Apple Watch 2 first ride review£399.00

How do the Apple Watch Series 2's fitness capabilities stack up?

When Apple released the first Apple Watch, people went wild just as they do with pretty much every other Apple product. It had a wrist-based heart rate monitor, could record rides, runs and other activities, and integrated with your phone to do a hell of a lot more than just ping your wrist when somebody sends you a text.

The trouble was, as a fitness tracker the Apple Watch didn't have built-in GPS and needed to piggyback the connection to your phone to actually do any tracking, and it wasn’t waterproof. 

For the new Apple Watch Series 2, Apple not only added these features, it also upped the processing power and brightened up the screen to make it easier to read in the daylight, and we've just received one to try out.

Beyond serving as a go between so you don’t have to take your iPhone out of your pocket, one of the main features of the Apple watch is the Activity wheel. With this, Apple is targeting those who not only want the cool tech and communication features but to also the ability to use a companion on the road to fitness, keeping track of how you do along the way. With the first Apple Watch, some of the fitness features felt like an afterthought, however by adding built-in GPS and a bit of waterproofing seem to be Apples way of letting brands like Garmin and FitBit they're coming.

Getting started with the Apple Watch Series 2

 The Watch app is just like the settings menu on your phone. It allows you to customise watch faces, change notification settings, choose which apps are showing and change settings within the apps
The Watch app is just like the settings menu on your phone. It allows you to customise watch faces, change notification settings, choose which apps are showing and change settings within the apps

First and foremost, for the Apple Watch to work you’re going to need an iPhone, as the watch is intended to work as an extension to your phone. Rather than serving as just a messenger from your phone to your wrist, as some smartwatches do, the Apple Watch actually allows to you answer calls from your wrist, and reply to text messages either using a list of ‘quick replies’, with emojis, or even by using the scribble function which lets you trace letters on the screen to spell out words.

On the fitness side of things, Apple has created a simple native app called ‘Workout,’ which can track everything from bike rides and runs (indoor and outdoor) to pool and open water swims, and rowing machine sessions. For each different activity, the watch uses a combination of the built-in GPS and GLONASS, gyroscopes, accelerometers and optical heart rate to record key metrics.

This info, as well as your daily movement and standing time, is collated in the Activity app and creates your wheel. When you set up the Apple Watch 2 it asks you about your height, weight and fitness level, and then tabulates that information into your Activity wheel which are the goals it thinks you should hit through the day. 

Apple has definitely borrowed some themes from Strava with this functionality because you can earn badges based on achievements and share your wheel with your friends to compete and encourage (or trash talk) about their daily activity.

You can share your activity wheel and compete with your friends. Looks like it's been a slow start  to the day for me and Jordan
You can share your activity wheel and compete with your friends. Looks like it's been a slow start to the day for me and Jordan

The new Apple Watch 2 is available in two case sizes: 38mm and 42mm like the original. Our test sample is the 42mm case. With the silicon band it weighs in at 37g and is 11.4mm thick. For the Series 2 watch, Apple has upgraded to a dual core processor which it claims is 50-percent faster than its predecessor.  

The Apple Watch 2 screen itself is made of Sapphire crystal, and features an OLED Retina display along with Force Touch - think 3D touch on your phone. Aside from size, the case is also available in aluminium and stainless steel, our test sample is the former.

For the Apple Watch 2, Apple has not opted to upgrade the heart rate sensor, carrying the same two-LED sensor into the latest unit. There has been plenty of hubbub surrounding wrist-based heart rate and for the moment of the units we've tried there is still something to be desired. Only time will tell if the Apple system stacks up.

 The Series 2 Watch gets the same two-LED sensor are the previous version
The Series 2 Watch gets the same two-LED sensor are the previous version

As is becoming the standard for watches and fitness trackers of this sort, the Apple Watch 2 utilises a Bluetooth connection to your phone, but can also connect to Bluetooth sensors like heart rate monitors. At the moment there does not appear to be support for speed and cadence sensors nor power meters, as I wasn’t able to get a Wahoo BlueSC or a Stages Power meter to pair with the device. When asked, Apple wasn't able to confirm whether the Apple watch supported these connections.

