Apple Watch Series 5 vs. Series 3: The $200 Series 3 is the best deal for iPhone owners looking for a basic smartwatch

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The Apple Watch Series 5
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • The $399.00 Apple Watch Series 5 and $199.00 Series 3 are generally very similar, but the Series 5 has more to offer when it comes to health and emergency-related features.
  • Unlike the Series 3, the Series 5 can detect hard falls, take electrocardiogram readings, and has a built-in compass.
  • It also has a larger always-on display compared to the Series 3.
  • But the Series 3’s cheaper price makes it a solid option for iPhone owners looking for a basic smartwatch experience that may not need features like fall detection or advanced heart health features. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch Series 3 may look similar on the surface. But there are a few key differences that you’ll want to keep in mind before deciding which smartwatch is best for you.

The biggest factor to note is price: the Series 5 starts at $399.00, while the Series 3 begins at $199.00. That’s because the Series 5 is the latest model that comes with all of Apple’s most recent features, such as a larger always-on display, an ECG sensor for capturing an electrocardiogram, fall detection, international emergency calling, and a compass for more precise location tracking. Some of those features — such as fall detection and the ECG sensor – were first introduced in the now-discontinued Series 4 from 2018.

The Series 3 lacks those bells and whistles, but for half the starting price you’ll still get all of the Apple Watch’s core functionality — including most (but not all) of the new features coming in the watchOS 7 software update this fall.

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The Apple Watch Series 5
Crystal Cox/Business Insider

Overall, the Series 5 is best-suited for those who need a larger screen and really care about health-oriented features that go beyond basic activity and heart monitoring.

If you don’t need features like fall detection and don’t mind having a slightly smaller screen that isn’t capable of staying on even when not in use, the cheaper Series 3 will check all the boxes you’re looking for. It can do almost everything the Series 5 can except for the features mentioned above.

I personally own an Apple Watch Series 3, and it’s more than sufficient for a user like myself that only uses it to track my workouts and make sure I don’t miss important notifications.

It’s important to note, however, that Apple typically releases a new Apple Watch every September, so you may want to hold off before purchasing an Apple Watch right now.

Here’s a closer look at how the Apple Watch Series 5 compares to the Series 3.

Apple Watch Series 5 vs. Series 3 Chart

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Design and feel

Apple Watch Series 3

The Apple Watch Series 3
Justin Sullivan/Getty

When it comes to design, the biggest difference between the Series 3 and Series 5 is in their size. The older Series 3 comes in two sizes: 38 millimeters and 42mm, while the Series 5 is available in  40mm and 44mm options. 

The difference in size between the Series 5’s display and the Series 3’s is certainly noticeably when comparing them side-by-side. The newer watch has a display that occupies more space on the watch’s face compared to the Series 3, giving you more screen real estate in a device that’s roughly the same size.

The 44mm Series 5 has a 977-square millimeter display while the 40mm model’s display area measures 759 square millimeters, both of which represent a 30% increase in size compared to the Series 3, according to Apple. 

The 42mm Series 3, by comparison, has a 740 square millimeter display while the 38mm version has a 563 square millimeter screen area.

That doesn’t mean you should worry about the Series 5 feeling too bulky or large. The watch face itself is around the same size as the Series 3; in fact, it’s even slightly thinner. 

Apple Watch 5 and 3
The Apple Watch Series 3 (top) is slightly thicker than the Series 5 (bottom)
Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider

If you’re willing to splurge, you’ll also get many more options customization options with the Series 5. That version is available in aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic finishes, while the Series 3 is only available in aluminum.

The Series 3 is also only available in silver or space gray, while the Series 5 comes in a variety of color choices such depending on the model. These include:

  • Silver, space gray, or gold for the aluminum finish
  • Stainless steel, space black, or gold for the stainless steel model
  • Titanium or space black for the titanium finish
  • White for the ceramic model

There’s also a subtle difference when it comes to the Series 5’s digital crown, which provides haptic feedback to make scrolling feel more smooth unlike the Series 3. The Series 5’s watch face is also more rounded at the edges compared to the slightly boxier Series 3. 

Apple Watch Mickey

The Apple Watch Series 5 has an always-on display
Business Insider/Lisa Eadicicco

The Series 5 comes with a few additional features not found on the Series 3, among the most noticeable being its always-on display. Even when your watch is sitting idly on your wrist, the Series 5 will display basic information like the time and complications on your clock face. When in always-on mode, your watch will dim its screen and only update complications once per minute — a measure that helps ensure battery life isn’t impacted by the always-on screen.

While the Series 5’s larger, always-on display is one of the most immediately recognizable differences between the two watches, the Series 5 also comes with some health and emergency-oriented features not found on the Series 3. 

The Series 5 supports fall detection, meaning it can tell when you’ve taken a hard fall and help you contact help if needed. When the watch detects a hard fall, it will sound an alarm that can be dismissed by pressing the “I’m OK” button that shows up with the alert. You can also choose to contact emergency services when a hard fall is detected, and the watch will contact emergency services automatically if it finds that you’re immobile for roughly a minute. 

The Series 5 is also capable of taking an electrocardiogram reading, which can be used to classify atrial fibrillation, or AFib, a common form of arrhythmia. Older Apple Watch models like the Series 3 cannot take an ECG reading, but they can occasionally check your heart rate in the background for signs of an irregular heart rhythm and provide notifications accordingly.

The cellular version of the Apple Watch Series 5 also allows you to call local emergency services from your wrist when traveling in other countries. 

The last major difference between the Series 3 and Series 5 in terms of hardware is the latter’s compass, which enables the watch to show which direction you’re facing. It can also display your current elevation, features that taken together may make the Apple Watch Series 5 a better choice for runners, cyclists, and frequent travelers.

Apple’s watchOS 7 update launching this fall will also introduce a couple of features available on the Series 5 but not the Series 3, such as automatic handwashing detection and the ability for Siri to process dictated speech directly on the device. These features will only be coming to the Series 4 and later because they rely on the neural engine found in the newer models.

The Apple Watch Series 3 still supports watchOS 7 and will be compatible with the software’s other new features, like sleep tracking and the ability to share customized watch faces with friends.

Apple Watch Series 3
The Apple Watch Series 3
AP

The Series 5 is ideal for those specifically seeking a device that can help detect and track heart conditions like AFib or need a wearable that can alert emergency services and loved ones in the event of a hard fall. Both are great reasons to invest in a wearable.

But, you don’t need to buy Apple’s top-of-the-line watch just to get the basic experience of tracking workouts, viewing notifications, and making contactless payments on your wrists. If that’s what you really want out of a smartwatch, you’ll have little to lose by opting for the Series 3 at half the price of the Series 5.

Compared to the Series 5, it can track the same variety of workouts, monitor the same types of health data save for the exceptions listed above, run the same apps, and offers all the same core features like Apple Pay. The two watches also perform similarly in terms of battery life; the Series 3 and Series 5 will last for a little longer than a day in my experience but still should be charged nightly.

Other than the extra health and emergency capabilities, you’ll be missing out on the Series 5’s additional customization options and features like the a built-in compass and always-on display. The latter of which is a helpful improvement that makes the watch more than just a shiny black rectangle when not in use.

But, if the Series 5’s other advantages — like fall detection and the ability to take an electrocardiogram — aren’t a high priority for you, the always-on display alone probably won’t justify the extra $200.

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