The smartwatch market “took a tumble” in the third quarter, IDC reported this month. Google recently delayed the new version of its Android Wear; once-hot Pebble quietly sold to Fitbit; and Apple has been hit the hardest, shipping 70% fewer Apple Watch units last quarter.
Into that choppy market, Apple launched its Apple Watch Series 2 in September.
The new device sells for $369 and includes an extensive integration partnership with Nike and its Nike Running Club app. And while many consumers are far from jumping on the smartwatch bandwagon (including yours truly), the special Nike+ version of the Apple Watch Series 2 could be an appealing accessory for a serious runner.
Nike lent Yahoo Finance a Nike+ Apple Watch Series 2 for a two-week trial. Here’s how it fared on seven outdoor runs, all at night, of increasing distance and intensity.
A virtual running trainer
You have to start by syncing up the watch to your iPhone, and you’ll need to download the Nike Running Club (NRC) app. Once you’re ready to go, the watch has a bevy of options for your setting and goals: indoor, outdoor, distance run, speed run, calories, etc. Or you can just pick up and go, which is what I did.
Push “start run” and the watch counts you down. While running, it talks to you after every mile, announcing your distance so far and your average pace. Some could find that annoying, and so you can turn it off; I found it kind of fun. The voice from the watch (female, but at times, if you select a Nike national run, Kevin Hart’s voice talks to you) ends up functioning as an encouraging coach; every time she told me I had hit another mile, I wanted to keep going.
The watch will automatically pause your run if you lean down to tie your shoe or stop for some other reason. It was a seamless surprise. That feature is not perfect, though: on one run, I stopped to chat with a friend, and the watch voice incessantly announced “pausing workout” and “resuming workout” because every time I shifted or moved slightly, it believed I had begun running again. (You can turn off the auto-pause feature and make it manual.)
My first run was just under 5 miles on a mild evening, along the pier in Brooklyn. I didn’t try to toy with the watch while I ran, just left it there and forgot about it except for when it suddenly spoke to me to give my mileage.
Solid through wind and rain
For my second run I cranked it up to nearly 7 miles, in torrential rain. My sneakers were puddles by the end of it, but the watch had no problems; it’s waterproof up to 50 meters.
When the watch spoke to me, it felt like I had someone rooting me on as I tore through the rain. Frankly, the rainy run reminded me why I love running. (I ran in high school and run a couple 5K races every year, but I had not run for six months before starting this trial.) And the look of the watch face, with chunky digits in signature Nike neon, is vibrant at night.
On my third run with the watch, I did just over 10 miles, but the battery didn’t last as long as my body did. When I left the house, the watch battery was at 35% charge, which I figured wasn’t so low that it wouldn’t make it for the whole run. I should add that it was below 35 degrees out.
The battery died about a mile before I got home. Unfortunately, the watch currently captures only your mileage up until the battery dies, not your route map. Nike says an update coming to the NRC app will make it so that your run route, up until the battery died, will also register.
In addition to the battery dying quickly in the cold rain, I should mention I had one run during my trial where I completely forgot to hit “start run” at the beginning, so the watch didn’t record my first mile. That was frustrating.
Show off your run
When I got home from each run, the watch synced up to the Nike Running Club app on my phone. At that point, you can view intricate data about your run—but from your phone, not on the watch.
From the phone, once you’re home from a run, you can share the run to social feeds if you wish. The NRC app loads your total distance, average pace per mile, and eventually a detailed map of your route. At times it took a long time for the route to show up, but Nike says the coming NRC update will make this process faster.
If you do want to share a run – on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram – you can post a screenshot of the route or one of many “stickers” Nike has designed and put in the NRC app, letting you layer on as much or as little data from your run as you wish.
Reliance on the phone
Just as the first Apple Watch needs to be in range of your phone, the Series 2 requires connectivity to the phone for a number of functions. For example, you can’t type a text message from the watch while running, period. You can only select from pre-loaded messages (think “on my way,” etc., though you can load new ones on from your phone) or “scribble” messages with your finger, or dictate a text via Siri, but you can only do those things if your phone is in range.
Many people choose to run with their phone, since they use it for music. Buying the watch doesn’t make much sense if you do that, because the NRC app on your phone will do many of the same functions. I don’t run with my phone and don’t want to, which is why the watch really appeals to me.
And yet, without your phone, many of the watch’s functions won’t work. This is one of the device’s limitations, and arguably contradictions. The most glaring issue of all: the watch won’t even start tracking a run unless your phone is in range when you start it.
It can’t serve as a map
Seeing the map of your completed run is one of the rewarding parts of the Nike running experience (and it isn’t new—this ability dates back to the original Nike Plus system) but now that the Apple Watch has GPS and can map your run, you might wish to use the map feature while running, and you might figure that you can. Alas, you cannot.
Although the watch can map out your run, it cannot direct you to a specific location, which is a puzzling shortcoming. You can’t input a destination at the outset of your run, nor can the watch help bring you home if you get lost on a run.
Nike Apple Watch vs. Apple Watch
It’s important to note that there aren’t many differences between the Nike+ version of the new Apple Watch and the non-Nike version. All the Nike version offers that you can’t get with the regular Apple Watch Series 2 is a sporty, perforated band for “better ventilation and sweat management,” Nike says, two exclusive watch faces, the pre-loaded “quick start” function I enjoyed so much, “deeper integration” of the NRC app with the watch, and occasional Kevin Hart verbal shoutouts when you choose a national run like the “Sunday Just Do It” 5K.
In other words, you don’t need to buy the Nike+ watch to take the device running. But if your motivation to buy it is for running, you might as well go Nike…
A nice-to-have for runners
And that would be my motivation to use the Nike+ Apple Watch. Back in September, I wrote a story about why I would never want to own an Apple Watch. I wrote that it looks silly on your wrist; that it marks you as a snobby techie; and that it’s not something anyone really needs.
But taking the watch along as a running companion is a more sensible use case. Simply owning it made me feel more compelled to go running. If I were to buy one, I still wouldn’t wear it as an everyday watch, but wearing it on a run and to the gym would still be reason enough to have it.
Of course, there are many other wearable fitness trackers out there, many of them more affordable. Garmin’s Vivoactive HR watch sells for $199, to name just one of many Garmin devices that can track your mileage and pulse. Pebble, Motorola, Samsung, Sony, Vector, and Fossil all make GPS-equipped smartwatches. But the Nike connectivity of the Apple Watch combines two premium brands known for their sleek design, and if you ask Wearable.com, the Apple Watch Series 2 is the best overall smartwatch of the year.
There are things the Nike Apple Watch ought to do that it cannot, and things it only can do when an iPhone is in range. But it gets a lot right, and it’s fun to use.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.