The Apple Watch Series 2 offers the best smartwatch experience money can buy, but it's not cheap and it's not yet a must-have device. That being said, the Apple Watch Series 2 feels more focused than Apple's first attempt at cracking the wearable world, and importantly, more user friendly.
Cost: From $529
What Is it?
The Apple Watch Series 2 is the second iteration of Apple's first smartwatch. It looks exactly the same, it's compatible with the same straps, but there's plenty of meaningful changes under the hood.
The most of important of these - revamped software - isn't exclusive to the Series 2. Owners of the original Watch will also benefit from the upgrade to watchOS 3, but obviously, a software update can't add other key features, which include enhanced water-resistance, dedicated GPS, a faster processor, and a bigger battery.
Many of the Apple Watch Series 2's new features relate to health and fitness. The biggest - arguably - is improved water-resistance. While the original Apple Watch was ostensibly splash-proof, the Series 2 is swim-proof; it can safely be submerged as deep as 50m. As a result, you can use the Watch's workout tracking functionality to log your swim.
Starting an aquatic workout will lock the Watch's display so that water doesn't interfere with the touchscreen. Spinning the digital crown will unlock it again, and fire up the speakers to eject any water that may have snuck inside. Which is actually kind of cool.
It is however worth noting that Apple says you shouldn't use the Watch when scuba diving, water-skiing, or partaking in other activities involving high-velocity water. Elastomer sports bands and woven nylon bands are both fine for underwater usage, but leather and stainless steel options - unsurprisingly - aren't.
Since the Apple Watch Series 2 is a gadget, Apple also recommends not exposing it to soap, shampoo, or conditioner, as they can all affect water seals. In the same vein, if you're swimming in a chlorinated pool or in the ocean, be sure to rinse off your Watch in fresh water after to avoid corrosion.
On board GPS is sure to delight runners; the Apple Watch Series 2 no longer relies on a paired iPhone for satellite data, meaning you can accurately map a run, jog, or walk while your phone is at home. And of course, this is also helpful for maps.
The Apple Watch is now also taking on wellness, offering regular reminders to breathe. You can use these to kick start a quick one to five minute breathing session designed to help you de-stress. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but at the very least, the Breathe app is quite well designed. It provides pretty visual cues on screen, haptic feedback if you'd prefer to close your eyes, and also tells you your new heart rate after your chill sesh is over. If you're not into the whole wellness thing, you can just disable the reminders.
The Apple Watch Series 2 runs the revamped watchOS 3 straight out of the box, and it's a massive improvement over the initial Apple Watch software, addressing many of the issues I had with Apple's first take on a wearable. The most meaningful improvement is that the Apple Watch Series 2 is so much faster.
Most of this can be attributed to the fact you can store eight of your favourite apps in the Watch's RAM, which means they open pretty much instantly. Waiting for apps to open was one of the awkward quirks on the original Apple Watch, where it felt like you could have just pulled out your phone in the same time.
Performance improvements aside, watchOS 3 feels more thought out and cohesive as a whole. And if you've also got a Mac, you're able to use your Apple Watch to unlock it, which I've found to be quite handy. It only saves a few seconds, but hey. Saving time is saving time.
While refined software is a greatly appreciated improvement, fitness tracking is still my favourite Apple Watch feature. I've become addicted to 'closing the rings', and at one point managed to maintain a 183 day streak (which was unfortunately broken due to time zone changes on international flights). Yes, this is a multi-layered humble brag, but point remains that this feature actually has me exercising more than ever.
For those not familiar with the three-ring concept, the Apple Watch tracks three key metrics: kilojoules burnt, active minutes, and each hour where you've stood and moved around for a couple of minutes. You personalise your own goal when it comes to kilojoules (and the Watch will even give you recommendations as to whether you should change it at the start of each week), while the other two are set: 30 minutes of exercise, and 12 hours where you've stood for at least an hour.
These goals are represented as three rings that fill up as you progress towards them. It's always easy to see the progress you're making toward your fitness goals, and means that whenever I check the time on my Watch, I've got an ever-present guilt-trip reminding me that I should move more.
You're able to use the Apple Watch companion app to configure which apps let notifications through to your wrist, and which ones don't. For the sake of your sanity, it's probably better if you customise this list. For me, messages, phone calls, emails, and calendar reminders all go straight through to my wrist, while I keep most social media and every other app insistent on firing off notifications confined to my iPhone. It's a nice way for me to distinguish one alert from another.
