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Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer?

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

For the last several weeks, I have worn the Apple Watch Series 5 at least once daily — and overall, I’m very happy with it. It is certainly my general-purpose smartwatch of choice and, to be honest, when I don’t wear it I end up missing some of the useful information Apple makes it possible to easily view from most of the watch face options. Going into wearing the Apple Watch Series 5, I had one major question: Is the always-on screen” (Apple’s name for it is the Always-On Retina Display) a game-changer?

In our aBlogtoWatch Apple Watch Series 5 video review, I said “maybe” to the question of whether or not this new functionality was “game-changing.” I still think Apple has areas in which to improve and evolve this feature (which they will). That said, there are certainly some important game-changing aspects to Apple deciding to embrace this feature — which has been around in some other smartwatches for a few years now. I will also add my sentiment that once people get accustomed to a smartwatch with an always-on screen, I doubt most people will want to go back to a blank one when the watch is not “in use.” If you aren’t entirely clear on what this technology is, then I will break it down in a simple way.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

The first four generations of the Apple Watch have displays that would be turned off when it was not in use. Using a motion sensor (or presses on pushers or the touchscreen), the screen would “wake up” when the wearer either needed to glance at the dial or operate the watch in some way. This was done as a means to enhance battery life, which is never sublime on smartwatches, given the limited space for a battery. Powering a screen, along with a backlight, is one of the most energy-intensive things a smartwatch needs to do.

That said, strict engineering practicality to enhance battery life conflicts a bit with wearers who want to both have even faster access to information on the dial, and who also want other people to see what is on their watch face. I have written at length about the fashion and social benefits of having an always-on screen for a smartwatch — which is an interesting discussion you can read consider in my review of the Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch here. To make a long story short, now that always-on screens have been adopted by Apple, it more or less sets the bar for everyone else. Indeed, even though Apple didn’t introduce always-on screens, now that the Apple Watch Series 5 includes the feature standard (you can turn it off if you really need to absolutely maximize battery life), I don’t think any self-respecting smartwatch maker can release a flagship product without an always-on screen. So, with regard to the competitive arena, Apple has changed the game by training consumers that any decent smartwatch will have an always-on screen state.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple tells me that its engineers have been working on an always-on screen from the beginning when the first Apple Watch was being developed. I am sure the product development team cringed a bit each time I pointed out, during my review of the first, second, third, and fourth generation Apple Watches, that, “I really think Apple should work on an always-on screen!” In fact, they were working on it.

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The LPTO OLED screen technology, which allows for the always-on screen, was apparently introduced in the Apple Watch Series 4 and was being tested for other features and performance at the time. Apple is known to take its time rolling out new technologies, and it wanted to get the functionality of an always-on screen just right. I can’t fault the brand for taking a slower approach — even though the consumer electronics industry values speed-to-market so very much (perhaps less and less these days as consumers want to have fewer things, but better things). The always-on screen was certainly worth the wait. And as I mentioned above, once you experience it, I don’t think you’ll want to go back to a blank screen when you aren’t using the watch.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

I’d say the most immediate impact of the always-on screen is that when you, as a user, want to glance at your watch to read the time or another piece of information, there is absolutely no lag to get the information — just as you have with a traditional timepiece.

The way the always-on screen works is simple, though very nuanced “under the hood.” When you lift the watch up to your face, the standard screen comes alive (and is brighter has an increased refresh rate). Once the Apple Watch has decided you are no longer using the watch, it dims and enters into the always-on state, similar to what you see on the dial, but also different. First, the screen’s refresh rate goes down to once per minute. That means the always-on screens do not have movement animations (such as a sweeping seconds hand) or other data that updates faster than once per minute. This isn’t really a big deal, but one can easily appreciate how much artistic opportunity exists in being able to have a vividly animated screen for the always-on state.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple claims that using the always-on screen translates into a relatively modest increase in power consumption by something like 15%. I’d say that is a fair tradeoff, and clearly Apple is listening to consumers as “better battery life” is one of the perennial requests from consumers to most any company that produces a smartwatch. While you do need to charge the Apple Watch each day, I find that an acceptable amount, given what I understand its power consumption needs require. In fact, I find that Apple is overly conservative with its battery life estimates (which, of course, depend on functionality). Apple claims 18 hours of battery life, but my experience is that, with most people’s usage, they can easily go for an entire day and still have “juice” remaining.

