If you’ve ever owned an Apple Watch, or sat across from someone wearing one, you’re likely familiar with the inescapable social faux pas that is checking the time.
The first five generations of the Apple Watch, due to screen technology and battery constraints, could not display an active watch face at every moment, and so raise to wake was born. You raise your arm, the Apple Watch comes alive, and you lower your arm to set back to its off position.
That process has remained the most obnoxious aspect of wearing Apple’s smartwatch, not because it’s really all that cumbersome, but because it carries with it so much social baggage. There is little that screams “I don’t want to be here” or “you’re boring me to death” quite like raising your arm every so slightly and darting your gaze down at your $400 wrist computer.
It’s something I actively avoid doing when chatting with friends or in a meeting at work, and I go to extreme lengths to never make the mistake — an almost subconscious reflex I succumb to multiple times an hour at this point — when interviewing a subject for a story.
Helping consumers avoid this socially awkward situation of its own making is precisely why the always-on Apple Watch, officially called the Apple Watch Series 5, received so much positive attention during Apple’s annual iPhone event on Tuesday. Having an always-on smartwatch display is an obviously useful addition, even if it’s pretty much the only meaningful benefit the Series 5 offers over last year’s Series 4.
Apple achieves this new feature by relying on what’s known as Low-Temperature Polycrystalline Oxide (LTPO), a type of OLED-based circuit technology that utilities a blend of different thin-film transistors. That allows Apple more granular control over display features like refresh rate. Interestingly, the Series 4 shipped this type of display last year, but only the Series 5 has a version of that LTPO tech that uses new components, alongside new power management software, not found in the Series 4 to keep the display on at all times while preserving the device’s 18-hour battery life.
Being able to manually lower the refresh rate on the display is why the Apple Watch Series 5 second hand, which usually glides along smoothly when the display is at its full 60Hz refresh rate, disappears in the always-on, low-power mode. The watch would need a higher refresh rate to show something that’s changing over the course of a second, whereas the always-on mode without the second hand has fewer moving parts in the image and only needs to illustrate change over a longer duration of time.
So Apple clearly had a team of very talented software and hardware engineers working on this feature for the better part of the last year and most likely for far longer, all in service of a feature that is, admittedly, not integral to enjoying your Apple Watch. Just ask the suckers who bought the Apple Watch Series 4, like yours truly. It was billed as the first ever hardware redesign of the Apple Watch, and I bought it as an upgrade to my sluggish Series 0 under the assumption that Apple wouldn’t be coming back to the table 12 months later with a feature I assumed was a couple of years away.
I was unfortunately very wrong, and for that I am mildly frustrated. (Apple doesn’t even sell the Series 4 anymore, having decided that it serves a useless function in its lineup when it can just as easily sell a new customer a Series 5.) But an always-on display is a nice bonus to have, not a defining feature that’s going to make me rush out and sell my current Apple Watch to get the latest version. Back in 2015, the fact that the Apple Watch display went completely dark was billed almost like a feature; even today, it’s still satisfying to slide the palm of your hand over the display to manually put it to sleep.
Few people put that much thought into having to raise their wrist to check the time, and I’d venture the number of consumers who returned or stopped wearing their Apple Watch over raise to wake is very small. But what we didn’t know back when the Apple Watch first launched was the type of murky, unpleasant effect it would have on social interactions.
We failed to anticipate how checking your watch in the middle of a conversation would become just as rude as checking your phone, even and especially when it’s not intended to signal anything other than a knee jerk interest in what time it happens to be at that moment. So Apple found itself in the position of having to engineer a solution to a problem it likely didn’t predict it would be responsible for creating when it launched its first smartwatch four years ago.
Of course, nobody is losing a good friend or their job over raising their Apple Watch to check the time. It’s not the end of the world if you have to explain to someone that you’re hopelessly addicted to the screen in your pocket and on your wrist — that it’s not them, really, it’s you. But it’s often the case that technology embeds itself into our lives in unforeseen ways. What may once have seemed like a benign or perhaps even positive quality — a watch display that goes black when you lower your wrist — has become decidedly less so over the years.
Now, the Apple Watch stays lit, at least a little bit, no matter what. And we can all rest easy knowing that even a small fraction of that social awkwardness might disappear.