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Compared: Apple Watch Series 5 versus Apple Watch Series 4

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The Apple Watch Series 5 introduces an always-on display to the wearable device and a slightly larger battery, but are the changes enough to warrant an upgrade for existing owners of the Apple Watch Series 4? AppleInsider mulls it over.

Apple Watch Series 5 in ceramic

The launch of new Apple products usually prompts a wave of upgrades from existing owners of the product line to the latest version. This is especially the case when changes to the device add major new features some users absolutely need to be able to use as soon as possible.

For the Apple Watch, the shift from the Series 3 to Series 4 brought with it many different changes, including a new external design, bigger OLED displays, and the key addition of the ECG function, which slowly rolled out in markets as it gained regulatory approval for use. Even for Series 3 users, the changes made it a compelling reason to upgrade to the newest model at the time.

For Series 4 to Series 5, there are also refinements, but arguably it doesn't make as much of a leap forward as seen with the launch of the Series 4. While it is likely Series 3 and earlier model owners may look at the Series 5 as a potential upgrade due to the vast number of alterations made by Apple over the years, it is questionable whether Series 4 owners see it in the same way.

External Appearances

There are many areas in the Series 5 that are the same as the Series 4, with the obvious being the styling. Apple hasn't made any real changes to the outside at all, with the design of the outside being effectively identical to the Series 4 without a closer examination.

One of the more obvious tell-tale signs an Apple Watch is a Series 5 is the case material, if the owner opts for a titanium or ceramic casing instead of the established aluminum or stainless steel options. Sure, there could be some who need to have a titanium Apple Watch, but the number of people who fall into that "must-have" category is quite small.

Even the front glass is the same sapphire crystal on both models, with the exception of aluminum in both cases, which uses Ion X glass.

The Display

Behind that front glass, the Series 5 uses a low temperature poly-silicon and oxide (LTPO) OLED Retina display, offering a resolution of 324 by 394 or 368 by 448 pixels in the 40mm and 44mm models respectively. This is the same screen and specifications as with the Series 4, including its Force Touch capabilities and 1,000 nits of brightness.

What has changed is how the display functions. While the old model relied on a flick of the wrist or a screen tap to turn on the display when it was needed, the new model instead boasts an always-on display.

Silver titanium Apple Watch Series 5
Silver titanium Apple Watch Series 5

To accomplish this, Apple altered the pixel architecture used for the display panel to allow it to refresh at a rate of 1Hz when not in use, down from the usual rate of 60Hz. Combined with a low-power driver, new power management, and an updated ambient light sensor, the screen uses far less power in this low refresh rate mode than it would updating at the usual rate, with the power savings enabling it to stay on without harming the battery life.

All Apple Watch models pre-dating the Series 5 carried a high propensity for a social faux pax that has existed for ages. Since the only way to activate the display was to touch it or lift your wrist, the latter always appears rather rude when in social settings.

Series 5's always-on display wouldn't completely alleviate this issue but it certainly will improve it. While working out or in a meeting, the watch can be glanced at without having to lift the wrist. Anyone who uses their watch in professional settings or who frequent the gym may see this alone as a big enough feature to upgrade for.

Storage Capacity

The Apple Watch Series 4 has 16 gigabytes of capacity, which gives it more than enough storage for most of the applications a person will want to use on their wrist, as well as a healthy amount of music to move along to, if an iPhone isn't in range. The Series 5 doubles the onboard capacity to 32 gigabytes.

Generally speaking, the more capacity, the better for most electronic devices. This is especially true considering the upcoming launch of an Apple Watch-specific App Store, where users will be able to acquire and download apps to their wearable devices directly, making storage an even more valuable resource.

The question for Series 4 users is whether or not it is worth doubling capacity for this new ability. It won't be possible to determine until the App Store has been around for a while at least, making it a fair gamble for users.

One way this could make a difference is if users store a lot of music for offline playback on their watch. This too is a small subset of users, but something they exist and doubling the storage could be highly beneficial.

Compass and Processing

For the first time in an Apple Watch, Apple is building in a compass, allowing the device to know which way North is, along with other directions. This is accomplished without needing GPS at all, which means it can be used when the sky is obscured or indoors.

Generally speaking, most users won't really care too much about whether or not the Apple Watch can tell its orientation in relation to North with or without the assistance of GPS. Outside of a few use cases such as hiking, camping, or for applications to navigate within a large building, there are very few people who really need compass capabilities in an Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Series 5
Apple Watch Series 5

One situation this may be useful for is anyone who navigates using Apple Maps on their Apple Watch. Now Maps is able to determine orientation. Especially when walking through city blocks, knowing which way you face by a glance on your wrist is a godsend.

Another minor change is the as-expected upgrade to the S5 64-bit dual-core processor, up from the S4 chip. This does offer more processing capacity than in earlier variants, certainly, but given we're talking about a smart watch processor which is unlikely to face major processing workloads - even with the existence of a dedicated App Store - it's a nice addition but not major enough on its own to warrant an upgrade.

Worth Upgrading?

While the Series 5 is a better device than the Series 4, there aren't as many changes as seen moving from the Series 3 to the Series 4. You're still getting the entire functionality offered by the Series 4 model in the Series 5, including the same claimed 18-hour battery life despite the always-on display, the ECG, the second-generation optical heart sensor, water resistance to 50 meters, fall detection, and options for a cellular model.

For existing Series 4 owners, unless the prospect of an always-on display and more storage capacity is worth the difference between the trade-in value of the Series 4 and the Series 5, there is not much of an incentive to go for the latest model.

On the positive side, with Apple killing off the Series 4, resale rates remain high. Had Apple kept the Series 4 around and dropped the price, prices on the second-hand market would similarly fall. As that isn't the case, it may be a good opportunity for users to upgrade while their watch still holds some substantial value.

Other than the second-hand market, some users may buy an Apple Watch Series 5 so a family member could enjoy the benefits of the Series 4. This is also a good plan as the Series 4 is very capable in its own right.

Where to buy

Shoppers can already save up to $50 on the Apple Watch 5 on Amazon and B&H at press time. For the latest deals and product availability across Apple Resellers, be sure to visit our Apple Watch Series 5 Price Guide.

Those willing to forego the always-on display and are looking for the steepest discount on an Apple Watch period can also save up to $100 on closeout Apple Watch Series 4 devices, per our Apple Watch Price Guide.