Given the importance of maintaining acceptable levels of battery life, the always-on screen is dimmer than the standard display and, again, it has a refresh rate of once per minute. What I also need to mention is that designing an always-on screen is a bespoke process Apple had to go through for each of its watch face options. That means each of the watch faces has a special always-on version, and there is no additional customization available. You always can’t choose what always-on screen you want, as they are tied to the primary watch face you are using. When Apple does not design in a lot of consumer choice (such as to control features of the always-on display), I believe it means that the functionality is so delicate that Apple’s software engineers need to curate the experience. More robust features are those for which they allow consumers, as well as third-party developers, the opportunity to play around a bit.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Customization and being able to manipulate features is one of the obvious things missing in the Apple Watch Series 5’s exciting always-on screen. I feel rather confident that Apple will continue to innovate in this area, but I am a bit impatient. Perhaps that always has something to do with the artistic potential (in addition to the utilitarian potential) of having a more robust always-on screen experience.

Let’s consider fashion and self-expression, which are core parts of the traditional watch wearing experience. Your choice of timepiece says something about you to the world. Consumers relish in the experience of being able to wear something that helps define who they are — or who they wish to be. Consider then the fashion and expressive impact of having an always-on display for the Apple Watch that comes complete with vibrant animations and bright, rich colors. This is coming in the future, I believe, but knowing its appeal makes me want to have it now…

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Capturing the always-on screen photographically is a challenge, given that I prefer to use a flash when shooting timepieces, and the light from the flash washes out what you see on the display. This is an issue for most smartwatches. I am saying all this to explain why there aren’t many images that allow you to perceive just want the Apple Watch Series 5 always-on display actually looks like. The popularity of Apple Watches does, however, mean that most consumers will begin to see others wearing Apple Watch Series 5 products, allowing you to see what it looks like in the real world.

Understanding that each Apple Watch face required a bespoke design experience in order to create a “unique optimization” for the always-on display per dial is impressive, but it’s easy to neglect if you don’t understand the engineering involved. Apple had to take each of its watch faces and tweak them in various ways. Such tweaks can include removing certain lighter colors, as they take up more energy to display, as well as removing certain pieces of dynamic data (such as a decibel-level monitor) that cannot be operated with the slowed-down refresh rate during the always-on display mode. I recommend that all new Apple Watch Series 5 owners experiment with the various watch faces to see what each of them looks like in the always-on display mode.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

The Apple Watch Series 5 is more than just the new Always-On Retina Display, but I’ll cover those things in another article. Note that, for this review, I wore the Apple Watch Series 5 Edition Titanium 44m (retail price of $849 USD), with the black DLC-coated titanium case, which is a new option available for this fifth-generation Apple Watch device. In my next article on the Apple Watch Series 5, I will discuss the new titanium case, as well as go over some of my favorite new “complications” and features I think watch wearers will be excited about.

Apple Watch Series 5: Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer? Wrist Time Reviews

So, going back to my original question, is the Apple Watch Series 5 with its always-on display a game-changer? It certainly ups Apple’s game and sets a new standard that all smartwatches should have an always-on display. It also improves the wearing and utility experience of the Apple Watch in a way that consumers will notice from the first few minutes of wearing the Apple Watch Series 5. At the same time, Apple has, once again, teased the future potential of its LPTO OLED Always-On Retina Display to be even brighter, more animated, and more customizable. I’m very much looking forward to it. Learn more at the Apple website here.

