At its Wonderlust event, Apple announced the latest models of the Apple Watch—the Apple Watch Series 9 and the Apple Watch Ultra 2—with minor technical improvements but no industrial design changes. The technical improvements come from a new S9 SiP (“System in Package,” which bundles multiple chips into a single chip carrier package), a second-generation Ultra Wideband chip in the S9, and brighter display technology. Changes include:
- Double tap gesture: The faster Neural Engine in the S9 can process data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and optical heart sensor with a machine learning algorithm to detect when your index finger and thumb perform a double tap. watchOS 10 interprets the double tap gesture as activating the primary button in an app, so it can be used to answer or end a phone call, stop a timer, play and pause music, or snooze an alarm. You can also use it to take a photo with the Camera Remote and open and scroll through the new watchOS 10 Smart Stack from the watch face. Apple says the double tap gesture will be available next month.
- Brighter screens: The power efficiency of the S9 allowed Apple to increase the brightness of the displays, so the Apple Watch Series 9 can now display up to 2000 nits, and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 can go up to 3000 nits, making them more readable in bright sunlight. On the other end of the spectrum, they can drop to just 1 nit to avoid lighting up the room with the Always-On display. On the Apple Watch Ultra 2, rotating the Digital Crown lets the Flashlight app temporarily put out twice as much light.
- On-device Siri: The more powerful S9 lets the Apple Watch locally process Siri requests that don’t require information from the Internet. That should make it easier to set a timer or start a workout when there’s no connectivity, something I experience regularly in areas of weak to nonexistent cellular coverage. I’ll be curious if it works to create reminders—that’s the main use case that stymies me whenever I remember something important while on a bike ride.
- More capable and accurate Siri: The S9 also enables access to data stored in the Health app so that users can ask about sleep hours, Activity ring progress, and more. Plus, you can use Siri to log health data such as weight, period, or medications taken. These capabilities will be available later this year once the Siri speech models have been updated, which reportedly takes significant time. Apple also claims the Neural Engine makes dictation 25% more accurate than in the Apple Watch Series 8.
- Precision Finding and HomePod integration: The second-generation Ultra Wideband chip in the S9 enables the Precision Finding feature that can direct you to a lost iPhone 15 (which also has the updated UWB chip) rather than just playing a sound. Also, when you get within 4 meters of a HomePod, the Apple Watch changes its display to provide media controls for what’s playing on the HomePod or offers media suggestions in the Smart Stack.
- Modular Ultra watch face: The Apple Watch Ultra 2 gains a new Modular Ultra watch face that uses the outermost edge of the large display to present real-time data like seconds, altitude, or depth. On Mastodon, David Smith confirmed that the original Apple Watch Ultra also gets the new face.
The Apple Watch Series 9 continues to start at $399 for a 41mm aluminum GPS-only model; 45mm models are $30 more, and cellular connectivity adds $100. It’s available in pink, midnight, starlight, silver, and PRODUCT(RED), the last of which only comes with a red Sport Band. In stainless steel, pricing starts at $699 for a 41mm model and includes cellular connectivity; the 45mm models are $50 more. Rubber bands are included at no extra cost; some textile and all stainless steel bands cost $50 to $300 more. Pricing remains unchanged for the Apple Watch Ultra 2, which costs $799 with your choice of a new Alpine Loop, Trail Loop, or Ocean Band.
Apple started accepting pre-orders for the new Apple Watch models on 15 September 2023; they’ll be available on 22 September 2023.
It’s hard to muster much new enthusiasm for upgrading to either of these models from an older but fully functional Apple Watch. The double tap gesture might be compelling if you often find yourself without a free hand to stop a timer or answer a phone call. I certainly wouldn’t argue with the other improvements, but they’re insufficiently attractive to compel an upgrade for most people.
However, if you’re ready to purchase an Apple Watch for the first time, or if you want to replace an ancient model or one whose battery can’t make it through the day, you won’t go wrong with either the Apple Watch Series 9 or the Apple Watch Ultra 2. The main question, besides price, is if you’re outdoorsy enough and have a large enough wrist to justify the beefy Apple Watch Ultra. Don’t forget that Apple still sells the second-generation Apple Watch SE, which lacks the Always-On display and ECG capabilities of the Series 9 but is $150 less expensive. If you’re unsure which model is for you, Apple’s comparison page can help.
Where are you when it comes to purchasing a new Apple Watch?