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Apple Watch Series 2 review: This time, a better smartwatch

GPS, waterproofing and faster software make Apple's new smartwatch finally click, but don't expect huge battery life.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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10 min read

There is a watch-shaped ring around my left wrist, a permanent tan-line.

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8.1

Apple Watch Series 2

The Good

The new Apple Watch is faster, has a far better OS, onboard GPS, a brighter display and is waterproof to 50 meters in salt or fresh water.

The Bad

Same battery life, mostly. GPS activity causes a big hit on battery life for running. Lacks always-on display. A tad thicker and heavier. Requires an iPhone to work.

The Bottom Line

The Apple Watch returns in a made-for-sports upgrade that adds swim functions and GPS, but anyone who's not a runner or swimmer should consider the Apple Watch Series 1 instead.

I've worn a watch since I was a kid. I've always liked to sleep with my watch. To shower with my watch. To swim with my watch.

Not everyone likes to do this. But it's helpful to have a watch be something that's easy to use and just not worry about.

The Series 2 arrives a year and a half after the original Apple Watch first went on sale. Some things have changed: If you liked the idea of an Apple Watch before, this new version is seriously faster, has a brighter display and it's a lot better for outdoor sports.

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Still good in bright light.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Other things remain the same. Its design and battery life are almost identical.

New software, WatchOS 3, is a great upgrade to the earlier experience. Like iOS 10, that's a free upgrade to existing Watch owners, too -- you don't need to buy anything new.

But the combination of new hardware and software make a familiar-looking circle-in-the-square watch now feel like the smooth wrist companion it was always meant to be.

The new Series 2 comes in three different material designs (aluminum, stainless steel and a new ceramic edition that replaces last year's absurd $10,000 gold watch). There are plenty of band options that come bundled in, too. It still comes in smaller (38mm) and larger (42mm) sizes. Prices start at $369, £369 or AU$529 for 38mm aluminum. They go up to $1,299, £1,299 or AU$1,899 for the 42mm ceramic option.

Keep in mind there are also special partnership watches with Hermes and Nike, both of which come with unique packed-in straps and pre-installed custom watch faces. My advice: Stick with the basic aluminum, especially if you're looking for a lightweight fitness watch.

Apple Watch Pricing

model sizeUSUK AU
Apple Watch S1 38mm Sport$269£269AU$399
false 42mm Sport$299£299AU$449
Apple Watch S2 38mm Aluminum$369£369AU$529
false 38mm Steel$549*£549*AU$799*
false 38mm Ceramic$1,249£1,249AU$ 1,799
false 42mm Aluminum$399£399AU$579
false 42mm Steel$599**£599**AU879**
false 42mm Ceramic$1,299£1,299AU$1,899

*Hermes versions for the 38mm Steel model go up to $1,299, £1,299 or AU$2,029

**Hermes versions for the 42mm Steel model go up to $1,399, £1,399 or AU$2,189

090716-apple-watch-series-2-hermes-7023.jpg

Apple Watch variants, including Hermes.

James Martin/CNET

And there's another purchase option, too. The original is still around, but with a bonus. Known as the Apple Watch Series 1, it's the same basic hardware as the original, but with a new chip that's said to be just as fast as the Series 2. It doesn't have those same latest, greatest GPS and waterproofing features as the new model -- it's still water resistant for splashes and dunks like the iPhone 7, though -- and it lacks that new brighter display. But it also costs less. (The original , though, has frequently been on sale for even less.)

I have a feeling that that new Series 1 may be the real go-to pick for a lot of people who don't need GPS or swim tracking. Maybe it's the watch everyone should wear.

Series 2 is my favorite , and it's now my favorite smartwatch, too. But it's still not everything for everybody.

But if you've been thinking of getting one and don't have one, go for it. Or, update the software on your old and buy a new band instead. Or hang on for a comparative review with the less-expensive Series 1.

Oh, and by the way: Yes, you need an iPhone to use the , same as always. If you do have an iPhone, the best smartwatch you can get is the Series 2.

Editors' note: The ratings in this review are tentative as we continue to test the Apple Watch Series 2, especially for battery life and swim tracking. We'll also soon be reviewing the Apple Watch Series 1 for direct comparison.

