Apple Watch Series 6 ongoing review: SpO2 tracking, new watch faces and more

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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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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 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.

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