Apple Watch Series 5

Deciding when to ship a new product is a balancing act. Ship too early and you’ll get off to a rocky start you might never recover from. (E.g. the Newton and the whole “Eat up Martha” / “Egg Freckles” handwriting recognition debacle.) Wait too long, though, and the world will pass you by.

The original iPhone was a sensation, but it had several profound flaws: it was exclusive to one carrier in one country; its cellular networking was painfully slow; you needed to tether it to a Mac or PC to sync just about anything other than email; the new UI paradigm, brilliant though it was, was missing rudimentary features like copy and paste; etc. The original iPad was a bit more fully formed at its debut — owing largely to the fact that it was quite obviously an offshoot of the iPhone.

The right time to ship a new product is when its utility and appeal outweigh its obvious flaws. The iPhone hit that mark. But then what do you do? You prioritize those obvious flaws, and start knocking them down, one by one.

A new product really hits its stride when those obvious, glaring faults are mostly solved. For the iPhone that was probably the iPhone 4S. For the iPod, I’d say the finally-hit-its-stride marker was the iPod Nano in 2005, four years after the original iPod.

Apple Watch, in hindsight, perhaps shipped a little too soon. The original models — “Series 0” — were slow, third-party apps were heavily promoted but profoundly unusable, and Apple wasn’t quite sure what the whole thing was meant for. Perhaps worst of all, it struggled to get through the day on a charge. But even in hindsight it’s a close call. Apple was under intense pressure from Wall Street, the media, and probably themselves to prove they could launch a great new product in the post-Jobs era.

And then they did what Apple does: iterate, iterate, iterate. They started knocking down Apple Watch’s glaring flaws one by one. Battery life improved significantly. They identified what Apple Watch is meant for: health and fitness tracking, and notifications. They added optional cellular networking, so your watch could remain utterly useful while out of the range of your iPhone.

The iPhone was a hit product before the iPhone 4S. The iPod was a hit before the Nano. And without question, the Apple Watch is already a massive hit — a mere four years in and it’s already more successful than the iPod ever was. When I talk about a product hitting its stride, I don’t mean that’s when it became popular — I mean that’s when the big missing pieces are mostly filled in.

For me at least, Series 5 marks the Apple Watch hitting its stride.

I spent an inordinate number of words in my original Apple Watch review complaining about the fact that the display was not always on. As a lifelong watch wearer, I just could not get used to it. Four years later, I’m still not used to it. Part of that is that I’ve never been, and likely never will be, a monogamous Apple Watch wearer. My collection of traditional watches is small, but the ones I own, I adore, and when I do wear one, it serves as a constant reminder that when I’m wearing my Apple Watch, I can’t always glance at it for the most basic purpose a watch serves: telling the goddamn time.

And even if I were to wear my Apple Watch exclusively, there are too many scenarios in daily life where I glance at my wrist to check the time but can’t raise my wrist to wake the Apple Watch display. A common one: walking home carrying a full cup of coffee in each hand — one for me, one for my wife.

Series 5’s always-on display solves my single biggest complaint about Apple Watch since day one. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough. No other feature or improvement to Apple Watch to date has ever made me this happy. The watch face doesn’t really stay on on all the time — instead, when on previous Apple Watch generations the display would turn completely off, the watch face goes into a low-power mode. The display dims (but remains bright enough to be legible in most conditions), second hands go away, and you pretty much just see the hour and minutes. Raise your wrist and it fades in to full brightness. Notifications do not appear on screen while the watch is in its low-power state.

The obvious reason why Series 0 through 4 didn’t offer an always-on display is battery life. I’ve been wearing a black stainless steel Series 5 since last Wednesday, on loan from Apple, and battery life has been more than fine. I even turn the brightness on my watch display to the maximum setting. If you charge it overnight you’ll have nothing to worry about. If, like me, you wear it to sleep, it takes a little over an hour to charge in the morning or at some other point during the day. There’s a setting to turn the always-on display off, which presumably will extend battery life, but I’ll never know because I wouldn’t want to spend a single day wearing this watch with the always-on display turned off.

To me, the always-on display is the Apple Watch’s retina display moment — once you see it, you can’t go back.

Series 5 brings other new features, but they’re mostly minor. There’s a compass now, and while it’s fun to play with, I don’t recall ever needing a compass in my entire life. It’s a huge boon to walking directions, though. (Apple did show me a clever feature of the compass, though. Traditional compasses spin randomly when you bring a magnet near them. Series 5’s compass won’t do this, because it uses the gyroscope to see if you’re actually moving. The compass won’t be fooled by a magnet because it can tell the watch itself isn’t spinning around. Smart.)

I’d have placed an order for a Series 5 watch even if Apple had put up a slide that said “Just one new feature: Always-on display.”