This year’s Apple Watch, like last year’s Series 5, isn’t very different from its predecessor, but offers enough new features that may make it a candidate for upgrade, perhaps only to people who don’t have last year’s model. And Apple’s two new Solo Loop bands are claspless bands that are attractive and comfortable, if you get the right size.
Apple Watch gets a bump
I can’t help but think that I’ve been repeating myself over the years when reviewing the Apple Watch. In reviews for the Series 3, Series 4, and Series 5 Apple Watch models, I pointed out how not much had changed in the device, and that if you had the previous year’s model, then you probably shouldn’t consider upgrading. The marquee features in these models was the addition of cellular access in the Series 3; the increased size of the Series 4; and the always-on display added to the Series 5. All of these were small, incremental upgrades to the device, making it hard to justify getting a new one if yours was recent.
The same is true for the Series 6 Apple Watch: the changes are limited, and my advice remains that, if you bought last year’s model, you probably won’t need the new one. But if your Apple Watch is two or three years old, then it’s worth considering the upgrade.
New features: a brighter display, pulse oximeter, and new colors
The most obvious change to the Apple Watch this year is a brighter always-on display that is noticeably brighter outdoors in sunlight, and also when your wrist isn’t raised. Outdoors, I was very impressed at how visible the display is; with the Series 5, I sometimes had to hold my hand over the display to mask the ambient light to read it. And the passive display – when your wrist isn’t raised – is now bright enough to see if you’re working out and can’t raise your wrist. As I type these words, I can glance at my wrist and see the time, read notifications, and more.
As part of Apple’s health push, the company has added a pulse oximeter to the Apple Watch. This reads your level of blood oxygen, which, according to Apple, "is a key indicator of your overall wellness." I can’t help but think that this is an exaggeration, and adding this sort of sensor is fraught with problems. First, it’s not FDA approved, nor does it have "FDA clearance," like the ECG built into the watch. And, as has been pointed out, it is "unreliable and misleading."
In my tests, I tried a dozen times to get a reading only to see this:
I finally found a position on my wrist where I could get a reading, and in three attempts, I got 91%, 93%, and 92%. Testing my blood oxygen with a standard fingertip device showed my level was 97-98%.
Not many people need this sort of device, and if they do need accurate blood oxygen levels, it’s better to get a dedicated device that is approved for this sort of text.
As for the aesthetics of this year’s model, Apple has added new colors to the aluminum line-up: red and blue. These are definitely statement colors, and cry out for matching bands, though I can see them working with complementary colors.
The stainless steel models come in silver, gold, graphite, and space black; and the titanium Apple Watch in space black, and in "titanium" color, which is a muted off-silver tone.
This year, I got a gold stainless steel model; not what I had ordered, but that’s a bit of a long story. (If you listen to this week’s Intego Mac Podcast you’ll hear me tell the tale.) It’s the first time I’ve had a stainless steel Apple Watch, and I like it a lot more than I expected. The finish is glossy, and the sapphire crystal is noticeably better than the Ion-X glass display on the aluminum models.
In my review of the Series 3 model, I said, "in three years of owning Apple Watches, I’ve never scratched a glass crystal," but I have found a number of small scratches on my Series 5. They are only visible in bright light, but it’s the first time I’ve had any scratches, so I wonder if the glass display of that model is not as good as previously.
New Apple Watch SE
In addition to the Series 6, Apple is maintaining the simpler Series 3 model, with the smaller display, wider bezels, and no cellular option. But they also released a new Apple Watch SE, which is very similar to last year’s Series 5, at a low price. (Here’s a comparison of the three current models.)
The Series 3 starts at $199; it’s a great watch for people who just want to try out the device, or use it for recording workouts. The SE starts at $279, with a cellular option costing another $50. This is almost the default Apple Watch for most people; kind of like the current iPhone SE, which offers the features that most people need in an iPhone starting at $399.
The Apple Watch SE is also the perfect watch to use with Apple’s new Family Setup feature, where you can pair several watches – such as those of your children – with a single iPhone.
New Solo Loop bands
In addition to new watch models, Apple introduced two new Solo Loop band, one in "liquid silicone rubber," and the other made of braided recycled yarn, with silicone threads. These are the first fully claspless Apple Watch bands, and they stretch to go over your hand, then cling to your wrist. Because of this, they have to be sized just exactly right: too loose, and the watch will flop around; too tight, and they will dig into your wrist.
Many people have had trouble sizing these bands, especially in the time of Covid, when it’s harder to try them out in person. It’s hard enough to get the right size because of the way you have to measure your wrist, and Apple could have made this easier. I initially ordered one online, and it was too small. When I went to an Apple Store to pick up my watch, I used their measuring tool, which showed a size 11. I tried both size 11 and 12, and while 11 felt right for the Solo Loop, I needed 12 for the Braided Solo Loop. Others have said that they find there is one size difference between the two models that fit them.
The Solo Loop feels like a big rubber band, and it could potentially be uncomfortable when sweating, but the Braided Solo Loop is the most comfortable band I’ve ever worn with the Apple Watch. Apple says these bands will stretch over time, and there’s a possibility that they may not fit perfectly for long. I strongly recommend anyone wanting to buy these bands to try them in person if possible; if not, perhaps order two different sizes and return the one that doesn’t fit.
This year, there’s an Apple Watch for every budget, with new colors and bands to spruce up your wrist. If you have a Series 4 or 5 Apple Watch, you might want to sit this one out, but if not, this is a solid upgrade.