Apple Watch Series 2 Review: Better in (Almost) Every Way

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I'm not ashamed to admit that I cheated on my Apple Watch. It's not that I didn't appreciate getting notifications on my wrist and paying for stuff without whipping out my phone, but the first series of Apple's smartwatch just didn't measure up as an exercise partner. I defected to my trusty old Nike+ watch for running, because it has built-in GPS. But don't worry, Apple Watch Series 2; I won't reject you, too.

It's clear that Apple listened to user feedback, because the Apple Watch Series 2 (starting at $369; $399 as tested) is much improved. You get accurate GPS for tracking your distance and pace during runs, a brighter display that you can see in direct sunlight, faster performance and longer battery life. And although I don't swim much, it's nice to know that this water-resistant device can handle it.

Apple Watch Series 2 vs. Series 1

Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide)

The Apple Watch Series 2 is great for those who want to get fit, but it's not for everyone. In fact, the updated Apple Watch Series 1 now features the same upgraded processor but without GPS and water resistance for $100 less. However, the Series 2's display is twice as bright. If you care as much about getting in shape as staying connected, the Series 2 is the best smartwatch out there right now.

Design: Brighter screen, swim-proof

The Apple Watch has taken knocks for looking like a shrunken smartphone. The Series 2 does, too, and its larger battery adds a bit of girth.

When running on a hot day in direct sunlight, I had no problem making out my pace and distance on the 1,000-nit display.

The space-gray aluminum 42-millimeter (1.65 inches) version I tested measures 11.4 mm (0.45 inches) thick and weighs 28.2 grams (0.99 ounces), compared with 10.5 mm (0.41 inches) thick and 25 grams (0.88 ounces) for the Series 1.

Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide)

I didn't really notice much of a difference when wearing the Series 2, but I did notice the brighter display when running. At 1,000 nits, the OLED display is the brightest Apple has ever made and twice as bright as the original Apple Watch. When running on a hot day in direct sunlight, I had no problem making out my pace and distance after raising my wrist.

MORE: Our Favorite Smartwatches for iOS and Android

I also appreciated having a bright and clear display when going on runs in the morning before sunrise. The backlight on my old Nike+ running watch pales in comparison to the colorful screen on the Series 2. (I just wish the Apple Watch could also emit a high-frequency noise to scatter the deer.)

Original Apple Watch (left), Apple Watch Series 2 (right) Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Original Apple Watch (left), Apple Watch Series 2 (right) Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide)

The Apple Watch continues to come in a variety of styles, but the most striking option is the new Apple Watch Edition model in ceramic, which is four times harder than stainless steel. When paired with the Cloud Sport Band, this gleaming white wearable really pops, and the display looks like it's floating above your wrist. Is all that worth that model's $1,249 price tag? Not so sure.

I loved being able to hit a button right on the watch face to start a run with GPS immediately.

Triathletes and anyone who does a lot of swimming will appreciate that the Apple Watch Series 2 can survive water depths of up to 50 meters (164 feet). In a clever design move, the Apple Watch ejects water through its speaker after a swim when you rotate the Digital Crown.

GPS tracking for running is accurate (and fast)

The strangest thing about the built-in GPS on the Apple Watch Series 2 is that it doesn't tell you when it has acquired a signal. I found that unnerving at first, as there's no icon that tells you the GPS is working. But it seems to start working right away, as Apple says the Series 2 uses a combo of GPS, Wi-Fi and locally stored data to help identify your position before you press Start.

I loved being able to hit the little runner button right above the watch face to start a run with GPS immediately. The GPS also comes in handy for other workouts, such as walking or cycling.

During my usual weekend 5-mile run, the Series 2 accurately measured my distance and pace and also vibrated my wrist both at the halfway point and with a mile left to go. It may have buzzed me other times, but I was kind of in a zone.

Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide)

I also gave the Apple Watch Series 2 to our reviews editor, Mike Prospero, who has evaluated dozens of fitness trackers. Here's his take:

"While running, I could easily see the Apple Watch Series 2's display. I didn't like that the screen turned off, but it turned on pretty quickly with just a small turn of my wrist.

I wasn't sure if the GPS was on, but when I reviewed the data after the run, it revealed that the Apple Watch Series 2 measured a 5-mile run (as calculated by the Garmin Forerunner 235, our top-rated GPS watch) as 5.07 miles. It was also spot-on when calculating my average heart rate — 169 beats per minute, which is the same rate calculated by the Forerunner 235. However, the Forerunner also showed my max heart rate.

Both Mike and I liked that the Apple Watch Series 2's Activity app recorded the weather and humidity at the time of our runs, and that it let us view split times. However, the Garmin Connect app recorded Mike's cadence (the number of steps taken per minute), and also showed charts of his heart rate and pace.

You have to use the Workout app to start a workout, but you can't review your workouts there; for that, you have to switch to the Activity app on your phone. Also, the Activity app on Apple's watch doesn't show all of the data from your run — there's no heart rate, pace or map of where you ran. Instead, you have to go to your iPhone to view that information.

MORE: 12 Best iOS Apps You're Not Using (But Should Be)

Look Ma, less lag!

The original Apple Watch got a little faster with software updates, but the lag remained quite noticeable, especially when the Watch was opening apps. Apple says the new S2 chip promises up to 50 percent faster CPU performance and double the graphics performance via a new GPU.

During my week with the Apple Watch Series 2, I noticed that apps loaded more quickly than on the first Apple Watch. For instance, CNN and Flipboard took 8 and 9 seconds to load on the older Apple Watch, respectively, versus 5 and 7 seconds on the Series 2.

