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A small upgrade with great potential



Apple is nothing if not committed to this design.

Apple is nothing if not committed to this design.
photo:: Caitlin McGarry / Gizmodo

Apple’s newest flagship, Apple Watch, is not much different from last year’s flagship Apple Watch. Anyone looking for a radical redesign has to wait until … well, who knows? The biggest changes in the $ 400 Apple Watch Series 6 are a faster processor and new health sensor, which may not be a big deal for many people. I’ve only been using the Series 6 for a day and while it’s clearly the best Apple Watch you could ever buy, I’m still not sure if this is the best Apple Watch most people can buy. You see, Apple tarnished the waters with a midsize option, the Apple Watch SE, which is $ 120 cheaper than the Series 6 and has many of its best features. The Watch SE appears to be a very good, affordable smartwatch.

But the Series 6 has the potential to be so much more.

At first glance, the latest watch looks like any other Apple Watch released in the past few years. The 40mm red aluminum model I use is a little more noticeable than the silver, gold, or space gray options Apple usually offers. If you want the world to know you have the Series 6, that apple red candy, or the blue hue that was also introduced with this year’s model, Apple is the way to go.

The red clock is beautiful. I mean check it out.

This color is very, very good.

This color is very, very good.
photo:: Caitlin McGarry / Gizmodo

I prefer a brightly colored watch over a brightly colored iPhone, which usually if you are smart is covered by a case (and even a clear case will tone down the effect). A bright red watch with a brightly colored band is just plain fun.

The other noticeable design tweak of the Series 6 is an always-on display that is brighter when not in use – 2.5 times brighter than the Series 5 inactive display, claims Apple. The change is obvious, especially when you are outdoors or exercising. Raising my arm to activate the display is a bit unintuitive while exercising, but with the brighter screen I could easily see my heart rate and calories burned during a cardio dance class.

The display is very bright even inactive.

The display is very bright even inactive.
photo:: Caitlin McGarry / Gizmodo

However, as is usual with Apple, the most important features of the new watch are under the hood. The Series 6 comes with the new S6 system-in-package, which definitely feels faster than the Series 4 that I’ve been testing watchOS 7 with all summer. Summoning Siri, launching apps, and downloading Apple Music playlists for offline listening was quick and easy, though I need to run more tests to see how the speed compares to older watches. The Series 6 also has improved WiFi connectivity that finally uses 5 GHz bands. However, this was a bigger pain point for me when I was working in an office (most business WiFi networks only run at 5 GHz).

Apple is pushing health surveillance even further, adding a brand new sensor to measure blood oxygen levels. This SpO2 sensor is connected to an electrical heart rate sensor, which is also included in Series 4 and 5 is used to produce electrocardiograms that can detect atrial fibrillation. You may never need to use these sensors, but they hummed along in the background and monitored your vital signs to alert you to a serious health issue if you ever have one. Hopefully You will never. But anything is possible, and the fact that the device I use to track my runs, take calls, send messages, and check my emails, can also tell me if my blood oxygen levels are seriously out of whack – well, that is something.

A normal blood oxygen value is 95-99%, although the blood oxygen app doesn't tell you what is normal or not.

A normal blood oxygen reading is 95-99%, although the Blood Oxygen app won’t tell you what is normal or not.
photo:: Caitlin McGarry / Gizmodo

Like the EKG app, the new, appropriately named Blood Oxygen App is easy to use. Easier because you don’t have to hold your finger against the digital crown to complete the circuit across your body. Instead, hold your arm face up on a flat surface, then sit for 15 seconds while the watch’s red and infrared LED fairy lights shine through your skin to catch the light reflected from the blood vessels in your wrist. Bright red blood is more saturated, dark red blood less. Apparently my blood is really saturated – 99%. I loved this read so much that I shared it with my co-workers before realizing that no one in your life will ever be as excited about your blood oxygen as you are.

I am more intrigued to see how my blood oxygen levels fluctuate over time, especially while I sleep. I’ll be delving into these dates with my full Series 6 review next week.

Check these LED clusters and the photodiodes between them.

Check out these LED clusters and the photodiodes between them.
photo:: Caitlin McGarry / Gizmodo

I’m not sure if the new SpO2 sensor alone is worth upgrading from Series 4 or Series 5 (both with EKG capabilities), especially given the lack of warnings, instructions, and diagnoses for the blood oxygen measurements yet . Apple has just started three studies with clinical research partners to find out if there is a link between blood oxygen levels and heart failure, asthma, and respiratory viruses like Covid-19 and flu. I venture to suspect that the results of these studies will be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval for additional diagnostic tools.

And that’s the most exciting thing about the Series 6. With the hardware in place, Apple can develop software-based, FDA-cleared medical features that make this flagship watch indispensable. Maybe I’m dreaming too big, but based on Apple’s track record, I would be surprised if the Blood Oxygen app remains a simple measurement tool. It’s 2020. Literally anything can happen.

I plan to put the watch through its paces over the next week to see how these new features transform the daily experience of the Apple Watch. Do you have any questions about Series 6? Drop them in the comments.


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