Apple Watch Series 5 vs. Series 6 Buyer's Guide

In September 2020, Apple updated its popular Apple Watch lineup, introducing the new Apple Watch Series 6. The Apple Watch Series 6 replaced the Apple Watch Series 5 as the company's flagship wearable, which was announced in September in 2019.

The Apple Watch Series 6 offers a number of compelling updates on last year's Series 5, offering a new S6 processor, a U1 ultra-wideband chip, and blood oxygen monitoring, for that started at $399.

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Although the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6 have now been discontinued by Apple, they continue to be available at many third-party resellers. Perhaps you are wondering if it is worth upgrading from a Series 5 to a Series 6, or are considering if the lower-cost Series 5 is a worthy introduction to the Apple Watch instead of the Series 6. You may also be using an older Apple Watch, and are looking to upgrade, but cannot decide if you should buy the Series 5 or the Series 6.

As these two models share many key features, including design, ECG functionality, and an always-on display, it may not be immediately obvious which model is better for you. Is it worth purchasing the slightly older model with fewer features to save money? Our guide helps you to answer the question of which of these two Apple Watch models is best for you.

Comparing the Apple Watch Series 5 and the Apple Watch Series 6

With just one year between them as flagship Apple Watches, they share a majority of features. Apple lists these identical features of the two models:

Similarities

  • 40mm or 44mm case
  • Always-On Retina LTPO OLED display, 1000 nits
  • GPS and GPS + Cellular models
  • 64-bit dual-core processor; W3 wireless chip
  • Digital Crown with haptic feedback
  • Electrical heart sensor and second-generation optical heart sensor
  • High and low heart rate notifications, irregular heart rhythm notification, and ECG app
  • International emergency calling, Emergency SOS, and fall detection
  • Noise monitoring
  • Water resistance up to 50 meters; "swimproof"
  • LTE and UMTS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 5.0
  • GPS/GNSS, compass, and altimeter
  • 50 percent louder speaker; built-in mic
  • 32GB storage capacity
  • 18-hour "all-day" battery life
  • Supports Family Setup

Apple's breakdown shows that the two models share an overwhelming majority of features. Even so, there are a number of important differences between the Apple Watch Series 5 and the Apple Watch Series 6 that are worth highlighting, such as the always-on altimeter and blood oxygen monitoring.

Differences

Apple Watch Series 5

  • Always-on display
  • S5 SiP with 64-bit dual-core processor
  • 2.4GHz Wi-Fi
  • Barometric altimeter

Apple Watch Series 6

  • Up to 2.5 times brighter always-on display
  • S6 SiP with 64-bit dual-core processor
  • U1 chip (ultra-wideband)
  • 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi
  • Blood oxygen sensor
  • Always-on altimeter
  • Improved battery life for certain workouts, faster charging

Read on for a closer look at each of these aspects, and see what exactly both of the latest Apple Watch models have to offer.

Displays

Both the Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch Series 6 come with a Retina LTPO OLED display. The key difference, however, is that the Series 6 has an always-on display that is two-and-a-half times brighter outdoors than the Series 5 when your wrist is lowered. While the maximum brightness of both displays is the same at 1,000 nits, the Apple Watch Series 6's always-on display will look considerably brighter outdoors and during day-to-day use at a glance.

Other than this feature, the high-resolution Retina displays themselves are the same between the two models. Unless you feel that you especially need to see your watch face in the clearest way at all times without raising your wrist, the Apple Watch Series 5's display will be more than adequate for your needs.

Apple watch series 5 new case material made of titanium 091019

S6 vs. S5 Processor

Both processors in the Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch Series 6 are 64‑bit dual-core chips. The newer S6 processors are based on the A13 Bionic in the iPhone 11, and are up to 20 percent faster than the previous S5 processors. Apple says that this allows apps to launch 20 percent faster, while maintaining the same "all-day" 18-hour battery life.

The Apple Watch Series 5's S5 dual-core processor still "delivers incredibly fast performance" according to Apple. The S5 is up to two times faster than Apple Watch Series 3. In fact, Apple is so confident in the capability and performance of the S5 processor that it included the chip in the new Apple Watch SE.

Apple watch series 6 stainless steel case orange band 09152020
The S5 was already a capable processor when it premiered in the Apple Watch Series 5, and the S6 simply offers a more refined chip. The minor performance improvements of the S6 chip do not seem to be enough to justify getting the Apple Watch Series 6 over the Apple Watch Series 5 unless you absolutely need the fastest possible app launch speeds. For the vast majority of users, the Apple Watch Series 5's S5 processor will be suitably fast and efficient.

U1 Ultra-Wideband Chip

Only the Apple Watch Series 6 contains the U1 ultra-wideband chip. Apple says that the U1 on Apple Watch will "enable short-range wireless location to support new experiences, such as next-generation digital car keys," but it is as yet unclear what else the chip may offer.

The distance between two devices that support ultra-wideband can be measured precisely by calculating the time that it takes for a radio wave to pass between the two devices, with much more accuracy than Bluetooth LE and Wi-Fi.

Although Apple has increasingly been implementing the chip on its new devices, it has yet to unlock substantial new features. Apple has so far only used the technology to power a directional AirDrop feature in iOS 13, but it has suggested more exciting use cases in the future. This suggests that the U1's functionality on Apple Watch Series 6 may well be expanded.

Since the U1 chip currently has such few use cases, it is not worth getting the Apple Watch Series 6 simply because of it. Nevertheless, if you plan on keeping your Apple Watch for many years, the U1 chip will likely make it a much more future-proof model, due to the chance that more functionality will come to it in the coming years.

