In addition to the new Apple Watch Ultra 2, Apple has also refreshed it’s regular Apple Watch lineup with the new Series 9. These units share a ton of new features, both from a hardware standpoint, but also a software standpoint. For example both units got new brighter displays (albeit with different brightness levels), and both units got the same new Apple Silicon S9 chipset. And both units got virtually identical sets of software updates.

Starting off with the hardware side of things, here’s what’s new:

  • New Apple Silicon S9 chipset, which Apple says had 5.6 billion transistors and is 60% more than before
  • New GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), which Apple states is 30% faster, allowing for faster rendering
  • New 4-core neural engine, which Apple states is twice as fast in machine learning applications
  • New far brighter 2,000 nit display (previously the Apple Watch Series 8 is 1,000 nits, whereas the previous/original Apple Watch Ultra maxed out at 2,000 nits and the new Ultra 2 goes to 3,000 nits)
  • New display can also go down to just 1 nit, versus the previous 2 nits. Apple says that in turn drives a big savings in battery consumption due to the always-on side of things (of course, that battery savings is then spent on the faster processor bits).
  • New UWB 2 (Ultrawideband) chip, which increases finding of things (like your phone), including exact distance and direction, but also increased Homepod integration
  • New watch bands
  • Updated case made from 95% recycled aluminum (versus 0% prior)
  • Same battery claims as before, with “All Day Battery” being 18 hours in regular mode, or up to 36 hours in low power mode.
  • Same $ 399 starting price as before, shipping September 22nd

However, it’s these hardware components that then drive new software features, including:

  • New Double tap: This allows you to double-tap your index and thumb together, acting as a virtual button. You can answer a call, hang-up a call, snooze alarm, take a picture from the camera, or any number of other custom actions (more on this down below). This is different than the gesture-based accessibility features that have been on units before (more on that later).
  • Siri now newly processes requests entirely offline (without cellular/WiFi), for things it can do locally
  • Siri can now log Apple Health metrics (purely via voice), including weight, period information, as well as respond to Health requests (e.g. asking for last nights sleep stats) – available later this year in English and Mandarin.

By far, the biggest new software feature here is Double Tap. Apple says the idea is that you may be holding a cup of coffee, or riding a bike, or otherwise having your hands full. By simply double-tapping your index and thumb together, it’ll trigger a button response, which varies based on the application/watch.

Apple says this feature leverages three core sensors: The accelerometer, gyro, and heart rate sensor. Specifically, they look at the tiny pulses using the optical HR sensor to validate the data they get from the gyro and accelerometer.

How double-tap responds varies based on what you’re doing in the watch. For example, if doing nothing and just on the watch face, double tap will open up the list of widgets (called the Smart Stack on WatchOS 10). Whereas if a call is coming in, it’ll answer the call. And inversely, if on a call, it’ll hang up the call. Alarm ringing? It’ll snooze it. The double tap action is tied specifically to the primary button in any given app/scenario. Though not all apps do anything with it yet. For example in sport recording modes, nothing happens.

In testing it out in the hands-on area, it works reasonably well. The first time I put different watches on my wrist I tended to need to adjust/tighten the straps a bit before it triggered, but once I found that ‘happy point’, it triggered flawlessly each time.

Note this is different than the accessibility-focused gesture-based feature that Apple has had in their watch. To begin, on the accessibility feature, that’s more limited in how it gets triggered, and is tied to specific components of the UI. Whereas double tap is running 24×7 to catch those double tap gestures. Further, 3rd party apps can leverage the double tap trigger points as well, and react accordingly. Again, there is overlap here, but it’s not quite as much as some think. Apple says the new S9 chipset is required to run this algorithm 24×7 to capture those actions.

On the new brighter display, it’s definitely brighter for sure. That’s most easily seen with the flashlight feature, albeit my Apple Watch Series 8 battery died shortly before I got to the hands-on area, so, I’ll have to save that comparison for my reivew.

The heart rate sensor itself remains the same as last year, as does GPS – neither have changed. On the GPS side, that’s a bit disappointing. With so many other companies introducing multiband/dual-frequency GPS chipsets at this price point (or well below), it’d have been nice to see Apple go with multiband here like they have on the Apple Watch Ultra. Of course, as I continue to note: I don’t really care what GPS chipsets a company uses as long as its accurate. We’ve seen cases recently where some brands can make a non-multiband GNSS watch more accurate than another brand’s multiband watch. I just want accurate tracks, how a company arrives at that is up to them.

Apple talked a lot about the new Apple Silicon S9 chipset and being faster/better/etc. And that’s undoubtedly true for the many applications that Apple is leveraging it for (such as the offline Siri, etc…). However, in terms of just general watch speed and responsiveness, while the new chips are probably faster, it wasn’t something I could really notice in day-to-day use. But again,this is really more focused on other use cases.

There’s a huge slate of new straps, with a massive emphasis on recycled material. For example, the new Nike edition straps are all based on recycled materials (including from other old/used straps). Additionally, Apple will no longer make leather straps for any of their new products, instead, going with alternative options. And even in the case of the Hermes branded Apple Watch straps, Apple won’t carry those in-store. Apple says this is because the environmental impact of leather at the scale Apple needs isn’t sustainable.

Comparing the updates on the Series 9 to the updates on the Ultra 2, I think it’s far to say the Series 9 probably got a more meaningful upgrade bump than the Ultra 2 – namely in that display brightness doubling. Still, most of these changes are relatively minor from a new hardware/software standpoint. Apple talked a lot about how some of the biggest lifts here were more on the sustainability aspect of new components (and materials sourcing) to get to their goal of a carbon-neutral watch. That includes not just everything in the manufacturing chain running on clean energy, but also accounting for the daily charging requirements of the linespan of the watch.

This is similar to what Suunto is doing, though Apple doesn’t specify in their documents how long that lifespan is. I’d think that’d be somewhat important in this equation to clarify. Still, if you read through the document, it’s legit impressive all the steps they’re taking.

Of course – the biggest features of the Apple Watch Series 9 aren’t necessarily the hardware ones, but all the new software features delivered by WatchOS 10, including the topographic maps, cycling power meter support, revamped user interface, and plenty more. All of these were previously outlined back in June at WWDC, Apple’s developer conference.

With that – stay tuned for the full in-depth review to see how things handle day-to-day with the new watches.

Product Reviews – DC Rainmaker