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  • Ulysses31

    Is it a game-changer? For Apple users, of course. For the rest of the world, who’ve enjoyed the feature for years on competing products; no, not at all. They aren’t raising the bar. They’re more like that skinny recruit who can barely get their chin over the bar, let alone vault it.

    • Lingua Franca

      Well, now we can troll Moser by using a tourbillon image as wallpaper!

      http://ablogtowatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/H-Moser-Cie-Swiss-Alp-Watch-Concept-Black-2.jpg

      • Swiss_Cheese

        Breaking News: In an unexpected turn of events, H. Moser sends a cease and desist to Apple!

    • Thomas

      The rest of the world meaning actual watch-wearers?

      • Ulysses31

        Well, I meant “smart” watch wearers, since it is reasonable to argue that we can directly compare functionality. Actual watch wearers would probably not care either way, as would be expected.

    • Gokart Mozart

      Apple as usual late to the party.

      Standard Apple practice. Other companies come up with the ideas first, and apple come along a couple of years later with one that looks at potential weaknesses and try to resolve them and put them in a subjectively pretty form, and promote it as if they have just invented the wheel.

      MP3 player and smartphones any body?

  • Christopher A. Catherman

    Coming from the Apple Watch 3 I really like the new features. I did notice the battery drops a lot quicker with cellular & always on display. I actually have turned off both to extend my battery. Since I have my phone with me almost all the time I will only use it if/when I need too. As for the always on display, it is nice, I might turn it back on, but I’m all about not having to charge it all the time so I’d rather have it in as long as possible (without the power reserve). It is a step up from my watch 3 as I like the new faces… Would like to see a bigger selection of them (a big reason why I upgraded) I had got tired of the same old ones & small selection… on the watch 5 they are a lot nicer but we need more!!! Or a way to be able to create our own… or devs able to make apps that customize them…

  • Pedro Lambareiro

    Is The Always-On Screen A Game Changer?

    ? All my JLC’s have an Always-On Screen, even the ones with 80 years.

    • 200F

      Me too. AND—it’s powered, indefinitely, by the movement of my wrist!

  • SuperStrapper

    I’d say no. And not simply because I don’t consider these proper watches. Last year i gave my wife a series 3. I would have gotten 4 but they abandoned the 38mm size and like many women, my wife has slight wrists. Silly they would discontinue what is arguably the most versatile size. Regardless, she’s never taken it off since. All the years of trying to infect her with watches and she wears none of them, now with the apple watch she suddenly, overnight couldn’t live without it.
    So I showed her the 5. Look at this. It’s faster and stronger and does more and it’s always on. Now it looks more like a watch. I got an actual shrug. “I don’t care about watches, you nerd”. That’s how I live.
    So is this a game changer? Well only the nerds seem to be talking about it: tech nerds and watch nerds. The former likely has an interest horizon that watches and similar devices are but a speck in, and the latter more often then not is educating themselves on a product they actually don’t have much interest in. But to the hardcore everyday integrated-into-my-life users of the product (my wife will go for a walk at night if her rings arent closed), an update like this i believe is almost perfectly transparent.

    • Independent_George

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Smartwatches in general, and Apple Watches in particular, seem to appeal to people that just aren’t into watches. Folks (mainly women, in my experience) who wouldn’t wear any kind of watch, other than perhaps a cheap quartz simply to tell time, if it wasn’t a Smart/Apple watch. Because these aren’t watches, no matter what Tim Cook and Jony Ivie say. They are mobile connected devices that, as one of the many features, shows the time.

