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Apple Watch Series 2 Is a Solid Option

Two weeks after the newest Apple Watch landed at Runner’s World HQ, we’re happy to report that it’s a suitable option for your next GPS running watch. Read on to find out what we discovered during testing. (And read our initial observations here.)

The biggest update for the Apple Watch 2 is a new focus on fitness and the integration of GPS into the watch itself. The first version off-loaded that work to your phone, but not all runners like to carry a phone when working out. Now they don’t have to. In our testing, we’ve found the GPS accuracy to be on par with our sport-specific watches.



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On our first run with it, the watch was within a hundredth of a mile at every split—a good start. We would continue to see such precision throughout our testing, whether running in suburbs or rural areas. But for a true test of its GPS power, I took it to New York City.

Setting out for a lunch run from our midtown Manhattan offices near Grand Central, as challenging a setting as you’ll find for any watch, I wore a Garmin Fenix 3 HR on my right wrist and the Watch 2 on my left. I waited only about 10 seconds for the Fenix to signal that it had located satellites. Annoyingly, there’s absolutely no indication of satellite signal on the Apple Watch 2. That’s a little unsettling—does it know where I am? Assuming I had a signal, I hit start and headed south through the urban canyons. Both watches, miraculously, picked up my run right about the point where I’d actually began and tracked me about as well as I could expect down Third Avenue (as confirmed by looking at maps on an iPhone post-run).

But a strange thing happened on the way to the East River running path: The Apple Watch’s track appears insanely smooth when you look at it in the Activity app on an iPhone later.

Most likely, this processing occurs in the phone’s app, but still, somebody should let Apple know that it’s okay to have a little zig and zag in your breadcrumb.

The big question, given the power consumption of GPS, is “How long does the battery last?” In short, better than expected, but still not best in class. Apple claims you can expect five hours when using the watch with built-in GPS during workout mode. Our tests suggest that this might be possible, even if it’s stretching the limits.

I tested the watch during a cut-back week heading into a big fall race, so running for four-plus hours to take the watch from 100 percent to dead wouldn’t be the smartest idea. I still got a very good idea how long it would last.

Taking it fresh off the charger—yes, you’re going to have to put it on the cable every night—I fired up Apple’s Workout app on the Watch and jumped on a bike for a spirited 1:45 ride. I carried along an iPhone, but put it in airplane mode to ensure the Watch was doing all the heavy lifting. At the end, I had chewed through 37 percent of the battery (63 percent remaining).

I recovered for just an hour, then headed out for a 5.33-mile run with a friend. That took just 40 minutes, but the battery had dipped to just 46 percent remaining.

A similar multi-part test a week later delivered just about the same results: 2:30 of activity burned through more than half of the battery.

So, can you get a five-hour run out of the watch? That’s likely possible if you head out with it fully charged, but if you are wearing it at all before your run starts you’ll cut into that figure. Of course, you can eek out more life by disabling the optical heart rate monitor.

The wrist-based heart rate monitor is a holdover from the earlier version, but we still put it through the paces on this model. It seems nearly every watch or fitness tracking device these days has a green light peeking out from the undercarriage, with considerably different results depending on the wearer (hairy arms!) or activity. For all-day wear and cycling, we found the heart rate readings of the Watch 2 to be spot-on. But what about while running? Aerobic, high-energy activities can introduce a lot of errors as the watch bounces around.

On another five-mile run, I wore a chest strap paired with the aforementioned Garmin for comparison. We were running about 7:30 pace when I looked at the heart rate reading on the Watch 2 after a couple miles: 155 bpm. For background, I have a slow pulse—resting in the 30s—and 155 bpm is what I averaged racing a half-marathon recently. So, there was no chance that could be correct, right? But a glance at the Garmin confirmed the measurement. Turns out, I was dehydrated, just plain tired at the end of a long week, and was coming down with a head cold. Thus, I was working harder than I thought.

Impressively, each mile split (except for the first, for some reason) showed a bpm within a beat of the chest strap reading.

As I mentioned, I’ve had varying success with wrist-based heart rate over the years. On an earlier run, I saw readings all over the place, but discovered that the band was probably one “notch” too loose. I’ve pulled it tighter ever since (tighter than I prefer, to be honest, but not to the point of being uncomfortable), and the measurements are precise.

At the press event introducing the watch, Apple made a big deal about this being the brightest screen it’s put in any device to date. And it definitely is bright—even under a cloudless sky at high noon, it’s easy to read the numbers on the face. I’ve never felt the need to ratchet up the brightness any higher than the default “medium” setting. On the watch itself, you can set the brightness to just one of three levels, but from the Watch app on an iPhone, you can tweak a slider for greater adjustability.

But, being runners, when we talk displays we mean “What kind of data can I see?” In many of the running-specific apps, that data is somewhat limited. For example, Runkeeper, Strava, and MapMyRun only show time, distance, pace, and heart rate on the Watch. The native Workout app, however, lets you customize what you see; you can choose up to five metrics from among seven measurements. For running, you can add average pace, active calories, and total calories to the four listed above. For most runners, that’s totally fine. I like to see “lap pace” rather than “current pace” on my watch. I also like to see elevation, especially when I’m training in the mountains of New York’s Adirondack Park. But that’s an extreme use case that most runners aren’t concerned about.

More concerning, however, is the functionality of the watch when it gets wet or sweaty. Good luck changing screens or getting the watch to respond. This was an issue my colleague Brian Dalek dealt with while testing the first version of this watch. It’s still an issue. On one hot day, I wiped my forehead to get my hands good and sweaty, and the Watch failed to respond to any touches on its face. This is one reason you still find buttons on running watches.

