November 25, 2020
24 hours with Apple Watch Series 6: The blood oxygen sensor could be pretty cool

24 hours with Apple Watch Series 6: The blood oxygen sensor could be pretty cool


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Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

The Apple Watch Series 6 continues to evolve as Apple’s personal health hub on your wrist. The new watch has an FDA-cleared ECG app, a family mode to keep track of loved ones and cardio fitness alerts. It can also measure blood oxygen levels.

But as the smartwatch landscape becomes saturated with competitors including Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3 and the new Fitbit Sense, which promise health features including an ECG, plus a cheaper Apple Watch SE in the mix, the $399 (£379, AU$599) Series 6 faces more competition than ever. 

I’ve only spent a day with the Apple Watch Series 6, but already there are a few things that make it stand out. 

Blood oxygen levels while you sleep, or on-demand 

The biggest upgrade to the Series 6 is a new Blood Oxygen app that measures oxygen saturation in the blood, also known as SpO2. One of the first things I noticed on the watch — aside from the bright red frame — was the new sensors on the back: Eight tiny dots lined up in a circle, where the previous models only had one big one in the center. These are the red and infrared sensors that measure the color of your blood and determine the percentage of oxygen in it. 

There are two ways the Apple Watch Series 6 measures oxygen saturation: on demand through the app, or intermittently in the background as you go about your day (or night). During the setup process you’re asked whether or not you want to activate this feature on the Watch, which I did, but you can always go back and disable it in the settings. The first thing I did after strapping it on was tap on the Blood Oxygen app. The watch gives you a few tips on how to get the best result, and requires you to rest your arm on a table or flat surface. Then the 15-second countdown begins and you’re done. It was straightforward and painless. I got a 95% on my first read, which was lower than what I’m used to. Anything above 90% is considered a healthy range, but higher is better in this case. 

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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

I tested it a few more times and noticed I got slightly different results (a few percentage points off) depending on whether or not I was completely silent during the test, where I had the watch positioned on my wrist and how tight the watch and was. I tested alongside my own pulse oximeter (the gold standard for this metric) and the Apple Watch was off by about one or two points every time, which is expected. The pulse oximeter shines the light through the tip of the finger and where it’s picked up on the other end, while the Apple Watch does it on the wrist and measures the light that bounces back, so there are many other factors that can affect your results.

I panic-bought a pulse oximeter back in March when the COVID-19 pandemic was just ramping up in the US like a lot of other people. I heard the horror stories of people dying overnight because they went to bed not knowing their blood oxygen levels were dangerously low and didn’t get to a hospital in time. I still keep it in my bedside table and use it as a safety check whenever I’m feeling ill or out of breath. To be clear, you should always check with a doctor if you’re feeling out of breath, even if your levels seem to be normal. 

Apple makes it clear that this feature isn’t intended to replace a medical device, and shouldn’t be used to make any kind of diagnosis. Instead it’s meant to provide a more general look at what’s going on in your body over a longer period of time than what you’d get from a single read with a traditional pulse oximeter. 

My results didn’t mean much on their own, but I’d be curious to know what they’d look like once I’ve accumulated enough data in the Health app — or at the very least gotten a full night’s rest under my belt — to see if I notice any trends. Significant dips in oxygen levels during sleep could help flag bigger issues such as sleep apnea or asthma. 

Apple is currently has three different SpO2-related studies underway, including one related to asthma and another for detecting early signs of respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19.

Samsung also introduced an SpO2 feature in the Galaxy Watch 3, which is measured on-demand only rather than automatically. Fitbit and Garmin also have some form of SpO2 tracking in their wearable devices.

I hope down the line Apple is able to use all this data to improve accuracy and provide some kind of alert system in the Apple Watch for SpO2 similar to what it already does with the the high, low and irregular heart rhythm notifications. Maybe then I’d sleep easy knowing someone’s watching out for me and wouldn’t feel the need to break out my little pulse oximeter every time I feel so much as a tickle in my throat.  

As of now, with the Series 5 discontinued, the Series 6 is also the only watch you can get from Apple with the electrocardiogram feature, which Apple calls ECG, that debuted on the Series 4 in 2018.

