Probably the most incremental update in the Apple Watch’s life cycle, the Series 9 is pretty much identical to the Series 8 (or Series 7) on the face of it. What makes things tick along (no pun intended) are the new innards that boast of a new processor, brighter display and a sprinkling of the famous Apple magic dust.
Apple Watch S9 review
I could link the Apple Watch S8 review here and move on, things really are that identical. Sure, there is a new pink shade to add to the repertoire but the square dial and 41 or 45mm sizes persist. It’s a dial format that has worked for watchOS and clearly, until the big 10th anniversary next year, Apple didn’t want to upset the status quo. What has changed dramatically is the way you use the primary controls in watchOS 10.
Apple has remapped the physical buttons so the side button no longer brings up the app stack and instead is used to trigger the control centre. Long pressing the side button will bring up the SOS calling and Power off controls while the digital crown can be rotated to show a new screen Apple calls “smart stack”. It’s a collection of widgets that it thinks you use most often, along with the ability to pin them in order of preference. Regardless of the app stack you choose to compile, it always shows the day/date and an analog watch face up top, letting you choose a more esoteric and clean watch face for aesthetic purposes, yet get all the critical info quickly. Pressing the crown once will revert to the app view, twice will bring up all open apps and a long press activates Siri.
There is a bit of a learning curve until the new controls are etched onto your muscle memory but eventually, it’s pretty much the same furniture, just rearranged to look slightly different. Not necessarily better. What is better though is the new SIP or system in package Apple says that this increases the processing capabilities of the new Apple Watch beyond anything that the series 8 could have done. Case in point is the new feature that’s called Double Tap, which uses a combination of optical heart rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope built into the Watch Series 9 to trigger responses based on notifications and their primary actions. It is apparently only possible due to the S9 SiP’s enhanced CPU, GPU and Neural engine. All you have to do is pinch your index finger and thumb together to initiate the command and in typical Apple fashion, it almost feels magical as an input method. In fact, it’s reminiscent of the demo we had with the Apple Vision Pro and its spatial computing system. That also also used a similar input method along with your eye tracking. But at the time of reviewing, this feature isn’t available on Watch Series 9 or watchOS10 and will be coming soon.
Another seemingly big change on paper is the increased brightness from 1000 to 2000nits, again made possible by the power efficiency of the new chip. Not that anyone complained about the lack of brightness or squinting in the sun to tell the time on their Apple Watch S8.
Perhaps the one addition that will actually make the biggest everyday difference is the precision finding unlocked by the second-generation ultra-wideband chip. Instead of just pinging your missing iPhone, now you can actually trace it down by exact location with the distance being displayed on the watch in real-time. Similarly, it also triggers media controls automatically on your watch if you’re within 4mts of a HomePod and it’s already playing music. If it isn’t, you’ll find suggestions in the Smart Stack to play some tunes too.
The new functionality is definitely tangible. Graphics and interactions within apps are faster, smoother and overall more enjoyable, especially the Smart Stack that makes widgets and oft-used apps available no matter what watch face you choose. Battery life is a similar 18 hours which is all-day according to Apple and if you want to continue wearing it to bed for sleep tracking, 8 minutes of charging will prolong its inevitable death by another 8 hours, allowing you to log precious data. Pity there is no change in charge times and it will still take about 75 minutes to charge to 100%.
Of course, the most innovative of the new technologies offered by the S9 is the Double Tap feature which we couldn’t test yet because it’s not officially available. While there was a similar existing functionality under Accessibility, the Double Tap will work across a lot more apps and even third-party APIs will be able to make use of it. Phone, messages, music, alarm, stopwatch, podcasts, compass, flashlight, Smart Stack and notifications are the ones that will work seamlessly when it is available in October.
On-device Siri, thanks to the new S9 SiP hastens commands that don’t rely on the internet. So starting a workout, setting an alarm and a ton of other features become a lot easier to initiate just with voice. Even dictation is a lot more accurate and faster, something that I regularly use while driving and replying to texts.
It’s in the watchOS where most of the newness resides, including more comprehensive cycling metrics along with enhanced support for Bluetooth accessories. Most apps are totally redesigned, including the communications app for calling from the watch directly. You also avail of perks like playing back a group FaceTime audio call, FaceTime video message on your watch, contact sharing and more.
If you wanted an Apple Watch that looks “new”, you’ll have to look in the direction of the number of new carbon-neutral straps that have been released alongside the Watch Series 9. In fact one of the biggest announcements of the Apple Watch S9 isn’t the device itself but the fact that it is Apple’s first completely carbon-neutral product, a full seven years ahead of its scheduled timeline of 2030! Everything from manufacturing to shipping and even the choice of sport bands uses a heavy amount of post-consumer recycled materials and even materials from surplus bands. If you have a touchy conscience, by all means, the Watch S9 is a worthy addition to your ecosystem but if you have the Series 7 or 8, you’d be wiser holding off on this one.
Only the slightest of performance bumps and minor updates, but overall for a new user, still the best smartwatch around.