Apple Watch Series 1 review: Second-best is still pretty darn good

When you're in the market for a smartwatch, you've got a number of factors to weigh before making your decision. Does it have health sensors? What's the battery life? Does it fit on the wrist of a human being? How much is it going to cost me?

For some, nothing but the latest and greatest model will do. And if you have an unlimited budget, I consider the Series 2 Apple Watch the best smartwatch you can pick up for your iPhone. But as we approach the holidays, let's be real: Few of us have unlimited budgets when it comes to ourselves or presents for others. And a $369+ starting price — not including extra bands or different case designs — can prove steep for families on a budget.

What to do, then, when price is a concern but you still want a smartwatch for you or a loved one? For most of its other product lines, Apple's answer is usually to serve up the previous model at a discount; that said, much as I praised the promise of my Apple Watch "Series 0," the reality was this: It was slow, and its battery sucked. And the company knew it.

Rather than sell customers a vastly inferior product to its Series 2 smartwatch, Apple decided to nix the Series 0 altogether, presenting customers with a special Series 1 Apple Watch. Unlike its more expensive cousin, the Series 1 is limited to the company's aluminum casing (though that includes all four of its colors) and attached Sport band, lacks a bigger battery, and eschews the improved water resistance, brighter screen, and Series 2 GPS chip.

Where the Series 1 triumphs over the original generation, however, is in speed. It has the same snappier processor as the Series 2, though the system-in-a-package is slightly different in its tech specs owing to the lack of GPS add-on. Apple calls it S1P vs. the S1 of the original and the S2 of the Series 2.

Couple that with watchOS 3, and the Series 1 has one heck of an engine under its aluminum hood.

Testing ground

Apple Watch clock

Apple Watch clock (Image credit: iMore)

I originally picked up a Series 1 Apple Watch model to test it against the Series 2 model; as such, I've worn it on and off since mid-September. From mid-October on, however, I wore the Series 1 as my primary Apple Watch. I occasionally did the double-watch-on-a-single-arm trick for certain benchmarks, but by and large I used the Series 1 as if it were my one and only watch.

It trained at the gym and attended concerts. It timed boiling water and took Siri dictation. And, as any good smartwatch should, it told me the time.


The Series 1 watch is nigh-identical to Apple's original Series 0 design, and looks the same as the Series 2, though small details give it away.

For one thing, it doesn't have the extra .9mm depth that the Series 2 acquired in its redesign, likely owing to the bigger battery in the higher-end model and the lack of improved water resistance. It also doesn't sport that fancy new water-spitting speaker (my secret favorite feature).

In the real world, this doesn't translate to much. The Series 1's on-board speaker is slightly more tinny and softer than the Series 2, though most users may never notice, given the Watch's few options for playing sound. You can probably take it in the shower — Apple CEO, Tim Cook always did with his Series 0, after all — though keep in mind that the Series 1's rubber gaskets may wear over time and expose the internals to water damage.

And of course, if you want the entry-level Apple Watch, you give up the option for nicer casings: the Series 1 is limited to just the silver, space grey, gold, and rose gold aluminum with one Sport Band pairing for each. Thankfully, the color choices are all quite nice — I've mostly stuck to the Pink Sand Sport Band with my 38mm rose gold Series 1 watch, from which I've gotten a smattering of compliments over my weeks testing it.

Outside of those changes, I'm going to refer you almost exclusively to my Series 2 review if you desire more information about the various casings and designs.

Speed and battery: The name of the game

If you're considering upgrading from a Series 0 this holiday, you're going to do it because of speed. I've tried very hard to produce variations in speed between my various watches, and the Series 1 and 2 are neck and neck in every single test. In some — booting, for instance — the Series 1 was regularly a good :20 to :30 faster than the Series 2 (which regularly boots in ~1:40), and a full minute faster than Series 0 (~2:20). A one minute boot time still isn't great for a smartwatch, but if you're lucky, you'll only ever have to reboot when installing a new update.

That's because, like the Series 2, battery life is much improved. But unlike the Series 2, you can't attribute this to a bigger battery; the Series 1 has the exact same size as the original Apple Watch. Instead, the praise can go to watchOS 3 and the S1P's incredible process optimization.

It's not really fair to compare a brand new Apple Watch's battery to that of a 17-month old version — wear and tear take their toll on batteries as much as anything else — but even taking the age of my Series 0 watch into account, the Series 1 gets monumentally better battery life. My 38mm original watch is often dead by 4PM after a morning workout; my Series 1 has only given up the ghost once, and that was after wearing it for a full day and night (though, I should note, not having it do much) and then working out the next morning. (And it did make it back home after my work out before dying!)

The Series 2 battery still bests the Series 1 if you avoid GPS workouts; even when adding GPS-intensive workouts into the mix, the Series 2 still gets an edge, though only an extra hour or two. Either way, if you want the best battery life Apple can offer, the Series 2 is the better bet — but its entry-level smartwatch is still a vast upgrade from the original.

If you're a workout fiend, Apple also offers a nice hack for saving battery life: Pairing an external Bluetooth heart rate monitor. I've been testing several in the last week for a separate iMore roundup, and on average, a paired Bluetooth heart monitor saved ~10-15% battery life during an hour workout (compared to an hour workout using the Apple Watch's built-in health sensors).

Nitpicks and grumbles

I don't have many nits to pick when it comes to the Series 1 in of itself: I do wish you could get it with a Woven Nylon bands rather than the Sport option, but that's a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, the Series 1 fulfills its reason for existing — to be a usable, low-cost version of last year's model.

If you're in the mood for grumbles, however, I'll point you to my small problems with the Apple Watch platform, found in my Series 2 review.

Bottom line

Fitness is fun!

Fitness is fun! (Image credit: iMore)

For new Apple Watch owners, the Series 1's role is clear: It's the budget Apple Watch, there to offer a reasonable cost of entry to the Apple Watch platform. It's still an excellent product; it just doesn't have the extra bells and whistles the Series 2 offers. If you have the cash to spare, the Series 2 can be a more enticing package, but the Series 1 is no slouch — and makes for a pretty nice present.

For existing Series 0 owners, the waters are murkier. The Series 1 replaces their original model with something vastly better in some ways, like battery and speed, but is otherwise largely identical to the version they already own. Whether it's worth the upgrade largely depends on how you use your current Apple Watch.

As with my Series 2 review, I'd recommend an upgrade whole-heartedly to 38mm users who got rather short-shrifted on Series 0 battery. But if you're happy with your Apple Watch and watchOS 3, you can probably remain happy with it for another year or so. (Heck, if you manage to hold out until the next upgrade cycle, you'll likely get the perks of Series 2 at a Series 1 price!)

Whatever your circumstances, it's easier than ever to enter the Apple Watch ecosystem. No, watchOS 3 isn't perfect: But it's useable, fun to use, and a great overall smartwatch system for iOS users.

$269 from Apple

Serenity Caldwell

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.