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WatchOS 2 hands-on: What Apple Watch should have had from the start

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Ignoring the mixed reviews, common sense and the usually wise advice that you should avoid first-gen products at all costs, I bought an Apple Watch last June. Honestly, I'm still surprised by that. I backed the original Pebble crowdfunding campaign, and I've tested a few Android Wear devices, but as a whole smartwatches have always left me wanting. If I was going to wear anything on my wrist, I typically preferred a dedicated fitness tracker. But after hearing about what Apple had planned for watchOS 2 (the software that powers the Watch), I felt compelled to snap up a 42mm Apple Watch Sport. Now, a little more than five months after the Watch's launch, that long-awaited update is here. And while it doesn't fix all of the Apple Watch's flaws, it's a significant improvement for the crazies like me who bought one already.

Gallery: Apple watchOS 2 hands-on | 9 Photos

Upgrading to watchOS 2 took over an hour, including a surprisingly lengthy download. (Pro-tip: Make sure you've got your charging puck ready, as the upgrade won't start without it.) There weren't any major changes once my Watch finally rebooted, though I noticed that the animated jellyfish watch face stayed on the screen much longer than before. It's a minor thing, but it makes it easier to show off what the Apple Watch is capable of to friends. Similarly, you can now have your Watch keep its display on for 70 seconds, not just 15.

The biggest addition to watchOS 2 is something that would sound familiar to early iPhone users: native apps. Previously, third-party Apple Watch apps relied on your iPhone to do just about everything, making for interminably long delays. You'd probably spend more time staring at the circular loading screen than whatever you were looking for from an app -- not exactly what you'd want for a new flagship Apple device. With watchOS 2, developers can now have their apps run directly on the Watch, which should speed things up considerably. Those apps also have access to more of the device's features, including the Digital Crown, "taptic" feedback and health tracking.

As of today, there seem to be only a handful of Watch apps built specifically for WatchOS 2, though I'd expect that to change over the next few weeks. Citymapper was one of the first native Watch apps to appear on my phone, and it certainly feels zippier than before. The app loads in about a second, and it lets you easily plan a trip from your current location to your home or other saved address (which you have to add from the iPhone app). You can also view nearby bus and subway stops, and, surprisingly, even locations for NYC's Citibike stops. The big takeaway: It actually feels like an iOS app now, rather than a mere shell of an app.

There are also a slew of other updates throughout watchOS 2 that makes it a better overall experience. Apple's Siri virtual assistant is a bit smarter now -- it can even direct you to specific locations within apps. For example, you ask Siri to "start a running session" and it'll open up Apple's fitness app with a choice of available running workouts. Siri can also pull up "Glances," the informational screens that appear alongside the clock app, on its own, instead of pushing you to search for things on your iPhone. Apple says Siri's responsiveness has also been improved, but in my short testing the "Hey Siri" command hasn't really improved. It still takes me a few tries sometimes before Siri actually starts listening for commands.

Of course, there are also a handful of new watch faces, including time-lapses of cities like New York, Hong Kong, and Paris, photos and albums. It can also take advantage of the new "live photo" feature on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, which displays short video segments from before and after you shoot a photo. You can also add more "complications" (the watch industry term for features, which seems wildly out of place when referring to smartwatches) to the watch face from third-party apps. There isn't much room to work with, but at least you have the freedom to make tiny bits of news stories or flight details one of the first things you see on your Apple Watch.

A new feature called "Time Travel" also lets you wind the Digital Crown back or forth to see calendar events or even the upcoming weather. Previously, you could wind the Crown to interact with some watch faces, but it didn't display any useful information. There's also a night stand mode that reorients the watch face sideways so you can charge your watch on its side.

For the most part, watchOS 2 is more about what it enables, rather than any immediate features. But just like when Apple kicked off the App Store on iOS, it portends some fundamental shifts in the way the Apple Watch works. The big problem? Apple doesn't have much of an excuse for not delivering most of watchOS 2's features when the Apple Watch launched. It's not as if Apple is unaware of the benefits of a strong app ecosystem.

In our original review, we called the Apple Watch a "status symbol for iOS devotees." That's still the case today, but watchOS 2 shows that Apple is learning from its mistakes. And who knows, maybe next year I'll actually be able to recommend the Apple Watch without hesitation.

Jon Fingas contributed to this report.

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