Apple Watch Series 2 hit stores on Friday and I’ve spent the weekend testing its new features. From outdoor cycling and swimming in the ocean to comparing it to the first-generation Apple Watch, I had my own list of questions I wanted answered and I’m mostly happy with my experience.
I used the first-generation Apple Watch every single day since April 2015 and reviewed it in May 2015 after a couple of weeks. For me, the original Apple Watch was a tremendous improvement over my Pebble and basic digital watch with features like Siri, iMessage and Apple Pay plus a design that was good enough to continue with Series 2. A year in, I fully realized how effective Apple Watch can be as a fitness tracker which is where much of the focus on Series 2 exists.
Apple Watch Series 2 is similar enough that it’s easy to draw several conclusions about the new version after just two days. It’s a more capable fitness tracker and a better smartwatch thanks to its hardware changes, but the differences are more nuanced than what a spec sheet can tell you.
I’ll start by jumping straight to my conclusion:
Apple Watch Series 2 is right for me, but I think a lot of people will be perfectly fine with Apple Watch Series 1 unless specific features appeal to you. Jeff has a fantastic hands-on comparison between the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 for an in-depth look at the differences. Personally, I think these questions are necessary when deciding between Series 1 and Series 2:
- Do you want stainless steel with wider band compatibility or ceramic instead of aluminum?
- Do you want to map runs or outdoor cycles without bringing your iPhone?
- Do you want to get credit for swimming workouts?
- Do you care about display visibility in very bright sunlight?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, then buy Series 2. If not but you’re still in the market for an Apple Watch, strongly consider Series 1. I do not recommend the first generation Apple Watch if you want to have the best experience unless you’re on a tight budget.
I really like the Apple Watch as a product but the first generation had its obvious limitations, mainly being underpowered, which is why Apple offers the new Apple Watch Series 1 at a cheaper price than the first-gen Apple Watch in addition to the Apple Watch Series 2.
I had a positive experience with my original Apple Watch even before the watchOS 3 software update that dramatically improved performance when launching frequently used apps, but I like beta testing new products and software, especially if it’s from Apple. This is why I think me and people like me already value the Apple Watch and a lot of others could care less or actively dislike the Apple Watch.
To put it personally, Apple Watch Series 1 or Series 2 with watchOS 3 is the first Apple Watch I’d give my mom and without worrying much about the shortcomings (and yes, I ordered her a Series 2).
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s dive in deeper on Apple Watch Series 2.
I want to start with something I mentioned in my first-generation Apple Watch review last year, the display visibility (or lack thereof) outdoors. Here’s what I wrote in May 2015:
Difficulty reading the display outdoors is easily my biggest complaint with the first version. Checking the time (or any information on the screen) in direct sunlight can be nearly impossible.
In one instance, I found it easier to check the time on my iPhone than with Apple Watch because of this issue. In another situation, I glanced at Apple Watch to check the time in the car, but found the dashboard clock easier to read. Under a cloudy sky or any amount of shade, though, the outdoor readability issue mostly goes away.
Some watch faces like X-Large are more legible in bright environments than others like Chronograph and you can adjust Apple Watch’s brightness in the settings, but this is a definite area where future versions should improve just as recent iPhones and iPads have.
Readers pointed out that the Apple Watch Sport (what Apple called the aluminum models; all models are now just called Apple Watch) didn’t seem to have this issue as bad as my stainless steel Apple Watch did. The difference is Ion-X glass versus sapphire: one allows for light to pass through easier but is more scratch prone, the other is more scratch resistant (but shatters instead) and captures more reflection.
Comparing the first-gen Apple Watch with the Apple Watch Series 2, the change is from barely functional to works well enough. Apple increased the brightness from 450 nits (equivalent to 450 lit candles) to 1000 nits, which it says is its brightest display on any product.
You won’t notice the difference indoors, but it makes reading information on the display outdoors much easier. There’s still room for improvement in future models, but outdoor legibility has moved from a real problem to just an issue that can be improved.
Speed is probably the biggest complaint people have with the first-gen Apple Watch. It’s dramatically underpowered, and watchOS 3 saving frequently used apps in memory only goes so far. I don’t launch Settings often so I don’t want to prioritize it in my dock, which means launching it to tweak something quickly requires waiting for the app to load in most instances. It’s a little embarrassing.
