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

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Breathe.

Sarah Tew/CNET

WatchOS 3: a lot better

You can now add WatchOS 3, Apple's newest Apple Watch operating system, on existing first-gen Apple Watches , 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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

The Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch apps that could do this, no doubt, but it doesn't feel practical.

The Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 theApple Watch , 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch . 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 Apple Watch , 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 Apple Watch , which is absurd.

The Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch would drain battery, but it could have some advantages. I've never seen one that works all that well, though.

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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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch 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 Apple Watch with WatchOS 3, and Apple Watch Series 1.

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

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