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Water is no problem.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Swimproofing, and what it means

A growing batch of smartwatches and fitness trackers are toughening up, with water resistance starting to move from "nice to have" to "must have". now leaps to the head of the pack with 50 meter water resistance. It's also safe to take in fresh or salt water. Yes, that means the open ocean.

In fact, the Series 2 Watch can now record swim activity and estimated calories right in the Workout app. I, however, haven't yet swam in the open ocean, or even in a pool. I did dip the watch into the East River briefly, and I've been showering with it. I've also been submerging it every chance I've gotten. But stay tuned for a real swim test from the CNET team in the near future because we intend to give it a deeper dive very soon.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

GPS onboard

The Series 2 also has something that many activity trackers already pack. GPS tracking for runs happens automatically on , and it starts acquiring position once the iPhone is away from it. This is useful for runners because it means a map of your run can be stored to look at where you went, and how far you ran. And it means you can finally leave your phone at home during the run.

Apple's GPS function in its included Workouts app stores the data as a map that can be opened in Apple's on-iPhone Activity app. The map of your run is color-coded to show how fast you were moving.

I tried it on a bunch of walks, and it knew where I was through my whole walk. More impressively, it acquired my position quickly.

GPS isn't supported in other apps yet, but it will be -- including the constellation-locating Night Sky and the hike-tracking app Viewranger.

For runners, the Series 2 will be helpful -- but keep in mind that with GPS on, battery life during workouts shrinks down quite a bit. Expect around 5 hours, or less when listening to music. No, that's not a lot. Apple advises you deactivate heart rate for longer GPS-connected runs, but other GPS heart rate-enabled fitness watches like the Fitbit Surge last longer.

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Apple Watch Series 2 (left) and original (right) in direct sunlight, max brightness.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Display brightness: fine in blaring sun

Apple boasts a 1,000-nit display on Series 2, up from 450. That's seriously bright, and in the most intense sunlight in the middle of a 90-degree day in midtown NYC it was perfectly readable.

still lacks an always-on display, though, like the one found on the old Pebble Time and upcoming Pebble Time 2. And many Android Wear watches. And the Samsung Gear S2 and S3. The display lights up easily by tapping or lifting your wrist, but I'd like to see always-on as an option.

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Breathe.

Sarah Tew/CNET

WatchOS 3: a lot better

You can now add WatchOS 3, Apple's newest operating system, on existing first-gen , and it comes preinstalled on all new Watches going forward. I've used it on the Series 2, and it has several big advantages that change into a much better wrist-companion. Its new quick-access app dock brings up apps without having to navigate that totally confusing bubble-like app-grid that used to be the only way to easily find apps before. It's a little bit like the old "Glances" feature on Apple Watch, which has disappeared.

Apps now run in the background, too, so recently-used apps load far faster. Checking on how the Mets are doing, or what my email is, or whether it'll rain soon in Dark Sky now takes a fraction of the time. Some apps still take a while to load, but as apps get updated after the launch of WatchOS 3 we're hoping that improves.

What can you look forward to most in WatchOS 3? My favorite ideas are the HomeKit-connected Home app (although I don't have HomeKit appliances at home), expanded scribble-to-write and sticker-ified responses in Messages, that handy-dandy dock for apps, background fast-loading of apps placed in said dock, a Reminders app (I use Apple's iOS-based one a fair amount for checklists), and several useful new watch faces -- most importantly, two fitness-based ones, at last.

In workouts, there's also a more useful compression of multiple data points -- pace, heart rate, time, etc -- on one display, versus the older swipe-heavy layout that only had one bit of info on-screen at once.

Combined, they make any a far better everyday fitness tracker, and better little on-wrist communicator. It's an update you need to add to your watch, if you haven't done it already.

I'm not a huge fan of Breathe, Apple's new mindfulness app. Much like Fitbit's new Relax function on the Charge 2, it encourages breathing in a gentle rhythm. I breathed, I focused. But I was also bothered by daily "breathe" reminders. Much like stand reminders, I want to ignore them.

A faster processor, too

has a new "S2" processor, Apple's custom watch chip. Speeds are mostly measured by how fast things load. I found everything at least moderately snappier. Apple promises some better graphics in apps, too, but honestly I mostly use simple text-based apps with minimal graphics. Maybe that will change.

