The Apple Watch Series 6 is an iterative upgrade over the Series 5, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Without stiff competition at the high-end, Apple can afford to release minute upgrades to its smartwatch line every few years.
But the question is for how long? Additionally, now that Apple is pushing a new affordable smartwatch in its lineup, do you really need the highest-end Apple Watch anymore? Read our full Apple Watch Series 6 review to find out.
Update: September 2021: We have updated our Apple Watch Series 6 review with the latest information on software updates and pricing.
Design: Mostly the same, and that’s okay
I don’t think we need to speak too much about the Apple Watch Series 6 design — we all know what the Apple Watch looks like nowadays. The Series 6 is essentially unchanged from the Series 5, which was already very similar to the Series 4. It’s slightly thinner at 10.4mm compared to the Series 5’s 10.74mm, but most people probably won’t notice the size difference with real-world use.
New this year are two new case colors: blue aluminum and Product Red aluminum. I wasn’t lucky enough to test out one of the new colors, but I do really like the Space Gray model I’ve been testing for the past week. Of course, Apple also sells stainless steel and titanium models if you want something a little higher end.
Don’t miss: The complete Apple Watch buying guide
Apple introduced its new solo loop bands with the Series 6 too. It’s an interesting concept and something we rarely see on wearables. The new solo loop is a silicone watch band that has no clasps or buckles. You simply stretch the band over your wrist and, as long as you’ve measured your wrist properly and ordered the correct size, it should stay snug. Again, I was not able to test out the new bands this time around.
You get a big, square-ish Retina OLED display on the Series 6. It’s the same size, resolution, and brightness as the Series 5. In other words, it gets plenty bright outdoors in direct sunlight and it’s tuned wonderfully. Apple says the always-on display is 2.5x brighter than the Series 5’s AOD outdoors when your wrist is down. I’ve had zero issues with the watch outdoors.
Speaking of the always-on display, the Series 6 actually lets you interact with notifications, device controls, and complications in the wrist-down state without the need to turn on the entire display. Essentially, it’s now much easier to interact with your watch if you want discreetly check the time or your notifications.
Also, there’s no Force Touch support on the Series 6 with watchOS 7. Apple appears to have abandoned the much-criticized tech on its wearables. No complaints from me — I found Force Touch to be quite confusing on previous watches.
Battery life is a far cry from Garmin and Fitbit's nearly week-long battery longevity.
There’s nothing astounding here in terms of battery longevity. Apple says the Watch Series 6 can last the standard 18 hours on a single charge. Battery life has been good for me. I’ve kept the always-on display active and my watch has lasted me about 36 hours of use on a consistent basis. Turning the always-on display off will likely get you over two days on a charge. I did manage to get two days on a charge at one point, but I was not active at all during those two days.
We should briefly talk about sleep tracking. With watchOS 7, Apple finally introduced sleep tracking on the Apple Watch. Wearing your watch to bed will obviously drain the battery. On a typical night of ~6.5 hours of sleep, my Apple Watch only drained a few percentage points each night.
It can be annoying to charge up your watch every night before bed just to track your sleep. Competitors like Garmin, Fitbit, Huawei, Suunto, and just about everyone else offer far better battery life on their fitness watches. It’s one of the big downsides if you go with Apple’s platform over something else.
When you do need to charge the watch’s battery, it shouldn’t take you long. The Series 6 can now reach a full charge in just under 90 minutes, which is slightly speedier than the Series 5.
Health and fitness tracking: Catching up to competition
Above all else, the biggest new feature on the Apple Watch Series 6 — and the thing that differentiates it the most from previous Apple Watches — is the new pulse oximeter. Unlike the company’s clinically validated ECG monitors, the Series 6’s SpO2 sensor has not been approved as a medical device by the FDA and has not received CE clearance.
You can use the SpO2 sensor to spot-check your blood oxygen percentage throughout the day or use it at night while you track your sleep. Nighttime SpO2 tracking is the most beneficial to users as certain devices, like the clinically validated Withings ScanWatch, can warn you of potential signs of conditions like sleep apnea. Since the Series 6’s sensor isn’t a medical device, it’s not going to be as helpful as some other wearables.
As for spot-checks throughout the day, I’ve found the Apple Watch’s numbers to be in-line with what I got from my Garmin Fenix 6 Pro, ScanWatch, and my fingertip pulse oximeter.
Apple’s recording takes just 15 seconds compared to others’ 30-second tests. You need to have your wrist in the correct position to get an accurate reading; well, and a reading in general. Apple included lots of error-avoidance measures to avoid any wonky user issues. It needs to be in the correct placement on your wrist otherwise it won’t record. This is different from some other devices that’ll let you record SpO2 readings no matter where it’s placed on your wrist.
