The original Apple Watch was full of promises.
The promise to untether you from your iPhone. The promise to create a popular new computing platform. The promise to potentially create the next Instagram, Snapchat, or Uber as developers dreamed up new experiences for the Watch.
It’s been a year and a half since the Apple Watch went on sale, and none of that has happened.
In fact, we’ve seen the opposite. After essentially testing the product in public for so long, Apple has learned people use the Watch in a much more limited capacity than the company originally thought. Users don’t see the Apple Watch as a computer for the wrist. They see it as a fitness tracker and a way to quickly get information at a glance.
That’s the focus of the sequel to the Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Series 2, which is on sale now starting at $369. The Series 2 looks nearly identical to the original Apple Watch, but is now “swim proof” up to 50 meters, has GPS for accurately tracking runs and walks, a faster processor called the S2, and a brighter screen for improved visibility in direct sunlight. It also comes with watchOS 3, the new version of the Apple Watch operating system that has a slew of thoughtful improvements.
The biggest problem with the original Apple Watch was that it did too much. Now Apple is paring down many features and focusing on what matters. The Apple Watch still isn’t a perfect product, but the Series 2 does a much better job at showing the potential for smartwatches than the original Apple Watch ever did.
Focus on fitness
If you were paying attention to the Apple Watch Series 2 unveiling the other week, you would have thought Apple was launching a new Fitbit competitor, not a smartwatch. The bulk of the presentation focused on the new fitness-tracking capabilities of the Watch, and (with the major exception of the upcoming “Pokémon GO” Watch app) barely mentioned third-party apps.
It’s a smart move. There are only a handful of Apple Watch apps that I find truly useful, and I think the Watch is at its best when it’s working passively in the background by constantly monitoring how you move and exercise.
There are two major fitness improvements with the Apple Watch. The first is GPS, which turns on when you start a run, walk, or swim workout in the Watch’s exercise app. If you’re a serious runner, you know how important this feature is. In fact, GPS is one of the key reasons why Garmin’s fitness trackers are some of the most popular wearables in the industry.
The GPS is also a major drain on the battery, so it only activates during your workouts. I did notice the battery drain a lot faster while the GPS is on, but the Series 2 also has a larger battery to help compensate. In fact, on the days I didn’t use the GPS, I noticed vastly improved battery life on the Apple Watch. I could usually get a little over a day out of the original Apple Watch, but that easily stretched past two days with the Series 2 if I didn’t use GPS.
The second big fitness feature is water resistance. Apple calls the Series 2 “swim proof,” meaning it can survive under several meters of water during daily swim workouts. This was an essential feature missing from the original Apple Watch, which was simply “splash proof” and protected against the rain and water from the sink when you washed your hands. There are also new swim workouts for the Series 2 that can automatically track how many laps you’ve done along with your swim style.
The water resistance comes with its own tradeoff though. When you’re finished with a swim, you have to eject the water from the Apple Watch through its speaker. It’s a clever process: The Apple Watch plays a tone and the water kind of sputters out of the speaker. That may not be as seamless as a watch that’s completely sealed, but it is necessary since most other fitness trackers don’t have a speaker at all.
On the software side, the exercise app has been updated with more kinds of workouts, and a better status screen so you can easily check how long you’ve been working out and how many calories you’ve burned. The companion Activity app on iPhone also lets you share your progress with friends, so you can get updates when they complete a workout, or taunt them with emojis when you burn more calories.
All of that makes the Apple Watch Series 2 a great fitness tracker, but not necessarily a unique one. Fitbit recently introduced its own water-resistant fitness tracker a few weeks ago, and there are several devices that can track your runs via GPS for a lot cheaper than $369. Still, the Apple Watch has more capabilities overall than the competition (more on that in a bit), which may help you justify spending the premium.
WatchOS 3 and apps
But the bigger story here isn’t the hardware improvements made to the Series 2. It’s watchOS 3, which is also available now as a free update for the original Apple Watch.
watchOS 3 is the key to simplifying the Apple Watch’s features so you can focus on the stuff you care about the most.
The big one: watchOS 3 speeds up apps a lot. Clicking the fat button on the side now brings up the new “dock” of your 10 favourite apps. These apps are stored in the Watch’s memory, so they load instantly. (Before, apps would have to load data from your iPhone over Bluetooth, which was a painfully slow and frustrating process.)
While 10 apps may not seem like a lot, I think it hits the sweet spot. After all, there are only a handful of useful Apple Watch apps. I even had trouble finding enough to fill up my dock. My advice: only pick apps that allow you to quickly glance at information, like sports scores on ESPN or rain alerts on Dark Sky. Unfortunately, if you do use more apps than the 10 stored in your dock, you’ll notice they still run about as slowly as they did before. The Apple Watch still has a long way to go before it can be truly independent from the iPhone.
In fact, the dock all but replaces the need to visit the “bubble” screen that contains the icons for all your apps. I wouldn’t be surprised if that goes away altogether in future versions of watchOS. I never thought third-party apps made sense on the Watch in the first place. Most were mini versions of iPhone apps, which were a pain to use on a such a tiny screen. Ironically, the best Apple Watch apps did something simple without much friction, like calling an Uber. I imagine future Watch “apps” won’t really be apps at all now that Apple has learned more about how people use the Watch.
There are some other thoughtful improvements in watchOS 3, like the ability to change watch faces by swiping left or right on the watch screen and a handy control panel for toggling settings like Aeroplane Mode or the mute switch. And confusing modes like the “friend wheel” and glances have been hidden or eliminated.
Overall, watchOS 3 is a smart do-over for the Apple Watch, and I expect things to get even simpler in future versions.
It would have been better if Apple had started small and then added more capabilities to the Watch as the product matured. Instead, it threw all its eggs in one basket on day one and created something that was too complicated.
The Apple Watch Series 2 and watchOS 3 do a great job at unwinding a lot of that mess, and provides a better hint at the future of the Apple Watch. This isn’t a mini iPhone your wear on your wrist. It’s a piece of jewellery with some extra smarts built in to help you out when you need it. It’s what the Apple Watch should have been from the beginning.
Still, I don’t see the Apple Watch Series 2 as a must-own product. It’s nice to have, but not essential like a smartphone. Fitness buffs, especially swimmers and runners, will love it.
However, Apple is keeping the original Apple Watch around starting at $269. It also has the same upgraded S2 processor, making it an enticing option if you don’t care much about the GPS or using it while swimming. If you just want to give the Apple Watch a try, go with the Series 1. You won’t be missing too much.