Watch and learn - has Apple broken new ground with the new Series 2?
Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30
Ever thought of buying a smartwatch? Most people haven't. The reason is summed up in one question: why do I need this? After all, the limits of a 1.5-inch screen and still-imperfect voice controls mean that app usage can never be quite the same as on a 5-inch screen. So what is a smartwatch actually for? Apple believes that it has a new answer to that question: fitness. Its newly released model has GPS and is waterproof to 50 metres' depth, meaning it now matches the best-selling fitness bands on the market. Our Technology Editor puts it to the test
WHAT THE APPLE WATCH ACTUALLY DOES
Before looking at the new features, here's a reminder for the unacquainted (which is most of us) about what an Apple Watch is and what it does.
In a nutshell, it's a smartwatch with its own operating system that mostly works through a Bluetooth connection to an iPhone (in other words, you have to have an iPhone for it to work).
It comes in two sizes, 38mm (1.5 inches) and 42mm (1.7 inches). The touchscreen is square instead of round (like most ordinary watches) to maximise the amount of information you can see on such a small screen.
It has hundreds thousands of apps that work on it. The most useful ones are messaging, social media and fitness apps. (Although others, such as Shazam for recognising songs playing in your immediate vicinity, are also handy.)
When you get a text message, Facebook notification, Tweet or other message, your Watch lets you know and shows you what it is. It's the same for incoming phone calls. You can see who's calling you and, because it has an onboard microphone and speaker, you can even take that call - Dick Tracy style - on the Watch itself.
It works with Siri, Apple's voice control system. This means you can ask it questions, check diary dates or do general searches on it. (Although you often need to check your iPhone for the answers.)
It needs to be charged either every night (if you use it a lot) or every second night (if you only use it occasionally).
It has two buttons to the side: a 'crown' dial which looks like a normal watch's winder and a flat button beside it. Both control the Watch in various ways as an accompaniment to the small touchscreen. There are also sensors underneath the Watch that can measure things like your heart rate.
WHAT'S NEW IN THE SERIES 2 APPLE WATCH
So what does the new upgraded model bring? And is it worth getting?
There are actually two new models, now called Watch Series 1 (€349) and Watch Series 2 (€449).
The big difference is that the Series 2 Watch now has GPS and is waterproof to a depth of 50 metres. Those are critical features for anyone who wants to depend on their smartwatch as a constant fitness companion. GPS, in particular, now means that you can track or program your walk, jog, run or cycle much more accurately than the Watch could do before. It can also track and save runs you do without your phone being with you, a huge advantage if you regard a handset as a bulky, heavy passenger.
And being waterproof means that you can reliably use it to track swimming activity.
In other words, the fresh reason for getting a Series 2 Apple Watch is as a souped-up fitness companion.
Fitness isn't the only area in which the Watch has been ungraded. Both the Series 1 and Series 2 models now have bigger batteries. On the Series 2 version, this is mainly to cater for the GPS and brighter screen (it's now twice as bright as the old model). But without these features on the Series 1 model, it could be a real bonus.
The Watch comes with a decent workout app and it synchronises with some other third party fitness apps, too. (There's also a separate Nike+ edition of the Series 2 Watch that comes with its own special strap and some different watchfaces. It costs the same as the ordinary edition.)
The more you use these, the more you'll put pressure on battery life. I used them moderately and still managed to get a solid two days' usage between charges from the Series 2.
There are also some big improvements under the hood. The Series 2 model has a chip that's 50pc faster than the old model. This is actually really important. While I liked the first Watch, it was painfully slow sometimes at doing things.
A MUCH IMPROVED INTERFACE
The other big difference to the Watch is the updated operating system, watchOS 3. The main benefit is that apps now open much quicker. (This was one of the main frustrations with the original Apple Watch.)
But it also makes it easier to get around the Watch. The power button is now a shortcut to a dock that lets you switch between recent apps quickly. And swiping up on the Watch now gives you more control shortcuts over things like airplane mode, sounds and power reserve.
The updated interface also supports other effects from iOS10, including messaging extras such as scribbling, animated emoji and quick responses. And there's an SOS feature that lets you Watch call an emergency number when the power button is pressed down for a couple of seconds.
Finally, there are a few new Watch faces to choose from, which you can activate by swiping from right to left.
It's important to note that while watchOS 3 comes with the new models, it's also completely free to download and use on existing Apple Watch models. So it's not, in itself, a reason to buy one of the new Watches if you already have one.
The new Watch is a tiny bit (1mm) fatter than the old model. This, we understand, is to make space for the bigger battery. In general, I like the way the Apple Watch looks and feels although it's a very different aesthetic effect to a classic watch. While Apple has made it as sleek as they can, it still somewhat resembles a small touchscreen computer on your wrist.
That is something you have to accept and acclimatise to pretty quickly.
This may influence one's choice of size for the Watch. As I don't mind the touchscreen look, I opt for the bigger 42mm model. The model I got was a space grey colour with a 'midnight blue' sport band, For me, the combination looks (and feels) really great.
Those with especially sleek wrists or who don't particularly care for the square screen look may be more comfortable with a 38mm model.
Compatibility with legacy accessories is pretty good. The chargers and strap connections are the same fit, meaning any nice leather straps you may have invested in can still be used.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY?
If you're looking for a personal assistant that's comfortable and will help you out with fitness routines, the new Series 2 Watch is a decent buy. For those who know that they won't be too interested in those whole fitness-tracker phenomenon, it makes more sense to look at a Series 1 model (€100 cheaper).
And if you're new to smartwatches completely and thinking of jumping in for the first time, this generation of Apple Watches is noticeably better than the first generation. Either new model may encourage you to start using voice commands a bit more. You might start paying more attention to your basic health and movements.
I like the Apple Watch and have done since it was launched. But I liked it because it stopped me from having to take my phone out of my pocket so much when messages or notifications came in. I also wasn't an habitual 'classic' watch-wearer, so I wasn't attuned to that aesthetic. If I were advising someone like myself, I would say that the new Series 1 Watch (€349) is probably the better choice.