With Apple warning that the next iPhone would be delayed by a few weeks (see “Apple Q3 2020 Breaks Records While the World Burns, Next iPhone to Be Fashionably Late,” 30 July 2020), it wasn’t surprising that the company’s “Time Flies” product announcement event focused on two other product lines that are often relegated to second-fiddle status.
In addition to new iPads (dissected by Josh Centers in “Apple Redesigns iPad Air, Updates Base-Model iPad” 15 September 2020), Apple unveiled a pair of Apple Watch models. These include the flagship Apple Watch Series 6 with new, advanced capabilities—including a blood oxygen sensor—along with a lower-cost Apple Watch SE that has some of the new features found in the Series 6.
The announcements also included a couple of cool new watch bands and a Family Setup system that will make it possible to give an Apple Watch to children and seniors who don’t have their own iPhones.
Apple Watch Series 6 Basics
Under the hood, the Apple Watch Series 6 sports a new dual-core S6 processor to launch apps 20% faster while maintaining 18-hour battery life. Apple says the S6 is based on the A13 Bionic in the iPhone 11. In addition, the Apple Watch Series 6 has new Ultra Wideband antennas for short-range wireless connectivity intended to enable new uses, such as using the watch as a digital car key.
Also new in the Apple Watch Series 6 is an enhanced Always-On Retina display that is 2.5 times brighter in sunlight when your wrist is down. In that wrist position, you can access Notification Center and Control Center, tap complications, and change faces without having to wake the screen.
The Series 6 also features an always-on altimeter display that taps a new, power-efficient barometric altimeter along with details gleaned from nearby GPS and Wi-Fi networks for on-the-fly elevation detection. It is accurate to about a foot, and you can display it as a watch face complication or as a workout metric.
In terms of colors, the aluminum Apple Watch Series 6 line boasts a new blue shade along with the existing silver, space gray, and gold options. In addition, an eye-catching (PRODUCT)RED watch with a matching red band is now available. The stainless steel line now includes a graphite color—what Apple describes as “a rich gray-black hue with a striking high-shine finish”—and silver and an “updated” classic yellow gold color. Titanium models also are available in a couple of colors, including space black.
The Apple Watch Series 6 starts at $399, with the cellular model starting at $499.
Blood Oxygen Tracking
Pulse oximetry, the technical term for measuring the percentage of oxygen being carried by red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body, has become more mainstream lately because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Poorly oxygenated blood is a possible symptom of COVID-19, which has triggered a run on low-cost sensors that clip over fingertips.
Apple’s addition of the blood oxygen sensor and companion app to the Apple Watch Series 6 is a timely enhancement. However, we won’t know how its accuracy and sensitivity compare to traditional medical instruments until the public gets its hands on it.
Apple says the sensor on the watch’s back crystal incorporates four clusters of green, red, and infrared LEDs, along with four photodiodes, to improve accuracy and compensate for natural variations in the skin. The readings are achieved by measuring light reflected back from blood to determine its color.
The watch’s Blood Oxygen app uses a custom algorithm that can detect blood oxygen saturation between 70% and 100%. You can initiate a reading anytime, though you have to hold still for 15 seconds. Background measurements also occur when you’re inactive, like during sleep. All such data is added to the Health app, and you can track blood oxygen trends over time.
Apple announced several new medical research projects related to the Blood Oxygen sensor. The company will work with:
- The Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine to learn how signals from Apple Watch apps, like Heart Rate and Blood Oxygen, could serve as early signs of respiratory conditions like influenza and COVID-19
- The University of California, Irvine, and Anthem to examine how longitudinal measurements of blood oxygen and other physiological signals can help manage and control asthma
- The Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the University Health Network to better understand how blood oxygen measurements and other Apple Watch metrics can help with management of heart failure
Apple Watch SE
Rumors of a low-cost companion to the Apple Watch Series 6 turned out to be true—but the new Apple Watch SE is not the lowest-cost watch since Apple is keeping the Apple Watch Series 3 around as an entry-level (and increasingly ancient) model.
The Apple Watch SE is essentially a rebranded Apple Watch Series 5—minus the ECG—but otherwise with welcome improvements. The Apple Watch SE has the same accelerometer, gyroscope, and always-on altimeter as the Series 6. It has the same Retina display as the Series 6, but without the Always-On capability. Other features include fall detection, noise monitoring, Emergency SOS, the latest speaker and microphone array, and a Digital Crown with haptic feedback.
The aluminum Apple Watch SE is available in gold, silver, and space gray case finishes, and it’s compatible with all Apple Watch bands (including the new ones described below).
The Apple Watch SE starts at $279, with the cellular model starting at $329. By comparison, the Apple Watch Series 3 starts at $199 and has no cellular model option.
