The Apple Watch Series 6 Seems Like a Minor Upgrade with Major Potential

The Apple Watch Series 6 Seems Like a Minor Upgrade with Major Potential
Apple is nothing if not committed to this design. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

Apple’s newest flagship Apple Watch is not dramatically different from last year’s flagship Apple Watch. Those looking for a radical redesign will have to wait until…well, who knows? The biggest changes in the $US400 ($546) Apple Watch Series 6 are a faster processor and a new health sensor, which might not be a big deal for many people. I’ve been using the Series 6 for just a day, and while it is very clearly the best Apple Watch you’ve ever been able to buy, I’m not yet sure if this is the best Apple Watch for most people to buy. You see, Apple muddied the waters with a mid-tier option, the Apple Watch SE, which is $US120 ($164) cheaper than the Series 6 and shares many of its best features. The Watch SE seems like a very good, well-priced smartwatch.

But the Series 6 has the potential to be so much more.

At first glance, the newest watch looks like every other Apple Watch released in the last few years. The 40mm red aluminium model I’m using is a little flashier than the silver, gold, or space grey options Apple normally offers, and if you want the world to know you have the Series 6, this candy apple red or the fetching blue shade Apple also introduced with this year’s model are the way to go.

The red watch is beautiful. I mean, look at it.

This colour is very, very good. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) This colour is very, very good. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

I much prefer a colourful watch to a colourful iPhone, which is usually, if you’re smart, covered by a case (and even a clear case will dull the effect). A gleaming red watch with a brightly-hued band is just pure fun.

The Series 6’s other noticeable design tweak is an always-on display that’s brighter when it’s not in use — 2.5 times brighter than the Series 5’s inactive display, Apple claims. The change is obvious, particularly when outside or working out. Raising my arm to activate the display is a little unintuitive when exercising, but with the brighter screen, I could easily see my heart rate and calorie burn during a cardio dance class.

Even inactive, the display is plenty bright. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) Even inactive, the display is plenty bright. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

But the new watch’s most significant features are, as usual for Apple, under the hood. The Series 6 sports the new S6 system-in-package, which definitely feels zippier than the Series 4 I’ve been using all summer to test watchOS 7. Summoning Siri, launching apps, and downloading Apple Music playlists for offline listening was quick and easy, though I’ll have to do more testing to see how the speed compares to older watches. The Series 6 also has enhanced wifi connectivity that finally makes use of 5GHz bands, though that was a bigger pain point for me when I worked in an office (most enterprise wifi networks are 5GHz only).

Apple is also pushing even further into health-tracking, adding a brand new sensor for measuring blood oxygen levels. That SpO2 sensor joins an electrical heart rate sensor, which is also found in the Series 4 and 5, and used to take electrocardiograms that can detect atrial fibrillation. You may never need to use those sensors, but they’re humming along in the background, monitoring your vitals, prepared to alert you to a significant health issue if you ever have one. Hopefully, you never will. But anything is possible, and the fact that the device I use to track my runs, answer calls, send messages, and check my email can also tell me if my blood oxygen levels are seriously out of whack — well, that’s something.

A normal blood oxygen reading is 95-99%, although the Blood Oxygen app does not tell you what's normal or not. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) A normal blood oxygen reading is 95-99%, although the Blood Oxygen app does not tell you what's normal or not. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The new, appropriately named Blood Oxygen app is, like the ECG app, easy to use. Easier, actually, because you don’t have to hold your finger against the Digital Crown to complete the electrical circuit across your body. Instead, you hold your arm still on a flat surface with the watch face pointing up, and then sit for 15 seconds as the watch’s clusters of red and infrared LED lights shine through your skin to capture the light reflected off the blood vessels in your wrist. Bright red blood is more saturated, dark red blood not so much. Apparently my blood is real saturated — 99%. I was so pumped about this reading that I shared it with my colleagues before realising no one in your life is ever going to be as excited about your blood oxygen levels as you are.

I am more intrigued to see how my blood oxygen levels fluctuate over time, particularly while I sleep. I’ll dive into that data with my full review of the Series 6 next week.

Check out those LED clusters and the photodiodes between them. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) Check out those LED clusters and the photodiodes between them. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

I’m not sure the new SpO2 sensor alone is worth an upgrade from the Series 4 or Series 5 (which both have the ECG feature), especially considering there are no alerts, no guidance, and no diagnoses to accompany the blood oxygen measurements yet. Apple just launched three studies with clinical research partners that will aim to figure out if there’s a link between blood oxygen levels and heart failure, asthma, and respiratory viruses like covid-19 and the flu. I would venture to guess that the results of those studies will be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a bid to win clearance for additional diagnostic tools.

And that’s what’s most exciting to me about the Series 6. With the hardware in place, Apple can build software-based, FDA-cleared medical features that can make this flagship watch essential. Maybe I’m dreaming too big, but based on Apple’s track record, I would be surprised if the Blood Oxygen app remains a simple measurement tool. It’s 2020. Literally anything can happen.

I plan to put the watch through its paces over the next week to see how these new features change the day-to-day experience of using the Apple Watch. Got questions about the Series 6? Drop ‘em in the comments.