And, to close out this section on displays: Let’s talk fingerprints. Either I’m a greasy character or this screen gets dirty in a hurry. I’m constantly wiping it on my shirt or pants leg to get rid of the annoying streaks and smears left behind while scrolling around the apps and options.

Apps installed on the Watch 2 currently funtion just as they did on the first generation Watch—they can estimate your distance and pace using motion sensor data, or get more reliable information if your watch is paired with your phone (and you’re carrying it). But, I really believe the power of this new watch will lie in what developers can bake into their own apps, when they release updates to leverage the watch’s built-in GPS. To date, we’ve found only Pear Sports able track your route by the watch alone.

Why? Apple keeps such a tight lid on new products that developers just haven’t had enough time to write the code. Nike was a launch partner—on stage to announce a custom Nike+ watch—but even their app doesn’t yet leverage the GPS chip. We’ll keep an eye on app updates, but here’s what brands have told us so far:

MapMyRun: A spokesperson for Under Armour, owner of MapMyRun, told me by e-mail that “currently, any athlete running the MapMyRun app on Watch 2 will need to have the watch paired with their iPhone (and present) for GPS data. Our team is exploring new ways to support a completely untethered experience with GPS but we do not have a release date to share at this time.”

Strava: A rep told me the company is “actively looking into how they can extend the existing Strava Apple Watch app to take advantage of the GPS.”

Runkeeper: It seemed to have the clearest roadmap, based on its response. “With the GPS capabilities in the Series 2, watchOS is able to deliver more accurate distance, steps and other calculations that will benefit Runkeeper users today. We’re actively working on a new GPS-enabled experience for Runkeeper on Apple Watch, and expect it to be ready in the next month. Our current experience does not include a post-activity map for workouts that are tracked only with the watch, but we anticipate this next release will, alongside other enhancements using GPS.”

But a good number of runners will be perfectly happy with using the native Workout app to track their runs. It accurately gives time, distance, and pace. The biggest drawback for competitive runners and data junkies, at this point, is that your data is locked into Apple’s Activity ecosystem—there’s no way to export it to any of the above-mentioned third-party services.

There’s also an iPhone app we’ve come to love based on our use of the new Apple Watch: Tempo. It parses just your running data points to give you weekly and monthly graphs of your runs, plus it charts your workouts complete with lap splits and per-lap heart rate (which you don’t see in the native Workout app). While Apple’s apps are good at giving you a big picture of your overall health, Tempo feels more like a tool built by runners who really understand what you want to see in your training log.

We’ve already discussed the biggest issue with water (sweat!). And, since I’m deathly afraid of swimming, I didn’t put any of the watch’s water features to the test in a pool or lake. But, I did lock the screen on runs and rides, wore it in a shower, and rinsed it down regularly in the sink. It’s still ticking!

Apple highlighted the waterproof nature of the watch and the strange way it ejects water from the speaker port. Turns out, that function really is more than just marketing. I soaked the watch in a bowl of water until it was saturated, then rotated the crown to unlock it. After a few spins, the watch let out 10 low-frequency chirps—the sound waves are intended to force water out of the hole in the side. It actually works—and it’s kinda fun to see:

There are certainly more shortcuts and tips to be discovered as we live and run with the Watch 2, but two of our favorites so far are the ability to record lap splits and to use the buttons to pause/start a run.

To record a lap split (Apple calls them “segments”), you simply double-tap the screen while recording an activity in the Workout app. So far, this functionality doesn’t work in third-party apps like Runkeeper and Strava (see section above).

Also, given my earlier note on the watch face’s non-responsiveness when wet, it’s helpful to have buttons so you can start and stop a run. Simply press both the crown and dock button simultaneously to pause your track when you hit a red light. Hit it again to resume your run. Note: That same button combination can be set to take screenshots. I had it set up this way during testing, and quickly got annoyed at all the images littering my iPhone after the Watch synced.

With the big changes covered, let’s get into some of the nitty gritty details that irk me. These are by no means deal-breakers, but they’re worth noting if you’re in the market for a new timekeeper.

3-2-1 countdown: Before every run, the watch does a short countdown, then starts recording time and distance. Who really runs this way? When I hit start, I want the watch to immediately start recording. While it’s a minor frustration during your everyday easy runs, I would consider this feature a real hassle if you use the watch during a race.

No GPS status: As I mentioned in the GPS section above, there’s no indication you have a satellite signal before you start running. Apple touted the Watch’s quick acquisition when it announced the watch, but gave little detail on what that means. Just about every GPS watch that’s hitting the market right now gets a quick lock on satellites, but there are some rare days when we stand around for 30 seconds or more waiting for a signal. In any case, every running watch we’ve ever tested gives you some indication that it has is ready to start tracking your latitude and longitude points—well, every watch except Watch 2.

No review of runs: Log a run, hit save, and then want to see your lap splits? Good luck. The Activity app on the watch will show you the distance of the run, but nothing more. This is simply because the watch, for better or worse, is still so tightly linked as an accessory of the iPhone. Even third-party apps like Runkeeper [ON PHONE?] don’t give you a way to review runs after you’ve hit the save button.

Weak alerts: The watch is configured to record a split every mile, but more often than not, we don’t feel the “tap” that signals a new mile (or 5 miles on a bicycle). That tap is just a single, quick jolt with no audible chirp or beep. In my opinion, the vibration needs to be more forceful and last longer, and be accompanied by a beep.

While the Apple Watch Series 2 is still primarily a fashionable accessory for your iPhone, it’s now a much stronger device that runners and other active types should consider if they’re in the market for a new GPS watch.

Watch our initial video about the Apple Watch 2:

Have you used the Apple Watch Series 2? Let us know what’s working (or not working) for you in our comments.