Pros: Series 2’s fitness tracking abilities give the Watch a more focused path. The awaited built-in GPS is accurate and adds another dimension to the smartwatch. Swimproof water-resistance will be welcomed by all, but swimmers will also appreciate the detailed swim tracking. Expelling water from the speaker by using the Digital Crown is smart and cool. The display is brighter, and better in direct sunlight. The processor, GPU, and vital watchOS 3 update all help the watch run quicker and smoother than ever before. Microphone performance has improved. Apple apps and features are still strong.

Cons: Though the Watch’s appeal has broadened, it’s still relatively narrow with no true “wow” feature. No notable gains in battery life or charging ability. watchOS 3 and an upgraded processor offer a great benefit to first-gen Apple Watch users as well, at a lower price. We saw some Bluetooth connection issues when playing music straight from the Watch, though they may be sporadic. Though watchOS 3 makes the watch a bit more intuitive, there’s still a bit of a learning curve for non-users. We’ll still have to wait to see how many third-party apps will prove to be truly worthwhile. Lack of elevation tracking may frustrate hikers.

Apple’s newest watch, Apple Watch Series 2, represents a shift in the trajectory of the product. While the first Apple Watch was a promising smartwatch that excelled in notifications, it was a bit scattershot in its approach. Series 2 aims to be a faster, better smartwatch with a distinct fitness focus.

The original Apple Watch offered many different case/band combinations for users to choose from, and Apple Watch Series 2 is no different. The watch starts at $369 for the smaller 38mm size, which is $20 more than the original Watch launch price. The 42mm size starts at $399, as before. Either the nylon or sport bands are offered for the base price with Apple’s Ion-X glass display (which is durable but definitely not invincible, as we’ve seen over a long period of use), and an aluminum case in gold, silver, rose gold, or space gray. You can get a stainless steel case with a sapphire crystal display and a sport band for $549, with other bands increasing the price. Apple Watch Hermès models will set you back anywhere from $1,149 to $1,399, depending on size and buckle, and Apple’s new white ceramic case with a sport band is the only watch now dubbed “Apple Watch Edition.” It’s $1,249 or $1,299. Goodbye to the options that put Apple Watch into the five-digit price range.


One other special option is the Apple Watch Nike+, which costs the same as the typical aluminum sport options, but with Nike branding. The Nike+ watch has four band options and a special Nike watch Face — it arrives in October. All Series 2 watches come with a magnetic charging cable and 5W USB power adapter, at the very least. The 38mm aluminum Watch we tested came with Apple’s nylon band, which we like very much.


Apple Watch Series 2 looks almost the same as Series 1 (the new name for the “original” Watch, now with an added dual-core processor), with a few slight exceptions. The Series 2 watches are 0.9mm thicker than their Series 1 counterparts, presumably for a larger battery and waterproofing reasons. Series 2 has a redesigned microphone, which improved phone calls in our testing. Other than that, the back of the Series 2 watch is now ceramic, as opposed to a composite back. We’ll get into the rest of the features in the following pages, and let you know if Series 2 is worth the purchase, or if you’re better off with what’s now Series 1, which Apple hasn’t left behind — in fact, it’s dropped the price.

Workout + GPS: By land or sea

Apple Watch Series 2’s built-in GPS solves a simple problem for many runners and cyclists — you can track your workouts while away from your iPhone. In an era of large iPhones, that’s no small thing. The watch will measure your distance, time, and pace, and you’ll be able to see the route on your iPhone’s activity app, along with calories burned and average heart rate. A built-in GPS has already been available in a number of available fitness trackers for some time, so it does make the Apple Watch feel a bit more “complete,” and our route maps and records appeared to be very accurate in testing.

Apple Watch Series 2 is swimproof. That means it’s water-resistant to 50 meters, standard for a swim watch, though Apple notes in fine print that it “should not be used for scuba diving, waterskiing, or other activities involving high-velocity water or submersion below shallow depth.” For swimmers, though, it’s great. One could argue that’s too narrow a portion of the market, though, and we wouldn’t disagree.

The Series 2 introduces two new workouts in the Workout app: pool swim and open water swim. Open water swim will actually use the GPS to track your swimming route. We were able to test pool swim, which instructs users to calculate the length of the pool for an accurate lap measurement. The Watch will lock up during the swim — so you won’t be able to swipe around and use the watch —but you can view total time, active calories burned, laps, and total yards swam by default, and can add average pace, total calories, and heart rate through the Watch app. Once the workout’s finished, you can turn the digital crown to expel water from the speaker, thus unlocking the watch. In our testing, the watch worked very well when it came to laps and yardage.

As we heard from Apple during the keynote, “calculating calorie burn for swimming is really tricky.” When the workout is finished, results show up in the iPhone Activity app for “active calories” and “total calories.” Presumably, the active calories show the time spent swimming the laps, while the total calories account for that time and any other time spent in the pool, even when resting between laps. The app also gives swimmers the location of the swim, time the workout was done, the weather at that location at the moment, and it even tells you which stroke you used most — I alternated between standard freestyle and breaststroke, so the “mixed” reading would be accurate. The average pace of the Watch doesn’t exclude any resting time in the pool. (For running, you can set the Watch to pause automatically for resting time through the iPhone Watch app.)

A few more tidbits: if you happen to have both an older Watch and Series 2 Watch paired to the same phone, the first-gen Apple Watch will still show swim results on it — it just won’t be able to do that tracking itself. Also, Series 2 doesn’t track elevation, so while you can take the watch hiking to measure other categories, you’ll need the iPhone for elevation.

