The Apple Watch Series 6: first impressions of a very good smartwatch

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I’ve had just under 24 hours with the new Apple Watch Series 6, which is just enough time to gather a handful of impressions. My main impression is this: it’s an iterative update over the Series 5, for sure. The upgrades are real, but they’re also subtle.

One thing that’s not subtle at all is the color of the review unit Apple sent: red. It is very pretty, and there’s a depth and complexity to the color’s finish. I don’t know that I’m a red watch kind of guy, but I like that it’s not shy. It also comes in those shy colors (gray and silver), plus one more bold color (blue).

The usual array of metal choices are here, with prices that start at $399 and can work their way up to a $1,250 configuration (or more) depending on how badly you want LTE or titanium. It will fit all of the current Apple Watch straps, too. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t sent me a Solo Loop to test out, if you’re hoping to see a hands-on with that.

The Series 6’s premier feature is the blood oxygen monitor, and all I can tell you about it right now is that I pressed the button, dutifully rested my wrist on a table for 15 seconds, and got readings back ranging from 94 to 97 percent. I also got a handful of failed readings, which is something we also experienced when testing the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3’s blood oxygen monitoring.

You can set the Watch to ambiently check your levels throughout the day or night, and the lights it uses are apparently bright enough that, by default, they won’t check when the Watch is in theater mode.

As my colleague Nicole Wetsman notes, this is not a medical device, and the readings this new sensor provides shouldn’t be used as a diagnostic tool by any stretch.

The Series 6 also has an always-on altimeter. I am writing this at 44 feet above sea level, though in the details of the compass app (where elevation data lives), there’s a little indicator that says “+/- 20ft” so it’s probably better as a relative tool than a precise one.

My favorite new feature that I’ve been able to test might simply be the always-on screen. Apple claims it’s 2.5 times brighter in its always-on default mode than the screen on the Series 5, and looking at them side by side, I believe it. It is very bright.

What I expect will be my favorite new feature overall is the charging speed, though I haven’t tested that yet. Apple claims it’s much faster now — up to 40 percent faster than the Series 5 — which makes it easier to top up quickly in the morning or evening. You should be able to go from 0 to 80 percent in about an hour; all the way to 100 takes an hour and a half. That makes the Apple Watch more convenient to use for sleep tracking. For me, the Apple Watch is a much nicer and less disruptive alarm than my phone.

In the box, there’s a USB-A cable with Apple’s proprietary charger on the other end, but no AC adapter. I believe this is the right decision for the environment, but I can’t help but notice that the price didn’t drop on these new Watches. It was probably too much to hope for, but I had hoped.

As for speed, it’s fast. But then, the Series 5 felt plenty fast, too. I think the main benefit most people will get from the S6 system is that it has enough processing headroom to stay fast through future updates. Apple’s silicon is so ridiculously ahead of Qualcomm’s on smartwatches that Apple could have kept the Series 5’s internals, and I doubt anybody would have minded.

I’ll get more into watchOS 7 in the full review, but like the Series 6 itself, I see it as an iterative update. Apple has figured out a basic framework for the Apple Watch and is sticking with it. The new watchfaces are nice, too, but even with this many options and this amount of customization, I still sometimes find I can’t get one I really like.

I have a very strong recommendation for you, though: don’t make a watchface out of your own Memoji. They bounce around and seem almost responsive to your movements — they react to your taps — so that’s fun. What’s less fun is that, somehow, the expressions Apple chose for them are insufferable. Every time I look at my wrist now, I feel like there’s this cloying bro staring back, and that dude is me.

I mean look at this jerk:

Stick with the giraffe. It’s a good giraffe.

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