But as I said at the top of this review, it’s what you can’t see that might make the biggest day-to-day difference. The Series 6 uses the new S6 chip, whose dual-core processor is similar to the A13 Bionic chip inside the iPhone 11 and Apple claims it’s 20 percent faster than last year’s S5. Valentina, who has a Series 5 and was able to do side-by-side testing, confirms that the Series 6 is indeed speedier, not just for app launches, but swiping through watch faces as well.
The watch is also more energy efficient than last year, which explains why it can have a display that’s 2.5 times brighter, without any hit to battery life. In fact, Apple is claiming slightly longer battery life: an extra hour of audio (locally stored music) or an extra hour of workout tracking. All told, you’re looking at up to 11 hours of audio or indoor workouts (up to seven hours outdoors with GPS, and six if you use LTE). In one typical day, I had 61 percent left after about an 11-hour stretch of working from home with a roughly 35-minute run somewhere in between.
In addition to the longer battery life, Apple is promising faster charging: from zero to 80 percent in 60 minutes, and a full charge in 90 minutes. That’s at least a 33 percent (30-minute) improvement over the Series 5. In one of my charging tests, I saw a 51 percent increase after a timed half-hour of charging.
Rounding out the list, the Series 6 has a U1 chip that supports 5GHz WiFI (as opposed to just 2.4GHz bands). The U1 also brings ultrawideband antennas (UWB), an automotive industry standard that allows you to lock and unlock your car with your watch. Lastly, while the Apple Watch has had an altimeter since the Series 3, it’s now always-on, and there’s a new complication to match.
Apple didn’t promise any improvements to the GPS, but run tracking seemed ever so slightly more accurate. It’s possible the company quietly tweaked its algorithm or that the new always-on altimeter gives the watch a more complete picture of your location.
With the exception of those few hardware changes, most of what makes the Series 6 feel different is watchOS 7 which will actually run on watches as old as the Series 3. But, keep in mind, you also need a device running iOS 14, which itself requires an iPhone 6s or newer.
One of the more timely new features is a handwashing timer, which when it detects particular hand motions and the sound of running water automatically starts a 20-second countdown.
You’ll feel a haptic tick both when the timer starts and ends. Cleverly, the countdown pauses if you prematurely stop washing your hands, meaning you can’t just space out for 20 seconds while the faucet runs. I did notice at times that the effort didn’t always “count” if I was washing the back of my hands, though.
The handwashing feature is disabled by fault; you’ll need to turn it on in the Apple Watch app. If it turns out you like it, you can also enable reminders if you’ve gone several hours without washing your hands.
Also new in watchOS 7 is a long-requested sleep tracking feature. Unfortunately it’s pretty useless. While the watch has some awareness of how long you were in bed and unconscious, there’s no data on the quality of your slumber — nothing on how much deep, dreamy sleep you got versus a light doze. As my colleague Cherlynn Low noted in her Watch SE review, Fitbit and Samsung have a leg up on Apple here, and use heart rate data to map out the user’s sleep cycle. It’s a shame, too, because the watch itself is surprisingly comfortable to wear to bed.
It seems Apple instead used its resources to build out so-called wind-down and wake-up routines. Using the Health app, you can set goals, like how much sleep you want, or when you’d like to get in bed each night. Dig deeper into the settings and you can decide to have your phone automatically enter sleep mode and turn on Do Not Disturb when Wind Down time begins. Additionally, you can opt to still show the time on your phone and watch during sleep mode and, separately, opt into sleep reminders.
If you set a wake-up alarm, you’ll hear a more gentle sound by default and feel a haptic buzz — that’s mostly for your sake, but also potentially your bedmate. I found it was a little too easy to set an alarm for each day of the week all at once (hello, 7am Saturday wake-up call!) and a tad difficult to delete one for a day other than today.