Speed, Display + Battery

Series 2’s new dual-core processor enables apps to open much faster the first time they’re opened in comparison to the original Apple Watch, and slightly faster on apps that have already been opened. Keep in mind, however, that watchOS 3 and upgraded processors enable faster speeds for both Series 1 and Series 2 watches — that’s the biggest difference maker. So yes, Series 2 is faster than before, but watchOS 3 provides more of a level playing field than would have been possible before. A new GPU has also been added to increase graphical performance.

Series 2 has a display which Apple claims is not just “two times brighter than before” but also “the brightest display Apple has ever shipped on any product.” While we can’t verify that claim, the display is indeed brighter. It’s most evident in brighter sunlight. While it could be tough to see the original Apple Watch display in such sunlit situations, Series 2 is much improved — though not absolutely perfect. To be fair, we never really considered the first Apple Watch to be too dim, but the better display is certainly a benefit. The below photo was taken in low light to show the difference between the display of the Series 2 (left) and the first-gen Watch at max brightness. The Series 2 display isn’t actually blurry as seen here, it just appears that way in this photo due to its higher brightness level.

If anyone was wondering if Apple Watch would go to an always-on display in this iteration, especially with a larger battery, the answer is clearly no. We don’t mind the way Apple Watch works in that regard, but some — especially those considering other smartwatches — may still disagree.

Speaking of that battery — while an iFixit teardown revealed the 38mm Watch battery to be 32 percent larger than that in the original Watch, Apple’s technical pages note the same estimated 18-hour battery life as the original Apple Watch. iFixit surmises the GPS has a lot to do with that, and we wouldn’t disagree. So you’re still going to need to charge your Apple Watch every night with Series 2.

Odds + Ends: Bluetooth, Charging, watchOS 3

Now that the GPS is on board, users have more of a reason to store music on the Watch itself. Before, we mostly just used the watch to control playback when working out. Now, you can leave the iPhone at home and call up your workout mix on the Watch, listening on connected Bluetooth headphones as you run, jog, or walk. You can still store up to 2GB of music on the Watch itself. Note: syncing a playlist still requires the Apple Watch to be charging at the time, and even if the playlist is relatively short, the process seems as slow as it did in the previous Apple Watch.

In theory, this is a great development — store all your workout information on the fly and get your music without another device. But in practice, Apple Watch Series 2 was spotty in its Bluetooth connection. Using the same trusty Bluetooth 4.0 earbuds we’ve used for a while — earbuds which gave us no problems during iPhone 7 testing — Series 2 went from fine to unlistenable and back again over the course of one walk.

 

So, we paired Series 2 with a speaker, and it worked fine. We re-paired it with the earbuds, and got the same problems as earlier. We then paired those earbuds with an iPhone and had zero issues. We then tried a second pair of Bluetooth headphones, and everything was fine. It seems that, at the very least, this Watch isn’t playing nice with all Bluetooth options as it should. This will hopefully be fixed in a watchOS update, but for now, we hope the Watch works as it should with your favorite pair of Bluetooth headphones.

Charging Apple Watch is still a bit hard to quantify, but we think, based on our tests, that a 38mm Series 2 watch should fully charge in about two hours or so. This jives with Apple’s estimates, as the company claims both the 38mm and 42mm should fully recharge in “about 2 hours.” We assume most users plan on charging the Watch overnight.

As in our first Apple Watch review, we’re excited about the potential for third-party developers getting involved. The first time around, that didn’t work out so great — we thought a few third-party Watch apps were great (Dark Sky, MLB At Bat) — but for the most part, they never came close to Apple’s own apps. We’re already seeing an improvement due to watchOS 3, and now we’re hoping for even better results and worthwhile apps, with developers getting to take advantage of the speedier processor, and tap into the GPS. Not everyone loves Apple’s Workout app, after all.

Truth be told, a lot of the improvements first-time Watch owners might see in Series 2 are thanks to watchOS 3, which has also arrived on Apple Watch Series 1 and the first-gen Watch. The speed at which apps open is a wonderful development on its own, in addition to new Watch faces and a bevy of smart UI changes. Series 2 users might see slight performance boosts by comparison, but watchOS 3 is as big a reason as any to purchase either Apple Watch right now. (Read our watchOS 3 Instant Expert feature for more details.)

Conclusions

If you’re not at all interested in fitness tracking, Apple Watch Series 2 is likely about as appealing as the first-gen Watch was when it was first released. That being said, if you are a runner or swimmer this may be the push you need to get an Apple Watch. And if you already wanted an Apple Watch, this might push you to be a runner or swimmer. It’s nice to see more of a focus for Apple’s smartwatch, and this was a smart — and obvious — direction for the device.

Now, if you’re considering both Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 at this point, it’s not so cut-and-dry. Workout warriors will undoubtedly want the Series 2. But are the other upgrades — swimproof water-resistance, a brighter display, and a smoother experience — enough to justify the $100 premium? If you’ve got the money and you were waiting to see what Apple did with the second generation of the device, we think the new Watch is worth the extra dough. If you mainly want an Apple Watch for notifications and apps, Series 1 is still a solid choice, especially when considering watchOS 3 and its upgraded processor. Apple Watch Series 2 may not be a massive leap forward, but it offers a smarter, more refined package.

(Editor’s note: Some of the language in this review has been changed to clear up confusion between the original first-gen Watch, and the Series 1 Apple Watch.)

Our Rating

B+
Recommended

Company and Price

Company: Apple

Model: Apple Watch Series 2

MSRP: $369-$1,399

Compatible: iPhone 5 or later