Apple Watch Series 2 review: Dynamic wearable, but no killer app

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The Apple Watch Series 2 is sleek enough from the front, but between its bulk and inessential apps, it may not be worth the wrist real estate(Credit: Emily Ferron/New Atlas)

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The Apple Watch Series 2 has a few new tricks up its sleeve, but will you want to wear it on yours? While its processor, display and interactivity make it impressively capable, the new Apple Watch remains a sleek gizmo without a killer app. The updated smartwatch can perform more tasks than ever, yet it doesn't seem to be the perfect tool for any of them. Join us, as we review the new Apple Watch.

A well-executed build with a few inherent flaws

Apple Watch Series 2 largely inherits its dimensions and looks from its predecessor, the early-2015 1st-gen model, with just a few exceptions.

In terms of size, it's still one of the most compact and streamlined smartwatches available, even though the new Apple Watch adds an additional 11 percent in thickness. Overall, the whole package continues to be more sporty than sophisticated. It's a far cry from traditionally informed designs from competitors like the Samsung Gear S3, but its construction and materials are top-notch. After a week of consistent wear, through workouts, hand washing and household chores, our test unit is still clean, comfortable and in virtually perfect condition.

This trial watch is the smaller 38 mm case size (a larger 42 mm unit is also available) with a gold aluminum case and a yellow/light gray woven nylon band. If this colorway doesn't do it for you, there are several other combinations available directly from Apple, and any number of interchangeable bands available from accessory manufacturers.

The quality of the nylon band immediately got my attention: It feels rugged and silky, with a subtle woven sheen. But once I put the watch on, I was less impressed. The 11.4 millimeter thick case bulges out cartoonishly. The heart rate sensor on the back is slightly convex, thrusting it out even further. This size may feel proportional on someone with a larger frame, but my wrist has a 6-inch circumference. Wearing the watch makes it about a third bigger.

Like the original model, the display provides a surprisingly pleasant viewing experience despite its small size. Text is crisp and easy to read; icons look sharp and vivid; and with improved 1,000 nits max brightness, that's true even in full sunlight.

But although it's a standard-bearing watch display, it's a disappointing way to look at photos. We're accustomed to seeing lovely, rich colors on other mobile devices, so images on the watch seem tiny, granular and low-range by comparison. This is one of the qualities that prevents the Apple Watch from becoming a must-have accessory: It's hard to justify viewing decent photos on a tiny screen when it's simpler to look at gorgeous photos on a more comfortably-sized device. After all, Apple Watch isn't ready to de-couple from your iPhone just yet.

When it comes to interactivity, Series 2 carries over the wealth of input methods from the 1st-gen Apple Watch, still at the expense of a steeper learning curve and compromised navigational intuitiveness. The display is sensitive to tapping, pressing, and swiping. The "Digital Crown" dial, to the top right of the face, responds to twisting, pressing, double-tapping and holding. The side button can be pressed, double-tapped, or pressed and held. It also has a heart rate sensor, microphone and Siri. With so many unlabeled controls, I find myself navigating more through trial and error than by intention.

My favorite feature of the Series 2 is another holdout from earlier flagships – its unique form of haptic feedback. It feels like a pleasant tap on the wrist topped off with a light vibration and/or an audio tone, for catching your attention without driving you up a wall.

One last unchanged metric: battery life. Both the original and 2 Apple Watches offer about 18 hours of battery life, which held true in our daily use. We would like to see the battery life edge out 24 hours, though. That way, it could be better worked into a daily routine. You'd be able to charge the device at the same time every day, and still be able to wear it at night to use the haptic alarm clock.

Under-the-hood updates: GPS, water resistance, better processor, watchOS 3

You can't identify the Series 2's most significant upgrades by looking at it. Most notably, the watch is now GPS-equipped, which is big news for fitness tracking. It lets you map and record outdoor workouts without lugging your phone along. In the age of phablets, which aren't easy to accommodate on an armband, that's a major plus. GPS (which requires a larger battery to maintain the same battery life) likely accounts for the device's increased thickness, but even for a bulk-averse wearer like me, it seems well worth it.

It's also newly water resistant to 50 meters. That's not only protection from incidental liquid damage, it's effectively swimproof – another feather in the watch's fitness-tracking cap. Our test unit had no problem withstanding sweat, showers, and intentional immersions, though I wasn't able to catch the novel water-ejecting speaker in action.

Apple's new S2 dual core chip remedies the sluggish response time found in its predecessors. While I was initially unimpressed with its speed (it takes 2-3 seconds to open an app) it's a sizzler compared to earlier versions.

The Series 2 launches with watchOS 3 software, which adds several new features, the best of which enable a snappier user experience. For example, it adds a Dock screen, where you can pre-set easy scrollable access to your favorite apps.

We also like the new Scribble feature, which lets you compose messages by using your finger to draw out individual letters on the display. Scribble works nearly perfectly when you're drawing the English alphabet, even if you're moving quickly. It seemed to have a little trouble with numerals, though, and does not render cursive script at all.

All dressed up and no place to go

Apple Watch sales have fallen short, but it's one of the best selling wearables on the market. We think the latter point can be attributed to its style, brand recognition and user experience. But the cause of the former point – slow sales overall – is a little trickier to define.

From our point of view, it's because even though the Apple Watch can technically perform a long list of tasks, they're largely inessential ones. Series 2 makes strides with its operating system and native capabilities, but it's still not a must-have tool. By and large, app developers have yet to come up with novel ways to bring wrist-mounted computing power to its full potential.

Fitness tracking is the closest thing to a killer app that the Apple Watch can offer. But for this purpose, its lack of an altimeter could be considered a glaring omission. As a trail runner, I would very much like to track elevation over the course of a mountain run without needing to bring my phone. And if fitness tracking is all you want, you can get an equal-or-better fitness tracker like the Fitbit Charge and save US$169 a pop.

For other uses, the watch experience feels paralyzed: Messaging, email and social media apps are equipped to drown you in notifications, but you can't respond or post in the most meaningful way. You get all of the distraction of mobile technology with little of its convenience or entertainment. To me, being able to see my email but not make a full response is a fresh kind of non-productive hell.

That being said, wearing the Apple Watch makes me feel like I have a chunk of an early-generation iPhone strapped to my wrist by a high-end dog collar. Since it offers minor advantages (and several disadvantages) over the smartphone I already own, I'd rather use wrist real estate for a more lifestyle-appropriate device – like the occasional fitness tracker – or just go technology-free.

Of course, many people don't feel so harshly. The Apple Watch Series 2 is an excellent choice for smartwatch fans that are iPhone users, prefer a modern-looking device (as opposed to an analog watch copycat) and appreciate a snappy, multi-faceted interface.

Apple Watch Series 2 is available now. Full retail price starts at $369. To read more about Apple's newest flagships, check out New Atlas' reviews of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.

Product Page: Apple

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