The Apple Watch's always-on display is undoubtedly its most compelling feature. All of Apple's watch faces have been optimized to work in always-on mode, which made the experience feel consistent whether the display was activated or not.
This is a noticeable departure from the approach Fitbit has taken with its always-on display on the $200 Versa 2, which shows the time, battery level, and two key fitness metrics of your choosing.
Fitbit does allow you to customize the always-on display, for example, so you can choose whether to show an analog or digital clockface and select which fitness statistics to display.
But it's not as comprehensive as Apple's, which can serves up most of the information that would be normally visible as a complication on the clock face. The switch between always-on mode and standard mode on Fitbit's Versa 2 also doesn't feel as natural as it does on the Apple Watch.
That's because the always-on clock face on the Versa 2 is different than Fitbit's normal watch faces, which means you're most likely moving from the always on display that tells the time to the regular clock face which provides very similar information. The Apple Watch Series 5, comparatively, just brightens up and makes some other minor changes to the existing watch face, which feels more seamless.
When your Apple Watch kicks into always-on display mode, you'll notice a few changes. The screen becomes dimmer and certain metrics that refresh often — such as the seconds hand on an analog watch face — are suspended. The time and complications shown on the watch face update once per minute, and complications that show live data become inactive. That also means dynamic watch faces like Breathe and Vapor are essentially reduced to a basic analog clock when in always-on mode.
When you raise your wrist to wake the watch, the screen will brighten and those suspended metrics will resume.
I find the always-on display to be particularly useful as I'm working throughout the day, since it allows me to glance down at my wrist while typing to see how much progress I've made on my activity rings without interrupting my workflow. It's also helpful in movie theaters since you can keep track of the time without the display becoming disruptively bright.
But if you leave an app open on the watch, the always-on screen will only show the time. You'll notice the currently opened app will fade out of focus so that the content on screen is indistinguishable, and the time will be displayed in the top right corner.
It's not just watch faces that work in always-on mode: workouts remain on screen too, making it easier to see metrics mid-exercise without having to raise your wrist to wake the watch.
I only wish, however, that timers worked in always-on mode. I often like to set timers during my workouts or when I'm cooking, two scenarios in which having an always-on display is particularly useful. When I was holding a plank position during a workout, for example, it would have been great to see how much time was left on my 30-second timer.
It's an understandable omission considering the Apple Watch lowers the refresh rate of its screen to 1Hz when in always-on mode to preserve battery, making it challenging to display metrics that quickly refresh such as seconds on a timer.
That's not to say it's impossible to use a timer on the Apple Watch in always-on mode. You can do so as a complication on the watch face, but that means you need to be using a watch face that offers that option. Time complications such as the timer and stopwatch also round their displayed information to the nearest minute when in always-on mode, so if you're using it to keep track of seconds during a workout it may not be as useful anyhow.
Here's a closer look at what Apple's watch faces look like in always-on mode on the Series 5.