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Apple Watch Series 6 review: More health data but not much to do with it

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Updated processor • Includes SPO2 sensor for blood oxygen level readings • Always-on altimeter • Accurate fitness tracking • Impressive battery life • Tracks sleep with watchOS 7 • Faster charging speeds
Sleep and SPO2 metrics aren’t in-depth • Incremental update from its predecessor
The Apple Watch Series 6 is a very capable smartwatch in terms of health and fitness tracking, but the addition of an SPO2 sensor has yet to add much value for everyone that uses it.

⚡ Mashable Score
4.5

Before Apple stole all the attention with the introduction of its Apple Watch back in 2014, smartwatches were more of a sideshow curiosity for the average consumer, rather than a practical gadget. But Apple didn’t have that issue because its focus was clear: This was an iPhone for your wrist. Since then, the Apple Watch has evolved into a health and wellness device. And the new Apple Watch Series 6, with its built-in SPO2 sensor to measure blood oxygen levels, is proof.

Considering the company’s track record with the Apple Watch, the Series 6, with its incremental changes, feels a bit underwhelming by comparison. This is particularly because Apple has continuously pushed boundaries with each successive Watch refresh: The Series 2 featured built-in GPS; the Series 3 introduced LTE connectivity; the Series 4 came with an ECG sensor; and the Series 5 added an always-on display (while still retaining the same battery life).

With the inclusion of the SPO2 sensor, however, Apple is simply playing catch-up to its smartwatch rivals. While necessary, it’s not all that revolutionary considering brands like Garmin, Polar, and even Fitbit have come equipped with the same sensor for years now. Those brands also incorporate your blood oxygen levels into your overall health score each day, making it easier to understand the current state your body is in. But with the feature still very much in its early stages for the Apple Watch, simply seeing the range of your blood oxygen levels isn’t all that useful yet — unless you suffer from serious health conditions where the ability to always keep an eye on your levels is crucial.

The headlines around this new feature have also managed to completely overshadow the Watch Series 6’s biggest flaw: It’s simply a replica of the Series 5 with an SPO2 sensor and new processor thrown in. The Series 6 carries over all the same features from its predecessor, including an always-on display, ECG sensor, fall detection, high/low heart-rate notifications, Emergency SOS, and more. 

If you don’t want to take my word for it, head over to Apple’s site, click on the Series 6, scroll down, manually, select “Compare all models” once and then again on the next window (I know, Apple clearly made this difficult for a reason). Once you’re finally there, you’ll see that both specs tables are practically identical apart from the aforementioned sensor and processor. It’s further proof that updates to the Series 6 are slightly underwhelming this year, and the addition of the SPO2 sensor truly isn’t that big of a deal… yet.

That signature Apple Watch design … yet again

If you couldn’t already tell, the look of the Series 6 has been left unchanged since the Series 4. As usual, you’ll have the choice between a GPS model and a cellular version, if you’d rather not be tethered to your phone. 

The same OLED display, but this time it's a little brighter.

The same OLED display, but this time it’s a little brighter.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Of course, you’ll have to pay extra for that LTE connectivity. While the GPS model starts at $399, the GPS and cellular model increases the price from $499 to over $1,000, depending on the style you choose. And that’s without the additional fee you’ll pay per month for a separate carrier data plan.

The Series 6 comes in two case sizes: 40mm and 44mm. I’d recommend the latter size if you have bigger wrists, but the 40mm version fit my baby wrists just fine. As for case material, the LTE model is available in aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. The GPS model, however, is only available in aluminum.

Each case comes with a pre-selected band, ranging from the classic Sport Band to the Leather Link band, Milanese Loop, and more. But using Apple Watch Studio (introduced last year with the Series 5), you can mix and match any bands you want regardless of the case you choose (unless you’re going for the Nike or Hermes versions). 

I will only use the Solo Loop Band for the rest of time.

I will only use the Solo Loop Band for the rest of time.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

While the Watch’s style remains the same, Apple did throw two new color options into the mix: Product Red and Navy Blue. As you can tell from the photos, I had the aluminum Product Red version which certainly makes a statement on the wrist. But, as I mentioned in my hands-on with the Watch, I’d rather go with a neutral color like silver or gold since it’s easier to match with my outfits on a daily basis.

