I want to buy an Apple Watch and am more than a bit confused about all the different models. What’s the difference between them all?
Like most tech companies, Apple has an aggressive tech evolution strategy and generally releases newer versions of all its products every 12 months. That means that since the first Mac was introduced back in 1984, there have been dozens of generations of the product. iPhones are roughly 13 years old — the iPhone 1 was introduced in September, 2007 — and I have an iPhone 11 Pro, the 11th major generation of that device. So not quite annually but pretty close.
The Apple Watch is in the same category. It was introduced Sept 9, 2014 which means that if it’s on that annual update schedule, the most recent model is the 5th generation, or “Series 5”. In September 2020 we should expect the Apple Watch Series 6 to be released too. You can read about the rumored updates at TechRadar, if you’re curious: Apple Watch 6 Release Date & Rumors.
Which leads us back to the question of what’s different about each generation? The easy answer is that each generation has a faster processor and better battery life, the two most important criteria in any smartwatch, but there’s more to it. So let’s dig in and break things down.
Apple Watch Series 1
Released on Sept. 2014, this was the baseline device so while it had relatively poor battery life and limited functionality, it still offered up a solid, Apple version of the smartwatch. When Apple CEO presented it, however, he focused on the fashion aspect, emphasizing its varying band and body styles and watch faces. It didn’t actually ship until April of 2015, a rare example of Apple pre-announcing a product.
Apple Watch Series 2
Since the Apple Watch 1 didn’t really release until 2015, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t until Sept. 2016 that Apple Watch Series 2 was released in Sept 2016. It was better, faster, stronger. Well, brighter, faster, and with longer battery life. Improvements included a GPS system, a dual-core processor and integration of Nike fitness tracking and co-branded designs. The Series 2 was also waterproof and supported fitness tracking in the pool: it could count laps, detect stroke type and track average lap pace in the pool. Pretty cool, really.
Apple Watch Series 3
September, 2017. This was a big update in the Apple Watch world because it allowed you to leave your phone behind. You could take a call, stream music, interact with Siri and more, all without having to keep your smartphone nearby. How did it do this fancy trick? Built-in LTE cellular connectivity.
While it offered better battery life and a faster processor, most of the additional improvements were aimed at fitness tracking and lifestyle management.
Apple Watch Series 4
If you can have a smartwatch track your fitness, why not have it track your health too? The September, 2018 release of Apple Watch Series 4 marked an emphasis on overall health monitoring, including fall detection, emergency SOS, and ECG (heartbeat) tracking and analysis marked the evolution of the watch beyond the fitness segment and into a more generally valuable analytic device on your wrist. Oh, and a faster CPU, longer battery life and a brighter screen. As usual.
Apple Watch Series 5
We’re caught up. On September 10, 2019, Apple announced the release of the fifth generation of Apple Watches, Series 5. The biggest change? An always-on display. If you have any experience with previous generations of the Apple Watch you know that it’s typically dark and only lights up when the user tilts their wrist to activate it. A definite pain. So the always-on display is pretty revolutionary (though Android smartwatches have had that feature for years, it’s worth noting).
The Series 5 are powered by the Apple S5 CPU which, yes, makes it faster and more capable. Apple says it’s almost 2x the speed of the CPU powering the Series 4, but how fast does your watch processor really need to be? Depends on how you use it, actually. It also features more storage, 32GB, all tucked into that tiny little system. Pretty amazing, really.
So What To Get?
You can pick up previous generation Apple Watches at a pretty good discount nowadays, and the Apple Store sells both the Series 3 and Series 5 watches directly. You’ll need to balance price versus features and performance, as with any modern tech device. The Series 3 has all the key fitness, heart monitoring and connectivity features you might want, but that display will be off if you don’t tilt your wrist. But is it worth $200 to go from a Series 3 to the latest, the Series 5, with its always-on display? Or at this point is it better to just wait until Sept 2020 and see what happens with the Series 6? If nothing else, when Apple introduces a new generation of its product, the price of all previous generations drops, so there’s that…
Whatever you get, enjoy. There’s a lot to love about the Apple Watch and a reason so many people have one on their wrists!
Pro Tip: I have quite a few Apple Watch tutorials here on my site too. Please check out my Apple Watch Help for lots of useful content in this regard!