The Apple Watch Series 2 is the company's second generation smartwatch and iPhone companion. But more importantly, it's a second chance to show the world that it really can make its Watch as universally loved as the iPod, iPhone and iPad.
With the Series 2 Apple has shifted the focus to fitness, adding GPS to track runs and cycling session sans iPhone. It's now fully waterproof and offers swim tracking in the pool and in open water. Apple has even introduced a new Breathe app to help you relax. Apple's intentions are clear: it's making a big play for sports watch owners.
Go running: Apple Watch Nike+ review
But it's not ignoring those who'd prefer to steer clear of a gym. With watchOS 3, Apple is looking to right the software wrongs of its predecessor, improving the way you interact with the Series 2 on a daily basis, offering better third-party app support and more.
Just like the first Watch, we had high hopes for this second coming. So here's our definitive review of the Apple Watch Series 2.
Apple Watch Series 2: Design
So what's changed with the Apple Watch? Well, visually, nothing. The Apple Watch continues to be the most divisive smartwatch around. For many it's an abhorrent square wrist-computer, devoid of any style. To others it's sleek, opulent and classy. For our money, it's a great-looking device – especially in stainless steel paired with a leather or metal strap.
For many the primary purpose of a watch is to make a statement. The Apple Watch is one of the few smartwatches that's capable of doing that.
While there are some nuanced differences, you'd pretty much have to put the Series 1 and 2 side-by-side to notice the difference. It's very slightly thicker than the original, which is just about noticeable on the 42mm version, less so on the 38mm.
Everything else is business as usual. The crown and button still reside in the same place (although the role of the button has changed in watchOS3) and the fitting for straps hasn't changed, which will be music to the ears of those who forked out for third party bands.
It's still available in aluminium or stainless steel editions, plus of course the super new ceramic version. There are new strap choices as well, including the woven nylon – in short, there's even more choice.
Of course, the big change is waterproofing. Apple has steeled the Watch Series 2 against 5ATM of water pressure, which works out to about 50 metres. The most impressive thing is achieving that without changing the design, and that's no mean feat. Remember how Jawbone totally screwed up the UP3 because it couldn't waterproof it?
The screen has also changed, and is now twice as bright as the Series 1 at 1,000 nits. The difference is certainly apparent here though many will miss the change, given that the Watch defaults to 66% brightness, presumably for battery longevity reasons. Ramp it up and it's pretty dazzling – and still the best display of any smartwatch on the market.
Apple Watch Series 2: Features
At the heart of Series 2 are the very same features that we've become accustomed to with the first Watch. You can still use this as a watch first and foremost, changing watch faces (including new Activity-focused faces) from the Watch itself or in the companion iPhone app. You can customise with Complications (small widgets) making it easier to get to your favourite apps from the main watch screen. From that perspective, it's a fine watch replacement. It's not an always-on display, but a quick raise of the arm will show you everything you need in seconds.
There's still that app bubble home screen, unlocked by a press on the digital crown, that still feels a little fiddly to select and launch apps. Notifications are still very much part of proceedings as well, flashing up native and third-party apps (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc) on the watch so you don't have to dip into your pocket to retrieve your phone.
As a core smartwatch feature, it didn't work fantastically on the original but it's so much better on Series 2. Notifications appear with no issues letting you read, dismiss or deal with them as you see fit. It still struggles slightly when it has to deal with multiple notifications from the same app in a short space of time, but on the whole Apple has handled this side of things a whole lot better.
Speaking of notifications takes us nicely into communicating, that is, how you can respond to contacts, other Apple Watch/Series 2 owners or social media updates without getting out your phone. You can still make calls and use Siri, but we've found that Apple has addressed the issue for those who don't want to speak into their watch to respond to people. The way you find out those notifications are coming through are usually from a pretty audible ping or a gentle buzz from Apple's taptic engine. It's impossible to miss when someone is getting in touch, and if you value needing to know that information as soon as it comes through, the Series 2 delivers.
In the native Apple Messages app, you can still use voice to dictate responses and pick from a preloaded responses (Thanks, call you back, etc). You can easily throw emojis into the conversation and now you can also use a new Scribble feature. This lets you draw out letters individually with your fingers to type out messages. The accuracy is surprisingly good as well. Sometimes you need to draw quickly for it to register, but it's a great addition, and you can also use it within Google Hangout conversations. And of course we shouldn't forget about Digital Touch. You can still send drawings, but it's no longer done from the Friends section (more on that shortly).
