Apple Watch Series 6

Wellbeing defines the latest design evolution.

 It is five years since Apple launched its first Watch. Though the recently launched Series 6 family looks virtually identical to its immediate predecessor (and Watch has retained the same rectangular profile throughout), it underlines how the product has evolved in terms of its target market. Where Samsung seems to have designed the Galaxy Watch 3, which was the subject of the November 2020 issue teardown, in the aesthetic context of general upmarket timepieces, Apple matches those on price but places wellbeing at the front of its sales pitch.

There is a Hermès-branded edition, a perfect match for your scarf at £1,200 and up, but the main sales slogan makes clear where Apple sees the greater profit: “The future of health is on your wrist.” Basic prices start at £379, rising depending on a range of options of which the technologically most significant is whether or not to include 4G, with the rest coming down to the case and type of strap or fascia.

Though an iFixit teardown found that Series 6 is mostly a design rev, there are some significant hardware charges.

The first is an upgrade to Apple’s latest custom dual-core 64-bit S6 processor for wearables which is claimed to be 20 per cent faster than the S5, and the addition of its U1 ultra-wideband chip. The usefulness of the latter will become apparent as new features like remote vehicle-unlocking are added to the upgradable platform.

The OLED display is brighter, rated at 1,000 nits for both the 40mm and 44mm versions and about 2.5x brighter in practice than its predecessor.

The Force Touch feature has been dropped, removing what iFixit says was a “a fragile, damage-prone part”. This has freed up space in the device for moves such as a larger Taptic Engine for feedback (the part also uses recycled rare-earth elements, a possible nod to concerns about their supply chain amid current Sino-US tensions).

The battery is slightly larger, 1.17Wh in the 44mm model (+3.5 per cent) and 1.024Wh in the 40mm one (+8.5 per cent), and Apple says it has speeded-up charge time so that the load can reach 80 per cent in 60 minutes and 100 per cent in 90 minutes.

Apple Watch 6 teardown - inline

However, the new hardware feature that has attracted most attention is the addition of an SpO2 blood-oxygen measure. An array of one red light and LEDs on the rear panel measures the colour of the wearer’s blood to determine its oxygen saturation, a key metric for lung function.

Together with Apple’s launch of a handwashing app, these features are seen as particularly appropriate in the time of Covid-19 (SpO2 is one possible measure of infection). The app tracks movement to determine when the wearer last used a sink (or, one assumes, applied gel since the movements are similar) and provides reminders after long intervals. A ‘normal’ SpO2 reading is said to be between 95 and 99, although Apple is careful to add that the feature should not be seen as providing any type of formal medical diagnosis.

Now, add in Apple’s current roll-out of the Fitness+ subscription service. Very similar to Peloton, this will offer exercise programmes that can be viewed on a laptop, iPhone or AppleTV while Watch monitors performance via monitors such as the new SpO2 and its existing electrocardiogram. Fitness+ will cost either £9.99 a month, or £79.99 for a full-year one-off payment.

Initial reception for the Series 6 Watch since its launch in September has been good. The new features certainly seem timely, an already good product has been improved, and with Fitness+ and other advanced features and upgrades to come thanks to the U1 chip, use-life looks more than sufficient.

On the downside, there is still a little dissatisfaction with battery life. Another addition for Series 6 is sleep tracking, but the extra monitoring involved means that the Watch must be recharged daily if it is used to meet its primary wellbeing model. While this can be done quickly, scheduling it can be awkward.

Apple Watch 6 teardown - inline 2

The Watch Series 6 also scores less highly than Samsung’s Watch 3 for repairability, an even greater issue for concern than usual given that it is intended to be shaken about. The iFixit score of six-out-of-ten is higher than is the norm for Apple’s products, and there are some aspects that make it easier to work with than earlier models (the Force Touch gasket makes initial access easier, for example).

As iFixit notes: “Tiny tri-point screws throughout the watch can be difficult to remove and keep track of… Several component flex cables are mounted directly to the S6 package, requiring skilled microsoldering to replace if they are torn.”

Significantly, these issues would probably be as challenging for Apple’s own engineers as for any independent repair shop, even though some leeway is always fair for products of this size and consequent complexity. Apple Care would appear a wise investment.

The question though is that after what has to be seen as a successful further evolution, where will Apple take its Watch line next? As noted, there is headroom for upgrades in this design and the OS will always be able to take some more enhancements. The sleep-tracking feature could also use some more detail and, given the emphasis not just on fitness but also outdoor use, more nits for the display would be nice. But by and large this now looks like a mature product in a pretty settled package.

Apple Watch Series 6: key components

Exploded view

1. Gasket

2. Taptic Engine

3. Pad

4. Rear (sensor array)

5. Bezel

6. Front (OLED display

7. Battery

8. Motherboard/SiP

Apple Watch 6 teardown - inline 3