Apple Watch Series 3 vs. 5: Thoughts From a 4-Year Wearer
After two weeks of double-wristing Apple Watches (Series 3 and 5), and four years of wearing Apple Watch daily, I determined that Series 5 is the best due to its superior display. Series 4 has the same display minus the always-on part, but it’s been discontinued. Series 3 is awesome for those who want the same basic functionality for half the price and my pick for most people.
I’ll explain how I reached my conclusion by comparing two smartwatches (Apple Watch Series 3 vs. Apple Watch Series 5) while evaluating five categories: screen, design, hardware, and extra features.
Apple Watch Series 5
- Screen: The screen always stays on. The screen area is larger with same sized case.
- Design: It's slightly thinner. There are four case finishes (aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic) with over 80 bands to pick from.
- Hardware: It has 32 GB of storage for music, podcasts, and books. The Digital Crown vibrates as you spin it.
- Features: You get fall detection, an ECG reader, and a compass.
- Price: The entry-level 40mm is $399.
Best for you if...
You want a substantial upgrade from your current Apple Watch (Series 3 and before) or need the latest technology. The Digital Crown's haptic feedback, larger screen, always-on display, and extra storage are amazing features that warrant an upgrade because the previous generations feel dated once you experience them.
Apple Watch Series 3
- Screen: You turn on the screen by raising your wrist and the screen area is smaller.
- Design: Aluminum is the only case finish. Black and white are the only band color options. For $49, you can buy your preferred band color.
- Hardware: It has a slower processor, but you won’t notice in real life. There’s only 8 GB of storage space.
- Features: You get almost everything watchOS 6 offers, aside from three features.
- Price: The entry-level 38mm is $199.
Best for you if...
You’re buying your first Apple Watch and you’re cool with aluminum. For half the price of Series 5, Series 3 has the same functionality and will get the same future updates. If you’ve never owned an Apple Watch, you’ll love Series 3 because the new features on Series 5 aren’t essential and you won’t know you need them until you’ve tried them.
These are the current prices compared to their 60-day averages. I get a tiny commission when you use my Amazon links to buy something. It supports my site and lets me provide free and unbiased content.
- You can’t setup or update any Apple Watch model without an iPhone. You don’t need to bring your phone with you for it to function once your Apple Watch is setup.
- Apple Watches (Series 1-5) run on the same software. Each year, Apple refines the user interface to make it faster and more intuitive. The early versions of Apple Watch software were barely usable because apps would take close to seven seconds to open. Now, you can throw the latest software on any version of Apple Watch and apps are going to perform as expected.
- watchOS 6 was released in September of 2019 and is the latest version. Three most notable features:
- You can scroll through full web pages on your watch when you search with Siri.
- The App Store has been available for Apple Watch since watchOS 2, but now you can download and search for apps without touching your phone.
- Apple Watch listens to your surroundings and warns you when the decibel level is loud enough to affect your hearing.
- There are two Series 3 and Series 5 versions. Each come in two different sizes:
- GPS debuted on Series 2 and is now the entry-level version. You can track where and how far you went during a running and biking workout without your phone present.
- GPS + Cellular debuted on Series 3 and is $100 more than the GPS version. The watch has a SIM card and shares your phone’s number. You can make and receive calls and texts, and stream music without your phone present. There’s a catch: phone carriers charge $15/month to put your Apple Watch on your phone plan.
- The bands on Apple Watch easily slide out of the case and can be changed. Apple releases a new set of band colors every six months. The 40mm bands fit the 38mm and 40mm Apple Watch, while the 44mm bands fit the 42mm and 44mm Apple Watch. There are five unique styles:
- Sport Bands ($49) are made from fluoroelastomer (a type of rubber) and are great for working out because the sweat falls off. Sport Bands are my go-to for running in hot weather.
- Sport Loops ($49) are lightweight and breathable nylon bands that strap around your wrist and fasten with hook and loop. Sport Loops are my go-to for working out when it’s cooler outside. The Sport Loop is more comfortable than the Sport Band, but it absorbs sweat when it’s too hot.
- Leather Buckle Bands ($149) are made with colored leather and have a stainless steel buckle fastener. You don’t want to exercise in these, but they’re comfortable for the rest of the day.
- Stainless Steel Bands ($99-$449) come in Milanese Loops and Link Bracelets. The Milanese Loop is my everyday band (pictured above). It’s more comfortable than it appears and an affordable way to look classy.
- Hermès Leather Bands ($339-$539) are expensive, ugly, and refreshed each year.
