Without 4G, the Apple Watch Nike+ is a shallow experience

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

The Nike+ version of the Apple Watch is a weird one. Defining 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 truly, 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 operate the Nike+ app.

Still, from utilizing the watch for the past couple of weeks, I find two audiences for the Apple Watch Nike +: First, Nike fans that is, those who are already the members of the Nike+ Running community( about 30 million, according to the NikeFuel website) sharing their runnings, vying with friends and generally identifying with the Nike brand.

One of the louder watch faces for the Apple Watch Nike +.

Image: LilI Sams/ Mashable

The other audience, and the one that Nike and Apple are likely more interested in, is the casual athlete. The people who may or may not have utilized 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 intellect and getting some cardio in than scoring a PR.

I’d set myself more in that category than the former. So what does the Apple Watch Nike+ offer a athlete like me? There are a couple of ways to answer that question.

The Nike+ app lets you set a preferred running time.

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

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 operating 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 utilized that system a lot when I trained for the NYC Marathon in 2008.

When I first considered the Apple Watch Nike+ ‘s band, I thought it seemed uncomfortable AF. I was dead wrong.

Today, we all run with smartphones strapped to our limbs or belts. That’s surely 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, awarding 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 occurrence it induces isn’t that convincing.

Nike returns to your wrist

Full disclosure: I’d never utilized 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 utilized an Apple Watch day-to-day up to 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 considered the Apple Watch Nike+ ‘s swiss-cheese band, I thought it seemed 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 comfy the majority of members of the time you forget you’re wearing a smartwatch.

Neon yellow was one of three styles of the Apple Watch Nike+ band, and they’re all super-comfortable

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

The Apple Watch user interface is kind of annoyingly complicated, but at least the current system software, watchOS 3, induces 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 only scroll by touching) but can be handy for some apps. I only wish the UI were better at signaling me when I can scroll.

To me, the Nike font feels more like a throwback to the ‘8 0s.

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 ‘8 0s perhaps the peak period for Nike’s marketing engine, when the celebrity power of mega-athletes Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson devoted 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 presented my last Nike-powered run on the bottom.

The Nike+ watch face I chose.

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

My Apple Watch was super flaky the first time I took it out for a running, and it wouldn’t operate the Nike+ Running app. Instead, I utilized the Apple-default Workout app to record my running, which was good to do, since it been demonstrated by just what you can do without any of the Nike bells or whistles.

The Workout app is somewhat bare-bones: You can set a objective for distance, period or calories burned, and there’s also the option for an open running. While running, the watch gives you feedback with subtle vibrations when you reach 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 find a prompting 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 certain differences in mileage. You can always operate further than that, of course.

Start screen for Outdoor Run on the default Workout app.

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

Start screen for Nike+ app.

Image: Lili Sams/ Mashable

Before you run, you can select between Basic or Advanced mode, the only difference being you’ll find 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 start screen has inspired to “catch up” to your Nike+ friends.

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What you see when you scroll down.

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The fact that the Basic mode, which is the default, proves only one stat speaks volumes about who the Apple Watch Nike+ is for. This isn’t an advanced developing platform for serious athletes it’s for the more casual athlete, 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 approximately 3GB of storage available for music, which should be plenty for most running playlists. Unlike the Nike+ iPhone, music playback is managed separately, via the Music app, which in fact aims 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 running. Maybe you want to shave a second or two off your pace, or maybe you spot a fellow athlete a couple hundred feet in front of you. Make Powersong, and a pre-selected running anthem comes on, pushing you to kick it up a notch( or five ).

Playback controls in the Nike+ app only appear for controlling music playing from your phone.

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Default playback controls for the Apple Watch, utilized when running without your phone.

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Sadly, Powersongs aren’t available if you’re running with only 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 truly doesn’t matter it’s a major disappointment either way.

Powersongs aren’t available if you’re running with only 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 dedicating 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 entailed I was limited to my reasonably outdated personal library. But hey it got me listening to Blink-1 82 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 runnings but anything that needs a data connect is out.

Nike+ app, mid-run.

Nike+ app, post-run. Final running data is available when you scroll.

And there’s the rub, the reason the Apple Watch Nike+ isn’t worth the experience it’s apparently promising: Without a data connect, it’s a step backward. Running with my iPhone, I can stream music, get notifications and even take bellows while I operate. 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 running. Employing the feature is a bit of a #humblebrag, to be sure, but it was a nice style for your subsistence 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 apparently random .)

The app inspires you to alert your Nike+ friends about your run.

One of the motivational messages the Nike+ app gives you. They’re not intrusive.

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 only 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 athlete, I’ve gone beyond listening to static playlists and simply syncing runnings 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 reasonably 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 cost 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 year 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 only don’t expect it to change your life.

Apple Watch Nike+

The Good

It’s an Apple Watch Clever

The Bad

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 contraption for Nike fans and casual athletes, but without cellular connectivity it’s a shallow experience.

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