Apple Watch Series 2: A Runner’s Review

TL;DR

AW2 Minnie.jpgThe Apple Watch Series 2 adds GPS and waterproofing to the first-gen watch, making the Series 2 a legitimate running watch. The GPS tracking is excellent; the HR tracking is good and equal to other devices. The usability is very good – the screen is sharp and readable in bright sunlight. The battery will last 5h with GPS and HR on. Those needing workout data export will need to wait for third party apps to be updated to support the onboard GPS.

Intro

This is my review of the Apple Watch Series 2 (AW2). I will skip the basics, as the mainstream media has already covered it. I will be focusing on its use for runners.

The notable features the AW2 has gained over the original version are GPS and 50m waterproofing (IPX7 rating). These upgrades make it much more appealing to runners, for workout tracking without a nearby smartphone. Other new running-relevant features:

  • Brighter, 1000 nit display
  • GLONASS support (the Russian counterpart to GPS)

Carried over from the first-gen watch:

  • Optical HRM sensor
  • Onboard music streaming to Bluetooth headphones
  • Ability to run 3rd party apps such as Strava, MapMyRun, RunKeeper, etc.

The Apple Watch 2 needs an iPhone running iOS 10. The watch will not even set up out of the box without pairing to a phone first. It is not even a case of limited use on Android (or no phone at all). Pairing with an iPhone is a hard requirement.

Physical Form Factor

While the form factor hasn’t significantly changed (just 0.9 mm thicker than the first-gen), it is significantly more svelte than most running watches. The only models that are comparable in form factor are the Microsoft Band 2 and Garmin Vivosmart HR+. This is compared to the 42 mm version I have (it comes in a smaller 38 mm also). The metal body and glass screen give a material edge for everyday wear.

Round data-centric watches do not make sense to me. A round face is a skeumorph of an analog watch movement. People are accustomed to round watches. However, wrists are only round on one axis; the side of the wrist is “square” to view and I think devices that display data should be linear to maximize the very limited real estate available.

The watch features quick release buttons for the strap and it is very easy to swap them. This might be handy if you want to have a different strap for everyday wear vs. running. The base “flouroelastomer” (i.e. silicone) strap is fine for running. The pin and tuck closure is a bit unusual, but secure.

Comparing the weight vs. the other watches tested in this review:

  • Apple Watch 2: 60g (42mm aluminum case, silicone strap)
  • TomTom Spark: 53g
  • Garmin FR620: 42g

Size comparison:

The screen is more readable than the conventional passive LCDs found in other running watches. Set to 50% brightness, it’s perfectly legible in bright, direct sunlight. In addition to the much higher resolution, the layout and typeface make the five-field display very readable.

aw2

The one disadvantage is the screen is not always-on, in order to reduce battery drain. The accelerometers in the watch detect when you flick your wrist up to read the watch and turn on the display. I found the feature to be very reliable during runs. There is a fraction of a second of lag to turn on and it takes some getting used to.

On the Run

Apple Workout App

The built-in Apple workout app is surprisingly usable. It can show five key metrics without scrolling. These can be customized to a limited degree. You have access to the basic metrics (total time, current pace, avg. pace, current HR, total distance, total calories, active calories). But you can’t select more advanced metrics like lap avg. pace, lap distance, avg. HR, cadence, heading direction, etc. Some other notes:

  • It has per-km or mile alerts. It will vibrate, beep and briefly show the lap split. The beep is quiet and the vibration is more of a tap on the wrist. It’s easy to miss if you’re focused on something else while running.
  • There is an auto-pause when stopped option.
  • To conserve battery power, there is an option to disable the HR sensor.
  • There are no interval workouts, simple or otherwise.
  • There is no run/walk option for those running 10 and 1’s.
  • There is no option for triggering a manual lap split.
  • Within the workout app, there really isn’t a need to interact with the touch screen. There is only one action, swiping to access the menu to pause or stop the workout and also lock the screen for wet conditions. So, having sweaty fingers isn’t really going to be an issue with interacting with the workout app.