New Watch Bands
Apple, always out to delight watch band collectors—you know who you are—has debuted several new band styles. Along with minor variations on its Hermès and Nike Sport band lines, the company has unveiled two band styles with features not seen before:
- Solo Loop and Braided Solo Loop: These are continuous and stretchable bands that lack clasps, buckles, and overlapping parts. Apple describes the soft silicone Solo Loop as having “a smooth, silky finish” due to an ultraviolet light treatment. It’s available in six colors. The Braided Solo Loop interweaves 16,000 recycled polyester yarn filaments with ultrathin silicone threads to achieve stretchability. It’s available in five colors and incurs a $50 price increase. Both bands are available in a choice of nine lengths for precise sizing—Apple provides a printable sizing guide.
- Leather Link. This band wraps around your wrist and attaches on the other side with flexible, molded magnets.
Since the initial release of the Apple Watch, it and the iPhone have worked in pairs. Apple is now altering that formula with a new feature called Family Setup, largely intended for parents of young children and those who serve as caregivers for the elderly.
The idea behind Family Setup is to let kids or seniors have their own watches even though they might not have iPhones. Instead, the watches are all linked to a single iPhone that’s operated by the person supervising this arrangement.
That responsible party can track the other users’ locations, determine with whom they can communicate, enforce a restricted Schooltime mode that keeps kids focused on their schoolwork, and so on.
Other notable features:
- Parents can send a child money to spend on their Apple Watch using Apple Pay. Parents receive notifications when such purchases occur and can review transactions in Wallet on the master iPhone.
- Location notifications via Find People on the Apple Watch are more customizable, allowing the guardian to receive updates on a kid’s whereabouts on one occasion, or on a recurring basis.
- Activity rings have been optimized for kids to track Move minutes instead of calories burned and provide customizable goals for the Exercise and Stand rings. Outdoor Walk, Outdoor Run, and Outdoor Cycle workouts have been tuned for kids, giving credit for Move minutes, exercise, distance, and other metrics. Coaching notifications are tailored to relevant reading levels and made more fun with emoji.
The watch-only users have their own phone numbers through separate cellular plans, and control their own Apple IDs and all the features those enable.
Family Setup works only with cellular models of Apple Watch Series 4 or later, and it will initially work only in the United States and 11 other countries.
New Watch Faces
As usual, Apple announced a few new Apple Watch faces that provide previously unseen features.
- The Stripes face has striped patterns in customizable colors and positions that help you show pride in who you are, support a favorite sports team, or match what you’re wearing.
- The Memoji face brings your favorite Memojis to your watch. They move and react to your touch.
- The Typograph face displays numerals in three custom type styles and four different scripts.
- The GMT face shows multiple time zones and takes into account where you are.
- The Count Up face tracks elapsed time from any given point.
- The Chronograph Pro face features multiple time scales, including a tachymeter to measure speed based on time traveled over a set distance.
- The Artistic face, in a collaboration with artist Geoff McFetridge, shows millions of possible combinations of stylized human heads that animate when you raise your wrist.
The GMT, Chronograph Pro, Count Up, Memoji, Stripes, and Typograph faces are limited to the Apple Watch Series 4, Series 5, and Series 6, along with the Apple Watch SE.
Apple also highlighted new tools in watchOS 7 for developers to create specialized watch faces for surfers, photographers, medical professionals, and the like. The complication to provide information on the “golden hour” for photographers garnered the most interest in the SlackBITS group watching the event together. There must not be many surfers in the TidBITS crowd.
These Apple Watch announcements may have seemed anticlimactic to those who have been following the industry speculation because almost everything—including the Apple Watch Series 6 and the Apple Watch SE—had been expected. The event had only minor surprises, most notably the Family Setup feature.
As usual, Apple incrementally advanced the Apple Watch state of the art while smartly revealing one hot new feature, the Blood Oxygen app and sensor, to get tongues wagging in a COVID-19 context.
It’s somewhat odd that Apple has kept the increasingly elderly Apple Watch Series 3 around, although it’s obviously to provide a low-cost entry point into the Apple Watch ecosystem. But why the Series 3, when Family Setup works only with the Series 4 and later? (In part, that may be because you can’t buy a cellular-capable Series 3 anymore.) Families that want to outfit their children or seniors will have to go for an Apple Watch SE instead.
Nonetheless, the Apple Watch Series 3 anchors the lineup at $199, with the Apple Watch SE providing many of the new capabilities starting at $279, and the Apple Watch Series 6 starting at $399. That’s a rational price spread that matches with increased capabilities. And anyone who wants to spend more can easily do so with stainless steel and titanium models of the Series 6, along with the Hermès models.