The Nike+ version of the Apple Watch is a weird one. Setting aside the obvious marketing and business partnership between Nike and Apple, it’s unclear why it exists.
Sure, there are the exclusive Nike watch bands, the watch faces with Nike fonts and the pre-installed Nike+ Running app. But really, this is just an Apple Watch Series 2 with a few bits added. There aren’t any hardware differences (apart from the band), and any ol’ Apple Watch Nike branding or not will run the Nike+ app.
Still, from using the watch for the past couple of weeks, I see two audiences for the Apple Watch Nike+: First, Nike fans that is, those who are already part of the Nike+ Running community (about 30 million, according to the NikeFuel website) sharing their runs, competing with friends and generally identifying with the Nike brand.
The other audience, and the one that Nike and Apple are probably more interested in, is the casual runner. The people who may or may not have used Nike+, but it’s more likely they use a variety of running apps, such as RunKeeper, Runtastic or Strava. They get their miles in, but they’re not religious about it to them, running is more about clearing the mind and getting some cardio in than scoring a PR.
I’d put myself more in that category than the former. So what does the Apple Watch Nike+ offer a runner like me? There are a couple of ways to answer that question.
First, you have to consider what kind of gear and apps you use for runs now. Most of the running world (including me) transitioned from running with iPods to running with iPhones a few years back. Indeed, Nike did, too it used to offer a kit for connecting your iPod nano to a sensor in your shoe. I used that system a lot when I trained for the NYC Marathon in 2008.
When I first saw the Apple Watch Nike+’s band, I thought it looked uncomfortable AF. I was dead wrong.
Today, we all run with smartphones strapped to our arms or belts. That’s certainly a little inconvenient, but the general thinning and lightening of phones has made that less of a compromise. Still, no matter how light phones actually get, trying to operate your phone while running is horrifically awkward at best.
Smartwatches began to change that equation a couple of years back, granting users playback controls and some display information in much a more logical spot than your tricep. But they’re an expensive convenience especially if you’re not one to wear a watch in the first place. Many haven’t decided that it’s worth buying just for a mini touchscreen to use while running.
Well, the Nike+ Apple Watch is here to persuade them. However, the case it makes isn’t that convincing.
Nike returns to your wrist
Full disclosure: I’d never used an Apple Watch before checking out the Nike+ version. Yes, I’d seen them, touched them, even worn them for a few minutes here and there, but I haven’t used an Apple Watch day-to-day until now. I do typically wear an Android Wear device, the LG G Watch R, which can connect with the iPhone (and disconnect, several times a day, but that’s another story).
The packaging is very similar to the Apple Watch Series 2, except the Nike+ box is black (the regular one is white) and it brandishes the iconic Nike swoosh and “+” sign, which is kinda cool if you like Nike.
When I first saw the Apple Watch Nike+’s swiss-cheese band, I thought it looked silly and uncomfortable AF. I was dead wrong. It’s only silly-looking out of context as an athletic watch (and you can swap the band out super-easily), and the perforations do double duty as holes for the plastic clasp. And the fluoroelastomer (synthetic rubber) material is, in fact, crazy comfortable most of the time you forget you’re wearing a smartwatch.
The Apple Watch user interface is kind of annoyingly complicated, but at least the current system software, watchOS 3, makes it similar to the iPhone (notifications up top and control center on the bottom). The digital crown is a little weird and unnecessary (I’d usually just scroll by touching) but can be handy for some apps. I just wish the UI were better at signaling me when I can scroll.
To me, the Nike font feels more like a throwback to the ’80s.
The Apple Watch setup doesn’t take too long, but on the Nike+ watch you have the added bonus (I guess) of being able to pick one of the exclusive Nike-themed watch faces. Again, this is something Nike fans will enjoy while others will respond with a “meh.” To me, the Nike font feels more like a throwback to the ’80s perhaps the peak period for Nike’s marketing engine, when the celebrity power of mega-athletes Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson gave it an aura of cool.
Still, I wanted the full Nike+ experience, so I went with one of the more conservative watch faces, with Nike-style numbers on the rim, a swoosh in the middle, and a “complication” that showed my last Nike-powered run on the bottom.
My Apple Watch was super flaky the first time I took it out for a run, and it wouldn’t run the Nike+ Running app. Instead, I used the Apple-default Workout app to record my run, which was good to do, since it showed me just what you can do without any of the Nike bells or whistles.
The Workout app is fairly bare-bones: You can set a goal for distance, time or calories burned, and there’s also the option for an open run. While running, the watch gives you feedback with subtle vibrations when you hit milestones along with some basic onscreen stats, but not much else. I missed the spoken feedback I get with the Nike+ iPhone app.
A couple of watch reboots later and the Nike+ app was good to go. When you launch the app, a big yellow Start button greets you. Assuming you have friends who run with Nike+, you’ll see a prompt to “catch up” to the one you’re closest to (in terms of miles clocked this week). If you go for that, it’ll start a distance run with the goal being the difference in mileage. You can always run further than that, of course.