Battery life gets a tiny bit better

The new Series 2 is actually a tiny bit thicker than the last version. You wouldn't notice it unless you held two watches side by side, and even then you'd need to look twice.

Inside, a larger battery helps manage GPS and fitness functions, but it also helped get a bit more battery than Apple's conservative 18 hour claims. I get through a full day with anywhere from 25%-50% battery remaining, on most full days. Stay tuned for more testing -- I like to wear my wearables for close to two weeks, if possible, before making a final judgment.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Better at fitness...but dedicated fitness trackers have an edge

Most people buy things for their wrist because they want a fitness tracker. The has gotten much better at its fitness chops. But it's still missing a couple of things. First off, its more limited battery life means no integrated sleep tracking, because it's understood that you'll be charging your Watch on the nightstand every night. Fitbit and many other trackers include sleep functions, and smart alarms. You could find apps that could do this, no doubt, but it doesn't feel practical.

The doesn't have the same sort of instant at-a-glance heart rate functions that the Fitbit Charge 2 has. In workout mode, heart rate is constantly on. But you need to start a workout to get that fast access.

Also, while now has a couple of social fitness functions in WatchOS 3, Fitbit has a vastly larger and more vibrant community where it's easier to engage in challenges. The might get that too, or a growing set of more hooked-in fitness apps, that can now use onboard heart rate and accelerometer/gyro data, could be the answer.

I like Apple's own three-ring way of measuring everyday activity and fitness. It motivates me and it's clean. I just wish Apple's Activity app had a few more ways to add nutrition, weight management and other motivational tools.

The won't beat a long battery-life GPS fitness watch with a host of specialized features -- but those fitness devices don't have all the extra bells and whistles and seamless communication software of the, either.

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GPS records a map of your workout.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Siri listens well

We used to think that talking to our things was stupid. Then came Amazon Echo.

The and its always-on Siri connection (just say "Hey, Siri") is really good. I forgot about Siri for the first couple of days, and then walked home in the rain with an umbrella in one hand. The listened, it called people, it set alarms. When I drive, I use it to call up music on my car's speakers via my linked-up phone.

Having Siri means that the is often as useful in a pinch for quick hands-free commands. Sometimes I wish it spoke back to me.

What's missing: No LTE, no watch face store

There are plenty of apps for the . But it still lacks something every other major smartwatch from Samsung Gear S2 to the Pebble Time enjoys: a watch face store.

There are 14 customizable watch faces on the , but that's it. I'd like a chance to have a Star Wars watch face, or a Nintendo one. Maybe an NFL one that shows me fantasy sports stats. How about a weather watch face with animated weather maps? There's a huge missed opportunity that still hasn't arrived yet. I'm sure it will come someday, but I expected an app store for watch faces with Series 2. It still isn't here.

I'm a little bored with Apple's well-designed watch faces. And to enjoy new ones such as the Hermes or Nike+ designs, you need to buy a whole new special edition , which is absurd.

The also can't truly stay connected on its own like some watches can. The Samsung Gear S3 and a few Android Wear watches boast a cellular connection to make calls on the go, stream music, check messages, and more. Packing LTE on an would drain battery, but it could have some advantages. I've never seen one that works all that well, though.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

You don't need a smartwatch -- but this is now a really good one

Smartwatches still aren't something you need in your life. Neither are fitness trackers.

That being said, I've found some use for them in my life. The has finally become something that's better. But even so, it lacks things I still really want. Better battery life, for one. A display that feels always-on, so I can keep interacting with it. And maybe, someday, an ability to be something I can use away from the phone better...or connect with other things.

Apple's new AirPods suggest the type of auto-pairing peripherals that could make the interesting. Poof! They're connected. Now that HomeKit-connected things are on the horizon, maybe the watch becomes a true remote control for everything and a window to other interfaces.

Those days aren't fully here yet, but they're a bit closer. The is still mostly a fitness tracker, a reminder, a phone remote, a little iPod, a fun toy. Possibly a useful everyday tool. Stay tuned, because this review isn't over. I'll be wearing the watch for another week or so and comparing it to the original with WatchOS 3, and Series 1.

might not stay on your wrist, but -- reinvigorated by Series 2 and WatchOS 3 -- it's stayed on mine.

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8.1

Apple Watch Series 2

Score Breakdown

Design 9Battery 6Performance 8Software 8Features 9
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