Health Monitoring

blood oxygenApple Watch Series 6 offers blood oxygen monitoring, a brand new health monitoring feature never seen before on the Apple Watch. The feature measures the oxygen saturation of the user's blood, so they can better understand their overall fitness and wellbeing. Oxygen saturation, also known as SpO2, represents the percentage of oxygen being carried by red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body, and indicates how well this oxygenated blood is being delivered throughout the body.

The Apple Watch Series 6 has a blood oxygen sensor on its rear with an array of four clusters of green, red, and infrared LEDs. They measure light reflected back from blood, and using an advanced custom algorithm, can determine blood oxygen saturation between 70 and 100 percent.

On-demand measurements can be taken using the Blood Oxygen app, and periodic background measurements are also taken, including during sleep. All data is visible in the Health app, and the user is able to track trends over time to see how their blood oxygen level changes.

However, Apple Watch Series 5 does share a large number of health monitoring features with the Apple Watch Series 6. Both models contain an electrical heart sensor to take electrocardiograms, or ECGs. They have electrodes built into the Digital Crown and an electrical heart rate sensor on the rear. With the ECG app, users touch the Digital Crown and after 30 seconds, receive a heart rhythm classification. It can classify if the heart is beating in a normal pattern or whether there are signs of Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), a heart condition that may lead to major health complications. All recordings, their associated classifications, and any noted symptoms are stored in the Health app in a PDF that can be shared with physicians.

Both models also have an optical heart sensor to monitor heart rate, and can give notifications about high and low heart rate, and as well as irregular heart rhythm. They also can perform emergency SOS, Fall Detection, and noise monitoring.

Blood oxygen monitoring in the Apple Watch Series 6 is the main health-focused appeal of the newer model. If you believe that blood oxygen monitoring will be important to you, you should definitely consider the Apple Watch Series 6. If this advanced health feature is less of a priority for you, the Apple Watch Series 5 still has a multitude of health monitoring capabilities, including ECG.

Battery

Both models of Apple Watch retain what Apple calls an "all-day" battery life of around 18 hours.

Apple Watch Series 6, however, offers faster charging, completing a full charge in under one and a half hours, and improved battery life for tracking certain workouts, such as indoor and outdoor runs. By comparison, the Apple Watch Series 5 charges in under two and a half hours.

Since the battery life of both models is virtually the same, it is probably not worth favoring the Series 6 simply on the basis of faster charging and slightly improved battery usage during particular activities. The Series 6's battery and charging enhancements instead remain an indication of how the device offers a variety of small improvements over the Apple Watch Series 5.

Design

The Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch Series 6 share the same design, but differ slightly when it comes to materials and color options.

The Apple Watch Series 6 is available in aluminum, stainless steel, or titanium, and the Apple Watch Series 5 is also available in ceramic. Apple Watches with stainless steel, titanium, or ceramic, use a sapphire crystal screen, whereas the aluminum models use Ion-X strengthened glass.

Apple watch series 5 gold aluminum case pomegranate band and space gray aluminum case pine green band 091019
The Apple Watch Series 6 in aluminum is available in Silver, Space Gray, Gold, Blue, or (PRODUCT)RED. In stainless steel, it is available in Silver, Graphite, or Gold, and in titanium, it is available in Titanium or Space Black. The Apple Watch Series 5 is not available in Blue or (PRODUCT)RED, but it does offer a unique ceramic white color.

If you prefer Blue or (PRODUCT)RED, you should get the Apple Watch Series 6 as it is the only model to offer these color options. If, however, you are content with the other color options or are interested in the white ceramic finish, then the Apple Watch Series 5 will be sufficient.

Other Apple Watch Options

Apple also offers the Apple Watch SE for $279. This model has fewer features than the Apple Watch Series 5, but offers a lower-cost option with many of the aspects that have made the Apple Watch so popular over the years.

The ‌Apple Watch SE‌ does not have an always-on display, ECG or blood oxygen monitoring, but it does contain the same S5 chip as the Series 5 and the same always-on altimeter as the Series 6.

Apple watch SE Aluminum silver case yellow band 09152020
If you were already siding with the Apple Watch Series 5, it may be worth exploring the lower-cost ‌Apple Watch SE‌. If you are looking for the most out of your Apple Watch and are particularly interested in health-monitoring features, the ‌Apple Watch SE‌ may not be suitable.

For a more specific breakdown of the Apple Watch Series 6 versus the ‌Apple Watch SE‌, take a look at our handy Apple Watch Series 6 vs. Apple Watch SE buyer's guide.

Final Thoughts

The Apple Watch Series 6 is a fairly minor improvement over the previous Series 5 model, offering new features such as blood oxygen monitoring, the S6 and U1 chips, and an always-on altimeter. With its improved always-on display, advanced health monitoring features, and range of colors and finishes, the Apple Watch Series 6 will be the model of choice for those that want the most out of their wearable. If you are particularly interested in health tracking, or simply like a specific new color, the Apple Watch Series 6 will be the best model for you.

Alternatively, if you are on a budget and are not particularly attracted to the additional features of the Series 6, the Apple Watch Series 5 remains an option worth considering. It shares many features with the newer model, such as the ability to take ECGs. However, it should be remembered that the Series 5 is already over two years old, and will likely not support software updates for as long as the Series 6. You should only consider the older Series 5 if the Series 6 is out of your price range.

The ‌Apple Watch SE‌ should also factor into your decision, as it offers many of the same features of the Series 5 (and a few from the Series 6) at a discounted price.

For users who already have an Apple Watch Series 5, the Series 6 probably does not offer enough to warrant upgrading unless you regularly update your watch hardware every year or you particularly want the blood oxygen monitoring feature. For those who have an Apple Series 4 or older, or those who are new to Apple Watch entirely, the Apple Watch Series 6 is a terrific option with plenty of features.

Related Roundup: Apple Watch Series 9
Buyer's Guide: Apple Watch (Caution)

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