By Joanna Stern | Photography by Kenny Wassus/The Wall Street Journal
There is only one thing I'd urge you to wear this year: a mask.
Oh, and pants. Please wear pants -- even on video calls.
And what about the brand new $399 Apple Watch Series 6?
Hold up. Shouldn't this be the year I encourage you to put
cutting-edge health tech on your wrist? Wearables are now doing
everything from scanning for early signs of infection to detecting
heart problems to automatically calling emergency services if you
Sure, the top-of-the-line Apple Watch Series 6 can do that stuff
but so can models that cost far less.
If you have already got a two- or three-year-old Apple Watch,
the gains with this new model aren't substantial. Same screen, same
battery life, same core functionality. And I found this year's
standout health feature -- a blood-oxygen sensor -- not ready for
prime time, not to mention not useful.
Plus, if you're a first timer, or in need of an upgrade, Apple
now has two other lower-cost options: the Apple Watch SE and Series
3. Actually, make that three: The best deal going right now might
be a refurbished Series 5.
It is OK to be confused. I'm here for you. After testing all the
models last week -- along with the $330 Fitbit Sense -- I have
arrived at a new theory of Watch-Nomics: You should upgrade your
Apple Watch every three to five years. Any sooner, and spending
more on a watch doesn't mean proportionally more features. So make
the call on your needed features, then make a purchase.
Remember your SAT multiple-choice tactics? Eliminate two choices
and you suddenly have a 50/50 shot at a correct pick. Buying an
Apple Watch is like that:
A) Apple Watch Series 6 ($399): This one has the larger screen
introduced in 2018, with an always-on display showing the time. It
now has a slightly faster processor, slightly faster charging and
the full health package, including an ECG electrical heart-rate
sensor and new blood-oxygen sensor.
B) Refurbished Apple Watch Series 5 ($329): It's basically a
Series 6 without the blood-oxygen sensor. Apple stopped marketing
it, but at time of publication, you could still find some
variations in its refurbished store.
C) Apple Watch Series SE ($279): This resembles a Series 5 or 6,
but without the always-on display, ECG or blood-oxygen sensor. It
still has heart-rate tracking and notifications for high, low and
irregular heart rate, as well as fall detection.
D) Apple Watch Series 3 ($199): OK, almost there. This one has
an older design with a smaller screen, slightly shorter battery
life and slower performance. It also has heart-rate tracking and
heart-rate notifications, but no fall detection.
I anticipate most will choose A or C, especially if Apple runs
out of refurbished Series 5s. So the real question is this: Are a
blood-oxygen sensor, an ECG and an always-on display worth
When I got the blood-oxygen sensor to work, most of my readings
were in the healthy high-90% range. During a visit to my doctor,
the watch even compared point for point with a medical-grade
vital-signs monitor. However, often when I would manually initiate
the 15-second test, I would get an "Unsuccessful Measurement,"
indicating that the test didn't work. Sometimes I would get a lower
reading, like 94% -- even when my trusty $45 Walgreen's pulse
oximeter said 99%.
The little disco ball of green and red lights on the back of the
watch needs to be steady, flush and tight against the skin to get a
reading. The new, wonderfully comfortable Solo Loop straps help
with that, but apparently mine was a bit too loose. Sliding the
watch up my wrist a bit more has improved this. Still, using this
is far too unreliable and inaccurate -- even if Apple doesn't
suggest this for medical use.
An Apple spokesman provided this statement: "The Blood Oxygen
feature has been rigorously tested across a wide spectrum of users
and across all skin tones. For a small percentage of users, various
factors may make it difficult to get a blood oxygen measurement
including motion, watch placement on the wrist, skin temperature
and skin perfusion."
But even if this all worked, there isn't a clear enough reason
for me to need this on my wrist all the time. Why shouldn't I just
pull out a pulse oximeter if I'm worried? While a low blood-oxygen
level can be a gauge for the severity of Covid-19 and other
conditions, there is no Apple Watch alert if yours drops below a
Apple says this is a wellness and fitness feature, not a health
one, and it is beneficial to those who travel to places with higher
altitudes or who are involved in performance training. Also, much
like the heart-rate sensor, which is proving to be central to
Covid-19 wearable studies, the blood-oxygen sensor can now be used
to collect data to build detection algorithms and further medical
As for the always-on display, while I do appreciate being able
to glance down and see the time without tapping on my wrist, I have
had it disabled on my Series 5 for most of the year to eke out a
bit more battery life. I'm even more interested in saving battery
now that sleep tracking arrived with WatchOS 7.
No matter which model you pick, you have to recharge every day
or so. If you sleep with your watch, you have to charge it when you
wake up. Compare that to the $330 Fitbit Sense, which I charge
every five days or so. It keeps tabs on your temperature, blood
oxygen and heart rate. That said, it lacks a lot of the non-health
functionality of the Apple Watch, and Fitbit's software can be slow
The ECG is really the only feature I would consider for the
extra money. You have to follow your heart on that one (sorry, had
to.) It's a shame Apple pulled a vital health feature from the
former Series 4 or 5 model it's now calling SE.
Rewind the clock to 5 1/2 years ago to when the Apple Watch
first shipped, and the technical leaps are massive --
waterproofing, bigger screens, better battery life, advanced
sensors. Alongside those leaps, the product found its central
purpose: fitness and health.
But it was mostly there with the Series 4. So why has
development slowed to a snail's pace since then? There could be two
reasons: Apple engineers haven't quite gotten the next major
improvements right (multiday battery life in a thinner package),
and Apple realized no one wants to buy a watch every two years like
a smartphone. It makes you wonder why we need yearly updates on
these at all?
Big leaps are still coming. I had a vision of it when I was
hooked up to that monitor at my doctor's office. The Series 6
already does two of the four readings: pulse and blood-oxygen
levels. Temperature and blood pressure? Not yet. By combining more
advanced health sensors and software that detects fluctuations, the
Apple Watch and other wearables are going to become our
ever-present health care minders.
In the here and now, though, the answer isn't to buy a new one
whenever a sensor gets added -- especially when it doesn't
necessarily work. If you have an older model, grab a pulse oximeter
from your drugstore and the super comfy $49 Solo Loop band from an
Apple Store and call it a day. If it ain't broke, don't Series 6
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Write to Joanna Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
September 24, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
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