You can run the workout app in the background and do other stuff on the watch, like check notifications, turn-by-turn navigation, etc. However, most of the other apps will need to have an iPhone paired.

Workout App.jpg

Post-workout, the metrics are only available on the phone app. Unlike every other platform, there is no web version. The Apple Workout app only gives summary metrics, per-km splits and a track map. It does not give a pace vs distance / time or HR vs. distance / time chart. It is possible to view charts with third-party applications like SpectraRun Workouts or HR Chart. These also give the ability to export HR data via TCX file. I haven’t been able to export position, time or speed data from these apps.

Apart from that workaround, there’s no integration with Apple’s built-in workout app outside of Apple Health. Your runs are stuck inside Apple’s platform. The real solution is to run a third-party app that allows data export, during your workout.

Third Party Apps

I briefly tried the major third-party running apps – Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun, RunGo, Nike+ Run Club, etc.

It’s a mixed bag. Some are good and some are not. Most are lacking advanced features.
The Nike+ Run Club app, in particular, is absolute shit and totally deserving of its 1-star rating on the App Store. It shows one field at a time, has completely unreliable pace and basically no meaningful post-workout metrics. If this is what Apple is rolling out with the Nike+ version of the watch, they need to think again.

At this point, NONE of them can access the watch’s internal GPS and still require an iPhone to be present. This is major limitation and I know many runners will consider this to be a deal-breaker. They need their workouts available for analysis on their current training platform (typically TrainingPeaks or Strava). I’ve heard that many of the apps are currently being updated to use the onboard GPS.

Bluetooth Music

In addition to the new Apple AirPods, the watch will pair with any Bluetooth headphones for music and voice calls. I find this to be an excellent feature for those who like to listen to music during their workouts. Not having a device tethered to your head is very liberating. It avoids the flailing wires, fiddly cable routing through your clothes or that moment when the wires catch on something and rip the headphones out of your ears. A few other GPS watches also support BT music, but most do not.

You can sync one playlist from your iPhone to the watch, using up to 2Gb of space. The music app will allow you to choose between music from the phone or the watch and you can control volume, track selection, pause, etc. from the watch. The AW2 will support the playback and volume controls on your headphones, if available. Using BT streaming will use additional battery power and lower the workout tracking time. I didn’t do any battery drain tests with music on.

I found the music playback to be prone to interference and stuttering, at time. Sometimes, it would cause playback to stop and I had to manually resume the track. Some of the issue is a limitation based on which arm you wear the watch vs. the location of the BT receiver on the headphones (left vs. right). This is a known limitation with other watches as well. Overall, I found the music playback to be acceptable, but not bulletproof.

Sensor Accuracy

The original watch received mixed reviews for distance tracking, whether using the onboard accelerometer or phone-connected GPS. There were also issues with the HR tracking for elevated heart rates seen during vigorous cardio activities. I put the AW2 through a series of workouts to test the GPS and HR sensor accuracy vs. other running watches.

Testing Methodology

I performed a number of different runs using the AW2, TomTom Spark (Cardio+Music version) and Garmin FR620. Comparing the features of the other watches to the AW2:

  • The TomTom has GPS, GLONASS and optical HR.
  • The Garmin has GPS; I paired it with a Garmin HRM-Run chest strap.

Using three data sources (and two different HR sensor types) allows for a much more reliable test. It’s hard to determine which sensor is correct with only two sensors. In all tests, I did not have an iPhone paired to the watch during the run.

LSD Run #1

This was a steady-pace 30k workout, mostly in ideal GPS conditions. There were some difficult GPS conditions in downtown Toronto, during the middle and end of the run. It’s fairly easy to assess GPS accuracy, as the true path is demarked by the actual street map on which the route is overlayed. I needed to show the AW2 track on the separate picture. As mentioned above, it wasn’t possible to export the track to be able to overlay them with the other results.

lsd-trackb-aw2

LSD Run #1 – Apple Watch 2

LSD-Track.png

LSD Run #1 – TomTom, Garmin

The AW2 had excellent tracking in both ideal and marginal conditions. The worst performer was the Garmin, although that is to be expected, as it does not have GLONASS support and therefore fewer satellites to use for a position fix. I found this to be consistently true during most of the testing. Since this isn’t a review for a 3-year old Garmin device, I will leave it at that.

lsd-hr-chart

LSD Run #1 – Heart Rate

The HR for this run was generally steady state, starting at 130 bpm and increasing to 140-150 bpm near the end. This was a flat route and at no time was I at high cardio effort. Interesting, all three watches had spikes at different times. Even the chest-strap, which is the considered the most reliable type of HR monitor, had trouble at the end of the run.

