Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The Apple Watch rarely undergoes significant upgrades that make it a must-have device, with only a few notable improvements like the always-on display in Series 5.
  • Incremental upgrades include slightly faster processors, larger storage capacities, increased display brightness, and additional features like ECG readings, a digital compass, and a blood oxygen sensor.
  • While waiting a few years to upgrade allows for significant advancements, other factors like battery life, performance issues, storage limitations, and the need for watchOS support can also influence the decision to upgrade. The Apple Watch remains the top smartwatch choice despite these incremental upgrades.

Apple Watch Series 8 aluminum 45mm with Sequoia Nike Sport Loop
Tim Brookes / How-To Geek

The Apple Watch is a multipurpose timepiece, powerful workout tool, potentially life-saving health device, and stylish accessory. Despite this, Apple rarely adds enough to the new models to make any single iteration a compelling upgrade.

The Apple Watch Sees Incremental Upgrades

Despite upgrading the Apple Watch Series and the beefier Apple Watch Ultra lines each year, rarely do these updates grab the headlines. Outside of the Ultra launch in 2022, the Apple Watch rarely gets time in the spotlight quite like the iPhone, iPad, or MacBook lineup.

Apple Watch Series 9

Rarely is there a single upgrade that’ll make you think “I must have that!” and provides a meaningful upgrade over the Watch already on your wrist. The same is true for those who have yet to invest in an Apple wearable: if the Ultra didn’t do it for you, we’re not sure what the Series will add to change your mind.

The only real exception to this phenomenon was the introduction of an always-on display with the Apple Watch Series 5 way back in 2019. Not having to twist your wrist to get at-a-glance information like the time, temperature, or timer readout was a big deal (you know, like a “dumb” watch).


There was a period when the Apple Watch was first introduced and Apple made significant progress between devices. The first Apple Watch had relatively poor performance and felt like a practice run. By the time the Series 3 rolled around, GPS was a mainstay and the LTE model established itself as a fully-fledged wristphone. The Series 4 introduced the first major redesign, and Apple’s overall Watch design language hasn’t changed much since.

Outside of the always-on display, the most notable changes to later Apple Watch models have been:

All of these changes are welcome but rarely are jumps between generations enough to part with another $250 to $400. And that’s okay because holding on to your existing gadgets has benefits like saving money and protecting the environment by reducing overconsumption.

A New watchOS Upgrade Every Year

On top of a relatively uneventful upgrade schedule, there are watchOS upgrades each just as there are with iOS, iPadOS, macOS, and so on. Based on the current software support cycle you should get a good five years out of an Apple Watch, and 2018’s Series 4 is set to enjoy a full six years as it is compatible with watchOS 10 which will see support until late 2024.

One of the more grounded reasons to buy into Apple’s ecosystem is the regularity with which the company delivers updates. These aren’t always ground-breaking, but they keep the software feeling fresh, fix bugs and security issues, and ensure older devices can play nicely with new features and devices.

Apple frequently adds new faces to watchOS, with new colors available for older faces each year. As the APIs on which developers build apps and complications improve, functionality improves too. It’s not a wholly inclusive approach: Apple gates some features behind hardware upgrades, though many of them are reliant on the newer sensors and faster processors found on later models.

And even when your Watch has finished receiving official support, Apple wearables should continue to work with newer versions of iOS using the existing feature set. You might not get new faces or UI tweaks each year, but you should still be able to track your workouts, rely on safety features like Fall Detection, or get health alerts based on high or low heart rate notifications.

Taking a Holistic Approach to Watch Upgrades

When you’re feeling the itch to drop a few hundred dollars on a Watch you might not need, it’s easy to weigh up the pros and cons of upgrading by looking at all of the advancements made since you last bought a wearable. If you upgrade once every four years, for example, the upgrade will feel significant.

Moving from a Series 4 to Series 8, or a Series 5 to Ultra, will yield far more significant changes than the small jumps made each year or two. “Banking” Apple’s advancements by waiting to experience them in a few years make the upgrade feel more meaningful.

Showing the digital crown on Apple Watch Ultra
Tyler Hayes / How-To Geek

Outside of simply wanting a new shiny gadget, there are some other signals that it’s time to upgrade. Seeing something that will meaningfully improve your life, like the thermometer introduced for cycle tracking in the Series 8, could be enough.

Battery life is another thing. Apple hasn’t made any meaningful progress in extending the Apple Watch Series battery life in several generations, but as your old Watch starts to age so too does the battery inside it. You can replace the battery in an Apple Watch for $99, about 25% of the cost of a new Watch Series 9 (from $399) and nearly 40% of what you’d spend on a Watch SE (from $249).

If you feel like your Watch is slowing down a bit and showing its age, are frequently running out of internal storage and would like a larger model, are due to lose watchOS support, or you’ve scratched and cracked your Watch then you might be tempted to spend a bit more and grab the upgrade instead.

Apple Watch Ultra with Night Mode enabled


You can pass your old Apple Watch on to someone else or sell it on cheap to recoup some of your costs. If you choose to give your Watch to a friend or family member then the $99 battery service fee will feel like a bargain considering the utility of Apple’s wearable.

Still the Best Smartwatch

Despite lackluster upgrades year-on-year, the Apple Watch is still arguably the best wearable you can buy. Unfortunately, you’ll need an iPhone since the Watch won’t work with Android devices (or as an independent device).

Check out our other top smartwatches and read the full list of changes in the Apple Watch Series 9 and revised Apple Watch Ultra 2.

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By John P.

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