Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Virtually perfect

Welcome to our Apple Watch 2 review, in which we review and rate the new Apple Watch Series 2's design, build quality, features and value for money. If you'd prefer to read about 2015's Apple Watch, check out our first-gen Apple Watch review.

The Apple Watch 2 has been a while coming. The constantly evolving iPhone and iPad line-up has taught us to expect Apple products to be updated on a yearly basis, but the first-gen Apple Watch was on the market for 16 months before Apple delivered its successor. And here it is: the Apple Watch Series 2, which attempts the classic second-gen tech product trick of correcting everything that went wrong with the original, retaining everything that went right, and expanding its appeal from early adopters to the elusive mainstream.

The Apple Watch Series 2, Apple's new flagship wearable, takes the niche-popularity Apple Watch and adds much-needed features such as GPS; improves and ratifies its waterproofing capabilities; and ups the processor clock speed so that (in concert with the streamlined watchOS 3 software) the device should be noticeably faster in use.

In our Apple Watch 2 review, we look at how the new Apple Watch Series 2 performs and compares to its predecessor, and to the Apple Watch Series 1 (a cheaper and more minor update unveiled at the same time as the Series 2: it replaces the original watch and is almost identical to it, but does get an upgraded S1P dual-core processor, as compared to the original's S1 single-core chip).

We review and rate the Apple Watch Series 2's design, build quality, new (and old) features, general performance, tech specs and value for money - all in the name of helping you to decide whether to buy a new Apple Watch Series 2 (or Series 1), and whether it's worth upgrading from a first-gen Apple Watch.

Related articles: Apple Watch buying guide 2016 | Buy Apple Watch Series 2 from Apple | Buy Apple Watch Series 2 from John Lewis

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Breathe

Apple Watch 2 review: Design & build quality

Depending on the model, colour finish and watch strap you plump for, you may not be able to tell the difference between the Series 2 and the original Apple Watch.

There are new colour options and straps (and the Apple Watch Edition now comes in fairly extravagant ceramic rather than extremely extravagant gold), but the exterior chassis design is essentially the same - just very slightly thicker (a barely noticeable 11.4mm vs 10.5mm). Most of this extra thickness seems to have gone into the screen, on which more soon.

Apple Watch Series 2 review: Size comparison

Apple Watch first-gen (left) and Apple Watch Series 2 (right). The Series 2 doesn't feel thicker, but you notice the extra millimetre when you look at them side by side with no straps

It's a strong and attractive design, in our opinion, albeit one that divided opinion at launch and continues to do so. Many people prefer the traditional aesthetics of a round watch face (such as the Guess Connect semi-smartwatch), although a rounded-corner rectangle is more practical for text display purposes… and more Apple, of course.

The minimalist design includes just two discreet hardware controls: a small rotatable dial that can also be pressed (called the Digital Crown), and the Side Button. These are both on the same side of the device. We found that the Digital Crown got a bit sticky over 16 months of sweaty and often fitness-focused everyday wear - of late we often tap it and accidentally activate Siri, which is supposed to respond to a long press. It's clearly too early to say whether the Series 2's improved waterproofing will make it more resistant to this kind of thing, but we hope so. More on that, too, in a moment.

Back to those new colour options… There are new straps from Hermès, and we were impressed by the looks and design of the new ceramic Apple Watch Edition (below). This beautiful enclosure will set you back a cool £1,249 for the 38mm version, but on the plus side you do get what can only be described as a 'solid block of unicorn horn' on your wrist. The off-white sport band that comes with it might not feel quite 'premium' enough to reflect the price of the watch, but aesthetically it's a decent fit for the overall look of the ceramic Apple Watch Edition.

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Ceramic Apple Watch Edition

Given the different straps and material available for the Apple Watch Series 1 and 2, there's really something for everyone: which is important when you're talking about something as personal as a watch. The Apple Watch still comes in a 38 or 42mm version, this size referring to the height of the body rather than a diagonal measure of the screen. See which size best fits you in our Apple Watch buying guide 2016.

Waterproofing

Whereas the first-gen Apple Watch was water-resistant to a depth of 1 metre for 30 minutes, a rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529 (unofficially it may have been considerably more waterproof than this), the Apple Watch Series 2 has a water-resistance rating of 50 metres under ISO standard 22810:2010. In other words, we've gone from wearing it in the shower - it's an undeniable luxury being able to see the time and know how long until we have to get out - to wearing it while swimming, and to celebrate this fact Apple has added two swimming options to the Workout app.