Apple also introduced a new Solo Loop band that’s free of any clasps or buckles. It comes in both a silicone version and a braided option. While choosing which size you need is a bit of a pain (since Apple requires you to take a few extra steps to figure it out), it’s worth it. Having the ability to quickly slide the Watch onto my wrist — without having to take the extra time to find the right notch or adjust the fit — is enough for me to justify buying all the colors without any regrets. 

See? The same look and almost all the same specs. Clearly, Apple doesn't want you to see this.

See? The same look and almost all the same specs. Clearly, Apple doesn’t want you to see this.

Image: screenshot / apple

The Watch Series 6 has a 1.57-inch always-on OLED display that’s 2.5x brighter than the last-generation model. But I truly could not tell that much of the difference even when in bright sunlight.

There’s also an always-on altimeter that you can set as a watch face complication (that’s a fancy way of saying info displayed on the watch face). Using the barometric altimeter and GPS, the Series 6 can track your elevation in real-time or, in layman’s terms, the amount of flights you’ve climbed. Seeing this metric update in real-time is likely a lot more useful for those of you who go hiking or climbing. But you will never catch me doing either of those things, so I can’t say I found any use for the feature. 

Another Apple Watch, another ECG sensor...

Another Apple Watch, another ECG sensor…

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

The Series 6 has a few extra sensors on its back.

The Series 6 has a few extra sensors on its back.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

On the right side of the Watch Series 6, you’ll find the digital crown (which doubles as an ECG sensor), along with a side button, and microphone. On the left is a speaker, which can be used for phone calls and audible replies from Siri. The bottom of the Series 6 houses all the sensors including the heart-rate monitor and infrared LEDs for the SPO2 sensor on the back crystal. 

Even though I’ll always complain about the chunkiness that is the Apple Watch case, I’ll still give it to Apple for retaining the same size as the Series 5 even with the addition of a new sensor. That said, I do hope a thinner Apple Watch is on its way sooner rather than later.

Standard performance, surprisingly impressive battery life

In addition to the SPO2 sensor, the only other major upgrade to the Series 6 is the new S6 chipset, which uses a dual-core processor that’s based on the A13 Bionic processor found in the iPhone 11. Apple claims it runs up to 20 percent faster than its predecessor.

Having used both the Series 5 and Series 6, I found it tough to really tell a difference in performance. Sure, the Series 6 runs smoothly when navigating the Watch or opening apps; there’s no lag when I’m scrolling through metrics or notifications. But it’s nothing to rave about, especially considering this is the sort of standard performance I expect from a smartwatch that costs as much as it does.

The Series 6 maintains the same 18-hour battery life as its predecessors — and that’s with watchOS 7 sleep tracking. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised with how long the Watch was able to last. 

Okay, I was very impressed with battery life on the Series 6.

Okay, I was very impressed with battery life on the Series 6.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Typically, I found the Series 6 would last me about 16 hours each day, and that’s with always-on display mode and notifications enabled, as well as blood oxygen readings being taken in the background. So, while it doesn’t last for days like its competitors, I can confirm that it does last for as long as Apple claims it does even with all those features working at once.

You will, however, need to charge it before bed if you intend to use its sleep tracking feature.

Yes, the Series 6 is accurate when tracking metrics

The Series 6 is very accurate at tracking metrics on a daily basis, but particularly during workouts. In addition to its inbuilt SPO2 sensor and heart-rate monitor, it also packs a barometer, always-on altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. 

To test the accuracy of its heart-rate monitoring and distance tracking, I went on four separate runs wearing the Watch Series 6, a Polar H10 heart-rate monitor, and the Fitbit Sense smartwatch. It’s worth noting the Sense has issues tracking heart rate, so I only relied on it to compare distance. 

The Series 6 tracks both heart rate and distance very accurately.

The Series 6 tracks both heart rate and distance very accurately.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

During each run, the Apple Watch was only off by about one or two beats per minute (BPM) as compared to Polar’s monitor. After each run, I also compared average BPM and found the same differences. As for distance, the Series 6 and the Sense were only off from one another by about .02 to .03 miles.

Since the both the Sense and the Apple Watch come with SPO2 sensors, I also tested the accuracy of blood oxygen level readings — both of which were within one to two percent of each other. Unlike with the Sense, which only tracks SPO2 readings overnight, the Series 6 runs in the background at all times, but allows you to manually check your levels.

You have to sit very, very still to take these blood-oxygen readings.

