App loading times were sluggish; the UI was wholly unfamiliar to longtime Apple buyers; connectivity was sometimes an issue; and fitness tracking didn't always work as it should. That didn't stop millions of buyers from plunging ahead, making the Apple Watch a modest success in a crowded wearables market.
This year's Apple Watch Series 2 -- unveiled last month when the iPhone 7 was previewed -- builds on last year's model and addresses most, but not all, of the issues early adopters faced. With the inclusion of GPS, a faster system architecture, better water resistance and support for more activity profiles -- including swimming and wheelchair support -- the Series 2 turns the Apple Watch into a more complete fitness band. And the system's overall responsiveness, in concert with watchOS 3, largely delivers on last year's first-generation promise.
The hardware details
But first, let's tackle the basics. In terms of look and feel, nothing much has changed; this year's model continues to reflect typical Apple minimalism. The main watch body is a simple rectangle of stainless steel, aluminum or -- on the high end -- ceramic. Weight varies from model to model depending on the materials, but the dimensions tend to be similar. As before, there are two display sizes. The version with the 42mm (1.6-in.) display measures 1.67 x 1.43 x 0.45 in. and weighs in at 1.2 oz.; the watch with the 38mm (1.5-in.) display measures 1.49 x 1.31 x 0.45 in. and weighs 0.99 oz.
All Series 2 watches feature a capacitive multitouch Retina display that's brighter than last year's screens and includes Force Touch technology. Pixel resolution is unchanged: 312 x 390 pixels (302 ppi) for the 42mm watch and 272 x 340 pixels (290 ppi) for the 38mm watch. The biggest change is that screen brightness has more than doubled, from 450 nits to 1,000 nits. The difference is easily apparent in broad daylight.
All models feature built-in GPS, the custom Apple-built S2 dual-core processor system on a chip, 8GB of internal storage, an ambient light sensor, heart-rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, and up to 18 hours of battery life (which is reasonably accurate, based on my usage over the past three weeks). Like its predecessor, the Series 2 carries on with a built-in mono speaker and microphone.
In addition to the wholly new Series 2 Watch, Apple now sells the "Series 1" Apple Watch, which is basically last year's model but with the faster chip. Since it starts at $269, this might be the model to try out If you're price-conscious.
The new lineup
Along with two differently-sized models, Series 2 is divided into four categories: the basic Apple Watch, the sporty Apple Watch Nike+, the stylish Apple Watch Hermés, and the pricey Apple Watch Edition.
Built of aluminum and Ion-X glass, the Apple Watch starts at $369 (vendor price) and comes with a sport band of woven nylon. The Watch housings come in a variety of colors, including rose gold, gold, black and silver. The more durable steel and sapphire display models start at $549 and have various price points up to $1,049, depending on the watch band and material. (The Space Black models cost more than the Stainless Steel models.)
The Nike+ models are based on the Series 2 models, but with a choice of four different -- and rather sporty-looking -- Nike bands. These start at $369, will ship Oct. 28 and are designed to tell the world you're a fitness aficionado. Functionally, they're the same as the base model, with the exception that this model also ships with exclusive Nike+ watch faces and complications, along with the Nike+ Run Club app.
The Apple Watch Hermes versions offer seven different bands to choose from, with a Hermes-specific Watch face option. This collection is based on the Series 2 stainless steel models with sapphire displays. Prices start at $1,149 on the low end and go up to $1,499 for the Etoupe Swift Leather Double Buckle Cuff.
Finally, the Series 2 Apple Watch Edition features a white ceramic body with sapphire display and a light gray-colored sports band called Cloud that's exclusive to this model. The Edition also comes with a charging dock, as well it should. It starts at $1,249.
For this review, I initially purchased the 42mm Space Black model before returning it for the shinier Stainless Steel model with a white sports band. To me, the regular Stainless Steel just looks more upscale, the Space Black, more sporty.
The importance of software
Software is the bridge to interacting with hardware. Last month, Apple's Watch received a pretty dramatic update with the arrival of watchOS 3, which went a long way to improving the user experience. The Watch team seems to have taken into account many of the early complaints and adjusted the software accordingly, including changing the little-used Favorites button so that it now launches the more useful Dock for recent and favorite apps. WatchOS 3 also boosted app launch speed by keeping Dock apps always in memory and introduced new exercise profiles for more accurate calorie tracking across even more activities.
Also important: WatchOS 3 introduced a new feature called SOS, which, when activated, calls out to the local emergency number, shares your location with emergency services and emergency contacts, and reaches out to your contacts with updates about your location if you move.
(For more details, see our in-depth watchOS 3 review.)
The enhancements to Watch Series 2 make use of those new features: GPS on the Watch makes location tracking more precise without an iPhone; the improved water resistance allows for use while swimming, diving or taking part in other water-based sports; and the improved system performance means you won't be impatiently waiting on the Watch to do something while you wonder if grabbing your iPhone would have been a better option. (That often happened to me with watchOS 1 and 2.)
Focus on fitness
Series 2 is being pushed as a more comprehensive health companion, and the hardware upgrades illustrate why. First, the entire casing has been redesigned to be more water resistant, up to 50 meters deep, according to Apple. There is even a setting in the software for when the Watch will be immersed, found in the Control Center. This setting locks the screen to avoid spurious interface touches due to the wet display; it is turned off by rotating the digital crown. A series of beeps will ring out as the Watch uses sound waves to clear the speaker cavity of water.
