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Apple Watch Series 2 Review: A Clearer Vision of the Future

Fast and bright
That iThingy You're Wearing
September 21, 2016

While the old adage says you’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression, Apple Watch Series 2 proves otherwise.

The third time is a charm

The third time is a charm
watchOS 3.0 is a big part of the Series 2 device.

watchOS 3.0 is a big part of the Series 2 device.

Unveiled a little more than two years ago, the original device showed a plethora of promise but was held back by a number of factors – slow software, a sometimes confusing UI, an over reliance on gimmicks like Digital Touch, and Apple’s firm belief that apps would be the guiding force of the new platform.

Instead, buyers were greeted with a capable device that excelled at providing notifications, tracking health and fitness, and providing a dead-simple way to use Apple Pay. Anything else languished in the shadows.

Arriving a year ago, watchOS 2 served to make the device more bearable by offering third-party complications, more watch faces, and the ability for app’s to run directly from the watch.

But the game truly changed with the third version of the device’s software.

Announced publicly at WWDC in June, watchOS 3.0 arrived to the public last week and offers a number of new features – most notably a spectacular speed improvement that makes the original watch seem like a new device. You can read more about the software in my original review.

A 1-2 punch

A 1-2 punch
The Series 2 Apple Watch Edition is made with ceramic that's four times as hard as stainless steel.

The Series 2 Apple Watch Edition is made with ceramic that's four times as hard as stainless steel.

And right along with the new watchOS, the second-generation hardware hit the market late last week.

Series 2 devices start at $369 and go all the way up to $1,299 for the Edition version made with white ceramic. A 38mm and 42mm version are both available.

A special edition Nike+ model of the Series 2 Watch will be available in late October for $369 or $399.

Luxury Hermes versions, which arrive on Friday, run from $1,149 to $1,499.

Apple has also upgraded the original watch, which is still available to purchase. Now known as Series 1, it features an upgraded processor. That version is $269 for a 38mm edition. The 42mm version is $30 more. It’s available with just an aluminum case.

New features in (virtually) the same package

New features in (virtually) the same package
Series 2 is ready for the pool.

Series 2 is ready for the pool.

Without looking at the screen, any Series 2 watch is virtually indistinguishable from the original – and that’s not a bad thing. With a larger battery and built-in GPS, the new watches are 0.9mm thicker and up to 4.2 grams heavier than their original counterparts. At least for me, the difference has been indistinguishable.

The only way to tell that you’ve got a Series 2 watch is a second microphone hole on the left side. That definitely helps the “Hey Siri” command be understood in nosier environments. I’ve also noticed the second microphone has also helped improve the accuracy of any dictation, especially with short messages.

While the new watch may look identical, the other major addition is true waterproofing. The original watch was water resistant, like the new iPhone 7, and could withstand being submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes. Now, it can handle up to depths of 50 meters, but Apple doesn’t recommend it for scuba diving or other high-pressure activities like water skiing.

Twice as bright, and significantly faster

Twice as bright, and significantly faster
The Series 2 watch on the left is significantly brighter than the original device on the right.

The Series 2 watch on the left is significantly brighter than the original device on the right.

There’s also one feature you’ll instantly notice when using the watch – a much brighter screen. Measuring in at 1,000 nits, its more than twice as bright as the first version. For comparison, the iPhone 7 can crank up to a little less than 700 nits.

The screen brightness is readily apparent while outside on sunny days. The watch’s screen is easily visible, even wearing my favorite dark sunglasses.

While watchOS 3 offers a number of speed improvements, the Series 2 dual-core S2 processor takes the experience to a new level.

Every part of the interface is faster and smoother. The difference is very noticeable on everything you can do with the watch, including interacting with Siri, scrolling through watch faces, opening apps, and more. It feels like a whole new device, and a huge leap from the original watch.

Apps, even those not yet optimized for watchOS 3, open significantly faster. Fast enough where I’ve actually started to enjoy using apps right along with their complications.

Focused on fitness

Focused on fitness
Fitness is a major selling point of Series 2.

Fitness is a major selling point of Series 2.

Since the two major hardware improvements focus on fitness, I decided to run the watch through its paces, in both the the ground and water.

I’m not exactly a fitness fanatic, but I am trying to get a little better. The GPS feature worked as advertised and even better than I was expecting. Locking onto a GPS satellite was near instantaneous, and it was nice to keep my iPhone at home. After exercise outside, you can view a map of the route color-coded depending on the pace.