Apple Watch Series 2 review | Apple Watch 2 review: Design

Partly this improved water resistance is achieved by the use of stronger glue and more gaskets, as revealed in iFixit's teardown. And partly it's achieved with a clever new feature that 'spits' water out of the speaker cavity after the watch makes it back to dry land.

A new Water Lock feature stops the touchscreen being activated underwater (or in the shower - we've often noticed creepy, finger-like tendrils of warm water changing the watch face, opening apps etc). Water Lock is accessed manually by pressing the 'drop' icon in Control Centre, but will be turned on automatically when you start one of those swimming routines in Workout.

After you get out of the water/shower you rotate the Digital Crown: this turns off Water Lock and plays a noise from the speakers in such a way that the vibration ejects liquid from the speaker cavity. This bit is quite fun.

Despite the improved water-resistance credentials, Apple is still quite cautious about the aquatic activities it recommends: soapy water, steam, scuba diving and water skiing are all discouraged. You can read about the various Apple Watches' watery attributes here: How to dry a wet Apple Watch, and how waterproof is my Apple Watch?

Related articles: Apple Watch vs Apple Watch 2 | Apple Watch tips: watchOS 3 tips & secret features

Apple Watch 2 review: Features

Leaving aside waterproofing - sort of a new feature, but really an aspect of physical design - there's one main new feature. And that is…

GPS fitness tracking

Fitness tracking was a huge aspect of the first-gen Apple Watch's appeal, but it was stymied in this to a certain extent by its lack of GPS: this meant that runs could be tracked only by approximation.

(There were workarounds. If you went out running with the Apple Watch and a paired iPhone, the watch would piggyback on the phone's GPS and reach an accurate measurement that way. Better still, while doing this it would learn about your stride length, which meant that next time you went out without the phone the estimation would be noticeably better. But it was still inaccurate by the standards of serious runners. For more on this, see How to make the Apple Watch a more accurate fitness tracker.)

Well, that gap has now been filled and the Series 2 has built-in GPS, so it can be considered a genuine standalone fitness tracker. This means you can go for a run or cycle ride and extract accurate data from your workouts.

Apple Watch Series 2 review: Series 2 and first-gen Apple Watch

Ready for the fitness tests! You can see that the first-gen Apple Watch (left) and Apple Watch Series 2 (right) look virtually identical if you go for the same colour finish

We've observed noticeably improved accuracy when tracking runs with the Series 2. Doing circuits round a track that Google Maps reckons is a kilometre in circumference, the Series 2 gave successive reports of 940m, 960m and 960m - and these were done at deliberately inconsistent speeds, a trick which always used to stump the first-gen watch and its stride estimation. The route to and from the track, which the map puts at about 1.5km, was reported as 1.54km on the way there and 1.53km on the way back, again recorded at different speeds. The Apple Watch 2's tracking is certainly consistent.

For comparison with the first-gen, GPS-free Apple Watch, we went out again the next night with both watches on the same wrist and did three more laps. This time the Series 2 was even more consistent - 960m all three times - while the first-gen watch, which had received a respectable amount of stride-learning training, reported 880m, 900m and 910m. Fairly consistent in its own right (standard deviation of the data sets are listed below), but quite clearly tending to underreport the distance.

If you didn't train the first-gen with an iPhone it would be far less accurate than that; if you spent more time training it, you could probably improve things a little, but not by much.

  Apple Watch first-gen Apple Watch Series 2
Lap 1 n/a 940m
Lap 2 n/a 960m
Lap 3 n/a 960m
Lap 4 880m 960m
Lap 5 900m 960m
Lap 6 910m 960m
Mean accuracy (based on 1km map estimate) 89.67% 95.67%
Standard deviation 15.28 8.16

It's actually quite characteristic that the first-gen watch's estimated distance went up each time - this is part of the nature of stride estimation. I am not a strong runner and I tend to get slower, and take shorter strides (and therefore more per kilometre), as the night wears on; this confuses the watch. We've found that it tends to provide a decent estimation of distance over the course of a lengthy run, by averaging things out, but for mid-run speed/progress checks, particularly if you're not very good at maintaining a consistent speed, it's often off by a fair margin.

Having GPS has a secondary benefit, and this is the ability to track runs on a map. If you open an Apple Watch 2-tracked workout from within the Activity app, you'll see a little map thumbnail at the bottom; tap this and you'll be shown a fullscreen map of the route you took.