Apple Watch Series 2 is a serious improvement. The S2 chip is dual-core compared to the underpowered, single-core S1 chip. But the difference isn’t nearly as dramatic as I had expected. Apps can still take a few seconds to load, but that might mean 1-4 seconds compared to 5-10 seconds or more. I’ve seen examples of people demoing Siri being way more responsive on the Series 2 than the original Apple Watch, but my experience has been mostly the same on both (meaning a lot of other factors like network connection make your mileage vary, not the query or chip speed).
The most obvious difference I’ve noticed is just when navigating around the system. Every single action and animation happens smoother. I didn’t realize just how jagged the experience can be on the first-gen Apple Watch until I started using Apple Watch Series 2. It’s like a Retina display compared to a low-resolution display: once you see it, you can’t go back.
Apple Watch still takes a while to boot up. I timed 1 minute 42 seconds in my test. My iPhone 6s Plus took just 32 seconds for comparison. But my first-gen took an additional 65 seconds after Series 2 was up and running. I don’t reboot my devices very often, but I believe this difference puts overall performance between each device in some perspective.
Interestingly, I found that a lot of actions beyond launching apps actually took the same amount of time on my first-gen Apple Watch and new Apple Watch Series 2. They felt faster on Series 2, but direct comparisons would show no difference. I think the overall smoothness makes everything just feel faster. This includes using Hey Siri and switching watch faces.
Something I do believe is both smoother and faster is using the new scribble input method where you draw out letters and punctuation marks to send texts. I can easily outpace the first-gen Apple Watch but Series 2 does a better job of staying caught up with my finger.
Apple Watch Series 2 is water resistant for up to 50 meters, but Apple also described the first-gen Apple Watch as water resistant and plenty of wearers have taken it for a swim or two.
Wearing my first-gen Apple Watch, I’ve swam in the ocean, showered under high pressure water, sat in a jacuzzi, and splashed around in a pool. I did have one instance of damage to the screen that may have been related to that high pressure shower, but the first-gen Apple Watch was generally fine in water just like the new iPhone 7 appears to be.
The first-gen Apple Watch did have two issues with water though. The already-quiet speaker would get much weaker after it got wet. Apple redesigned the speaker and added a water-expel button using sound in the software for Series 2.
And the original Apple Watch seemed really bad at tracking activity in the pool or ocean because it wasn’t tuned to aquatic workouts. You could log a workout as “Other” and get credit for what amounts to a brisk walk, but it was in no way optimized for water activity. Series 2’s increased water resistance means Apple is confident that you can swim with it and Apple includes two aquatic workouts: Pool Swim and Open Water Swim.
While I managed to find an Apple Watch Series 2 in stores on Friday, my luck did not extend to finding access to a swimming pool. Stay tuned for future testing of Pool Swim workouts with Series 2.
I live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast so testing Open Water Swim was a little easier despite sporadic summer time thunderstorms. As someone who has discovered working out with the elliptical and outdoor cycling thanks to the original Apple Watch, I am thrilled to add water workouts to my rotation with Apple Watch Series 2.
I tested Open Water Swim on Saturday and Sunday in two very different water conditions. Series 2 features a built-in GPS that allows you to map your swim and more accurately track distance and calories burned. The Workout app warns that heart rate data may become unavailable at some parts of the exercise, but adding precise location helps Apple’s algorithms measure your activity.
The first screenshot shows my route on Saturday, but the water was very choppy so I jumped in, swam in a circle, and jumped back out. The screenshot shows various colors that depict how intense the activity was on different parts of the map. Other apps like Nike+ use this approach, but I do think Apple’s app could be clearer. I’m not immediately sure what the gray dots are telling me and that’s an issue.
The second screenshot appears to mostly reflect the activity, but the third screenshot really mixed up exactly where I was swimming (hint: I wasn’t swimming on land). I finally got the hang of the workout during my fourth screenshot, but for reasons unknown the Activity app does not include a map for this workout despite no known variables.
Suffice to say that I was not overly impressed with the built-in GPS’s ability to actually map out swims during my weekend testing. Hopefully future software updates improve the accuracy, but that’s never a given so I’ll report back after more extensive testing. Missing the map during the fourth screenshot was especially disappointing, but being able to fill my Activity rings and get credit for swimming is what’s most important to me.
Aside from route and intensity, Open Water Swim captures several useful data points: swim type (mixed in my case), duration and location, active and total calories, distance, average hate rate and pace, and local weather conditions, temperature, and humidity.
Thanks to Apple Watch Series 2, I plan on doing a lot more regular swimming and finding access to an indoor pool, but if you don’t swim or see an interest in it you’ll probably be fine with a less water resistant Apple Watch.