  • Hi Ariel! Here are my thoughts on the Apple Watch5
    > Naaahh..Always On Screen is obviously not a Game Changer. In terms of battery life, Apple 5 cannot match Samsung Galaxy watch Active 2 (The best Android smart watch in the market for now) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/c5f2fd089c9cb02625fe290f9a5ad8e02df90cd80281a6b311d6aa544be247aa.jpg Test result :Samsung Active 2 40mm fully activated Always On Screen Display, brightness set at 5, manual overriding of Heart Rate, photo showing remaining 2% batt juice translates to another 31 mins so Samsung’s always 0n screen display lasts approx 1 day 10 hrs. I believe the Health Apps is the main culprit draining the battery at a faster rate
    > Making Apple6 100m Water Resistant would give its competitors a run for their money
    > I’m expecting the future Apple 6 would be a Real Game Changer, the device producing a much faster performance and fitted with a newer more powerful microprocessor
    >Solar Charging like the Garmin Fenix 6X Pro Solar https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/cb0d6711c1b74ca9641ca908b7e746cc02190b973f69c73e1c890cb2ca7cf306.jpg That would be 0ne Heck of a Game Changer!!! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/bd268a4044cdca80ac615fb9534be703ae63e9d129bedc195778cac58f1b747c.jpg

  • Lingua Franca

    A first draft of the treatse to be entitled “Mechanico-Aesthetic Manifestation in the Age of Electroluminescent Simulacra” amirite?

  • Marius

    I can’t say it does much for me. I don’t like the looks and don’t need the functionality.

    Also, after the last Mac OS update, I am somewhat out of love with Apple products,

    • Berndt Norten

      He’s not in love (with Mac OS)
      We won’t forget it
      It’s (not) a silly phase he’s going through

      • Independent_George

        Be quiet, be quiet
        Mac owners don’t cry, Mac onwers don’t cry

  • PR

    Typically the folks who already have one will refresh and the ones who don’t aren’t really going to decide based on one or two features as such ( save for a few jumping ship to iPhones etc). I think the market is proven no doubt but is it really going to increase the user base? I don’t think so.

  • Playboy Johnny – Team Mariu$

    PBJ Auto Response L4: “Not a watch, don’t care”

  • Independent_George

    Still an ugly back slab.

    And it’s not a watch.

    • reverbo

      Of course it’s a watch. Don’t be so elitist.

      • But it still is an ugly black slab. But I prefer to say “bar of hotel soap strapped to your wrist”.

        • reverbo

          Completely subjective how ugly it is, of course.

  • IG

    ”Apple has changed the game by training consumers that any decent smartwatch will have an always-on screen state.”

    So the Apple Watch 1, 2, 3, 4 weren’t decent smartwatches, right? I knew it!

    • reverbo

      Sounds like he’s implying that this is going forward. Those watches were still good for their time, but now to be decent, it will be expected to be better.

      • I think that general concept is known as “raising the bar” – and it happens with tech items all of the time. Want a 1981 IBM PC? Thought not…

  • Raymond Wilkie

    Would you be a hoader by any chance 🙂

  • Raymond Wilkie

    I think that when talking about a smart device for your wrist on this blog some folks get a bit heated about the is it or isn’t it a watch debate. The same goes for digital. If you look up the word Horology is explains it as The art or science of making timepieces or of measuring time. Which doesn’t do much for my aguement but I can totally see how people can see these as watches but on the other hand good enough for a watch blog where in the vast majority folks like auto or mechanical or even Quartz? I don’t think so. Stick it near your ear you hear it’s heart beat. Wind it lovingly, feed it your time and paticence. If mechanical or Auto marvel at the hundreds of different part that fit precisly together to produce a thing of wonder. Overy busy dial can annoy me but i still can’t help but think of all these complications all working away in unison.
    You don’t get that sense with a smart device. It’s as throw away as your next phone upgrade.

    • Berndt Norten

      You tell em, Raymond!