Apple Watch 2 review: Activity map

GPS malfunction

One last word on the GPS front: we must report that on one occasion (out of many) we went for a run with the Apple Watch Series 2 and GPS simply didn't work. This was hard to notice immediately, because there isn't any kind of onscreen icon to show that your movement is being tracked in this way - it normally just kicks in automatically. So we only gradually realised that accuracy was worse than normal, and increasingly suspected that something was up with the GPS. At the end of the run, sure enough, there was no map on the workout report.

We don't know if the GPS couldn't get a signal on that day - although it was the usual route in a fairly built-up area, and we've not had any other issues with it before or since. And initially we wondered if something had got confused because we'd restored that watch from a backup made from a (GPS-free) first-gen Apple Watch, and that it might have been somehow overriding the GPS with the older watch's saved stride calibration data - but again, the problem was fixed by the next day, with no user intervention. It may just have been one of those things, and it should be said that the feature has proved remarkably reliable on the whole.

We got in touch with Apple to see if it's an issue they're aware of, but the company (as is generally its policy) declined to offer an official statement. We'd welcome suggestions from readers as to what may have happened.

Other health & fitness apps

Also on the fitness front, the Apple Watch features a good range of pre-installed apps: Activity, which tracks calories burned, exercise minutes and hours in which you've stood up for at least a minute; Workout, which tailors fitness tracking to a range of specific sporting activities; the self-explanatory Heart Rate; and Breathe (below), which helps with mindfulness and may assist with relaxation although your mileage may vary.

All four of these apps are also installed on the first-gen Apple Watch and Apple Watch Series 1, although Breathe was new with watchOS 3.

Also see: What is Breathe for Apple Watch? | How to use the Apple Watch Workout app | How to use the Apple Watch Activity app

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Breathe

Apple Watch 2 review: Screen

The Apple Watch Series 2 has an OLED display that is more than twice as bright as the screen on the original watch, according to Apple (up from 450 nits to 1000 nits) - and sure enough, it's a lot easier to make out what's on the screen in sunny conditions. In fact, subjectively the screen feels sharper, although the screen resolution is actually unchanged.

Be warned that in direct sunlight, you may still find yourself struggling to clearly see what's on the display - this is the nature of the technology.

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Screen

The (aluminium body) standard Apple Watch Series 2 has a screen made of Ion-X strengthened glass; the stainless steel Hermès version of the Apple Watch Series 2 and the ceramic Edition model both have stronger sapphire glass screens.

This is roughly the same arrangement as on the first-gen Apple Watch, which had Ion-X on its Sport model (which proved reassuringly sturdy and pretty scratch-resistant over a year and a half of use) and sapphire on the costlier standard and Edition models. The Apple Watch Series 1 is only available with Ion-X glass.

All Apple Watch models have Force Touch screens. Depending on the application, pressing the screen slightly more firmly will generally perform a different function to pressing it normally: a force-press on the notifications dropdown brings up the option to clear all notifications, for instance. Oddly, Apple has removed the force-touch option from the Workout app; this used to be how you ended a workout, but this is now accessed by swiping from left to right, even though no new function has been mapped to the force-press for that screen.

(This is, it must be said, somewhat characteristic of the Apple Watch interface. Quite often it's not clear which of several control methods are required to perform a particular function. After you've done something once or twice it becomes second nature, but the watch is less successful than the iPhone or iPad at communicating to you exactly how to do something first time. Then again, this is true of almost all wearables, and watchOS is actually far more intuitive than most.)

Apple Watch Series 2 screen specs

  • 38mm model: 1.34-inch 272×340 screen at 326 pixels per inch (ppi)
  • 42mm model: 1.53-inch 312×390 screen at 326ppi

Apple Watch 2 review: Performance & speed tests

The processors in the Apple Watch Series 1 and Series 2 have been upgraded to the S1P and S2 CPUs respectively. Both are dual-core processors that offer 50 percent faster speeds over the S1 (the single-core processor found in the 2015 Apple Watch). The GPU that handles the visual display on the Apple Watch has also received a boost: it's twice as fast as its predecessor.

This healthy boost in speed is a pleasing addition, but we feel watchOS 3 greatly contributes to the user experience being noticeably quicker: our first-gen Apple Watch, updated to feature watchOS 3, has also got speedier. WatchOS 3 is available on all Apple watches as a free upgrade, but is included out of the box in the Series 1 and Series 2 models.

We did a quick comparison with our old first-gen Apple Watch by loading up a few of the more commonly used apps to see if the Series 2 was noticeably quicker:

As you can see, the Series 2 gets the app started a few seconds quicker in each case, although the first-gen watch maintains a decent speed thanks to the improvements of watchOS 3.