- Apple Watches are great for staying active, tracking workouts, and staying motivated in your fitness goals. You can compete with friends who have Apple Watches by sharing your activity scores. The activity experience is universal across the Apple Watch models. You have three Activity Rings that you need to close each day:
- Stand. You must stand for one minute twelve times each day to close the ring.
- Exercise. You must record a 30-minute workout each day to close the ring.
- Move. You must burn a set amount of active calories each day. The standard move goal is 450 active calories, but the number can be tailored to you, based on your age, gender, and weight. You can manually change your goal whenever you want.
- If you have a cellular Apple Watch, you can leave your phone at home and stream music with Apple Music. With the GPS-only model, you can preload Apple Music playlists, audiobooks, or podcasts onto your watch before bed and listen to it the next day.
- Apple Pay is one feature that worked brilliantly since the first Apple Watch. You double-tap the side button and your card shows on the screen, then you point your watch at the store’s card reader. I had a huge revelation when I paid with my watch for the first time: this is the future. Paying with Apple Watch is exponentially faster and more secure than paying with a traditional chip card. Plus, you don’t need to reach for your wallet.
- They have a heart rate monitor.
- It periodically checks in to record your resting heart rate.
- Your heart rate is tracked while you’re working out to better calculate the calories burned.
- Apple warns you when your heart rate has been elevated for more than ten minutes while you’re inactive. This feature has saved many lives.
- Push notifications that would normally show up on your phone go to your watch first. In my experience, watch notifications keep my phone in my pocket for longer.
- The Walkie-Talkie feature lets you instantly communicate with your friends who have an Apple Watch.
- Series 3 and Series 5 are waterproof up to 50 meters. You can even track swimming workouts.
- You can trigger Siri by saying “Hey, Siri” or by raising your watch to your face. Siri gets better with each software update, but it’s not perfect yet. No matter the model you’re using, Siri still misunderstands you occasionally and works slowly.
- There are great third-party sleep tracking apps, but Apple hasn’t made a native sleep tracking app. Native sleep tracking on Apple Watch is inevitable, but the battery runtime needs to improve substantially. Apple Watches last about 18 hours before needing a charge. If you were wearing it to sleep, when would you charge it?
- Series 5 has a larger screen than Series 3, but the size of the watch stayed the same. Apple did this by shrinking the bezel size.
- The 38mm Series 3 has a 563 sq mm display area.
- The 40mm Series 5 has a 759 sq mm display area.
- That’s 35% more screen area.
- The larger screen style was introduced with Series 4. The extra screen is more helpful than the graphic above would indicate for a few reasons:
- The fonts are larger and clearer in most apps. This comes in handy when you’re exercising and your full focus isn’t placed on your watch. People with vision issues may find the larger fonts helpful too.
- You can fit more on your watch face. For example, the infograph faces are my favorite, but they’re not available on Series 3 because there’s not enough room.
- Series 4 was discontinued by Apple because it’s nearly identical from Series 5. The major difference is a feature that’s been on the wishlist of Apple fans for years: an “Always-On Retina display.” It’s nice to always have access to the time, like a traditional watch, and it doesn’t have a huge effect on battery life:
- The display dims when your watch detects that it’s not in use, but it’s bright enough to properly show the time.
- The refresh rate of the screen switches from its usual 60Hz to 1Hz. In English, the screen refreshes once per second, rather than the standard 60 times per second.
- The Series 5’s outer case comes in four metal finishes:
- Aluminum starts at $399. It comes in Space Gray, Silver, and Gold.
- Stainless Steel starts at $699. It comes in Space Black, Silver, and Gold.
- Titanium starts at $799. It comes in Titanium and Space Black.
- Ceramic starts at $1299. It comes in White.
- There are 249 finish and band combinations available. Apple Watch Studio lets you match a case finish (nine options) with a band (24 options). Nike and Hermès aren’t a part of Apple Watch Studio, but there are ten Nike bands that are always paired with aluminum and 13 Hermès bands that are always paired with stainless steel. Apple Watch Studio is an online experience, but it should be set up in most Apple Stores.
- Series 5 (10.7mm) is 6% thinner than Series 3. You won’t notice the difference.
- Series 5 has a second-generation optical heart sensor compared to Series 3’s first-generation sensor. While wearing both Apple Watches at the same time, my heartbeats per minute were within a couple of points of each other every time that I looked. Unless the new heart rate sensor is more battery efficient, the new sensor is just marketing speak.
- Series 5 has the S5 processing chip. According to Apple, the S5 is up to two times faster than the S3 in Series 3. But you won’t notice a speed difference between Series 3 and Series 5 because apps and other activities launch and perform the same. What’s Apple talking about when they say it’s faster?
