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  • Writer's pictureedbaig

Apple Watch Series 6: My first impressions

I’ve been wearing the Apple Watch Series 6 for a little over 24 hours now, not long enough to to reach a verdict on whether upgrading to Apple’s newest premium smart timepiece is worth $399, or (depending on cases, bands and whether you'll spring for cellular), potentially a lot more.

I do however have some initial thoughts.

Don't get me wrong. Series 6 is a mighty fine watch and if you have money to burn and haven’t recently bought an Apple Watch, it's an excellent choice. It boasts a new blood oxygen sensor on top of health features (fall detection, ECG sensor) found on prior models.

But Series 6 isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone reading this, especially if you’re strapped for cash. You may want to look instead at the Apple Watch SE that Apple also introduced this week. At $279 (on up) it’s a more affordable way to go, with not all that many feature compromises. The older Apple Watch Series 3 remains in Apple’s watch portfolio as well, and at $199 to start it’s an even more affordable option, though it lacks some of the more advanced features of the latest versions.

I happened to splurge last year for Series 5 so I'm kind of on the fence when it comes to Series 6 much as I like it. I'm factoring in the free watchOS 7 software update that dresses up capabilities my current watch even more and does the same to earlier versions. Yep, these some fresh watch faces and “complications,” watch-speak for those various display functions.

I should mention that for all the emphasis on health-related features in this newest watch--a firm direction for Apple--the company hasn’t punted on style. These are still good-looking timepieces with curved rectangular cases familiar to Apple buyers. For its part Series 6 comes in 11 colors across recycled aluminum, stainless steel or brushed titanium versions.

Apple also introduced stretchable silicone Solo Loop watch bands this week, which fit all the prior Apple Watches, depending on size. A slew of third-party watch bands, most cheaper than Apple's, can also dress up or dress down a watch.

With that, here’s what I experienced or observed in my limited time with the watch so far.

*Blood O2: The deciding factor to move to Series 6 largely comes down to how much you value the blood oxygen sensor that is exclusive to the model. Oxygen saturation is a key indicator that your lungs and circulatory system are behaving within normal ranges (or not). A reading of 100 percent means that your red blood cells are fully saturated, with measurements of 95 to 99 percent fairly typical, Apple says.

The Watch derives the measurement from four clusters of green, red, and infrared LEDs on its rear and four photodiodes spaced and isolated between them to determine the color of your blood.

Such measurements are automatically collected throughout the day or when you’re asleep. You can also launch an app for a manual reading, which I tried several times by resting my wrist on a table with the watch display facing upward. A timer counts down for 15 seconds. If all went well you'll get a reading, though I received an “unsuccessful measurement” notification, perhaps because the band was too loose or too tight.

As I mentioned, blood oxygen is merely the latest health-related feature to come to the Apple Watch. The Series 6 also has an ECG sensor for detecting an irregular heart beat or Afib, same as on the Series 4 and Series 5. It can also detect hard falls and automatically summon emergency assistance if you’re immobilized. (The new SE also has fall detection.)

I'll remind folks that Apple also announced a subscription-based Fitness+ service this week, but it isn’t launching until later in the year. Also coming later is a watchOS 7 feature whereby you'll be notified if your cardiorespiratory fitness level or VO2 Max falls into a potentially dangerous low range.

*Always On Display: Apple introduced an always-on display on Series 5 which meant you could tell the time without having to raise your wrist, something that sounds simple but was a big omission on its earlier watches.

On Series 6, Apple raised the maximum brightness on this always-on display to 500 nits or 2 1/2 times Series 5. To be honest, I barely noticed, even when I wore both Series 5 and Series 6 on my wrist at the same time.

Apple will tell you the new watch is snappier than its immediate predecessor but I am hard pressed at this juncture to tell.

*Always-On Elevation: I didn’t exactly scale the Rockies to determine how well the always-on altimeter works in the highest altitudes. For what it's worth, I did drive around the hills of Northern Jersey to glance at higher elevation changes from my wrist, made possible thanks to a new elevation complication for the watch face. Tapping this complication takes you the Compass app. Always-on elevation is also available on the SE.

*Handwashing washout: One highly publicized feature for the Apple Watch (Series 4 and later through watchOS 7) is a 20-second hand washing timer that’s meant to ensure proper hygiene during Covid-19 and beyond. The watch is supposed to be able to detect when you're washing your hands using the sound of running water or swishing soap on your hands, You can also get reminders to wash your hands.

Except I couldn’t get the handwashing feature to work with my Series 5 or the Series 6 loaner, I even moved to different sinks and for the heck of it, the shower. No dice. I'm curious if others have had this same, um, dirty problem?

*Getting sleep: Apple finally added native sleep tracking to the Apple Watch (via watchOS7) but it’s more about encouraging you to get to bed on time and choosing a sleep routine, rather than delivering a slew of nighty-night statistics. You do learn how many hours you were in bed and how much sleep you got. The app can also report your heart rate when you were in dreamland, and (on Series 6) your blood oxygen levels. And you get to choose when a “Wind Down” mode kicks in ahead of bedtime and whether to set a gentle alarm.

What you don’t get is data around REM or other sleep stages, or discover how many times you might have woken up in the middle of the night.

Sleeping with the Apple Watch raises inevitable questions around battery life. Apple says you’ll get the same 18 hours or so of battery life on the Series 6 as on prior models (and the SE) but I haven’t had the watch long enough to evaluate the claim. Charging time is supposed to be a little bit zippier than before, important if you need to power up before bedtime or after you first wake up to ensure adequate juice for the day. Within the app, you can arrange to receive charging reminders.

There's more you can do with an Apple Watch, of course, from quickie Dick Tracy-style wrist phone calls to various exercise routines. I'm big on receiving notifications to determine whether I must respond immediately to a message or can safely ignore it. And I frequently use my watch to pay for stuff with Apple Pay, especially during the pandemic.

If you already have an Apple Watch (or rival model) are you enticed by Series 6 or the SE? And if you haven't bought a smartwatch might either of these new devices be the ones to get you to do so?

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