Since Apple’s new Series 5 Apple Watch began arriving in customers’ hands there has been no shortage of reports about users experiencing abysmal battery life from the new smart watch, with some unable to even get through a normal day.
While some immediately suspected the culprit to be the always-on display in the new model — after all, a screen that stays on all the time would be an obvious source of battery drain — this flew in the face of Apple’s own promises to maintain the same 18-hour battery life as the Series 4 offered, not to mention several early reviewers who reported that the device’s battery life fully lived up to those promises.
Then there was the issue that not everybody was experiencing the same battery life issues, and in fact there seemed to be a huge divide between those who were having problems and those who hadn’t even noticed a difference from their prior Apple Watch. Users who were experiencing poor battery life attempted to tweak numerous settings, often with limited success, while many of those getting the promised battery life hadn’t done anything special at all. It was all terribly confusing.
Always On Display
While it’s understandable for users having problems to point to the new always-on display, most of those who turned off this feature didn’t report any significant improvements. Tweaking other settings related to the display, such as “raise to wake” or “hide sensitive complications” didn’t seem to make much difference for most folks either.
To be fair, Apple claims to have engineered the display in such a way that it uses minimal power by slowing down the refresh rate to the point of making the information on it basically static — it updates about once per minute, often enough to update the time, but that’s about it. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand how it really shouldn’t be a big drain on the battery.
As reports of poor battery life continued to surface, it also quickly became apparent that it wasn’t just the Apple Watch Series 5 that users were having problems with, but rather even some older Series 4 and Series 3 models that had been updated to watchOS 6 (which isn’t available for Series 1/2 models yet). This of course pointed to something in watchOS 6 that could be causing the problem, but it was still pretty unclear what it could be, as everybody’s experiences were vastly different even on those older models.
Some users pointed to the new Noise app in watchOS 6 as a possible cause, and there were mixed reports of improved battery life after disabling or deleting that app. However, since the noise app is only supported on the Apple Watch Series 4 and Series 5, this didn’t adequately explain why some Series 3 users were also experiencing battery drain problems.
Users continued to report trying numerous other ways of trying to improve battery life, such as turning off all background activity settings, uninstalling other apps that could be consuming power, turning off the automatic launch of audio apps, and more. In all cases, there were mixed reports on how successful this was, with some users reporting noticeable improvements, while others saying it made no difference at all.
Last week, Apple also released watchOS 6.0.1, but with nothing in the release notes about battery life improvements, it seemed like a safe bet that this probably didn’t do much to improve things.
Waiting It Out
It appears now, however, that in at least some cases, patience may be the key. While the evidence is still anecdotal, we have now personally observed two separate cases where brand new Apple Watch Series 5 devices showed amazing improvements in battery life after three or four days of normal use, despite having absolutely atrocious battery life at the beginning.
In the first case, my own Apple Watch Series 5 purchased on launch day barely got me through the Saturday and Sunday of that first weekend, but by Monday it showed a dramatic jump in performance, and improved from there to the point where I now have no problem getting through a 20-hour day with battery life to spare.
While this could have been an isolated incident, our Managing Editor, Elijah Waeterling, who had been holding out for the Apple Watch Series 5 Nike Edition, reported a similar experience after setting up his new Apple Watch over the weekend, reporting that his battery life had “magically improved” four days later.
What’s particularly notable about both of these experiences is that neither of us did anything special to our new Apple Watches to attempt to improve battery life. We left the always-on display enabled (after all, what’s the point of the Series 5 without it?), and kept the noise app enabled and in place.
Both Apple Watches also shipped with watchOS 6.0; although the Nike Edition was updated to watchOS 6.0.1 early on, it didn’t show any battery life improvements for a couple more days.
Why Is This Happening?
It’s very difficult to know for sure what goes on under the hood of an Apple Watch, but our best educated guess is that there may be some high-utilization background processes that are running right after you set up a new Apple Watch, or even after upgrading to watchOS 6 on an older model.
These could be legitimate background indexing or synchronization processes, or it could simply be something that isn’t supposed to keep running in the background, but does due to a bug in watchOS 6.
However, since applying a watchOS update also requires restarting the Apple Watch, it seems clear that a reboot doesn’t solve anything, and whatever process is running simply starts up again until it finishes whatever it needs to do.
It’s possible that syncing music, podcasts, and audiobooks or even photos could be part of it, although this is only supposed to happen when the Apple Watch is on its charger, and these items certainly shouldn’t take days to sync. We also saw evidence during the iOS 13 beta cycle about how your iPhone could be draining your Apple Watch battery, so it’s certainly possible that it could be data being exchanged with the iPhone to sync everything up.
There could also be more technical processes running in the background to rebuild indexes or convert internal filesystems for watchOS 6, although this wouldn’t explain why users who had already upgraded to watchOS 6 would still experience problems after switching to a new Apple Watch.
Another theory is that it could simply be due to battery calibration and power management, which could also explain why it’s not affecting every Apple Watch user in the same way. Perhaps several Apple Watch models had lithium-ion batteries installed in them that hadn’t yet been properly calibrated, and simply needed to go through a few charge cycles to be broken in.
While lithium-ion batteries don’t need to be “conditioned” in the same way that older nickel-cadmium batteries did, it’s still necessary for Apple’s power management chips to be properly calibrated for the actual battery life so that the battery meter is accurate. This would almost certainly be related to a bug in watchOS 6 as well, since it wouldn’t otherwise explain why users of older models had similar problems after upgrading.
In other words, it’s entirely possible that the Apple Watch batteries weren’t actually draining as fast as the Apple Watch thought they were, and that the Apple Watch was simply reporting the incorrect battery life for the first few charges until the battery meter got in sync with the actual battery levels. This is something we’ve seen happen over the years with iPhones and even MacBooks, and is in fact one of the reasons why Apple recommends putting your devices through a full charge cycle every so often. Of course, for most iPhone and Apple Watch users, normal everyday use will take care of this, but it can become a problem for MacBooks that are usually left plugged in.
Regardless of the reasons, however, it seems like there’s a good chance that if you’re having bad battery life after updating to a new Apple Watch or watchOS 6, simply waiting it out for three or four days may be all it takes to solve your problem, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much better your battery life gets afterwards — we know we were.