- Good looking, comfy, waterproof
- Accurate swim tracking
- Improved usability and alerts
- Speedy, reliable GPS
- Battery life is still not great
- So-so apps
- No sleep or elevation
The Apple Watch Series 2 is the company's second-generation smartwatch. And it's been a big hit. The Apple Watch Series 2 has shifted in numbers since its launch in 2016, and leads the field as one of the best smartwatches money can buy.
With the Series 2, Apple shifted focus to fitness, by adding GPS to track runs and cycling session sans iPhone. It's fully waterproof and offers swim tracking in the pool and in open water. Apple even introduced the Breathe app to help you relax. The intentions are clear: Apple is making a big play for sports watch owners.
Wareable verdict: Apple Watch Series 3 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. But there's more to come with watchOS 4, and you can read below about how that will change the Series 2 experience.
Here's our full verdict of the Apple Watch series 2, which has been updated since our initial test with some long-term thoughts.
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 and feels as premium as it costs– especially in stainless steel paired with a leather or metal strap. In short, it's now a sports watch that doesn't look like a sports watch.
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.
Jog on: The best Apple Watch running apps
While there are some nuanced differences, you'd pretty much have to put the Apple Watch 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. (If we're being truly picky, we'd like to see it back to the original slim profile on v3.)
Everything else is business as usual. It's seriously light and comfortable - no mean feat - so you won't get arm ache as you might with a bulkier rival. In fact, it's one of the only real options for women who don't want an oversized watch on their wrist.
The crown and button still reside in the same place (although the role of the button has changed for the better in watchOS3) and the fitting for Apple Watch straps hasn't changed, which will be music to the ears of those who forked out for third-party bands and like how fast it is to swap them in and out.
It's still available in aluminium or stainless steel editions, plus of course the new ceramic version. There are new strap choices as well, including the woven nylon – in short, there's even more choice but it's the same, essential, iconic look.
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 a flash.
Essential reading: Best Apple Watch apps
That app bubble home screen remains, unlocked by a press on the digital crown, that still feels a little fiddly to select and launch apps compared to the improvements elsewhere. 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 and 4
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 feature try to extend the appeal of the Apple smartwatch.
It's worth noting that you can also still add music to your Apple Watch - say for a run using the GPS - via the Music app. There's about 2GB available for it, but you need to create a playlist in iTunes on your phone first.
Thanks to the internal processor upgrade, performance speed on the Series 2 has been given a bump. But it's the new ways of navigating the watch which are most welcome. The dock of recently used apps - activated by pressing the button under the crown - is a much needed addition, if you have found watchOS confusing in the past, as are the more customisable watch faces.
Apple's also since added Theater mode, which keeps the display asleep when you don't want it lighting up (but the haptic feedback will still alert you to notifications) and SiriKit, which will let developers build Siri into their Watch apps.
It's a better experience overall and we now get along with our Apple Watch like we never have before, but it's getting even better in watchOS 4.
Apple announced watchOS 4 at WWDC, and it will be rolling out this September alongside the Apple Watch Series 3. It's not a massive change, but the experience is more refined, while updates to the fitness features will make a lot of people happy.
First of all, there are some changes to navigation, including a new scrollable dock that makes more sense with the crown, while you can also do the same for the honeycomb grid of apps. A press of force touch and you can change that to a scrollable list, too.
Hands on: watchOS 4 review
With the new software, Apple is bringing in some new watch faces, the best of which is undoubtedly the Siri face. This serves up information about your day - upcoming calendar events, weather updates, traffic alerts - along with some other information it thinks you'll like, such as news stories. It's meant to be contextual, offering at-a-glance updates that you would normally get from the iPhone's widget panel, and in our time spent running the watchOS 4 beta it's one of our favorite new features.
But for the fitness fans, there's something for you too. Apple is bringing in GymKit, which will let you sync data from some cardio gym equipment to the Watch. Cybex, Star Trac, StairMaster and TechnoGym are some of the announced names so far who will be compatible. Apple's also added HIIT workouts, and promises improved algorithms for better heart rate accuracy.
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 and 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 when you push the button to access them.
In terms of the quality and selection of Apple Watch apps, things are still a little bit questionable. There certainly isn't a killer app on the App Store, it's more a combination of nifty, little one-function downloads which some people will love, some will find useless and the usual big smartphone app names.
Some third-party fitness apps haven't been updated to support the Apple Watch Series 2's GPS sensor. Strava says its app update is coming in "early 2017" to address this, for instance, though the likes of Runkeeper have already made the leap. Best to check if you're locked in to one app/community.
Apple Watch Series 2: Fitness, sports and heart rate
The Activity app is mostly unchanged this time around, with the three, beginner-friendly 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, you can increase or decrease manually each week, 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, usually a go-to for trackers and smartwatches, and there hasn't been much talk of this for future watchOS updates. Perhaps this is because Watch owners know you need to charge it overnight, you can't be wearing it 24/7. The wonders of the App Store means that there are third-party apps available that will do the job if you're happy with more frequent charging.
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.
Read this: Best GPS watches for cycling ranked and rated
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. That's bearing in mind the aforementioned split in third party fitness app support for GPS, of course.
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. For one thing, the Watch doesn't currently track elevation, a cause for concern from some runners on the web. But it's proved a pretty reliable running watch and very much 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. Since our initial review 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 wanted a waterproof Apple Watch and that's what we got. The 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 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)
In terms of how it performs in the pool, 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 is 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 it scored highly, delivering 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 wish it 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. But the Series 2 is better... marginally. Now you'll get around two days. That's what we found using the smaller 38mm model. The 42mm Series 2 has a bigger battery but a couple of days max is still not really enough battery life in our book.
We appreciate that it's going in the right direction but we also did look down on our commute home from work one day to a blank screen. Not a good look.
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. Just be careful how you place the Watch as it can end up being nudged off the charger quite easily.
Additional words by Sophie Charara.
How we test