Probably the most exciting addition to the Apple watch from my perspective is the addition of GPS and GLONASS capabilities, meaning it no longer needs to piggyback a connection to your phone. Not only should the watch still be able to track you where cell coverage is limited, but it also won’t drain your phone battery, meaning you can post a photo of your post ride coffee on Instagram, or whatever the kids are doing these days.

Apple claims that the Series 2 watch offers up to 18 hours of battery life, with the claim based on 90-time checks, 90-notifications, 45-minutes of app use, and a 30‐minute workout with music playback from Apple Watch via Bluetooth, over the course of 18 hours. 

In the past couple of days checking the battery life before I put the watch on charge overnight, I have had about 40-percent battery life remaining. That said, I’m yet to attempt a five-hour ride with GPS and heart rate, so we’ll see how it fares then.

In use: Apple Watch for cyclists

I’ve only just received the Apple Watch Series two and have only logged two short rides on the device so far. One ride I logged through Apple’s native Workout App, and the other through the newly released Strava watch app. As a benchmark to test the watch'es accuracy I wore a Garmin HRM-Run heart rate strap paired to a Wahoo Elemnt headunit.

Apple Watch Workout app

 The workout app is pretty basic, and you can set goals based on time, distance or calories, as well a no goal
The workout app is pretty basic, and you can set goals based on time, distance or calories, as well a no goal

The first ride I clocked was on the native Workout app. From the App bubble you select the green circle with the little running man inside and you’re prompted to choose from a range of activities for bikes you get options for indoor and outdoor rides. When you select your workout mode, the app then asks if you want to train based on a goal, with the options being calories, elapsed time or distance. There is a fourth option called ‘Open No Goal’ which just lets you jump right into the ride.

After you hit start, the watch counts you in and takes you to the activity screen, which shows you elapsed time, speed, heart rate and distance. While there is an auto pause function available in the Workout app, it only works in the run or walk modes because it relies on the accelerometer. For lap splits a double tap of the watch face will trigger it, and the splits will be compiled in the workout summary.

Once the activity is finished the data is compiled and displayed in the Activity app. When you select the workout you get a brief overview of data as well as a map of your route and a summary of weather. Quite cool, the line that represents your route is multicoloured with the red sections signifying where you were below your average speed and the green sections above it.

Here's what shows when you use the Workout app
Here's what shows when you use the Workout app

As far as accuracy goes the Apple Watch tracked pretty close to what I was seeing on the Wahoo during the ride as far as distance, speed and heart rate. When I got home and compared the activities the Apple watch showed a slightly shorter distance; 0.08 mi / 0.13km shorter to be exact. The average speed was also a bit slower on the Apple watch showing 17.4mph 228kph to the Wahoo’s 17.1 / 27.5mph.

Optical heart rate has been a hot topic of debate, and while we ventured to see how accurate it was based on the results from Garmin's Elevate system against a chest strap, and I’d love to tell you how the Apple watch fared on my first ride, I can’t beyond the average heart rate. That’s because as far as I can tell after searching through menus of the Activity, Health and Watch apps for 15 minutes that there is no way to look at a graph that compiles the info nicely for you to look through. 

Worse, there is no way to push the workout to a third party app like Strava or Trainingpeaks, and there is also no accompanying website or desktop app;everything is kept on your phone.

Apple Watch 2 Strava app

The Strava app is pretty similar, and it seems for the moment these are the only metrics you can display
The Strava app is pretty similar, and it seems for the moment these are the only metrics you can display

The Strava app for the Apple Watch Series 2 was just launched a couple of weeks ago and according to the company is the first step in what it plans to do with the device.

Like the workout app, the Strava app displays distance, heart rate and elapsed time. The first release of the app is pretty basic, and I’m sure there are plenty of firmware and functionality updates to come, but for the moment there is no integration with Strava Live Segments, nor route guidance available. On the plus side, the Strava app lets you utilise auto-pause.