You’ve also probably heard about Apple’s neat trick to expel water from the air cavity required to make a speaker work. Apple Watch makes a series of tones that sound like what Windows does when you press too many keys, and any trapped water is pushed out. This happens when you end a water workout or you can engage it manually at any time. (The result isn’t dramatic; don’t expect a shot of water to shoot out.)
Apple Watch Series 2 adds a new locked status that works different than the main lock status. The Control Center panel that you access with a swipe up from the watch face uses a water droplet and a lock to turn on these modes.
The water mode locks the screen from activity, doesn’t hide fitness data, and requires rotating to Digital Crown on the side to turn off; the lock mode also turns off screen activity but does hide activity data and other information on the watch face while requiring a passcode to unlock.
If you wear your Apple Watch in the shower and don’t have a Series 2, the lock mode is the only way to ensure water droplets don’t launch apps and send messages that you don’t mean to send because display sees them the same as finger taps. Series 2 benefits from this water mode that lets you lock your Apple Watch in the shower without missing alerts and requiring a passcode.
Apple Watch Series 2 also employs the built-in GPS for tracking location and intensity during outdoor workouts that don’t involve the water: cycling, running, and walking. I don’t regularly run (yet), but I do bike about four miles on most days. I tested Apple Watch Series 2 with outdoor cycling without my iPhone using part of my usual route.
I did not experience the surprising GPS issues with outdoor cycling like I did with open water swimming; everything worked smooth and exactly as expected. My route was mapped precisely, there was no hiccup between starting a workout near my iPhone and losing range quickly, and you never have to interact with the GPS at all.
There’s so signal indicator to monitor or message to wait for a connection. As long as the issue encountered when swimming doesn’t become a regular occurrence, this is probably a good thing for most users and a very Apple move. Again, more extensive testing will be required to make a final determination.
I think a lot of runners and cyclists will really appreciate that GPS is now built in. Early Apple Watch reviews from fitness experts all called out the need to bring an iPhone along to map runs and accurately track outdoor workouts. Just search YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
Apple Watch Series 2 can remove the iPhone from the equation. I qualify that statement with can for now, however, because I still plan to bring my iPhone along for outdoor workouts even if that means strapping it to my arm or bike.
My primary reason is an easy one to solve, first with software, and further with future hardware. I mainly listen to podcasts, not music, when I run or cycle. Apple Watch can sync music (although a bug that makes this stall sometimes is showing up in a lot of reviews including mine), but there’s no podcast syncing. Apple could solve this problem with a software update at any time.
I’d also like to listen to audio from the built-in speaker but that would surely require better hardware. In my testing, the speaker on Series 2 is the same quality as the speaker on the original Apple Watch. Earphones are often not ideal and sometimes illegal to use during outdoor workouts since you need to be aware of your surroundings. For now I bring my iPhone along to play podcasts out loud while cycling.
My second reason for still bringing the iPhone is simple to explain but complicated to solve. I want to stay in touch with family in case of an emergency, but that means adding cellular to the Apple Watch. Cellular would surely take a big hit on battery life and require a thicker design (Series 2 is already 0.9mm thicker thanks to GPS and the larger battery), not to mention working out how carriers would charge for access.
One more thing on GPS. I launched the Maps app on Apple Watch Series 2 while my iPhone was in Airplane Mode without being on a known Wi-Fi network and received a message saying Apple Watch can’t connect to the Internet. The same test on the iPad at least plots your location on an empty map and points you toward north. The difference is the presence of a digital compass; add that to the list of things that will likely eventually come to Apple Watch.
During the Apple Watch Series 2 announcement, a hiking app that pre-loads maps called Viewranger was demoed using the GPS to keep you on route, however, so the sensor will have some use without the iPhone beyond workout applications. (I’m still bringing my iPhone if only for its camera on hikes for what it’s worth.) For me, the GPS will be most useful for outdoor swim tracking.
Before I close for now, I want to mention a few miscellaneous observations. First, I tested making a phone call on Apple Watch Series 2 and found the speaker to make this as much of a novelty as it was on the first Apple Watch. It’s just not loud enough to carry on a conversation in most environments.
Apple Watch Series 2 does have an extra microphone, however, which should improve voice input. [Update: The ‘extra microphone’ appears to only be an air vent. Apple describes the mic and speaker system as ‘direct fire speaker and microphone’ for the record.] The screenshot above shows iOS 10 voicemail transcription from a message I left my wife from a phone call placed on my Apple Watch Series 2 after swimming in the ocean. I think this is a very good testament to how well this all works. Water didn’t affect voice input and the transcription was spot on.
