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Test Run: Apple Watch Nike+ Edition

The Nike+ edition of the Apple Watch Series 2 launched Oct. 28, and we took it out for a test run.

The Nike+ edition of the Apple Watch Series 2 launched Oct. 28. We secured this hot new item and quickly got to work with initial field-based testing. We’d seen product images circulating and had noted the bold Nike styling, but there’s nothing like having one on the wrist and testing it on the run.

Newly introduced features include the addition of GPS to the watch, full waterproofing and a sophisticated swim app. The screen is significantly brighter and the processor is faster—features that have all been well covered in tech news. The Apple Watch Nike+, like all Series 2 Apple Watches, now tracks runs phone-free and, via the onboard music player, keep your tunes playing reliably. In addition to the features specific to the Nike+ model there are literally thousands of other watch apps and everyday utility features built available for downloading. Price-wise, the Nike+ edition costs the same as other Apple Series 2 watches.

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Some of the differences between the Nike+ version of the Apple Watch are purely stylistic, most notably the use of color coordinated Nike+ sport-focused bands.The digital and analog Nike+ watch faces definitely have a bold look, including the prominently use of Nike’s signature Volt yellow.

On the functional side, this model provides direct watch-face access to the onboard Nike+Run Club app. The Nike watch faces also provide one-touch access to the weather and your overall activities. These kinds of on-the-face features are known in watch speak as “complications.” With the Nike+ model they can be swapped out for other on-the-face features via the Apple phone app. We were easily able to swap the activity view for one that displayed the battery life indicator, an important consideration as this watch will get you through about 5 hours of running without the phone connected, or 18 hours of typical daily use with a phone connection. We have seen between 5 and 6 hours of running GPS with HR battery life without the phone. After a post launch OS update, we saw very significant improvements in all day phone connected battery life, approximately 26 hours albeit with a lighter than spec load of notifications, app usage, messages, and phone calls. The 26 hours included 2 hours 10 minutes of phone free GPS with HR running. 

Deeper into the plumbing of the new Watch OS3, it was good to see that the developers are making it easier for users to customize features and draw data from other sources. For example, one of the the Nike+Run Club app screens “When Are You Running?” pulls data from Dark Sky, a third-party weather app. This lets you schedule runs by time of day and displays a snapshot of the expected temperature and weather for that time.

Another nice surprise was that the exclusive Nike watch band proved far more comfortable than the original Apple Watch, even though it is made of the same material. The band is compression molded compound—the model we tried had an inner band in Volt Yellow, the outer band in Flat Silver and the case was Silver Aluminum. There are three other Nike exclusive combinations of band and case. Softer, more pliable and stretchy than the original’s Sport Band (with plenty of holes for breathability and weight reduction), the band balances a secure hold on the wrist with comfort. A secure, light-free seal is essential for reliable wrist heart rate readings. The Nike+ band is much easier than the old Sport Band to put on and then cinch tight enough, without discomfort, to get that seal, and a shorter band is included for smaller wrists. Wearability and perceived weight have taken steps forward from the previous models.

So what about the heart rate monitor during our first run? It was pretty good, but with a suspiciously high reading initially—although that’s not unusual in cool weather, especially at the start of runs. Cinching the watch tightly on the wrist helped, but more testing is in order before any real critiques can be made. (We are testing the Apple’s heart rate functionality side-by-side with the reliable Garmin Fenix.) We did notice that the user only sees in-run heart rate if the “Advanced Mode” is selected in the Nike+Run Club app—it’s is not displayed in the default workout screen, though it is tracked in the background.

Other stats in the Advanced Mode are distance, elapsed time, time of day and current pace. The non-advanced default workout screen has three metrics, again on one screen: distance, elapsed time and time of day. Turning the digital crown changes the big font Volt metric for one of the others on the screen. Unfortunately, the small digits for heart rate are hard to see in bright light and cannot be turned to big and bold Volt size.

In a very cool feature, and without a phone, the watch will alert you at each mile, via the speaker or the Bluetooth earphones, as to your average pace, distance, and elapsed time. The speaker was surprisingly easy to hear. There’s an auto-pause option if you stop running, which is an essential feature. You can just start running to activate tracking, or set an initial target for time, distance, or speed (this requires a phone connection). When the run is paused, the screen will show your distance, average pace, time, heart rate and even where you are on a map (again, only with a phone connection.) Swipe left to access to music controls and swipe right to manually pause and then via two taps to end the workout.

GPS acquisition seemed very quick but it was hard to know for sure because, beyond a “1,2,3” countdown display, there is nothing to tell you are actually locked in to a signal. Distance on my first run on open, flat terrain with few trees matched the Garmin Fenix HR model’s mileage almost exactly. Trail accuracy is to yet be determined with more testing needed. Screen visibility on an overcast day was excellent. The use of Volt yellow on black background creates high contrast. Apple claims that the new model is two times brighter than the original, which was terrible in bright sunlight, and so far the Nike+ seems reassuringly easy to read.

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The more information-focused runners may wonder, “That’s it, only one screen of data?” With the exception of not having average pace displayed live (recall, though, that it is called out at every mile), the basics are all there, and more functions can be added with additional apps. I could see using the same approach as for customizing watch face complications to allow runners to customize their workout screen with preferred and additional data fields beyond what is offered now. The data is surely available and crunchable as the Apple Watch has an incredibly powerful processor. Adding a second screen of data would not be too much to ask for, in our opinion.

Nike’s slogan for the app and watch is “Are We Running Today?” Closely tied to the iPhone Nike+Run Club app, the watch Run Club app is heavy on inspiration and motivation—if you’re a numbers-driven runner perhaps this is just what you need to get out there on those dark cold winter mornings! If you use a Nike+Run Club training plan, it will remind you what your next run is, and if you’re following a group leader board the unit will let you know things like a few more miles are needed to surpass a friend’s training.

The Apple Watch Nike+ goes far beyond a conventional GPS watch or even a GPS “smart watch” in its utility and bold style. Beyond the run, and with your phone nearby, you can answer calls from your wrist, see and feel driving directions, dictate a message, ask Siri for help, tell her to play music or to call someone. There is a full suite of activity monitoring as well as a new and very relaxing Breathe app. Thousands of other apps, including other running apps, are available. The original Apple Watch was hobbled by no GPS, slow response, limited integration of apps to the OS and to each other, not to mention a so-so screen for outdoor use. While its still not perfect, the Apple Watch Series 2 and its Nike+ version sees significant improvement in the watch’s running features and overall utility.

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