8k Steady Run

This was a simple, steady paced run. Again, most of the run was in ideal GPS conditions, with a difficult start and end in downtown.

The AW2 did very well throughout the run, particularly at the end, where the other watches had trouble.

Rats Run HR Chart.png

Steady Run – Heart Rate

The heart rate was generally steady state, with some recovery, due to stoplights. The AW2 did extremely well here, matching the other monitors. The only anomoly was the TomTom, spiking early in the run.

7k Interval Run

This was one of my speedwork sessions to prepare for an upcoming 5k race. This is a good test for the GPS to keep up with variable pacing and also for the HR monitors to record the quickly changing cardio intensity.

Unfortunately, the Apple Workout app does not have a pace vs. time chart, so I cannot quantitatively assess the accuracy of AW2 in measuring changing pace. I did glance down at the watch at multiple times during the speed workout and saw that it generally matched the other watches. There are no issues with GPS tracks in this workout.

Speedwork HR Chart.png

Interval Run- Heart Rate

As for HR, the optical sensors fared worse. The AW2 had spikes at the beginning of the workout and also the first and last intervals. The TomTom spiked at the start of intervals 3 and 4.

4k Downtown Core Run

This was a short run through the densest section of downtown Toronto. There are a large number of high-rise buildings that obstruct the sky view and line of sight to satellites. I also find that the GPS signal can bounce around the buildings and give spurious readings. I chose this route specifically to test GPS accuracy in difficult conditions.

 

Here, the AW2 outperformed both the Garmin and TomTom. Both other watches had significant challenges to get accurate location fixes. I should note that the resulting tracks are also dependent on the smoothing algorthims used by each host company. However, the resultant tracks are what is delivered to the runner, so that’s what I’m evaluating.

Gait-HR Chart.png

Downtown Run – Heart Rate

During this run, I had a slight warm-up, followed by easy pace through. The AW2 also had the best HR result this time. The TomTom had a slight early spike and the Garmin, a significant spike.

5k Race

This was a max-effort out and back 5k race on a runway at Pearson International Airport. The route was perfectly flat, although there was a significant cross/headwind on the return leg. I only used the AW2 and TomTom for the race, since having all three watches plus chest strap was too much to bear.

runway-track-aw2

5k Race – Apple Watch

The GPS conditions were perfect since I was on a runway with absolutely no obstructions, so I won’t get into comparing those, apart from noting that both watches reported 4.96 km.

Trust me, the TomTom GPS track looks exactly the same.

 

 

 

Runway-HR Chart.png

5k Race – Heart Rate

AW2 had a huge spike in HR reading midway through the run and never recovered. The TomTom showed a slight increase in the back half of the run, which was consistent with my perceived level of effort.

LSD Run #2

Finally, another 34k long run, with some hilly parts in the middle. Again, ideal GPS conditions for most of the run.

Again, the AW2 had no problems with the GPS track.

lsd2-track-aw2

LSD Run #2 – Apple Watch 2

LSD2-Track.png

LSD Run #2 – TomTom, Garmin

HR was a mixed result. TomTom was the most consistent, with AW2 and Garmin having some sustained spikes at different times. Both devices recovered from those issues during the run and then measured accurately.

LSD2-HR Chart.png

LSD Run #2 – Heart Rate

Sensor Summary

GPS performance was excellent. In all cases AW2 picked up a GPS signal almost immediately, even within downtown. The Apple route chart shows a lack of GPS signal with a dotted black line and none of those appeared in any of my testing. In all the tests, the AW2 provided a more accurate track than the other watches.