Also bear in mind that this is an extremely unscientific test: with no benchmark apps available for the Apple Watch the best we can give you is a subjective assessment of interface speed. And the Apple Watch Series 2 does feel faster than its predecessor.

We also tried powering both watches off and then starting them up again, to see which would take longer to get going. You'll see that the Series 2 is ready to go a long time before the first-gen watch - it reaches the passcode screen at 1:29 in the following video, whereas the older model doesn't get there until 2:13.

Read next: Best Apple Watch apps | Best Apple Watch games

Apple Watch 2 review: Tech specs

To give an idea of the differences between the various models, here are the tech specs of every Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Series 2 specs (38/42mm)

  • S2 dual-core processor
  • GPS
  • Height: 38.6mm/42.5mm
  • Width: 33.3mm/36.4mm
  • Depth: 11.4mm
  • Case weight (no strap): 28.2g/34.2g (aluminium); 41.9g/52.4g (stainless steel); 39.6g/45.6g (ceramic)
  • 1.34-inch 272 x 340 (38mm) or 1.53-inch 312 x 390 (42mm) Retina display with Force Touch (1000 nits brightness)
  • Digital Crown
  • Heartrate sensor
  • WiFi 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Quoted battery life up to 18 hours (but see battery tests, below)
  • Water-resistance rating of 50 metres under ISO standard 22810:2010

For comparison, here are the specs of the Apple Watch Series 1, which launched at the same time as the Series 2.

Apple Watch Series 1 specs (38/42mm)

  • S1P dual-core processor
  • Height: 38.6mm/42.5mm
  • Width: 33.3mm/36.4mm
  • Depth: 10.5mm
  • Case weight (no strap): 25g/30g (aluminium); 40g/50g (stainless steel); 54g/67g (rose gold); 55g/69g (yellow gold)
  • 1.34-inch 272 x 340 (38mm) or 1.53-inch 312 x 390 (42mm) Retina display with Force Touch (450 nits brightness)
  • Digital Crown
  • Heartrate sensor
  • WiFi 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Quoted battery life up to 18 hours (but see battery tests, below)
  • 'Splash-resistant'. Water-resistance rated under IEC standard 60529 IPX7: a depth of 1 metre for 30 minutes

Finally, here are the specs of the original Apple Watch. You'll note that it's largely identical to the specs of the Series 1, but it features an older single-core processor (and also comes in slightly different colour options).

First-gen Apple Watch specs (38/42mm)

  • S1 single-core processor
  • Height: 38.6mm/42.5mm
  • Width: 33.3mm/36.4mm
  • Depth: 10.5mm
  • Case weight (no strap): 25g/30g (aluminium); 40g/50g (stainless steel); 54g/67g (rose gold); 55g/69g (yellow gold)
  • 1.34-inch 272 x 340 (38mm) or 1.53-inch 312 x 390 (42mm) Retina display with Force Touch (450 nits brightness)
  • Digital Crown
  • Heartrate sensor
  • WiFi 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Quoted battery life up to 18 hours (but see battery tests, below)
  • 'Splash-resistant'. Water-resistance rated under IEC standard 60529 IPX7: a depth of 1 metre for 30 minutes

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review

Apple Watch 2 review: Battery life

While the specs quoted above peg them at the same 'up to 18 hours' figure for battery life, our tests show that the Series 2 has a far better battery life than the first-gen Apple Watch. 

We started with a short-term comparison test. We took a Series 2 and a first-gen Apple Watch off their chargers at noon; eight hours later, using both devices for the same tasks throughout the afternoon and early evening, the Series 2 was on 86 percent and the first-gen on 69 percent. That's a big gap to have opened up so quickly - although bear in mind that this is after the latter going through 16 months of battery wear, so a comparison between box-fresh samples would be closer.

The Series 2 can manage two days of use between charges fairly comfortably, something that we struggled to achieve with the first-gen Apple Watch even when it was brand-new. If you missed a night's charging with the first-gen (perhaps you were staying somewhere overnight and forgot to pack the charger), you had to grit your teeth, power down for the night and use the watch as little as possible... and it would generally give up the ghost late on the second day, preferably after you'd closed your Activity rings and kept the streak going.

In a new test, we charged the Series 2 overnight and took it off the charger at 7am as usual. At the end of the second day - with no particular care taken to nurse the battery - the Series 2 was on 22 percent. The third morning, at 7am, it was on 14 percent, and it eventually ran out of charge just after 1pm on the third day. That's unprecedented in our experience with Apple wearables, and is a good effort by the standards of any fully fledged smartwatch with a colour screen.