Before you run, you can select between Basic or Advanced mode, the only difference being you’ll see more stats on the screen when you raise the watch mid-run: In addition to your distance, you’ll also see your pace and elapsed time.
The fact that the Basic mode, which is the default, shows just one stat speaks volumes about who the Apple Watch Nike+ is for. This isn’t an advanced training platform for serious athletes it’s for the more casual runner, who cares more about the self-improvement and social aspects of running than meticulously keeping track of your progress.
How it works with music
The Apple Watch Nike+ enabled me to do something I haven’t done before: Run with my iTunes running playlist, but without an iPhone strapped to my arm. Obviously, you need wireless earphones to play music via the Apple Watch, but I made the switch years ago, so that wasn’t a problem.
The Apple Watch has roughly 3GB of storage available for music, which should be plenty for most running playlists. Unlike the Nike+ iPhone, music playback is handled separately, via the Music app, which actually ends up being a big weakness of the experience.
You see, one of the features I love most about the Nike+ app on the iPhone is the Powersongs. There you are, closing in on the home stretch of your run. Maybe you want to shave a second or two off your pace, or maybe you spot a fellow runner a couple hundred feet in front of you. Hit Powersong, and a pre-selected running anthem comes on, pushing you to kick it up a notch (or five).
Sadly, Powersongs aren’t available if you’re running with just the Apple Watch. You can call up a Powersong via the watch if you also have your iPhone, but the Watch on its own can’t do it. I don’t know if this is a Nike issue or an Apple Watch issue, and it really doesn’t matter it’s a major disappointment either way.
Powersongs aren’t available if you’re running with just the Apple Watch.
The other major limitation to the music experience is you’re limited to Apple Music. I long ago graduated from listening to the same 100-or-so songs over and over again, and I more often run with Amazon Music or Spotify Running as my soundtrack. And so far, despite giving iPhone users the option to download playlists to their phones, those third-party apps can’t move those playlists to the Apple Watch. Again, whether that’s Apple’s or Spotify’s fault doesn’t matter it’s a poor experience either way.
Not being an Apple Music subscriber meant I was limited to my fairly outdated personal library. But hey it got me listening to Blink-182 again!
Even if alternative music apps worked on the Apple Watch, they still wouldn’t be able to actually stream music, since once the watch gets out of range of my iPhone or a Wi-Fi network, it becomes disconnected. Not entirely the GPS can still track me, which ensures I have accurate maps of my runs but anything that needs a data connection is out.
And there’s the rub, the reason the Apple Watch Nike+ isn’t worth the experience it’s seemingly promising: Without a data connection, it’s a step backward. Running with my iPhone, I can stream music, get notifications and even take calls while I run. With the Apple Watch, I can do none of those things.
I can’t even use one of the signature features of the Nike+ Running app. Years ago, the app added the ability to get cheers from your social networks mid-run, pushing audible applause through your headphones whenever a friend Liked the device-generated post that announced you had begun a run. Using the feature is a bit of a #humblebrag, to be sure, but it was a nice way for your support network to give you an ego boost, and perhaps some extra motivation.
On the Apple Watch, those motivators are limited to the “catch up” feature I mentioned earlier and occasional alert from the watch: “Are we running today?” (Those didn’t appear that often, and and when they did it was seemingly random.)
Obviously what I’m getting at is the lack of a 4G LTE connection on the watch. That might seem like an unfair strike against this product as I said at the outset, it’s just a slightly modified Apple Watch Series 2, and Apple hasn’t debuted a cellular-connected watch yet. But it comes down to the experience it offers. As a runner, I’ve gone beyond listening to static playlists and simply syncing runs after the fact; I want connectivity throughout my run.
Sure the watch does offer a nice convenient window and remote control for your running experience, and if you run with your phone (that is, streaming music from your phone), it’ll even give you a Powersong button. But those gains are fairly incremental, and don’t justify the $369 cost, at least not from where I’m standing.
The Apple Watch Nike+ is really only worth the price if you’re up for going all-in on the Apple Watch experience and plan on wearing this thing even when not running. In that case, you should invest in another band (starting at $49) that’s a little more appropriate for day-to-day.
If not, you won’t be missing out on that much. One of the promises of the smartwatch was it would free us from being tethered to phones, especially for athletics. Two years later, with very few cellular-connected watches on the market, that remains largely a promise. In the meantime, you can enjoy what amounts to a Nike-branded toy just don’t expect it to change your life.
Apple Watch Nike+
It’s an Apple Watch Clever
No cellular (3G/4G) connectivity Doesn’t support Powersongs or cheers Nike branding a little over the top
The Bottom Line
The Apple Watch Nike+ is a fun gadget for Nike fans and casual runners, but without cellular connectivity it’s a shallow experience.