First Take: 72 Hours with the New Apple Watch Series 6

The Apple Watch Series 6 offers many exciting new features.
The Apple Watch Series 6 offers many exciting new features. Courtesy of Apple

What It Is:

The Apple Watch Series 6 debuted last week, along with a new, less expensive Watch, called the SE.

The Series 6 offers more new features than the SE, naturally, and it could be one of the sneakiest great new fitness devices for both home and outdoor workouts. Also, there’s a new, higher performance chip, promising 20 percent faster performance, 5G for the SIM version, and something called a U1 chip—about which, I’ll decode below, along with all the rest of the features.

What are the SIMs for? SIM-enabled versions enable you to talk and text from your wrist, without having an iPhone anywhere nearby or tethered. Prices: Series 6, $499 w/SIM, $399 without; SE, $329 w/SIM, $279 without.

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Why We Like It: 

The Series 6 offers a few upgrades from the Series 5 right out of the gate. While the prior Watch had an always-on screen, this one is 2.5 times brighter. I’ve tested a lot of these devices from several different brands and not being able to see a screen in the middle of an interval workout, running stairs, doing kettlebell swings, or riding a gnarly single-track when you’d really like to know if you’re on your fitness target is profoundly frustrating.

Thankfully, the new always-on screen on the Series 6 isn’t just on, but it’s more legible in bright light, so just a glance let me see my mid-workout metrics — or if I had a text I should respond to. They also added a small red dot that appears at the top of the screen to inform you of received messages that haven’t been read yet, which is a handy, silent reminder.

The Apple Watch Series 6 with SIM will retail for $399.
The Apple Watch Series 6 with SIM will retail for $499. Courtesy of Apple

Speaking of sound, the onboard speaker is now 50 percent louder, which makes a real difference. During an outdoor gravel ride I was able to catch up on a call on my wrist; or at least until my buddy got sick of listening to my heavy breathing.

But there’s much more going on.

Overall Health Monitor

Apple added a blood oxygen sensor. But since it takes about 15 seconds to do manually, we’d guess you’re unlikely to bother too often. Luckily, it’s been set to operate passively, and especially when you’re asleep, which is like getting an extra health checkup nightly.

Why does this matter?

Blood oxygen has made a lot of headlines during COVID-19 as an indicator of very sick people who didn’t know they had the disease and weren’t admitted to the hospital until they were in dire need of medical assistance. So knowing if you’re roughly normal (above 90 percent) is important.

Beyond COVID-19, low blood oxygen levels are closely linked with sleep apnea, asthma, and other ailments that can cause health complications even in otherwise healthy people. During testing I luckily scored just fine, but getting this ancillary metric in a world where you could be a passive carrier of the coronavirus offers a bit of mental relief.

Track your blood oxygenation levels.
Track your blood oxygen levels from your wrist. Courtesy of Apple

As for the rest of the sleep tracking experience, there’s an important aspect of the Watch Series 6 to note here: It charges about 20 percent faster. That’s important. It meant I could recharge the Watch each morning, wear it all day, use it for fitness, let it monitor my sleep all night, and plop it back on its charger the next morning while the coffee brewed and have it topped up by the time I was dressed and out the door.

Beyond blood oxygen, sleep tracking also means you set your own target schedule for when to sleep, when to rise, an alarm if you like, and each morning you’ll get a report on your phone that includes metrics like heart rate during the night, as well as the aforementioned blood ox, etc.

Another daily measure is VO2.

Newer Apple Watches already covered VO2 max, which is a strong metric for fitness and health, and something you can track over time in response to the efficacy of your workout routine; frequently it’s useful to check if it’s dropping due to over-training.

But now Apple’s measuring low VO2.

That’s important.

A 2016 American Heart Association urged clinicians to consider lower levels of cardiovascular fitness as a predictor of risk for death, even more than factors like smoking and hypertension. While the Apple Watch Series 6 measures V02 max, seeing and being warned about low VO2 is likely to save a lot of lives, hopefully spurring people to talk to their doctors about getting more exercise and at least walking or hiking.

Outdoor Fitness, Adventure, and HR Tracking

Speaking of the latter, presuming you’re already active, Apple added a few more features that you can use now, and one huge one that’s not available for a few months. First, there’s an always-on altimeter and compass. The compass is handy for backcountry wayfinding of course, but the altimeter is supposed to be accurate to within just a few feet, and when you combine the two features finding your location on a map is now a heck of a lot easier.

The always-on altimeter on Apple Watch Series 6 provides real-time elevation all day long.
The always-on altimeter on Apple Watch Series 6 provides real-time elevation all day long. Courtesy of Apple

Apple also updated its entire OS for all versions of the Watch ecosystem, adding more sports, including bodyweight exercises, core training, and functional strength training as well as cool-down.

Heart rate reading seems very good, thanks to new sensors. Over the course of testing, from lifting to stability work, running and cycling, I tested the Watch against an ECG chest strap (which are known to be more accurate than wrist-worn devices). Yet the Apple was nearly always within just a beat or two. That’s very good.

Indoor Fitness

Of course what’s coming around Thanksgiving is the biggest news of all.

It’s called Apple Fitness+ and it’s guided classes for $9.99 a month with elite level coaches customizing workouts for Apple. Apple’s talking about hundreds of classes that you can join on your phone, Apple TV, iPad, etc., or bounce from phone to smart TV. Workouts include strength, functional, HIIT, yoga, flexibility, spin, running, rowing, treadmill, etc., and a library that expands every week.

The Blood Oxygen sensor employs LEDs, along with photodiodes on the back crystal of Apple Watch Series 6.
The Blood Oxygen sensor employs LEDs, along with photodiodes on the back crystal of Apple Watch Series 6. Courtesy of Apple

The nifty innovation here is beaming your workout metrics from your wrist directly to the screen, so you can see your calories, HR, etc. at eye level, rather than needing to monitor your progress on your wrist. If you’re doing some kind of interval, the countdown to the next phase is also displayed onscreen.

Apple promises to incorporate recommendations for what classes to do next based on the exercises you already do indoors and outside, as well as classes based on existing metrics captured via the Watch. You can also target your workouts based on time, from 5-45 minutes, and customize the backbeat/artist/genre that you like and have Apple DJ the songs for your sweat session. If you love that mix, download that playlist for listening later when you’re not lifting/running/stretching.…

Future Tech

Even more is coming, too. That U1 chip will allow using the Watch to unlock your car, depending on the model, and we’ll bet there are more functions Apple will add because this chip is designed as a proximity sensor that works like Find my Phone. So finding other objects is logical, as is reading your location in relation to other digital tools in your life, whether that’s illuminating the lights of your home the moment you enter your driveway, or firing up your Sonos sound system as your feet hit the doorstep—or killing it the moment you’re on your way out the door.

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Apple’s updated OS for Watch includes a hand-washing detector that counts down for 20 seconds and is supposed to monitor the unique pattern of your mitts as you slop them with soap and water. But…so far it’s a little imprecise. It launched when I was doing the dishes and even when I was tightening a screw using a ratchet. It got busy when I was opening the gas valve for the barbecue grill.

I appreciate Apple’s serious focus on health. And Apple keeps adding more tech to its Watch ecosystem while retaining a dead-simple interface. This is in massive contrast to the bulk of the wearable landscape that’s littered with devices that do far less, yet take nearly constant manual consultation to understand. But my guess is that timing hand washing is one of those cute ideas that quietly dissolves down the drain a few OS updates from now.

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