Is the S2 a more power-efficient chip than the S1 and S1P? Maybe - and remember it has a brighter screen to power too. Impressive stuff.

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review: Battery life

Apple Watch 2 review: UK prices

Apple Watch pricing has been controversial ever since the launch of the original model, and particularly of its mega-priced yellow-gold and rose-gold Edition models (something we discuss here: Why Apple Watch pricing makes everyone so angry).

One Macworld reader got in touch recently to point out what he feels are unfair discrepancies between the pricing tiers of iPhones and Apple Watches in the US, EU and UK (read more on that in a Reddit thread here), and it's true that the currency variations, repercussions from Brexit etc appear to have affected the price of the Apple Watch in the UK more than other Apple products. It's also true that the Apple Watch Series 2 is one of the costliest smartwatches out there.

But our positive feelings about this product, the quality of its design and OS and its many apt improvements on the original Apple Watch are such that we believe the price to be justified - at least for the entry-level models. The Ceramic watch, economical as it now seems compared to some of the old gold models, remains a wildly expensive option, and one that should be of interest only to Macworld's wealthiest readers.

The Apple Watch Series 2 starts from £369 and goes up to £1,249 for the Apple Watch Edition (that's the ceramic model - there's no longer a gold option).

You will also find a Apple Watch Nike+ version that is based on the Series 2 model, but is aimed at runners with its sport-looking band. The Nike+ base model is also priced at £369.

The Apple Watch Hermès continues with its line of the Series 2 watches - prices start at £1,149. Although, if you're interested in the Hermès band, you'll be better off buying a Series 2 (38mm) watch for £369, buying the strap seprately for £299, resulting in a £668 price tag. Unless you're looking to receive the exclusive Hermès sports band, watch face and engraving at the back, we would suggest buying the watch and strap separately.

The Apple Watch Series 1 replaces the old 2015 version, where prices start at £269. The Series 1 comes with a new dual-core S1P processor, a 50 percent improvement over the original S1 single-core processor found in the 2015 Apple Watch.

For more information on getting the best price on your Apple Watch, see Best cheap Apple Watch deals UK.

Apple Watch 2 review | Apple Watch Series 2 review

Apple Watch 2 review: Which Apple Watch model should you buy?

Before we give our final verdict on the Apple Watch Series 2, let's briefly talk about which model of Apple Watch is best for you, depending on personal preferences, lifestyle and requirements. (We talk about this in more depth in our Apple Watch buying guide.)

We'll say right away that the Apple Watch Series 2 improves markedly on the original watch, and provides a more viable smartwatch for those interested in fitness. However, if you're not using your watch for workouts, the Series 1 and its quick processor is a cheaper option you should consider seriously.

To help you decide which model to go for, we've put together a small guide suggesting which watch to buy. Remember that you can still buy the original 2015 Apple Watch for a cheaper price through retailers (such as eBay) and you've got the option to save £100 on a Series 1 watch rather than a Series 2 model.

If you currently own a 2015 Apple Watch:

  • Want better fitness tracking? Get the Series 2
  • Want better water resistance? Get the Series 2
  • Find the display too dim? Get the Series 2
  • Find the watch slow at opening apps and the like? Upgrade to watchOS 3 and reassess. If you're still not satisfied, try a Series 1 and a Series 2 in an Apple Store and see how they compare.

If you don't currently own an Apple Watch:

  • Want good fitness tracking and a waterproof design? Get the Series 2
  • Don't care about fitness or waterproofing, but still want fast performance? Get the Series 1
  • Strapped for cash? Get a first-gen Apple Watch from eBay or another second-hand outlet

Read next: Apple Watch vs Apple Watch 2

OUR VERDICT

The new Apple Watch Series 2 takes the main complaints about the attractive but flawed original Apple Watch - slow operation, lack of GPS, limited water resistance, short battery life - and solves or at least improves them systematically.

Having completed in-depth battery tests - it really is noticeably better in this regard than its predecessor, even compared to when that device was new - and spent more time with the Series 2, we now feel that, given the quality of the design and OS and the numerous improvements on the first-gen model, the price is justified, and the Series 2 is worthy of a rare Macworld five-star rating.

If you're into fitness tracking with a sprinkling of notifications and superb integration with the iPhone, this is a near-perfect option. The Apple Watch Series 2 is a great wearable, and the only one we've seen that feels like it has any chance at all of taking wearables into the mainstream.

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