Apple Watch Series 2: WatchOS 3
Away from the added fitness-centric features, a lot of what is good about Series 2 is down to the introduction of watchOS 3. Apple has kept its promise to make continual and regular improvements through its watchOS updates and has done so since the first Apple Watch launched.
In its latest iteration, a whole host of new features and improvements have been made. Some of these aim to change the way users will interact with Series 2, and others like the new Breathe (gimmicky, but a nice addition) or SOS Emergency app try to extend the appeal of the Apple smartwatch.
Our news editor Hugh has spent the past week with watchOS 3 on the original and we echo his thoughts on the changes from a Series 2 perspective. Thanks to the internal processor upgrade, performance speed has been given a bump. The dock is a welcome addition as are the more customisable watch faces. It's a positive feel on the whole. It's still a work in progress and it's still not as easy to pick up and use as an iPhone, but it's getting there.
Apple Watch Series 2: Apps and performance
The Apple Watch works in much the same way as the original, in that there's a host of pre-installed apps. Then of course there's the App Store, accessed through the Apple Watch companion app.
The stock apps are still much the same, Workout, Activity, Mail, Messages, Stopwatch, Photos, Weather, Music, Stocks, Clock, Remote (for controlling iTunes), Maps, Calendar are all included.
It's a pretty complete set, but your screen will be a lot busier when you load it for the first time. Many of your existing iPhone apps have Apple Watch versions, and the setup process will identify and add those to your smartwatch.
The Apple Watch has the most varied and vast collection of apps of any ecosystem, but it's still been tough going for Apple. What's more, performance issues meant that some of the apps were just unusably slow. Well, performance has noticeably improved thanks to the beefier dual-core processor under the hood. A new app takes around two seconds to fire up from cold, where before that could run to over five seconds – and then there was no guarantee it wouldn't hang or crash.
The increased usability is even more pronounced when you use the dock in watchOS 3. This keeps your six most commonly used apps pre-loaded, which means they're instantly usable.
In terms of the quality and selection of apps on the Apple Watch, things are still a little bit questionable. There certainly isn't a killer app on the App Store, and after initially trialling a few apps, most reside unused on the home screen. What's more, at the time of writing most third-party fitness apps haven't been updated to support the Apple Watch Series 2's GPS sensor, although we're sure that's just a matter of time.
Apple Watch Series 2: Fitness, sports and heart rate
The Activity app is mostly unchanged this time around, with the three rings for Move (steps), Exercise (active minutes) and Stand (amount of hours in the day where you got up and moved) all tracked.
We've always been fans of the three metrics and they still offer a decent way to ensure you're leading a healthier lifestyle. What's more, the rings offer a more visual way of accessing your goals, without getting bogged down in numbers. The Move goal is also variable, and the Apple Watch will tailor it if you're repeatedly smashing or failing your daily target. Apple now makes it easier to share your activity with other Watch owners, which means you can keep a close eye on how you're faring against friends for that extra motivational push.
But what about accuracy? Well, we put the Apple Watch up against the Fitbit Charge 2 and found them to be comfortably close in their estimations of steps and distance. That's reassuring for prospective owners of both Apple and Fitbit devices. There's still no sleep tracking built in, but the wonders of the App Store means that there are third-party apps available that will do the job.
It's fair to say that we didn't have the greatest experience running with the first Apple Watch. It was basic, didn't play nice with third-party fitness apps and we were expecting so much more when Apple said it was making a big push on fitness and sport with its smartwatch.
Now Apple has added in GPS so you can leave the iPhone behind whether you're running, cycling or just going out for a walk – and still track activity. Pack some iTunes/Apple Music tracks onto your Series 2, grab a pair of wireless headphones and you're good to go.
Tracking is still done via the Workout app and if you throw a Workout complication onto your watch face, it makes it even quicker to launch a run. Apple promised GPS lock-on to be within seconds and we were sceptical, but it did not lie. You'll get all of the data you'd expect to glance at mid run including distance, time, heart rate and average pace. As far as accuracy is concerned, we put it up against the TomTom Spark 3, a running watch we've just handed a 9 out of 10 score and it matched up on GPS tracking.
Apple Watch Series 2 (left and centre) and TomTom Spark 3 (right)
On the few runs we took it out on, there was an average difference of 0.30km for distance recorded. Average pace was usually a 9-10 second difference, while average heart rate readings were within 3-4 bpm of each other. You can now view your route and breakdown of average pace per mile/km but you're unable to dig deeper into heart rate information.