New colors, brighter screen

Aside from the sensors on the back, the Apple Watch Series 6 could pass for a Series 5. They have the same body and similar always-on display. It wasn’t until I put them side by side that I noticed a difference. While the screen on the Series 5 dims when not in use, the Series 6 almost looks like it’s still on, which is especially helpful when you’re outdoors. Apple says it’s 2.5 times brighter and it shows.  

It’s also the first Apple Watch to break off from the tradition silver, space grey and gold finishes. Mine came in a Product Red aluminum frame, but it’s also available in blue. The aluminum version will now come in blue and Product Red, while the stainless steel will get a new gold finish. 

I like the red, but I think I’d still stick to a more I prefer neutral tone for the frame and spice is up with the watch band instead. 


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Claspless bands and Memoji watch faces 

Apple also announced a new type of silicone band with no clasps or buckles called Solo Loop

It looks and feels similar to the silicone sports band, but with no overlapping parts which is nice. I set up my watch with a black size 4 Apple provided and just slipped in on my wrist like a hair tie. The material feels stretchy and slightly smooth to the touch. I thought it felt a bit tight at first, but I barely felt it on my wrist after a few hours. It is important to get your size right though, because the size down for me would’ve been way too small. 

This will require you to measure your wrist before you buy it. And for this you’ll need a ruler or measuring tape which I personally don’t always have on hand. It’s also expensive for a band that I’d worry would stretch a bit over time. It’s $49 on its own, the same price as the silicone sports bands. 

I’ll have to report back on the stretching once I’ve used it for a while. I do think it would be a good alternative for kids, which Apple is now targeting with its new Family Setup, because it’s a less cumbersome to put on and take off.  

The new Family Setup feature allows you to set up a second Apple Watch that doesn’t need its own iPhone. You can program location alerts from the parent’s iPhone, designate which contacts they can communicate with and limit use during certain hours with the School Time mode.

There are also new ways to customize the watch face with a new Animoji and Memoji that you can create directly on the watch. Which I did. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it on as my main screen, but I can see this being popular with kids. 

Faster processor, but only slightly better battery 

The other key upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 6 is the faster processor: Apple’s S6 chip is based on the A13 Bionic chip found in the iPhone 11. Aside from being faster to launch apps, the new processor makes the Watch more efficient at extending battery life during runs. In my 10 hours of use, the Apple Watch had no problem loading apps, displaying messages and showing stats in real time. But the Series 5 already felt fast to me, and so far I haven’t noticed a huge change in my day-to-day use. 

I was hoping the faster processor would have a bigger impact on battery life, especially as Apple rolls out sleep tracking on the Apple Watch. You’ll need at least a 30% charge at the end of the day for the new sleep-tracking feature launching with WatchOS 7.  Sadly it still has the same 18-hour battery life as the Series 5, although that’s according to Apple: I haven’t worn it long enough to test the battery life for myself yet. What it does improve upon is on charge time. It now charged to 100% in 1.5 hours compared to the 2 hours needed by its predecessors. But you’ll have to provide your own wall charger, because Apple isn’t including them in the box anymore. Just the cable with the magnetic puck. 

Real-time elevation and cardio fitness alerts 

The entire Apple Watch line will get new fitness features with WatchOS 7, including dance tracking and core training, but the Series 6 and Apple Watch SE also have a new feature that provides real-time elevation monitoring you can use during an outdoor workout. 

The Apple Watch also uses the Vo2 max reading (maximum oxygen consumption during exercise) to monitor cardio fitness levels. It will eventually let you know when you’re levels are too low with a new notification feature that’s launching later this year. According to Apple, this metric can be an important indicator of overall health.


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Fitness Plus with the Apple Watch at its core

Apple’s new subscription Fitness Plus service brings guided workouts to the Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. You can choose from a variety of different programs to stream on your device of choice and sync with the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch will automatically start the correct workout for you and display your stats on the screen, so you can follow along without having to glance at your phone. Instructors will use the Apple Watch as a training tool to push you during a workout. 

The service will launch at the end of the year and will cost $9.99 (£9.99, AU$14.99) a month, or $80 (£80, AU$120) a year. 



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