Apple doesn't allow for auto-pause in the Workout apps Outdoor Cycle mode, but Strava does
Apple doesn't allow for auto-pause in the Workout apps Outdoor Cycle mode, but Strava does

Interestingly, while the Apple Watch showed a shorter distance for in the Workout app, it was 0.1mi longer than what my Wahoo read. Average speed was a touch slower as well.

Here, because both of the activities are on Strava, we can get a better idea of how the Apple Watch’s optical heart rate sensor performs. As you can see from the graphs below (Wahoo on top, Apple Watch bottom), it takes a bit of time for the Apple watch to fire up and get a lock on my heart rate. 

This could be due to a number of factors ranging from the watch not sitting in the right place or being tight enough, to a mole on my wrist. It's hard to say with only one ride's worth of data to look at.

Here's the data from my inaugural ride using the Strava App, as you can see the Apple watch was a bit slow on the uptake locking onto my heart rate
Here's the data from my inaugural ride using the Strava App, as you can see the Apple watch was a bit slow on the uptake locking onto my heart rate

The max and average heart rates differ slightly as well, and there are a few spikes and dips the Garmin chest strap picked up that the Apple watch did not. It is worth noting that if you dive a few levels deep into the Health app you see how often the watch is reading your heart rate: outside of a workout the readings vary anywhere from 30-seconds apart to 15 minites, while during a ride it’s taking your heart rate between 11 and 12 times a minute, while a chest strap is reporting considerably more information. There is a definite difference in the graphs and I'll have to experiment with watch position and tightness to see how that affects accuracy.

Apple Watch 2 early verdict

The wrist-based HR takes a reading pretty quick through the heart rate app
The wrist-based HR takes a reading pretty quick through the heart rate app

There is quite a lot to work with when it comes to the Apple watch, and with so many functions, and native and third party apps, I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it can do.

It’s important to note from the beginning the Apple watch is designed to be an extension of your iPhone, not a replacement for your dedicated headunit like a Wahoo Elemnt or watch like a Garmin Fenix 3. It falls into the activity tracker category, and with built-in GPS and waterproofing to 50m it’s more suited to challenge than mid-range activity trackers from Garmin and Fitbit.

Given that you need to be using an iPhone to get much use out of the Apple watch, it’s no surprise that the UX is intuitive, and pretty much identical.

The apps are displayed as little bubbles and are carried over from your phone
The apps are displayed as little bubbles and are carried over from your phone

While some of it’s limitations are already becoming clear, it’s hard to discount the Apple Watch 2 just yet. With built-in GPS, gyroscopes, accelerometers, optical heart rate, Bluetooth connectivity and a quick processing unit, the majority of the Apple Watch Series 2’s limitations are firmware based. And if I have learned anything over the past few years of testing watches and headunits, developers can solve problems almost as fast as I can find and complain about them.

The only real problem I can see for the Apple Watch Series 2 is the battery. Considering how heavy handed GPS and GLONASS can be on watches like the Garmin Fenix 3 that will run for about 20-hours in GPS mode, and six weeks in watch mode, I fear the Apple's 18-hour claimed battery life may be its undoing.

Nevertheless, I’ll be putting the Apple Watch Series 2 through its paces over the next few months to get a better idea of how it works, so be sure to check back here for updates.

Colin Levitch

Staff Writer, Australia
Originally from Denver, Colorado, Colin now resides in Sydney, Australia. Holding a media degree, Colin is focused on the adventure sport media world. Coming from a ski background, his former European pro father convinced him to try collegiate crit racing. Although his bright socks say full roadie, he enjoys the occasional mountain bike ride, too.
  • Age: 25
  • Height: 175cm / 5'9"
  • Weight: 70kg / 155lb
  • Waist: 81.3cm/32in
  • Chest: 90cm/35.4in
  • Discipline: Road, mountain
  • Preferred Terrain: Tarmac mountain climbs into snow-covered hills
  • Current Bikes: BMC TeamMachine SLR01, Trek Top Fuel 9
  • Dream Bike: Mosaic Cycles RT-1
  • Beer of Choice: New Belgium La Folie
  • Location: Sydney, Australia

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