Wearing the Apple Watch makes me feel more comfortable leaving my phone on my desk or in another room. If it's important, I'll get a subtle alert on my Watch that won't interrupt whatever it is I'm doing.
If you're sold on the Apple Watch's fashion angle, the ease with which you can change bands is great. When you look at the bottom of the Watch, you'll see two small band release buttons. Hold down the button, slide out the respective strap, and slide in a new one. It's that simple.
I like being able to give the Apple Watch a bit of extra class with leather or woven nylon for when I'm at work, but always swap to an elastomer band for when I'm working out. Simple customisation is definitely an area where the watch industry could learn from Apple.
In addition to swapping bands, you're also able to quickly change watch faces now, by swiping left and right on, well, the Watch's face. For example, you might choose to have one minimal one with just the time, and a data heavy alternative with upcoming appointments, weather, and multiple time zones. The iOS companion app now lets you design these on using your iPhone's larger screen, which is a nice change over doing it solely on the Watch itself.
On a fashion related note, while the Apple Watch's square design might seem a bit weird, I don't mind it. For one, I don't believe smartwatches should emulate regular watches for the sake of it. The vast majority of circular Android Wear watches I've tried have had usability issues due to copying "real" watches. Circular screens and raised bezels aren't great when your operating system is built around swiping. With the Apple Watch, the pillowed design of the screen means swiping actually works, and a square screen results in extra space for complications (the name given to pieces of information on the screen) that would get cut off a circular display.
For example, when I glance at my Apple Watch, I see if I have unread notifications, my daily fitness progress, the time, the time back in Sydney if I'm travelling, the temperature, and the battery life. These are completely customisable, and can also include information like your next appointment, your heart rate, or select data from third party apps.
The Watch's design also instils a unique visual identity, which is probably better for Apple than it is for you. If you're wearing an Apple Watch, there's little chance of it being mistaken for anything else.
If you're using Apple Pay, the Apple Watch makes the whole experience even quicker. You don't even have to pull your phone out of your pocket, you can simply double tap the side button then, hold your Watch up to an EFTPOS machine. It’s a bit weird, but it's kinda fun, even if just for the reactions you'll get. That being said, I've actually found using the Apple Watch for payments incredibly useful at self-checkouts in supermarkets.
As with almost every other Apple product, the Watch is home to Siri. Raising your wrist and calling out "Hey Siri" brings Apple's artificial intelligence to life. I'm not the biggest fan of talking to my gadgets, but I'll holler at my Apple Watch whenever I cook in order to set timers. This might sound like a first world solution to a first world problem, but it saves me washing my hands, taking off oven mitts, or putting down whatever I'm holding just to grab my phone.
What's Not So Good
The biggest factor holding the Apple Watch Series 2 back is price. The high-end stainless steel models cost as much as designer watches, and you're still looking at dropping a minimum of $529 for a more affordable aluminium option.
While four-digit price tags might be the norm in the watch world, there you're paying for timelessness. On the other hand, the Apple Watch is a gadget. We'll almost certainly see an updated model every year or so, and even if your model lasts you three or four years, dropping almost $1,000 every time you have to upgrade won't be palatable to everyone.
When you buy a pricey TAG Heuer, you're buying into the idea that you'll have it for life, and potentially even be able to pass it down to your kids. When buy you an Apple Watch, you're buying a perishable product; a luxury good with a comparatively short life-span.
Comparing a smartwatch to a mechanical timepiece isn't exact a case of apples-to-apples; after all, your hypothetical Apple Watch offers a lot more functionality than any luxury watch on the market. At the end of the day, an Apple Watch serves a fundamentally different purpose to a traditional watch, it just happens to occupy the same space on your wrist — which inevitably makes comparisons unavoidable.
Depending on how much you're using the workout mode and relying on GPS, you should now be able to get as much as two days of battery life out of the Apple Watch Series 2. While this is an improvement over the first Apple Watch — which had to be recharged every night — it's shorter than what's on other in other wearables such as the latest Fitbits (which, in the case of the Alta, can last over a week between charges).
The biggest issue with the comparatively short battery life is that the Apple Watch can't be used for sleep tracking. While I'm more than happy taking off the Apple Watch before bed, the lack of sleep tracking does hold it back from being a holistic health and fitness device.