With the previous Watch, I never hesitated to wear it while showering, swimming in pools, or visiting water parks. And I never had problems. But this model is actually built for the water, not only with the aforementioned water- resistant casing and sound wave trick, but by being able to more accurately track swimming workouts.
The addition of GPS is also significant because it makes the watch truly a standalone fitness device; no longer does it require an iPhone to be present for accurate running and walk tracking.
What's also great about the GPS feature is that there is no way to turn it off or on. When the Workout app is launched, the Watch locks on to GPS, and if it sees that an iPhone is not around, it'll use that preemptive GPS lock to track your run or walk. It's all invisible, and happens with no user interaction.
As a result, I was able to run without any interruptions from iPhone notifications. But there's a caveat: Not having the iPhone means you can't capture a photo when the light hits a tree just right, and of course, you won't get any phone calls or messages. There's peace without the iPhone, but you're also leaving behind ... everything. This will be the case until the Watch comes with its own cellular data connection.
If you don't want your runs to be completely quiet, the Series 2, like earlier versions of the Apple Watch, lets you sync up to 250 songs and store them on the Watch itself. These songs can be played from the Watch when connected to a Bluetooth headset. However, to get GPS-accuracy with last year's model, you had to bring your iPhone with you. And since the iPhone's storage capacity is much greater than the Watch, it made sense to just pair your Bluetooth headset to the iPhone and access your larger song catalogue there. Now that the Watch uses GPS for tracking runs and walks, playing music stored on the Watch makes more sense.
System performance is doubled in the Series 2; an improvement that is instantly obvious. It's not just app loading times that have improved -- the Watch is much faster to react to touches and gestures.
Because the Series 2 is faster, I've started relying on it for even more functions. I even downloaded some simple games for it -- Apensar, BlackJack, Trivia Crack and Elevate -- to use as quick distractions. That's significant because I never felt compelled to try any gaming on the first gen Watch.
Another big difference this year is that the Taptic Engine is stronger, which makes a big difference on the Stainless Steel models. (The Taptic Engine is the component that provides physical feedback when you press on the screen or if the Watch is sending you an alert.) I was able to turn off the Prominent Haptic option because of the improved hardware; before, I would sometimes miss notifications without the additional buzzing Prominent Haptic feedback provides.
Making a switch
After using the Series 2 Space Black model for two weeks, I returned it for two reasons: The bands I purchased looked better with the Stainless Steel, and I knew I'd be forced to go back to using my first-gen Watch while waiting for the new one to arrive. I wanted to see if this year's improvements were actually worth the purchase of the new one or if I could survive with the older model.
I quickly realized that the brighter screen really does make a difference in day-to-day activities (especially if you're outdoors often). The heart rate monitor seems to be improved -- important to me since I'm active. And, most importantly, the faster hardware in the Series 2 goes a long way to encouraging use. I found myself more impatient with the first-gen Watch after spending time with Series 2. Speed spoils.
How I use it
I started out using the new Watch to track activity and workouts, as before. But I also figured since the watch already tells me to stand -- and to relax (via the Breathe app) -- it can also do things like notify me to drink water regularly and track sleep. For those, I use the WaterMinder and Sleep Pulse 2 apps, respectively. (Unlike most people who charge their watch overnight, I charge mine in the car on the commute back-and-forth to work.)
There are a variety of features on the Watch I use often, such as controlling the lights at my house on the Watch via Siri, starting my car, making payments via Apple Pay, and the ever-convenient action of logging into my Mac without entering a password. The integration with the iPhone (and the unlocking feature for Macs running macOS Sierra) make the Apple Watch a good add-on to the Apple ecosystem.
But mostly I use the Watch as a filter. With it on my wrist, my iPhone no longer rings and vibrates; it's always in silent mode. Every time I remove the phone from my pocket, my Lock Screen shows me those notifications that weren't important enough to interrupt my day -- the important ones I've already responded to with the Watch. I've customized it so that only the important notifications are sent to my wrist. If the Watch is tapping my wrist, it's telling me something I need to be aware of now. Without this filter, my phone would be constantly nagging me.
Still, there are a few things that would the Apple Watch Series 2 better.
To be a more complete fitness tracker, the Watch needs a barometer so it can more accurately track elevation changes; better battery life, so that GPS usage doesn't cut into what should be a day's worth of use; and new sensors in the bands to expand tracked Health data. That said, this year's software and hardware updates make the Series 2 a very good stand-alone fitness device.
If and when Apple ships a Watch with LTE/cell capabilities, that watch -- in concert with a Bluetooth headset -- could actually replace the cell phone for people on the go. But for now, we have a much-improved wearable from Apple that slots right into the ecosystem and provides a large number of uses for a wide variety of people. That said, it remains a good-to-have device more than a must-have.
WatchOS 3 went a long way to make the Apple Watch much more user-friendly and Apple-like in its utility. The hardware update finished the job. If you're already an iPhone user and in the market for a fitness band, or for a way to filter out digital distractions, this year's Watch models are worth checking out. They've come a long way in a year.