In early September 2014, at a “Special Event,” Apple CEO Tim Cook paused after wrapping up of all the exciting new iPhone 6 features the company had unveiled. Cook invoked his Steve Jobs’ famous “one more thing” segue, for the first time since Jobs’ passing, to rapturous applause and a blizzard of tweets. “We’ve been working incredibly hard, for a long time, on an entirely new product,” Cook said. “We believe this product will redefine what people expect from this category.”
The original Apple Watch, released April 24, 2015, was far from perfect, but Cook would eventually be proven right. In 2019, Apple sold more Apple Watches than the entire Swiss watch industry combined. Seeing the rounded-off rectangle on somebody’s wrist went from a signifier of wealth or tech enthusiasm to just a thing you notice when shaking hands or ordering food or working out. It’s remarkable to think back to 2015, when Apple was seen as playing catch-up to Pebble (still alive!) and Android Wear (on life support?). Tech reviewers and pundits spent a lot of effort back then figuring out who the Apple Watch was for, whether it really reduced your phone use, and whether it would usher in a revolution in fitness and health. Today, it’s … an Apple product, a popular device that works with all the other Apple products, essential to some and interesting to see revised every so often.
Some of those revisions have been quite interesting. The original Apple Watch had intimidatingly small parts, but you could get the screen off and get the battery out—after you filed down your tri-point screw bits. This prompted us to make and sell a new class of teensy-tiny bits just for Apple Watches. The original scored at 5 out of 10 on repairability: proprietary screws and soldered-down connectors, but a screen and battery you could, with patience, get out.
The Series 1 was a revamped version of the original Watch, sold as a (relative) budget model alongside the Series 2, which added GPS and better waterproofing. But waterproofing sometimes means more and stickier glue, which we found in our teardown. Still, Series 2 sported easier-to-handle connectors, and you could get at soldered-on components without removing the whole system chip, which is locked in place with really strong resin. Progress!
The Series 3 and Series 4 leaned harder into Apple’s health and fitness marketing, adding advanced heart rate observation, cellular connections, and the ability to alert you about heart abnormalities or send a message if you fall. Internally, there wasn’t much new, other than the bits that made those features possible. The Series 5, however, added a neat trick: a battery-saving variable refresh rate that could shift from hyper-smooth 60Hz when active to a barely-there 1Hz at rest. This allowed for a reasonable always-on display mode, even if some found the battery life still a bit unreliable. (I explain the technology behind this crystal-based trickery in our Series 5 Teardown video).
For the Apple Watch’s fifth birthday, we offer up these animated views of five generations of wrist-worn computers, inside and out. Some of the changes are minor, some are gains or setbacks for those who want to fix them. All of them make us proud that we’ve played a part in keeping this tiny but essential product viable for its owners for as long as possible.