Apple Watch Series 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 (and other fitness tracking elements)

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.

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. It's certainly consistent.

For comparison with the first-gen, GPS-free Apple Watch, we went out again the next night and did three more laps. This time the Series 2 was even more consistent - 960m, 960m and 960m - 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.

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, 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?

Apple Watch Series 2 review: Screen

The Apple Watch Series 2 has an AMOLED display that is twice as bright as the screen on the original watch, according to Apple - 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.

Every model of the Series 2 is protected by sapphire glass, which is stronger than the Ion-X glass used on last year's Apple Watch Sport model (the other models of the first-gen Apple Watch had sapphire glass). All Series 2 watches have a sapphire glass, making it a more durable option in the long run.

Screen specs

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

Apple Watch Series 2 review: Performance

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 comes 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.