If I had a gripe about Apple’s pulse oximetry, it’s that the Health app does not display the data in an easy-to-understand way. You can see your oxygen saturation details in daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly graphs, but you can’t see how often the device is recording at night and what your readings were for any particular time. I can see that my average from last night was between 94-98%, but not the times those readings took place. Apple is just being too general with the data here.
New this year to the Apple Watch Series 6 and watchOS 7 is sleep tracking. It’s long overdue! Just about every other fitness wearable offers native sleep tracking, and certain companies like Fitbit, Withings, and Garmin have pulled far ahead in the space. Unfortunately, Apple’s efforts fall short. Very short.
Also read: What are the best sleep trackers?
The Apple Watch tracks your total time asleep and any time you wake up throughout the night. It also tracks your heart rate and calorie burn during sleep. Apple’s Health app can tell you your average time in bed and average time asleep, and break your sleep trends down by week or by month.
That’s about it. It doesn’t track sleep stages (light, deep, REM), it doesn’t give you a sleep score, and it doesn’t attempt to help you understand whether your sleep was restorative or not based on your daily activity. The blood oxygen monitor also keeps track of SpO2 data overnight, but since it’s not a clinically validated sensor it can’t alert you to any potential signs of sleep apnea. Hopefully, Apple gets this sensor validated in the next few years so it can catch up to companies like Fitbit and Withings.
I also need to question the accuracy of the Apple Watch’s sleep tracking. One night, I woke up at 5:30 AM to take my dog outside. My Whoop Strap caught that I woke up right away, but the Apple Watch didn’t record me waking up until my first alarm went off at 5:55 AM. Granted, I went right back to bed after letting the dog out, but the Apple Watch should’ve caught that ~10-minute walk around my backyard.
Luckily this is watchOS, so there are a number of third-party sleep tracking apps that will be able to provide more data on your sleep trends.
One bright spot with sleep tracking doesn’t actually have anything to do with tracking your sleep. You can set up bedtime routines on your Apple Watch, which frankly needs to be a feature on every single smartwatch out there. You tell your Apple Watch how much sleep you’d like to get each night, and when you normally fall asleep and wake up. Then, you set a timer for when you’d like to start winding things down before bed. When Sleep Mode kicks in at your scheduled wind-down time, your watch lock screen will become more simplified and do not disturb mode will activate. Lift-to-wake is also disabled so you don’t accidentally activate a bright screen when it’s dark.
I’ve been extremely impressed with the Apple Watch Series 6’s new heart rate monitor. Below, you’ll see a 5.3-mile run with the Apple Watch (blue) and Wahoo Tickr X chest strap (purple).
Interval runs usually trip up wrist-based heart rate monitors, but not in this case. The Apple Watch was at most only 2bpm off from the Tickr X during the first three rest periods on the run. While the last rest period was a little wonky for the watch, overall numbers were right on target.
The Apple Watch struggled to steadily climb after each rest period, but nothing to be too concerned about. Importantly, it was quite responsive to moderate changes in heart rate, including my rapidly changing pace between 17-26 minutes.
Towards the last 1/5 of the run, the watch was slightly delayed reaching peak heart rate numbers in a few spots (see minutes 31-37). Even though there was a delay, it ended up matching up with the chest strap eventually and got back on track during periods of rest.
Even so, this is the most accurate wrist-based heart rate sensor I’ve ever used. Kudos, Apple.
The Apple Watch Series 6's heart rate sensor is one of the best I've ever used.
GPS accuracy is solid, too. Below, you can see the same run with the Apple Watch (blue) and Garmin Fenix 6 Pro (red). Numerous times throughout the run, the Fenix 6 Pro showed me running through people’s homes and through slightly forested parts of residential neighborhoods. The Apple Watch Series 6 had no trouble sticking to the road (where I actually ran) and even showed me running on the correct side of the road most of the time. Not bad!
Apple has also done away with overly smoothing GPS tracks as it did with previous Apple Watches. This means your GPS data will look a little less pretty, but it’ll be more visually accurate now.
The Series 6 also has a medically validated ECG monitor on board, just like the Withings ScanWatch and Fitbit Sense. Taking an ECG reading is quick and easy. I never ran into any issues where it couldn’t take a reading (that happens frequently on the ScanWatch and Sense). ECG results are easily accessible in the Health app on your iPhone and can be shared with a doctor in just a few taps. The ScanWatch also makes sharing these results easy. The Fitbit Sense, well, not so much.
The Apple Watch can also alert you to high/low arrhythmias it senses during periods of inactivity. I never received one of these notifications during my testing, so we’ll need to take Apple’s word that this feature is reliable.
General fitness tracking is feature-rich, just like with previous Apple Watches. The Series 6 tracks your steps, resting and active heart rate, active and resting energy burn, number of standing minutes, floors climbed, distance, estimated VO2 max, and more. Step tracking is in line with what I tracked with my Fenix 6 Pro.