- Series 5 has a smaller battery (245mAh) and more features compared to Series 3 (279 mAh), but they have the same listed runtime of 18 hours. It looks like the S5 chip helps with battery efficiency.
- You may see improved performance with certain third-party processor-intensive apps. Although, I haven’t seen an app perform worse on Series 3 yet.
- Series 5’s Digital Crown has haptic feedback while Series 3 does not. As you scroll on the screen with the Digital Crown, you’ll feel vibrations as you toggle through options. It doesn’t sound like a special feature, but once you use an Apple Watch with haptic feedback, older Apple Watches feel weird and dated.
- Series 5 has 32 GB of storage (26.9 GB available). You can load your entire music library on your Apple Watch and never worry about using your cellular data to stream.
- The battery has a listed runtime of 18 hours. Here’s what I found:
- I got 28 hours of runtime with always-on display disabled with one hour-long workout. Or 26 hours if I listened to music during the workout.
- I got 19 hours of runtime with always-on display enabled with one hour-long workout. Or 17 hours if I listened to music during the workout.
- My numbers show that the new always-on display is accounting for close to 35% of the battery life (approximately 9 hours). Always-on is using more juice than it should, and I expect Apple to fix it with a software update.
- Three software features differentiate Series 5 from Series 3:
- Series 5 detects when you fall, then sounds an alarm and displays a message. If you’re alert, you can tap to dismiss the message or contact emergency services. If you’re immobile for one minute after the fall, it’ll automatically call emergency services.
- Series 5 has an ECG reader on the Digital Crown. You hold a finger on the Digital Crown for thirty seconds, and it checks the recording of your heart for atrial fibrillation.
- It has a compass that works without WiFi or cellular service.
- Series 3 has a larger bezel than Series 5. You get less screen with the same size case as Series 5. As a daily wearer, I never had an issue with the screen size of Series 0-3. But once Apple decreased the bezel size, I couldn’t believe how much wasted space there was. My advice: you’ll love Series 3’s screen if you don’t look at Series 5’s.
- Series 5 was the first generation to have an always-on display, so Series 3 doesn’t have always-on. How does the screen work?
- The screen turns black when Series 3 isn’t in use. The time isn’t shown.
- You twist your wrist towards your eye to wake Series 3. It should happen naturally and not feel forced. During my first four years with Apple Watch, the twist to wake worked 98% of the time. But be aware that you’ll look goofy when you exaggerate your wrist twist on the second attempt after the first doesn’t wake the screen.
- The importance of an always-on display is being overplayed by other bloggers because they’re forgetting:
- You can easily wake Apple Watch by tapping the screen.
- You can easily wake Apple Watch by turning the Digital Crown slightly upwards. Then, you can put it back to sleep by turning it back.
- When Series 3 was released, there were three different metal finishes to pick from. Now, Series 3 is only available in silver and space gray aluminum. Selling only two finishes simplifies Apple’s inventory and allows the price to drop to $199.
- The matte aluminum finish looks good, but it’s not as durable or premium feeling as stainless steel.
- Unfortunately, Series 3 is only sold with a white or black Sport Band.
- All Apple Watch bands are compatible with Series 3. If you don’t want a white or black, it’ll cost an extra $50 to buy a different color separately.
- Series 3 (11.4mm) is slightly thicker than Series 5. You won’t notice a difference.
- Series 3 includes just 8 GB of storage (6.2 GB available). It’s enough storage for some music playlists, podcasts, and audiobooks, but probably not enough for your entire library of content.
- Series 3 has the S3 processing chip that’s slower than the S5 in Series 5, but you won’t notice it in real life.
- I got Series 3 on the release date, then sold it when Series 4 was released. For this post, I rebought Series 3 to test it on the latest watchOS 6 software and was stunned to see it perform the same as Series 5. In my experience, each Apple Watch iteration gets faster, but it appears that software improvements are playing a larger role than the hardware at this point.
- It feels like Series 3 was the tipping point where the processor was finally fast enough to perform tasks as expected.
- Apple Watch Series 3 was my most used and favorite device from 2018. It was fast enough to properly function during all of its intended purposes (not true with previous generations), and it let me leave my phone at home because of the cellular service. If Series 4 and Series 5 didn’t exist, I would still be a daily wearer of Series 3.
- The battery has a listed runtime of 18 hours. Here’s what I found:
- I got 28 hours of runtime with one hour-long workout. Or 25 hours if I listened to music during the workout.
- Series 3 doesn’t have unique features relative to Series 5. Read “The Basics” section above to see the features that all Apple Watches have.