The new Apple Watch is here. But you might not be able to tell.
The brand new Watch – named the Series 2 – looks almost exactly the same as the existing one. And beyond a few small changes, you might not be able to notice when it’s turned on: it uses the same software and packs in mosts of the same features.
Gradually, though, it dawns on you: the screen is a little brighter. Everything runs a little faster.
And then you jump in a pool or you run around without your phone in your pocket. And that’s when you realise – if you have need for it, this Watch might be entirely different.
For people who swim (obviously), this was the most clearly lacking thing in the first watch. It claimed to be a fitness tracker, but it excluded one of the most popular fitness activities in the world.
That’s all fixed now – a combination of swimproofing that means the water won’t kill the phone, and new software that can accurately track how you’re doing, makes it into a great all-round fitness tracker. (There are still some things lacking, like tracking for weights, but it’s possible to put those in the “Other” category.)
The software works by watching for when the Watches sensors feel that it’s been moved enough for one stroke. And other sensors watch for when a swimmer has turned around in the pool, meaning that it can know both how frantically a person is swimming and how far they’re actually getting.
Georgie Bloy, swim manager at Virgin Active Broadgate, said that having that sort of information can prove especially useful to beginners.
“Some of my clients when they first start may only be able to swim 4-6 lengths in one go,” she said. “Fitness trackers are great for keeping tabs on progress and helping you reach your goals. For those who are also looking to monitor calories, they also can help you monitor how many you burn during swimming.”
Unfortunately, some of the more granular and useful information is lacking. As Ms Bloy indicates, it’s very useful to know how much you’re advancing, for instance – but the Apple Watch’s Activity app doesn’t give much information about how you’re coming along and what you could do better.
For example, professional swimmers might want to track their time per 100 meters and see how quickly they can swim it, Ms Bloy said. “If your fitness tracker allows you track your time in 100m period, it can help you monitor progress – particularly useful for people who are training for swimming competitions or triathlons.”
The Watch does track speed over distance. But it doesn’t present that information especially helpfully – and does nothing with it.
It would be incredibly helpful, for instance, to know whether you’re better at swimming in the morning or at night; or if going for a swim before you go to bed helps you sleep better. Apple has all of that information – it can now even track sleep by watching how you use your phone – but it still doesn’t feel like it’s making the most out of it.
The other big feature is the addition of GPS. That’s even less obviously there than swimming – but it’s perhaps even more important.
The key fact is that the Watch will now be able to tell where it is, even when it doesn’t have the phone. That makes it into a genuine running companion on its own – something it was regularly advertised as, but which was undermined a little by the fact that it needed the phone to properly track your activity.
Now it will know where you are. And despite Apple’s somewhat limited use of data, it does that information in a very useful way – decorating the Activity app with a map that shows everywhere you’ve run and how quickly you’ve done it.
And the big worry in advance of the event – that battery life would die with GPS – doesn’t seem to have happened. The GPS only switches on when the Watch is away from the phone, and the battery is much improved so that (Apple claims) it can make it through an entire marathon.
And it even works with swimming, grabbing its location from the sky when it’s above the water.
At Apple’s event, it showed off that feature with a new app called ViewRanger. That isn’t actually about running, or about fitness in the strict sense that it tends to appear in Apple’s marketing documents – instead, it’s about walking (or running) into nature.
Craig Wareham, founder and CEO of ViewRanger, said that the new features in the watch together made it into exactly the kind of thing that it’s easy to imagine taking out into the wilderness.
“Individually they’re all interesting,” he said. “But when you put them together on the same device, it really moves the Apple watch into something I’m very happy and secure taking out to the most rugged of environments.”
As such, the Watch can easily take on the more devoted outdoor watches – which tend to be big, expensive and not especially nice to look at, Mr Wareham said.
ViewRanger shows too that GPS tools aren’t just about running around and tracking that information. The company lets its users download information about particular areas - meaning that they can go out on a walk without their phone, and don’t have to worry about losing contact with it. Because the Watch now has GPS, it can use that local information to find its own way around.
It all adds up to a Watch that might still have its own problems, but finally becomes something that you can rely on for everything. On the face of it, adding relatively small features like swimming and location might seem small – but they finally push the Watch from being something specialised to something that can happily sit on your wrist all the time.