You have to sit very, very still to take these blood-oxygen readings.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

The process is simple: Open the SPO2 app on the Watch and rest your wrist for 15 seconds while it reads your levels. After that, you’ll see a percentage appear on the screen with your results. I’m not sure if it’s me in particular, but the Watch would often say the “measurement was unsuccessful” even when I wasn’t moving at all. 

The metrics are synced to the Health app where you can see all your past readings under the Heart category. Again, even though the SPO2 sensor doesn’t have FDA clearance, it’s still useful to keep track of in case you want to show your results to your doctor.

But I also never really had any reason to take these measurements other than for the sole purpose of testing the feature for this review. Of course, that’s not to diminish the importance of having the sensor built-in — monitoring your blood oxygen levels can help detect sleep disorders like sleep apnea or atrial fibrillation (AFib). But hopefully, with time, Apple will find a way to incorporate these metrics in a way that means something to the average user. 

All about watchOS 7 …

The Series 6 ships with watchOS 7, Apple’s latest operating system for its Apple Watches, which is compatible with the Series 3 and above. While it comes with a fairly long list of features, there were only a handful that I found useful for my day-to-day. 

Sleep Tracking

It’s felt like a very long time coming, but the Apple Watch can finally track sleep. The feature is super simple to use: Set your specific bed time on the Watch (or Health app) and it will automatically go into Sleep Mode at that exact time each night (which is similar to Do Not Disturb). In the morning, you’ll be able to see the total amount of hours you slept and your heart rate throughout the night. While it’s tough to measure the accuracy of sleep tracking, I can confirm that it was able to correctly identify when I fell asleep and woke up. My one complaint, however, is that it doesn’t give you in-depth information like when you’re in REM, deep, or light sleep cycles.

Finally, sleep tracking on the Apple Watch

Finally, sleep tracking on the Apple Watch

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Hand-washing detection

I am the most neurotic person on the planet, so this pandemic hasn’t been the best for my germaphobic tendencies. But watchOS 7’s hand-washing detection helps to ease my anxieties a bit. The feature is triggered automatically when the Watch’s mic picks up on the sound of soap suds and running water on your hands. It then immediately starts a 20-second timer (a.k.a. the CDC’s recommended amount) and notifies you when done. This feature not only gives me peace of mind, but it also beats having to recite the ABC’s twice over in my head each time.

Tracking cooldown

This is a very minor feature, but warm-ups and cooldowns are just as important to track as your actual workouts. So it’s nice that Apple has added it as an exercise option. It allows you to track your heart rate and calories to then incorporate into your overall metrics. 

Noise app

The noise app was originally introduced with watchOS 6. It measures ambient noise levels around you to determine whether they’re at a safe level. With watchOS 7, Apple expanded the feature to earbuds or headphones when you’re using the iPhone or Apple Watch. If your environment is too loud, you’ll receive an alert to let you know. Since I wear my AirPods and stream music from my Apple Watch during my workouts, and have a tendency to blast my music, it’s nice to be able to keep track of how healthy the sound levels are at all times.

Again, watchOS 7 comes with a slew of other features, but the ones listed above are those that I gravitated towards the most during my time with the Series 6. 

The verdict

Maybe the Series 7 will be even more useful.

Maybe the Series 7 will be even more useful.

Image: brenda stolyar / mashable

Look, the Apple Watch Series 6 is an excellent smartwatch. It has a premium design that’s loaded with tons of sensors. It tracks fitness and health metrics accurately, offers over a full day’s worth of battery life, and has a wide selection of third-party compatible apps. Throw in watchOS 7 and you’re now finally able to track sleep among other new features.

But unless ECG readings and blood oxygen levels are crucial to track for your overall health, you’re better off going with the Apple Watch SE. And, if you currently own an Apple Watch (particularly the Series 4 and 5), it’s not worth the upgrade — at all. 

If anything, the introduction of the new SPO2 sensor is simply the start of Apple building on its new features for its next-generation smartwatch. Over time, we’ll hopefully be able to get more actionable info from those blood-oxygen readings apart from a simple percentage letting us know whether or not we’re within a healthy range. 

Now that the Apple Watch is tracking a multitude of metrics, including ECG, blood oxygen, and sleep, it’s time for the company to figure out a way to make that data meaningful to the average consumer.

Here’s hoping Apple takes some bigger risks with the Series 7 next year.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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