To test the graphics performance, I loaded Night Sky 4, a sky-gazing app that leverages the Apple Watch Series 2's gyroscope and built-in GPS. As I moved my hand around, the Sky View changed in real time.

watchOS 3: More intuitive, but needs more faces

Interacting with the Apple Watch gets a lot easier with watchOS 3, which introduces a Dock that you activate by pressing the watch's side button. You'll be able to quickly switch among open apps, as well as assign various apps to stay in the dock and arrange their order.

Another time-saver is Control Center, which you access by swiping up. From there, you can see your battery life, turn on Airplane mode, set Do Not Disturb and more. Switching watch faces is now easier, too. You just swipe from the right edge, so you don't have to press and hold the screen to switch, just for customizing faces.

Unfortunately, the selection of watch faces is still rather limited. I love some of the new options, especially the Activity view face for seeing your day's progress at a glance and starting a run with a touch. And the Numerals face is minimalist-chic.

It's time for Apple to add a section in the App Store for watch faces.

What you won't find, however, are watch faces such as sports teams (I'd love to see Yankees or New York Giants) or ones around game characters such as Mario or Pikachu. Or how about more Disney characters than Mickey and Minnie? Considering personalization is one of the chief appeals of the Apple Watch, it's high time that the company added a section in the App Store for watch faces.

watchOS 3 is also more social in a couple of ways. In Messages, for instance, you get the same type of full-screen effects that are in iOS 10, such as confetti when you say "congrats," and Tapback for quick reactions, such as a thumbs-up or question mark. (You double tap to invoke those.) You also get a lot more emoji options. Want to feel like you're traveling back to the Palm Pilot era? The Scribble option translates letters you draw on the watch screen into text.

If you're the type who likes to brag about — er, motivate others with — your exercise exploits, you'll like that watchOS 3 also has Activity Sharing built in. For instance, you can receive auto-notifications when friends or family finish a workout or earn an achievement.

MORE: How to Use and Personalize Your Apple Watch

A shout-out to better call quality

On the original Apple Watch, you could make calls over Bluetooth. But when I would do this, other callers would complain that I wasn't loud enough, and that the audio quality on my end was just OK. The Series 2 delivered a better experience, such as when I used the watch to call my twin brother.

I had to keep the windows up as I drove to minimize wind noise, but my brother said that I came through clearly. When I got back home from the store, he said he could also clearly hear me unpacking the plastic bags. On my end, he sounded mostly clear, too.

With Siri still on board, launched by pressing and holding the Digital Crown, you can still ask questions, send messages and set reminders, but the wrist-worn version of Apple's digital assistant doesn't talk back. (I'd like to have the option while driving, for example.) But I do like that you can say, "Hey, Siri" to activate the assistant.

Still searching for a killer app — or is there one?

It's not a coincidence that the Featured section of the Apple Watch App Store is chock-full of fitness apps, such as Beach Body on Demand and Sweat with Kayla. This category makes the most sense for stand-alone apps on your wrist that free you from using your phone.

Credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Samuel Rutherford / Tom's Guide)

Once you get past exercise and nutrition, though, there aren't many compelling options for watch apps. Do I need or want Water Mynder for helping me remember to hydrate? Or the Field Day game for growing a farm? Nah.

Complications, or quick bits of information you can glean right on the watch face, are much more useful to me, and several developers are getting in on the action. For instance, if you have the ESPN app, you can see your favorite team's scores on the watch face, and Lyft will show the ETA for your ride.

Apple has added a new app of its own in Breathe, which does exactly what it says. It walks you through taking a series of deep breaths for 60 seconds, which is supposed to help with relaxation. It's not for me; in fact, I caught myself counting the seconds until it was over.

You don't have to charge every night!

Apple packed a bigger battery in the Series 2 to compensate for the addition of GPS, and the result is a longer-running wearable. On a weekend day that started at 7 a.m. and included a 5-mile run and a smattering of notifications, the Apple Watch Series 2 had 34 percent juice by 10 p.m. That’s better than the 18 hours of rated battery life. I had to plug last year's model in every night.

During a weekday that started at 7 am with the watch and included lots of notifications but no GPS run tracking, the Series 2 had 54 percent of its capacity left at 9:20 p.m.

What's good about this improvement is that, in many cases, you'll be able to sleep with the Apple Watch on (if you like) and use it as your silent buzzing alarm. My advice? Get a charger for home and for work.

MORE: Smartwatch Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Bottom line

Ironically, Apple has made the Apple Watch more appealing to more shoppers by narrowing its focus. From the GPS and water resistance to the new Activity watch face and activity sharing options, the $369 Series 2 is an excellent fitness tracker watch that happens to have lots of other talents. I also appreciated the bright, sunlight-friendly display; longer battery life; and faster performance.

However, the cheaper $269 Series 1 remains a good choice if you want a smartwatch that does activity tracking but you don't need GPS or a swim-proof design. Just keep in mind that the screen on the Series 1 is half as bright as that on the Series 2.

Like the rest of the industry, Apple still hasn't made a great case for needing a smartwatch when your workout is complete. The Series 2 remains very much an iPhone accessory, because it doesn't have optional LTE as the upcoming Samsung Gear S3 will. But if you live in the Apple ecosystem, want to live a healthier lifestyle and not miss a notification or call, the Apple Watch Series 2 won't disappoint you.

Mark Spoonauer

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.