It's worth noting that the stainless steel Apple Watch is prone to micro-abrasions. These add up overtime (as you might expect with stainless steel), but can be buffed. The aluminium Apple Watch models have more resilient bodies, but slightly less durable displays. The stainless steel Apple Watch has a sapphire display, while the aluminium uses the same kind of ionised glass as you'd find on an iPhone. It's still high quality, but if you're a bit clumsy (like myself), you might end up scratching your Watch if you bump it into a wall. I managed to get a tiny scratch on an aluminium Series 2, something I also experience with the first generation Apple Watch Sport.
Some may be disappointed by the lack of an always on-display; it means the Apple Watch looks more like a shiny black wristband than a timepiece when sitting on your wrist, but this doesn't really affect usability. Bringing the Watch toward you, either by raising or rotating your wrist, brings the display to life quickly and reliably.
While this isn't inherently a problem with the Apple Watch, it's a niche gadget with no instant gratification. When you buy a new phone, a new computer, a new videogame console, or a new TV, you'll actively use it. When you put on an Apple Watch, you're only using it passively. You might wear it all of the time, but you'll only be engaging with it for a couple of minutes a day.
This also results in a steeper learning curve. watchOS 3 is much more user friendly, but if you’re not committed, you might never learn about all of what the Apple Watch has to offer.
When I reviewed the original Apple Watch, I spent a month wearing it before I published my story. In retrospect, that was almost too short a time period to really "get it". As someone who was quite sceptical about the Watch at first, I've come to love it. Other than my phone, it's the one device I use every single day without fail.
Lastly, the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. This isn't exactly surprising, but it does mean Android users miss out.
Who's It For
The Apple Watch Series 2 feels clearer in purpose than the original Watch, at least from a marketing perspective; the Apple Watch Series 2 puts fitness tracking upfront. That being said, I think it's a mistake to exclusively view the Apple Watch as a fitness device; it's still very much a smartwatch, and its non-fitness utilities can have an impact on your life as great as its health functionality.
More polished software makes the Apple Watch Series 2 much easier to recommend than the original Apple Watch, but it's not necessarily a device for everyone. While it's not like you have to wear one all the time, the Apple Watch almost keeps you permanently connected, which will be great for some and off putting to others.
While the Apple Watch Series 2 feels like a much more refined device with a clearer purpose than the original, smartwatches are still in their infancy. They've yet to make their argument as a mass-market device, and I'm not quite sure if they ever will. The Apple Watch might be the best smartwatch on the market, but this is one of those rare circumstances where simply being the best isn't enough.
I wouldn't recommend Apple Watch Series 2 to everyone, but I'm at the point where I can't imagine not wearing a smartwatch. The Apple Watch is a luxury, and you don't need one, but it can make your life a little easier while offering a healthy dose of motivation.
I'd describe the Apple Watch as "meaningful luxury". It's not just an expensive watch. It's an expensive watch that does something more than tell you the time and tell others how much money you've got to spend. Just know that it's not for forever.
What Else Can I Buy?
Apple Watch Series 1
If you're looking for a cheaper Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Series 1 is good option. The Series 1 is best described as the original Apple Watch, but with some of Series 2's improved hardware. You get the faster processor and the latest software, but you miss out integrated GPS, the brighter display, and swim-proofing. Series 1 is still IPX7 water-resistant.
You also don't have has quite as many choices if you're looking at a Series 1 Apple Watch. You're only able to get an aluminium model, and they're all bundled with elastomer bands. That being said, a Series 1 Apple Watch is compatible with the entire range of Apple Watch straps, if you want more later.
A Series 1 Apple Watch starts at $399 for the 38mm variant, and is available in Apple's four favourite colours: silver, space grey, gold, and rose gold.
Fitbit Alta HR
If you're mostly after a fitness tracker rather than a smartwatch, the Fitbit Alta HR is one of the best options on the market at the moment. You won't get dedicated GPS or water-resistance, but you'll save a good chunk of cash.
Samsung Gear S3
While the Gear S3 is made by Samsung, it's now also compatible with iPhones. If you can get over how large it is, the Gear S3 is top-notch alternative that takes on the philosophy of watch first, smartwatch second. Despite this, the clever user interface built around the rotating bezel means the Gear S3 avoids some of the UI issues that other circular smartwatches have.