one more feature in watchOS 7 that I would like to talk about. This is exclusive to the Series 5 and Series 6 with always-on screens. The new update allows you to access Notification Center and the Control Center, tap on complications, and even change watch faces without having to first wake the display. At its heart, it feels very basic, but something we don’t see happening a lot. What we do see is a lot of people raising their hands, twisting their wrists when you’d least expect them to—and we all know, how rude that looks. watchOS 7 solves that, or at least, it tries, and I am all for that.
watchOS 7 builds on an equally feature-rich watchOS 6 that brought us features like ECG, heart rate notifications, irregular rhythm notifications, noise detection, menstrual cycle tracking, and an Apple Watch dedicated app store. It is a step in the right direction.
There’s a reason why the Series 6 wasn’t explicitly mentioned—or reviewed—in this section. This is because watchOS 7 works in the same way on a Series 4 (barring a few exceptions) and Series 5 as it does on the Series 6. Aside from minor differences in speed and animations, the experience is standard across the board. That experience is what sets an Apple Watch like the Series 6 apart from anything else in the market.
The only other thing that comes to my mind when it comes to tight hardware-software integration is the Samsung Galaxy Watch. Its rotating dial is one-of-its-kind and it is very, very good. Samsung’s wearable is home to a lot more watch faces too, including those by third parties even as the Apple Watch remains firmly tied to first-party options—though that number is growing. The reason why the Apple Watch still cruises ahead is because it’s literally a plug and play affair for iPhone users while setting up—and maintaining—a Samsung Galaxy Watch involves filter-feeding multiple other apps and plug-ins even for Samsung Galaxy phone users. Also, even though the Apple Watch may not have as many watch faces, its robust catalogue of complications, is far more useful and engaging for a fitness-oriented product.
Should you buy the Apple Watch Series 6?
Like clockwork, Apple has officially discontinued the Series 5, the best smartwatch in the world, post the arrival of the Series 6. That’s because the Series 6 is better while costing the same. But not by much. The same thing had happened with the Series 4, then the best smarwatch in the world, after the arrival of the Series 5. Apple continues to sell the Series 3 to this day though despite it being way older.
I won’t go into why that is, and I wouldn’t even go so far to call the Series 6 an incremental update—as if that’s a bad thing—like the Series 5 was to the Series 4, but I will say one thing, I am hoping we are on the verge of some sort of positive change in 2021 after the relentless slog that was 2020—though this was quite an eventful year for tech. And I hope the same thing for the next Apple Watch. I am sure it will be better, all I am saying is, it is far from reaching its full potential.
As for who should buy the Series 6, it’s Series 3 owners looking to make a switch, that’s who. Series 5 and even Series 4 users, not so much. Alternatively, you can get a Series 5 or Series 4 for cheap from third-party resellers if you have a tight budget but thinking of buying an Apple Watch, because who wouldn’t.
- Best smartwatch in the world
- Only for iPhone users
- SpO2 tracking is not a game changer