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Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Buy now or wait to upgrade?

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You'll want to weigh the Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5 if you're searching for the best smartwatches to buy. The Watch 5 is an excellent wearable with an always-on display, fall detection and a built-in compass, while the Watch 6 hasn’t been officially announced yet.

But as we near the Apple Watch 6’s fall release, you might wonder if it’s worth waiting for based on its rumors and leaks. The last thing you’d want is to buy the Apple Watch Series 5 now, only for the Apple Watch 6 to feature significant upgrades at the same price point. Especially if those upgrades are ones you’re interested in having. 

That said, the Apple Watch 5 is a formidable accessory. It will serve you well if you're looking to own a new wearable right now. Plus Apple builds its smartwatch to last, so you won't be cheated out of value by getting a model that’s a few months old — many still swear by their Apple Watch 3, which launched in 2017 and still receives annual watchOS updates.

The Apple Watch 6’s key advantage over its immediate predecessors is its new chip, which could finally bring the 24 hour (or longer) battery life we see on Apple Watch competitors. Otherwise, we’re likely to see a close matchup between the two options, especially because watchOS 7 will come to both.

Based on everything we know so far, here's how the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 5 are stacking up.

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Price and availability

The Series 5 is available to purchase in stores and online, starting at $399 for the entry-level aluminum 40-millimeter model with GPS. For an extra $100, you can splurge on a LTE-enabled watch. This also requires a monthly data plan from your wireless carrier for an additional cost. For the larger 44-mm version, you’re looking at paying $429 or $520 with LTE before any of the best Apple Watch deals.

Apple has relied on this pricing structure for several years now, so we don’t expect it to change much for the Apple Watch 6. Chances are you won’t be able to nab the newest watch for less than you’d pay for last year’s right now, if that’s a concern of yours.

We’re pretty confident the Apple Watch 6 will debut alongside the iPhone 12 this fall, but this year the company’s annual keynote could be pushed back due to global tech delays. There's talk of the event happening in October, which would be the first time since 2011 that the event wasn’t held in early September. A new report even claims that the actual release dates of Apple’s flagships could be scheduled for late November.

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Design

The look of the Apple Watch hasn’t changed in five years, and we don't expect it to change now. However, there are a couple of rumors floating around about possible aesthetic alterations coming this year.

An Apple patent discovered earlier this year shows a sleeker Watch design that swaps the digital crown for for an on-body optical sensor. This would sit flush with the watch case and see an end to the protruding physical button. 

We could also Apple up the display size of its watches. Just as phones have gotten bigger, fulfilling interest in larger smartwatch screens might be a good move on Apple's part.

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Battery life and specs

When Apple announced the Series 5’s 18-hour battery life, we were a little disappointed it didn’t receive a significant stamina boost over the Apple Watch Series 4. It might have an always-on display, which saves users from exaggerated raise-to-wake movements, but we’ve been wishing for an Apple Watch that can go more than 24 hours without a charge for some time.

The Apple Watch 6 will likely fulfill those desires, part due to annual innovation and part due to it simply being time for Apple's wearable to last at least two days on a single charge. When it launches, it'll be competing with the Samsung Galaxy Watch 2, which is rumored to last longer than the original's four days. We don’t expect Apple to beat that, but the new S6 chipset could offer improvements to power efficiency, much like the iPhone's new chip provides each year.

With that, reliable Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said that the Apple Watch 6 will benefit from speedier performance in addition to improved water resistance. The Apple Watch 5 is water resistant at up to 50 meters, so it will be interesting to see how Apple will improve the Watch 6’s durability.

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Fitness and wellness features

Because of its affordable price, the Apple Watch Series 3 is considered one of the best fitness trackers you can buy, but the Series 5 is the better choice if you’re looking for an activity smartwatch that will last you years to come. The Series 5 also packs an ECG sensor, which is useful for identifying early signs of atrial fibrillation.

The hardware upgrade you’re likely to get with the Series 6 is a pulse oximeter, or blood oxygen detection (SpO2) sensor. SpO2 measures the oxygen saturation level of your blood for insight on your quality of exercise or sleep, and could help diagnose things such as sleep apnea.

All the new fitness and wellness features coming to the Apple Watch 6, including sleep tracking, mobility metrics and Dance workout presets, will be supported by watchOS 7. In other words, the Apple Watch 5 should gain all the same tools. However, certain insights might require the SpO2 monitor. 

Specifically, the Apple Watch could use it to detect if you're hyperventilating before you notice, potentially helping you stave off panic attacks. Several leakers say the company wants to expand the Apple Watch’s mental health tools with the ability to spot early signs of stress and panic, although we haven't seen those in watchOS 7 yet.

Apple Watch 6 vs Apple Watch 5: Should you buy now or wait?

Apple’s annual watch upgrades are almost too incremental, but when it comes to making a buying decision you’ll rest easy knowing you’re not missing out on game-changing upgrades. The fact that the Apple Watch 3 is still for sale and still excellent by category standards stands as proof. 

Get the Apple Watch 5 if you want to own the best smartwatch and fitness tracker right now for everyday use. You’ll get a few good years out of it thanks to support for over-the-air watchOS upgrades. But if the possibility of a longer battery life and better mental health insights appeals to you, and you don’t mind waiting up to 6 months, you might find more value in the next-generation model. 

Whichever you ultimately decide to pick up, be sure to check out our complete Apple Watch guide for getting the most out of your smartwatch.