You’ve decided you need an Apple Watch in your life, but now the question is which one? There have been six different versions of the Watch over the years and a new one may be coming in a couple of months, but Apple currently gives you two models to choose from: the Series 5, which starts at $399; and the Series 3, which starts at $199.
The good news is you can’t go wrong with either if you have your heart set on an Apple Watch. Both have the same fitness tracking features, notifications and seamless integration with your iPhone. So if price is your main concern, rest easy, you’ll get everything you need from the Series 3 for $200 less. But if you have some wiggle room in the budget, the Series 5 has some standout features that might just make it worth the splurge.
The Series 5 is the gold standard when it comes to smart watches. It has all the basics plus some added features like an always-on display and an FDA-cleared electrocardiogram app that elevate it above the rest. And if you need your Apple Watch to stand the test of time, then the Series 5 is a better bet. With its latest update to WatchOS 7, Apple has phased out the first three generations of the Apple Watch, and the Series 3 could be next on the chopping block. Read our Apple Watch Series 5 review.
If you’re buying your first smartwatch and you’re on a budget, the Series 3 is the Apple Watch for you. It has the exact same fitness tracking functionality as the Series 5, heart-rate alerts to keep you in check, and seamless integration with your iPhone. More importantly, it’s half the price of the Series 5 so you could also put the money you save toward the cellular model or keep the extra $200 in your pocket. Read our Apple Watch Series 3 review.
Always on is convenient, but not a must
The first major difference between the Apple Watch Series 5 and the Series 3 is the display. The screen on the Series 5 is always on so you can see the time or your workout stats without raising your wrist, while the screen on the Series 3 turns off when you’re not using it. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but once you’ve had a taste of the always-on screen, it’s hard to go back. Good luck discreetly checking the time during a meeting, because looking at anything on the screen of the Series 3 requires a very intentional flick of the wrist. The Series 5 has a dimmer version of your watch face that’s visible at all times. And even with the always-on display, the battery of the Series 5 doesn’t drain any faster than the Series 3’s.
Slightly better battery life on the Series 5
Both the Series 5 and the Series 3 last about 18 hours with normal use, which includes getting notifications from your phone, checking the time and tracking a workout (battery life is slightly less if you’re using GPS during a workout). The advantage of the Series 5 Apple Watch is that it allows you to disable the always-on feature if you need to get more mileage out of the battery. In that case, you may be able to squeeze almost two full days worth, or a full 24 hours once sleep tracking becomes available with the update to WatchOS 7 in the fall. You’ll also get an extra hour of battery life during outdoor workouts, which might be key if you’re training for a race. The Series 5 will track about 6 hours worth of continuous activity (5 with LTE enabled) compared to the 5 hours (4 with LTE enabled) on the Series 3.
Better visibility during workouts
The Series 5 is only a couple of millimeters larger than the Series 3, but the screen will seem noticeably bigger because it has smaller bezels. It’s still a tiny screen compared to your phone, but it’s definitely easier to read. The Series 5 display is also brighter than that of the Series 3, making it easier to see outdoors and in direct sunlight. This will be especially helpful for checking live stats during a run without having to pause and squint at the screen to see your data.
They’re both great at tracking workouts
Both these watches are great fitness companions that track just about any workout and give you reminders to get moving on your off days. They both have a built-in GPS, which means you can leave your phone behind on a run and still be able to track route and distance info via the Watch, and they’re water resistant up to 50 meters for both salt- and fresh-water swimming. The key difference is that the Series 5 has a compass, which may come in handy if you do a lot of hiking.
Same heart features, minus the ECG app
Both watches keep tabs on your ticker with heart health notifications that alert users when their heart rate is too high, low or give signs of atrial fibrillation (aFib), a serious heart condition. But only the Series 5 has an ECG (electrocardiogram) feature built-in. In addition to the traditional optical sensor that tracks heart rate, the Series 5 has a sensor that allows users to take an electrocardiogram by way of the ECG app, which can then be shared with their physician.