The Series 6 also has an always-on altimeter to track elevation throughout the day. That means your daily floors climbed metrics should be more accurate compared to previous Apple Watches.
Also new to the Series 6 are four new exercise types: core training, functional strength training, post-workout cooldown, and dancing. The Apple Watch actually identifies what type of dance you’re doing at any given time and records that in the Fitness app. For example, it can detect if you’re only using your arms or legs for a particular dance.
Smartwatch features: Unmatched
The main software upgrades you’ll find on the Apple Watch Series 6 come with watchOS 7. The upgrades are minimal, and many of them will be making their way to older Apple Watches.
For starters, new watch faces! There are a total of seven new faces, which include Stripes, Chronograph Pro, GMT, Artist (a collab with artist Geoff McFetridge), Memoji/Animoji, Typograph, and Count Up. I definitely prefer simpler watch faces, so I’m a big fan of the Artist collection. There are also updates to the X-Large and Photo faces. Unfortunately, there still aren’t any third-party watch faces.
Apple is upgrading watch face complications in a big way. Now, apps can offer multiple complications on a single watch face. So, if you’re really into Strava, you’d theoretically be able to add multiple Strava data points to a single watch face. Developers need to update their apps manually to work with this new feature.
Siri has recently been updated to include on-device dictation. It now dictates speech on the watch itself instead of sending the data to Apple servers first. This results in much shorter wait times after you ask a question. Asking Siri about the weather is extremely quick.
Finally, Family Setup is new with watchOS 7. It allows you to set up an Apple Watch for your kids if they don’t have an iPhone. I was unfortunately not able to test this feature as I don’t have a second Apple Watch in my possession.
Apple’s S6 chip powering the Apple Watch gave me zero issues. Performance is fast, and the Apple Watch is able to jump between apps with ease. It’s apparently 20% faster this year, too.
The selection of apps available for the Apple Watch is unparalleled. Just about every major iOS app you’d think would make a great smartwatch app is probably available. This is the Achilles heel of many smartwatch platforms and Apple excels in this area. Also, Google Maps is finally back on the Apple Watch!
Say what you will about Apple and its walled garden of hardware and services, but the company’s product support is nearly unmatched. Not only do Apple Watches receive regular post-launch updates, but the Apple Watch is a core product for the Cupertino company, and will continue to be for some time. Compare that to Google’s complete lack of commitment to Wear OS and the ecosystem as a whole, and Apple is clearly miles ahead.
Apple Watch Series 6 review: Price and competition
The Apple Watch Series 6 is available in two sizes — 40mm and 44mm — and starts at $399. You can find it on Apple.com, Amazon, Best Buy, and many other retailers around the web. That’s just for the Bluetooth-only model; the model with LTE starts at a hefty $499.
All Apple Watch purchases also come with three months of the company’s Fitness Plus program, which launched in late 2020.
Yes, these are expensive smartwatches. But they’re also the best all-around smartwatches you can buy. Apple has minimal serious competition in this space. Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 4 is the closest competitor to Apple’s offerings, but there are limitations which you can read about in our full review. The Fitbit Sense is also a solid fitness tracker, fantastic sleep tracker, and a so-so smartwatch. You can buy the Sense for $100 less than the Series 6.
I’d still say Garmin watches are better suited for the fitness watch crowd. They provide more post-workout analysis and are all-around better watches for training. But the Apple Watch wipes the floor with Garmin devices when it comes to smartwatch features.
The Series 6’s real competition is from Apple itself. We’ve established that the new Apple Watch isn’t a huge step up from the Series 5, which remains the cheaper of the two devices.
Then there’s the new Apple Watch SE, a slightly updated Series 4 from 2018. There’s no always-on display or pulse oximeter, though it has most of the fitness tracking package and just about all the same smartwatch features as the Series 6. The SE starts at $279.
If you already have a Series 5 or even a Series 4, I’d hesitate to say the Series 6 is worth the upgrade.
Apple Watch Series 6 review: The verdict
Yet again, Apple has unsurprisingly cemented itself at the top of the smartwatch market with the Apple Watch Series 6. It’s simply the best you can buy.
With that said, the Series 6 might not be the right one for most people. Ultimately, I think the Apple Watch SE offers a far more compelling package for its price point. The SE gets you about 90% of the way to the Series 6 for $120 less. When we’re talking about a starting price of $400 for the Series 6, that $120 makes a big difference.
Every year, Apple makes important improvements to its smartwatch software and hardware, further pushing it above whatever paltry effort Google is attempting with Wear OS. I’ve used Wear OS and Android phones for years, and I actually said out loud multiple times this week, “I wish I liked iPhones. The Apple Watch is tempting me to switch to iOS.”
Google, please take some notes here.