Developers will also be able to take advantage of the standalone GPS. One hiking app app, Viewranger, was shown off earlier this month at the special Apple media event and will be able to pinpoint your location and give directions without needing an iPhone.

Another app briefly shown at the event, Night Sky 4, is available to download now. Using the $0.99 app, you’ll be able to independently identify starts, planets, constellations, and even the International Space Station on your watch by just raising your wrist.

Night Sky 4 is one of the first watch apps to take advantage of the built-in GPS.

Night Sky 4 is one of the first watch apps to take advantage of the built-in GPS.

When not raised, it will show a celestial compass of where major objects are located.

I suspect we’ll see other apps soon take advantage of the functionality as well.

In the water, there are two new modes to select from in the built-in activity app – pool swim and open water swim. A pool swim doesn’t use GPS and you’ll need to enter the length of the pool before getting started to get accurate lap measurements.

While in open water, the GPS does measure distance, but that may be an issue using anything but a freestyle stroke.

Calories burned in both exercise types is tracked via the accelerometer.

The screen will also lock during a swim. When you’re done turning the Digital Crown will play a quick noise to eject any water from the speaker.

Explore the stars

Battery life

Battery life
With normal use, the Series 2 battery can go for a full day before needing to be recharged.

With normal use, the Series 2 battery can go for a full day before needing to be recharged.

Now onto the question of battery life. Even though the cell is slightly bigger on the Series 2 watch, overall battery life is still very similar to the original. The larger battery is likely because of the faster processor, GPS, and brighter screen.

While I didn’t do any formal testing, I was easily able to go for a full day on a single charge with my 42mm model, including at least three workout sessions. At most, after waking up at 6 a.m., the watch was down to 18 percent at 11 p.m. at my bed time.

Would I like to see the battery life improve? Sure, but at this stage in the life of the wearable device, its not one of my top priorities. For most users, the watch can last for a full day without needing to be charged. While it’s not ideal to have to charge it each night – I would eventually like to use my watch for sleep tracking – the current battery life shouldn’t be a deal breaker for any potential buyer.

What's missing

What's missing
There's a more subtle way to check the time on the Series 2 watch.

There's a more subtle way to check the time on the Series 2 watch.

At this stage in the game, there’s not any huge missing feature I can point at. Until Apple is able to create a cellular-enabled version that can last for a full day on a single, which I think could be a few generations down the line, the speed increase and other improvements of Series 2 are welcomed and continue to make the Apple Watch the best fitness-focused device for iPhone users.

My only disappointment with Series 2, admittedly small, is that the display doesn’t show the time even when not activated. A number of Android Wear devices offer the feature, and I was holding out hope Apple would add the feature. I would have been thrilled with even something along the lines of the Low Power Mode time display. But no dice.

To make up for that, just a bit, I have noticed an interesting Series 2-only feature. When the display is off, gently turn the Digital Crown up, and the time will appear on the screen. Turning it down will shut the display off.

At least that provides a bit better way to check the time instead of attempting to subtly fling my wrist at inopportune situations. It will have to do, hopefully until Series 3. Now if Apple could find a better way to display apps instead of the maddening honeycomb, most all my complaints would be answered.

Final thoughts

Final thoughts
An impressive remake.

An impressive remake.

I’ve been using the Apple Watch Series 2 since late last week and have come away impressed.

If you’ve been on the fence about buying the watch, now is the time to reconsider. Series 2 presents a nice overall package for fitness enthusiasts looking for a wearable device. And even if you’re not a big swimmer or runner, the upgraded Series 1 devices – thanks to the dual-core processor and new software – are definitely worth a look, especially with the lower price tag.

The hardware improvements, along with the much-improved watchOS 3, show that Apple understood the issues with the first version of the device and took the time to vastly improve the overall experience. Apple improved what worked and demoted what hasn’t clicked with users. That might not have taken “courage,” but it definitely shows that Apple has the good business sense to pivot when needed.

Even though a host of technology critics have called the Apple Watch a “flop,” the truth is that Apple – just like everyone else – is learning how a smartwatch fits into our daily lives. It took years for the iPod and iPhone to define those respective categories. The Apple Watch is on the right path with its second iteration. Time, and improving technology, will show how the device can become even better.