There’s also the 0.9mm increase in thickness when first-gen Apple Watch reviews called out thickness as an area that needs improvement. Despite its obsession with everything being thinner, Apple does go thicker sometimes for the sake of functionality.
iPad got thicker to accommodate the Retina display on the third and fourth generation models before it really slimmed up, iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are thicker than iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus to accommodate 3D Touch, and Apple Watch Series 2 is thicker to accommodate GPS and the necessary battery boost.
I mostly agree with everyone that says the thickness increase is hard to detect when wearing Apple Watch Series 2. I do notice that it feels heftier and more like a mini-tank, but I think that’s just how a darker casing feels compared to a lighter colored casing.
As for battery life, the verdict is still out on that. Since watchOS 3 was officially released, I’ve noticed an annoying hit on battery life compared to watchOS 2. This happened on the first-gen Apple Watch and Apple Watch Series 2 doesn’t seem invincible to it.
I’m still charging around 6pm after starting at 5am when this was a non-issue before watchOS 3. The solution is either sleep in until noon or hope that watchOS 3.0.1 includes a significant fix. I’ve heard from enough people that I think this is just how watchOS 3 is for now despite tweaking settings like display brightness and background app refresh.
Apple Watch Series 2 also starts a higher price than the first-gen Apple Watch, but this only applies to the base model. Apple Watch Sport was $349, then $299 while Apple Watch Series 2 starts at $369. Apple Watch Series 1, which is like the first-gen Apple Watch but with the dual-core processor, starts at $269. Series 2 also includes Apple Watch Nike+ and Apple Watch Hermès, which have special bands and watch faces, and Apple Watch Edition, which only includes white ceramic (no more gold and rose gold.
Aside from the base model, Apple Watch prices are unchanged this year with the big exception being Series 1 including the faster dual-core cheap at a cheaper cost.
One last note on swimming: Apple Watch Series 2 is water resistant enough to track swimming workouts, but there’s no breakthrough with display technology in water. You can’t use the touch screen when it’s wet; that’s why Apple locks it during swims.
watchOS 3 lets you click the Digital Crown and side button below it at the same time to pause and restart workouts, but I personally prefer using the touch screen.
My trick? Blow on the display when it’s out of water to quickly dry it off and do the same to your finger tip. It feels a lot like blowing into a Nintendo game cartridge to make it work again, but it’s effective.
The Taptic Feedback is also better on stainless steel models now compared to the first-gen Apple Watch, but taps are difficult to feel when swimming. During an 80 calorie Open Water Swim, I checked my progress by looking at the display a few times before the faint tap kicked in.
So that’s Apple Watch Series 2. The speed boost, brighter display, and ability to track swimming in the ocean and get credit toward my activity goals are key to me. I still want to explore pool swimming and hope the GPS and battery life issues are resolved in a future software update.
Apple Watch Series 2 is close enough to the first-gen Apple Watch that most people won’t consider upgrading unless a specific feature is appealing like in my situation. The GPS just isn’t used if you bring your iPhone along for other reasons, the display brightness is only detected in sunlight, and the Series 1 features the faster dual-core processor minus the GPS.
Unless you answer yes to the questions I posed at the opening, I recommend starting out with Apple Watch Series 1 even if you want to wear Apple Watch in the shower or in the rain. Just don’t expect to get accurate credit for workouts in the pool or ocean.
The last big question is when should we expect to see a theoretical Apple Watch Series 3? The first-gen Apple Watch was introduced in September 2014, released six months later in April 2015, and replaced a year and a half later but two years after the initial introduction. Apple Watch could move to an annual update like iPhones or last 18 months again or even two years.
With that in mind, I’ll end with this even if a ton of dissatisfied first-gen Apple Watch customers disagree: if you really like your original Apple Watch but really want a better experience like me, consider a Series 1 or 2 anyway.
I’m collecting my first-gen Apple Watch but if you like yours enough and find an upgraded model enticing then gift your old Apple Watch to someone you care about (don’t even bother selling it) and start using Series 1 or 2 today.
Apple Watch may not be for everyone, but if you liked the first model then Apple Watch Series 2 is better in a lot of the right ways. If you’ve never tried an Apple Watch but you’re curious about it, Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 are ready for primetime in ways the original Apple Watch may not have been.
[Update 10/18: For more on Apple Watch Series 2, check out our post-review tidbits on watchOS 3.1 battery life, GPS navigation, water resistance, and more here.]