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Apple Watch: Apple found the perfect sales pitch for runners like me

No more carrying bulky phones!
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Apple has finally figured out what the Apple Watch is for: It’s the watch that will let you leave your iPhone at home when you go for a run. And as a runner who wants to track her fitness progress, Apple’s new pitch is music to my ears.

The original Apple Watch was missing a crucial feature: a GPS chip that allowed it to track a user’s movements in real time. The new "Series 2" Apple Watch, announced Wednesday, does have GPS capabilities.

That could turn it from a device that seems like an expensive toy into a device that a lot of runners, hikers, bikers, and other fitness enthusiasts actually have a compelling reason to buy. I plan to wait for early reviews to see if the device has adequate battery life. But if it does, I’m sold.

The Series 1 Apple Watch wasn’t a very compelling fitness device

The first Apple Watch made some stabs at fitness — it could track your steps and how many times you stand up per hour — but the problem was that it was competing with much cheaper devices that can also do those things. If you’re not already sold on the Apple Watch’s other capabilities, it made no sense to shell out $349 for the original watch instead of just buying a Fitbit to track your steps for $80.

Meanwhile, if you were serious about tracking your exercise, the Series 1 Apple Watch was totally useless, because it couldn’t compete with more sophisticated watches made for runners.

Many runners, including me, like to know their pace and to log their route and time after they run. There are many free or low-cost smartphone apps that can do this using a smartphone GPS, and the most successful (Nike+ and RunKeeper among them) have tens of millions of users.

But there are good reasons not to take a smartphone on a run — you need a special carrier, it can get wet in the rain, you might drop it — and even if you don’t mind all that, a phone-based app is only useful to people who don’t care about knowing their time, distance, and pace while they’re actually running.

If you want to leave your phone at home, or if you need something that you can easily check while you exercise, until now you’ve needed to get a watch that’s specifically for running. And GPS watches aren’t cheap. The Wirecutter recommends the Garmin Forerunner 230, which is about $250 on Amazon. (It has capabilities beyond just GPS — it can notify you about incoming email, for example — but it can’t play music, and it can’t send and reply to messages the way a smartwatch can.)

If you can buy a nice running watch for $250 that’s mostly useful on runs, or an Apple Watch for $369 that can do all kinds of other stuff all the time, that’s a strong sales pitch.

I’ve mulled buying a running watch in the past year or so. But while I’d really like to know my pace while I’m running, I’m a casual runner at heart, and it seemed silly to spend significant money on a GPS watch I’d only wear a few times per week at best — particularly since I’d still have to carry my phone along with me in order to listen to music. An Apple Watch that’s also a running watch is a much more persuasive idea.

The Series 2 Apple Watch is a more compelling value proposition

The addition of the GPS chip changes everything. The Apple Watch can play preloaded music with wireless headphones. And it will now be able to show me my pace on my wrist — and since tracking runs and playing music are the two biggest reasons I bring my phone with me on runs, I might finally be able to leave my phone at home.

An Apple Watch could be pretty useful for other parts of my life too, which isn’t something you can say of a lot of dedicated fitness devices.

I’ll wait for early reviews on battery life, but I’m pretty excited about the possibility. And I’m not a particularly unique market; 2 million people finished a half-marathon in the US in 2015, and running for exercise is the fastest-growing physical activity trend in the world. (And that’s not even taking cyclists, who have similar needs, into account.)

There are things Apple could still improve, such as adding the ability to stream music or play podcasts to the watch. Still, the Apple Watch’s sales pitch just went from "cool device that’s also a not-very-good fitness tracker" to "excellent fitness tracker that can also do a lot of other stuff." For someone like me, that’s much more compelling.