On the treadmill, it's hit and miss again. This time you're relying on the accelerometer to track running motion. Up against the Spark 3, distance tracking was usually 300-400m off and average pace was significantly off, although average bpm heart rate readings were generally accurate. The Spark 3 is by no means perfect for indoor run tracking, so we are a little more forgiving about the Series 2's performance.
As a running watch experience, you shouldn't expect anything out of the ordinary here and we're not sure Garmin, Polar etc will be quaking in their boots. But it's proved a pretty reliable running watch and an improvement on the first Apple Watch.
Heart rate performance
Apple Watch Series 1 hardly received plaudits for its heart rate accuracy, even though it's far from the worst optical device out there. We've been out to test the Series 2 all over again, and have to say it's performed admirably well.
The sensor takes a while to lock on initially, kicking in about a minute after the run starts. During steady runs the Series 2 stayed fairly close to a chest strap, always within 5bpm and as the run progressed, even closer. It's one of the better performances we've seen, not quite as strong as the TomTom Spark but certainly as reliable as Garmin's optical heart rate tech and stronger than the Fitbit Charge 2.
What's more, the interval performance didn't totally suck – which is always a surprise. We tracked five hill sprints against a chest strap, and while the Series 2 was certainly far slower in reporting heart rate than the chest strap, it pretty much nailed HR peaks perhaps 10 seconds after the end of the interval. It's not a perfect performance, but if you do hit the gym for HIIT classes, we'd hazard to say that the data would be useful when you return.
Where the Series 2 falls down is when you're trying to hit a target HR during very short intervals. If your bursts are less than a minute you've no chance, but longer sessions should be okay.
We've been having some technical issues with the Activity app, so screenshots and deeper analysis of the Apple Watch Series 2's heart rate performance will be updated over the coming days.
We wanted a waterproof Apple Watch and that's what we got, and more. Series 2 is waterproof up to 50 metres depth, which is the same as the Fitbit Flex 2. That means you can safely take it in the shower or bath (we've done both) and it'll survive to live another day.
Apple has taken things further by throwing pool and open water swim tracking into the mix, which means you'll get served up with a host of metrics including distance covered, lengths, average pace and can distinguish stroke style. It's more than we were expecting and what's even better news is that it works really well.
Apple Watch Series 2 (left and centre) and TomTom Spark 3 (right)
We focused on how well it performs in the pool (we'll update with our thoughts on open water swimming at a later date) and getting it up and running is very easy. Select the indoor pool sports tracking in the Workout app and then you'll need to select pool length. The Watch will to tell you that it's going to lock the screen.
You can still raise your wrist to view performance in real time, but anything else is off limits. When you're done swimming, twisting the digital crown initiates a process where water is cleaned out from the Watch speaker and you can start using it as normal once again. You'll be able to see a tidy summary of your workout, which is shared into the Activity iPhone app.
As far as data accuracy is concerned, the Series 2 was on the money. We put it up against the TomTom Spark 3, which essentially uses the swim tracking tech featured in the original Spark, and scored highly in our big swim tracking test. It delivered the same distance, lengths and average pace metrics. All of that data lives inside the Activity app and contributes to filling up those activity rings. Sadly, it doesn't appear that data can be integrated into third-party fitness apps, which is a shame. Overall, we loved swimming with the Series 2, we just hoped we could be more flexible with where the data lives.
Apple Watch Series 2: Battery life
Battery life on the original Apple Watch wasn't great. It would get you a day and that was your lot. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't a lot of talk about Series 2 battery life at its big reveal and that's probably to do with the fact that you're still not going to get Pebble smartwatch-like levels of stamina. Sorry folks.
But it is better. Now you'll get two days, giving you an extra day. That's what we found using the smaller 38mm model. The 42mm Series 2 has a bigger battery so it should in theory offer more and we'll be testing that out in the not-too-distant future. It's still not really enough battery life in our book, but we appreciate that it's going in the right direction.
If you're planning to track a run or swim and use apps and notifications regularly, then you'll find yourself tapping into Apple's power reserve mode by the end of the second day. That restricts core features giving you a more standard watch experience. It still uses the same charger as the first Watch and it's pretty zippy at getting back to full charge when it does die on you though.
- Good looking with waterproof design
- Accurate swim tracking
- Improved notification support
- Speedy, reliable GPS
- Battery life only improved by a day
- App drawer still fiddly
- Still no sleep tracking
- Doesn’t track elevation
Shop for recommended smartwatches on Amazon
Wareable may get a commission