The Series 5 is better in an emergency
The Series 3 and the Series 5 have an SOS feature that can be triggered by long-pressing the side button in a pinch. Once activated, the Watch automatically calls 911 and then sends a text to your emergency contacts with your coordinates. On the Series 5, this feature also works even if you’re traveling abroad. The Series 5 also has fall detection, which is like an automated version of the SOS feature that’s triggered by a hard fall instead of a long press. If the user doesn’t move for about a minute, the Watch then notifies both emergency services and emergency contacts.
Faster processor and more storage space on the Series 5
Unless you have both watches side by side running the same tasks, you may not even notice the difference in speed. But the Series 5 has a faster processor and Wi-Fi chip so it’s generally more responsive at performing tasks like starting a workout and switching between apps. It’s also more reliable when connected to LTE and has more storage space for listening to your music offline.
The best deal may be short-lived
If you’re buying your first smartwatch, the Series 3 seems like the better deal. It has most of the same features as the Series 5 and costs $200 less. But there is one more thing to consider when making your decision, and that’s the shelf life of the Watch. Apple has been known to stop updating older models, and the Series 3 is currently the oldest model compatible with WatchOS 7, which means it’s next on the chopping block to stop receiving support on future OS versions. Whether that means it won’t receive an update to WatchOS next year remains to be seen, but it’s something to consider if you’re planning on holding on to your watch for a couple of years and you want to continue getting the updates.
Apple Watch Series 5 vs. Series 3 specs
|Apple Watch Series 5||Apple Watch Series 3|
|Display size, resolution||40mm, 44mm Retina OLED 368×448 pixels||42mm, 38mm Retina OLED 312×390 pixels|
|Dimensions (millimeters)||40mm: 40mm (height), 34mm (width), 10.74mm (depth) 44mm: 44mm (height) 38mm (width) 10.74mm (depth)||38mm: 38.6mm (height), 33.3mm (width), 11.4mm (depth) 42mm: 42.5mm (height) 36.4mm (width) 11.4mm (depth)|
|Weight (grams)||40mm Wi-Fi: 30.8g, Wi-Fi + Cellular: 30.8g 44mm Wi-Fi: 36.5g Wi-Fi + Cellular: 36.5g||38mm Wi-Fi: 26.7g, Wi-Fi + Cellular: 28.7g 42mm Wi-Fi: 32.3g Wi-Fi + Cellular: 34.9g|
|Materials/ finishes||Aluminum, Stainless Steel, Ceramic, Titanium||Aluminum|
|Colors||Silver, Space Grey, Gold, White (Ceramic)||Space Grey and Silver|
|Automatic workout detection||Yes||Yes|
|Water resistance||Yes, up to 50m||Yes, up to 50m|
|Notifications||Text replies||Text replies|
|Music||Onboard, playback and streaming (with Cellular model)||Onboard, playback and streaming (with Cellular model)|
|Mobile Payments||Apple Pay||Apple Pay|
|Sleep tracking||No (starting in WatchOS 7)||No (starting in WatchOS 7)|
|Special features||ECG app and HR notifications, fall detection, hearing health alerts||HR notifications and hearing health alerts|
|Emergency features||Emergency SOS, International emergency calling, fall detection||Emergency SOS calling (911 and emergency contacts)|
|Compatibility||iOS/iPhone only||iOS/iPhone only|
|Software||WatchOS 6||WatchOS 6|
|Processor||S5 chip dual-core processor and W3 wireless chip||S3 chip dual-core processor and W2 wireless chip|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi and Cellular option ($100 more)||Wi-Fi and Cellular option ($100 more)|
|Storage||32GB||16GB (Wi-Fi and Cellular model), 8 GB (Wi-Fi-only model)|
|Power||Magnetic Apple charging cable and USB connector (backward compatible)||Magnetic Apple charging cable and USB connector (backward compatible)|
|Battery life||All day (18 hrs.)||All day (18 hrs.)|
|Price (USD)||Starting at $399 (40mm aluminum)||Starting at $199 (40mm aluminum)|