    • It’s tough keeping up with hi tech geek watches huh, Mr Raymond ?I’ve been listening to the same arguments for the past few years now but where’s your keen sense of adventure and playful interactions with technology? Smartwatches are here to stay, that’s undisputable and of course they can Co-Exist peacefully with traditional timepieces complementing one another with instant notifications at your wrist-tip ? Besides, at least half the readers on this blogsite will have children and grandchildren wearing their smartwatches, don’t you think ?? Technology is advancing so rapidly Mr. Raymond and devices with short lifespans will need to be upgraded constantly. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/244b824e58ef81b99dbbee9d803ec1cc34557c88e7f867fecb142b35c4e6096e.jpg 3D Hologram floating image projection from a smartwatch will become a reality in the near future. Don’t you have a secret wish of becoming just like Tony Stark someday ?? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6a31e075c90323506c448298bc9e6e1f896e91cc10341de35fc8dfea3212f3b9.gif

    • goju1

      Absolutely right about the ‘throw away’ aspect. The Apple Watch follows the same use patterns as all computers (in this regard). Old, obsolete tech is useless.

  • 200F

    “Apple (even if i use their pcs)…”

    This phrase made my head explode.

    • In a CNET interview, Apple senior vice-president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller said, “We believe the best personal computer is a Mac…”. And recall that while “PC” is a trademark of IBM, it stands for “Personal Computer”. Apple tried very hard for many years to distance themselves from the term as they wanted to be perceived as different. Funny now that the obvious has been acknowledged. Cheers.

  • PlovMaster

    a fellow hoarder here. do you still have that Apple watch

  • Gokart Mozart

    If per chance you have done that with Roger Smiths Series of watches, I will take the Series 1 off your hands and save it going to landfill 😉

    • Raymond Wilkie

      These would be my children! You monster 🙂

  • hatster

    Putting the is it/isn’t it a watch debate aside, if we can, the biggest issue with this device/watch is the way it enables/encourages a behavior that is alien to many of us. If checking a watch for the time when with other people is seen as rude, how do you view checking your apple watch every time you get an email? It is part of a wider behavioral issue that is flourishing among a younger generation where striving for the ‘always on’ approach is stunting their ability to interact directly with people, face to face. I was speaking to a professor of child psychology recently who said this is already a big issue and it is impacting kids’ abilities to form meaningful relationships outside the family. Food for thought….

    • Gokart Mozart

      I would rather they just fiddle with their phone. People try to do it discreetly just under the edge of a table or desk, so you can’t see what there fiddling with.

      It makes you hope they are looking at a pretty watch like a Laurent Ferrier or a vi tage Gallet, but it is always some sh&#@? Plastic crap.

      The phones and wrist devices really are killing social etiquette, stifling human interaction, and creativity.

  • Gokart Mozart

    Is it a game changer? A few years to late. This is apple just catching up.

    Should this article not be on a tech or phone blog.?

    • goju1

      Actually, the Apple Watch is very much a game changer. The device is very feature rich and the health features are especially advanced and beneficial. The activity APP and the Health App make a practical, and very real difference to a person who strives to be healthy.

  • Gokart Mozart

    We will agree to disagree then

  • reverbo

    Considering it ugly is subjective, of course.

    • However the lack of conformity to the human wrist is not.

  • But a rhino is very difficult to stuff into the night deposit slot at your bank.

    • Raymond Wilkie

      Erm, no, what i meant was………..oh never mind.

  • They (Apple) do try to delude people into thinking anything they do is ground breaking and they were the first – which as be both agree they usually are not. Usability has always been their strong suit (in the own minds at least).

  • goju1

    The review is very good but does only consider the device to be a Watch. Of course this is really a wrist computer that (now) uses watch faces as a screen saver. The device is so much, much more than a device to tell time. Why do they call it a watch then? Perhaps the same reason as the iPhone device, which is a pocket computer. I would say, simply clever marketing. After all, how many computers does a person need. Even Steve Wozniak has commented that he leaves the phone at home now…

  • goju1

    Oh, there are very, very good reasons indeed. In ten years time (if not sooner) wearables will be embedded. Subcutaneously.

  • Dan F

    While its a nice new feature (my old LG watch had it years ago), I don’t really think that it’s a “game changer.” My conventional watches are still safe!

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