HR performance was generally ok, but there were some instances of spikes. I’ve found this to be common in my years of wearing HRM’s, both chest strap and optical. The major concern was during the race, where it spiked and did not recover. It’s interesting to see thorugh all of the testing that each one of the devices misread at some point and rarely at the same time. Even the chest strap has occasional issues.

Overall, I think the AW2 is as reliable as the other devices for HR measurement. None of the sensors are bulletproof at this point ,but they are generally accurate and it’s also apparent when spikes do occur. None of the devices dropped the HR reading at any point.

Battery Life

In a 3:30 workout, I used 74% of the battery, with GPS and optical HR on. This extrapolates to 4:45 with GPS-on, which matches well with Apple’s claim of 5h w/GPS. I didn’t use Bluetooth music streaming, so that will cut into the battery life further. This is only one data point and I will be doing more testing. I think the general rule of thumb of 20% battery per hour of GPS+HR is reasonable.

If you have your phone with you, the watch will use the phone’s GPS and this will extend the battery life to 7h, vs. using the internal GPS.

For the days with shorter workouts, I usually ended the day with 10-20% battery left. This was wearing the watch all-day, moderate use of the smartwatch features. It takes about 2h to fully charge the watch.

The reality is that it has sufficient battery life for most runners’ long runs and races up to marathon distance. Unlike most dedicated running watches, most athletes will want to continuing using it all-day as a smartwatch. The AW2 will die mid-day after a long workout unless it can be briefly charged to get through the rest of the day. Those that need better than 5-7h of GPS-on – some marathon runners, ultra runners and long-course triathletes, should look elsewhere.

Other Fitness Features

AW2 supports the typical fitness features that may be of interest to runners.

  • Step tracking.
  • Active calorie burn, based on movement and HR.
  • Daily move, calorie and standing goals.
  • All day HR tracking, at 10 min intervals.
  • Health data aggregation via the Apple Health app. This include other data like weight, calories and workouts from other devices and apps (including Strava and Garmin Connect).
  • A stopwatch (it’s interesting how many GPS watches don’t actually have a regular, non-workout stopwatch feature).
  • Remote iPhone and GoPro camera viewfinder and shutter controls. You need to have the phone connected to use this).
  • It does not support sleep tracking, although third party apps are planning this.

Summary

At this point, this is a solid watch for runners. The GPS tracking is excellent. The HR tracking is good and equivalent to other devices, during my testing. The display and usability are very good. The battery life is acceptable for most. For iOS users, it’s a better non-running daily-wear experience than Garmin, Fitbit, et al., due to the app integration.

I can recommend it to runners, with the following caveats:

  • Runners who are tied to a specific training platform (Strava, TrainingPeaks, etc.) should wait. The data export limitation may be a deal-breaker for serious athletes. We await updates to third-party apps to support the onboard GPS.
  • Runners who need advanced features like intervals, specific lap splits, etc. should also wait for third-party apps.
  • Some marathoners, ultra runners and long-course triathletes that need more than 5-7h battery life should look elsewhere.

 

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4 thoughts on “Apple Watch Series 2: A Runner’s Review

  1. My thought is to use the apple watch for ultras because the strava app (the original one and the gps-enabled version to be released in early 2017) should be able to continue recording data while the watch is charging. This is something that none of Garmins are able to do. I figure that for a long race, any watch I get, even a Suunto, is going to need charging at some point, so why not just use an apple watch with the very easy-to-engage magnetic cradle…plus you’ve got all of the other features of the apple watch like music and phone controls, etc.

    • It’s possible, although the charging puck is kind of thick and you would need enough strap length to accommodate the whole package. The magnetic join isn’t very strong, so you’d cinch the strap quite tight to prevent the puck from getting yanked out by the cable as you move your arms. Also, you’ll have to avoid orienting the watch vertically, since it snaps into nightstand mode when charging and vertical. Honestly, for ultras I think a Fenix3 is a better choice having a 20h battery w/GPS on and it does allow for charging on the move with a better clip for that sort of thing.

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