You may have gathered already that Activity is one of my most-used Watch apps. And it's not just because I'm a bit of a fitness nut. Even on days when I'm not running, there's something addictive about completing my three color-coded Activity Rings. On days when I forget to wear my watch, I regret that I don't get credit for all my New York speed-walking.
All that said, there was apparently room for the app to get better. With watchOS 3, Apple added social sharing, so you can see how far along your friends are in meeting their daily fitness goals. Once you've sent a connection request and your pal has accepted, you can check up on them by swiping left to a second screen in the Activity app. You'll be notified when your buddies finish a workout, earn an achievement or close their rings. You can also send text messages from inside the app, with so-called Smart Replies designed specifically for activity sharing (and smack talk). Lastly, the Activity app is now optimized for wheelchairs, with an option to track wheelchair push counts instead of steps.
In a similar vein as the Activity app, watchOS 3 ushers in a new "Breathe" app that encourages users to stop what they're doing and breathe deeply. Just take a minute to inhale and exhale as you watch an on-screen graphic contract and expand. Though I was annoyed to find that Breathe notifications can't be permanently disabled, the app did come in handy on a recent subway commute, where I was otherwise feeling irritated by all the pushy people around me. If meditating is your cup of tea, you can adjust both the target breathing rate and the length of the session. If it isn't, you can dismiss the notifications -- for the day, at least.
Meanwhile, in Apple's Workouts app you, can now assign names to miscellaneous workouts so that you don't have to settle for the "Other" label. Think: yoga, belly dancing, et cetera. There's that auto-pause feature I mentioned earlier, which works for both indoor and outdoor runs. (You'll feel a "tick" on your wrist when the stopwatch pauses itself.) Additionally, you can mark segments in any workout by double-tapping the display. And you can hit Quick Start for your most common workout types -- another example of how watchOS 3 often requires fewer taps than it used to.
A lot of the other new stuff in watchOS 3 matches what you'll find in iOS 10. In Messages, you can send so-called Tapbacks, which let you respond to a message by adding a thumbs-up, heart or other pictorial reaction by tapping rather than hitting "reply." That's particularly useful on a watch, where you can't type anything and probably want to minimize scrolling through dozens of lines of emoji.
Speaking of replies, you also get a "Scribble" feature, which is exactly what it sounds like: You can draw letters and hearts on the screen with your finger. For now, that feature is available only in English and Traditional and Simplified Chinese, but it wouldn't surprise me if Apple incrementally added support for more languages. Rounding out the list of Messages features, you get access to those animated full-screen effects that make texting so addictive on iOS 10.
Other features borrowed from iOS (and even macOS): a new Home app, where you can control any smart home devices based on Apple's HomeKit standard. There's a new Reminders app and complication. Find My Friends is now on Apple Watch for the first time. And, as I discussed in my macOS Sierra review this week, you can use watchOS 3 to unlock your Sierra Mac. In theory, setting this up simply requires having two-factor authentication enabled and checking off a box in your system settings, but I wasn't able to get the feature to work until I reset my iCloud password. Hopefully you have better luck there.
Performance and battery life
Throughout, the Series 2 feels fast -- gone are the days when you'd have to wait several seconds for an app to load. That's partly because watchOS 3 itself is faster and more efficient, but it's also because of the second-gen watch's new, faster "S2" chip. All told, Apple says the dual-core CPU inside can deliver up to a 50 percent performance gain, while the GPU is up to twice as fast as on last year's watch.
The Series 2 does indeed feel materially faster than the original. Apps load quickly, it's easy to swipe left into second screens, and the background updates have been super-helpful. I occasionally notice some lag when scrolling up and down; maybe that's something Apple can address in next year's software update. Even so, watchOS 3 and the Series 2 in particular are vast improvements when it comes to sheer speed and efficiency.
Though Apple says the Series 2 watches are slightly taller to accommodate a larger battery, the company lists the battery life as the same for the 38mm and 42mm models: up to 18 hours. In my day-to-day use, I found I could leave the house early in the morning -- say, between 7 and 8 -- and return some 14 hours later with as much as half a charge left. That's assuming I used the watch intermittently, checking in occasionally to peek at my Activity Rings and dismiss those incessant "Stand" reminders. You still need to charge the watch once a day, but that never really bothered me. It's not like I'm going to sleep with that big thing on my wrist, so why not just let it rest on its magnetic charging disc overnight?
The Garmin Vivosmart HR+
In a sense, the new Apple Watch's greatest competition is actually ... the old Apple Watch. The original model is still being sold under a new name, the Series 1, and at a lower starting price: $269 (make that $299 if you want the larger 42mm version). What's more, the Series 1 now ships with the same dual-core processor as the Series 2, not to mention watchOS 3. That means the differences between the two models are few: The newer edition has a 1,000-nit screen instead of a 450-nit one; built-in GPS; and waterproofing. There will always be folks who want the latest and greatest (or who want to go for a swim), but I predict that this holiday season, many people will opt for the cheaper model instead.
Beyond that, it's not helpful to say that the Series 2 competes with every other smartwatch out there; let's instead focus on devices that are primarily as sports watches but also do typical smartwatch things, like handle notifications. Samsung has the $180 Gear Fit 2, which we called Samsung's best wearable yet, thanks to its GPS, automatic workout tracking and stylish design. The problem? It's Android-only for now.
For $250, Garmin's Vivosmart HR+ has GPS, a waterproof design, support for cycling and a battery rated for eight days total or 13 hours of GPS activity. And, yes, it works with iOS. You might also be considering the Moto 360 Sport (now $200), but as we found in our review, the Android Wear watch doesn't function nearly as well when paired with an iPhone.
The Series 2 is a good smartwatch, but not the best sports watch. I always appreciated the availability of apps for the Apple Watch, but I'm particularly fond of the revamped layout in watchOS 3 -- everything is easier to find, often with less tapping and swiping than before.
But considering that the Series 2 is being positioned as more of a sports watch, and that the GPS radio is one of the few things distinguishing it from the older Series 1, it's disappointing that the pace calculation is often off the mark. Apple's own Activity and Workout apps could benefit from more features too -- things like mile markers on running maps, elevation charts and interval settings. In any case, if all you want is distance tracking (meaning pace is irrelevant to you), the Series 2 will make a fine companion on walks, hikes and maybe even casual jogs. But it isn't precise enough for athletes in training.
Basically, it's a very stylish, feature-rich fitness tracker. For most people, the less expensive Series 1 is a better bet, since it has the same processor and OS as the Series 2 and works just as well as a smartwatch. Really, I would recommend the newer model only to people who swim. Even then, as with running, it's probably best for recreational use. Apple might feature serious-looking athletes in its ads, but ultimately, the Series 2 isn't robust enough for those people to give up their dedicated sports watches just yet.
Photography by Chris Velazco