Is Apple Watch Series 2 a good option for runners?

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Apple Watch Nike+
There's more to a great running watch than GPS, but it's a good place to start.
Photo: Apple

With the addition of GPS, you might imagine Apple Watch is now a credible runner’s watch. Not so fast.

It may have made a big splash with swimmers, but to appeal to runners, there are more issues that Apple needs to address. Like a screen that stays on while you are running, and controls that still work when you get really sweaty.

Built-in GPS puts Apple Watch back in the running

My biggest gripe with the original Apple Watch was that its run tracking was not accurate if you left your iPhone behind. That’s because, without the phone’s GPS, it had to guesstimate your pace and distance by measuring movements in your wrist. This imprecise method resulted in estimates that could be out by as much as 45%.

Which meant you had little choice but to take your iPhone with you, which kind of defeated the whole purpose of a running watch.

This all changes with Series 2, announced this week, which now includes built-in GPS. Apple has even tacitly admitted that the original Watch was not precise, by crowing that thanks to on-board GPS, the new model can now “record precise distance, speed, and pace.”

Apple is even suggesting that not only has it caught up with other GPS watch makers – it’s actually leapt ahead. One big problem with most GPS watches is that they take a long time to locate a satellite signal, leaving you standing around waiting when you want to start a run. Apple claims to have solved this problem with Series 2 watches, which almost instantaneously pick up a signal — “so you don’t have to wait.”

GPS is not just about accuracy – it is also great for mapping your runs, and with route maps now saved to the iPhone’s Activity app in iOS 10, fewer users will need to resort to third-party apps such as Runkeeper and Strava.

The introduction of GPS in Series 2 clears a major hurdle for Apple Watch’s adoption by serious runners.

Even a brighter display is not a bright idea for runners

Apple’s beautiful Retina displays are all very well, but for most runners, what really matters is legibility in daylight. That’s why practically every other GPS running watch on the market uses reflective LCD displays that are easy to read, even in direct sunlight. (Think Kindle display, as opposed to iPad).

Apple Watch relies on a backlit transmissive display, which is great at night and indoors, but useless for running outdoors in daylight. In direct sunlight, it is impossible to see. And even on an overcast day, you still have to squint at it, especially when your wrist is jiggling around as you run.

Apple claims to have solved this with Series 2 by making the display brighter. The trouble with this is that Apple is trying to solve the problem with more of the same. Even if it is easier to see, it is still unlikely to ever be as good for runners as a reflective display.

Apple Watch Series 2 will still make you stare at their wrists waiting for it to wake, when you should be watching where you are running
Apple Watch Series 2 will still make you stare at your wrists waiting for it to wake, when you should be watching where you are running
Photo: Graham Bower / Cult of Mac

That’s because backlighting drains batteries. So, to conserve battery life, Apple only activates the display when you raise your wrist, and there is a brief lag while this happens. That may not be a big issue when you’re sitting indoors. But when you are out running on a busy sidewalk, the last thing you want to be doing is staring at your watch waiting for the screen to light up, when you should be keeping an eye on where you are going.

This is a fundamental issue with Apple Watch for runners, and it seems Cupertino is no closer to solving it.

Get ready for #SwimGate

Another fundamental problem with Apple Watch for runners is multi-touch. As brilliant as this innovation was for smartphones, it is the last thing a serious runner wants on their watch.

The problem is that you have to look at the display in order to operate multi-touch controls. You need to see the virtual buttons on the display in order to know where to tap. That is why most runners’ watches rely on good old fashioned physical buttons. You know, the ones you can press. You can feel them under your finger, so you can operate your watch without even looking at it.

The TomTom Spark, for example, has a four-way rocker button. A push to the right starts a run, and a push to the left pauses it. A second push to the left ends the run. And you can do all this without looking – you even get haptic feedback to let you know your watch got the message.

Another big advantage of physical buttons is that they work even when your watch is covered in rain, sweat or water from the pool. That is just not the case with Apple Watch’s capacitive touch detection system, which relies on conductivity of the skin. The trouble is that the minerals in water are also conductors, which confuses the sensors.

Not being able to operate your watch when it is wet will be a major problem for Apple’s new swim workout feature – it could even turn into #SwimGate when the first Series 2 owners first dive into their local pool.

In watchOS 3, Apple attempts to address this by allowing you to pause a workout by pressing the digital crown and side button simultaneously. But this is a little tricky to do, especially when you are running. The truth is that Apple Watch has run out of buttons.

I can totally get that Jony Ive does not want to clutter the clean lines of his beautiful Watch with loads of clunky buttons. But if he really wants to follow the “form follows function” mantra, he probably should.

There’s still some milage in the Apple-Nike partnership

Apple and Nike have grown apart in recent years. Nike flirted with Samsung, while Apple pinched Nike’s fitness guru Jay Blahnik and developed Apple Watch which kinda killed Nike’s FuelBand. Which is a shame. Because great things have come out of this partnership in the past.

So it’s good to see Apple and Nike going steady again, with a newborn expected in October (as I predicted last year.)

The new Apple Watch Nike+ bares an uncanny resemblance to our mockups from last year
The new Apple Watch Nike+ bears an uncanny resemblance to our mockups from last year

This certainly shows just how serious Apple is at attracting runners, but unfortunately it has come at a rather bad time for Nike. The recent update to its iPhone and Apple Watch Nike+ Run Club app is a horrible update. It is dogged with bugs and has plummeted from a healthy 4.5 star App Store rating to an embarrassing 1.5 stars. This may be why the launch of Apple Watch Nike+ is being held back until October, to give Nike time to address these teething problems with its new software.

Great strides forward, but still a way to go

With the addition of GPS and a brighter display, Apple Watch Series 2 is a far more credible runner’s watch than its predecessor. For some serious runners, the lack of physical buttons, the display that takes time to wake and the multi-touch controls that don’t work in damp conditions could still be a deal-breaker. But if, like me, you love your Apple gadgets almost as much as your running, the Series 2 could prove irresistible.