Apple hasn’t missed an update of its flagship Apple Watch Series range since it started in 2014 – at first glance, the Series 9 feels the most iterative so far.
With big rumors of a huge Apple Watch X update for the 10th anniversary next year, the Series 9 doesn’t change the overall design, look or feel of the Apple Watch range.
While on the surface the Series 9 might feel like a refresh, it makes several additions that could shape the future of the Apple Watch.
We’ve worn the Series 9 for several weeks – here’s what you need to know.
Like the last two generations, the Series 9 comes in 45mm and 41mm case sizes, in aluminum or stainless steel.
It now comes in pink, which joins Midnight, Starlight, Silver, and Red. The stainless steel options are gold, silver, and graphite.
The overall look and feel of the Series 9 hasn’t changed at all – but it’s now carbon neutral in select models, thanks to 100% recycled aluminum cases and new Sport Loop bands, which have an impressive array of colors, or Pride and Black Unity bands options.
We got a new carbon-neutral Sport Loop to test, and the quality is excellent. It also wicks sweat well, is easy to clean, and stays secure with the Velcro, and we prefer it to the standard silicon band.
The environmental impact of tech is a pressing issue, and the Apple Watch is the company’s first product to be carbon neutral before eventually everything is by 2030. So the Apple Watch Series 9 is a big step forward here and a great choice for those looking for a more responsible tech purchase.
The screen has also doubled in brightness to 2,000nit, and it’s noticeable next to Series 8. My eyes have been spoiled by using Ultra for a year, but users of older Apple Watches will notice the difference.
The Apple Watch Series 9 gets the same S9 chip that debuts on the Apple Watch Series 9, and aside from a 30% faster GPU, it adds a four-core Neural Engine, dedicated to handling machine learning tasks without going to the cloud.
Most of the benefits are yet to roll out.
The first benefit of the Neural Engine is a new double-tap finger gesture, that you can use to control the Series 9.
I tried the new double-tap feature at Apple HQ, although it wasn’t enabled on our review unit, so we’ll have to return to this for the full review.
The gesture takes over the main button control of native Apple Watch apps (e.g. timers/alarms/stocks), enabling you to perform the primary input by pinching the thumb and forefinger together twice.
There’s a small learning curve, but I got to grips with it quickly after fumbling my first attempt. And this could be my favorite new Apple Watch feature for years. Yes, it’s useful, but it’s the first moment of joy using a wearable – perhaps any gadget – that I’ve felt for a long time.
There are some limited customization options for the gesture, but I can already see users wanting more. This has the power to be a really important addition to the smartwatch feature set, and for power users and tech enthusiasts, it’s a big reason to jump in with the Series 9.
A better Siri
The S9 chip enables the Apple Watch Series 9 to handle any Siri query that doesn’t require information from the web.
Using Siri on the Series 9 was noticeably less ponderous, and Apple says that dictation accuracy is improved by 25%. It’s certainly more reliable and less deaf than previous models.
Having Siri on has always made the Apple Watch feel useful for simple queries like setting timers while cooking or reminders. However, slowness and dictation accuracy have held it back, so it’s good to see progress here.
But I did still have a few issues with the raise-to-speak gesture and often had to say “Siri” to get it to listen. So minor niggles remain.
Now that commands don’t have to be pinged off to the cloud, you will soon be able to ask Siri for health data queries, which wasn’t possible for privacy reasons before.
That could mean asking how you slept last night – and I’m curious to see the extent to which Siri can make the wealth of Apple Watch health data meaningful. This is landing later in 2023, so I couldn’t get to grips with this either.
watchOS 10 isn’t unique to Series 9 and will roll out to every Apple Watch model since Series 4. But it’s a decent upgrade in itself, with the biggest usability tweaks since Series 4.
The control center tray is now accessed using the side button, and a scroll of the crown from the watch face reveals the SmartStack. This is a Rolodex of widgets, showing glanceable information from a customizable range of cards. It’s also smart, so it will try and show you the most pertinent information.
Loads of the native apps have been given a refresh, and look so much better. The Now Playing widget especially, and the album artwork look fantastic.
watchOS 10 is a big improvement to an operating system that was already leading the way. The App Store is full of big-name offerings that plug holes in the experience. Want a better sleep tracker or a quality golf app? There are so many options.
Apple Pay is ubiquitous and so useful on the wrist, and if you use Apple Music, you can have playlists auto sync and update, as well as have offline syncing via pretty much any music app you want.
I’ve spoken about Siri already – but the integration with iMessage and WhatsApp – so you can reply from the wrist, is way ahead of rivals.
These are the details that make the Apple Watch the best smartwatch out there. But what also holds it back in terms of battery life? That’s the true compromise.
Apple has also added an ultrawideband chip into the Series 9, which offers the ability to use Precision Finding to guide your way to your iPhone 15 (and only this model), should it be lost. It works nicely, directing you to within inches of your iPhone, so long as it’s within a range of around 30 feet.
I’ve been a huge fan of the implementation on Apple AirPods Pro 2 and it saved me from losing them in a café on one occasion. Sadly, you’ll still need to do that on your iPhone, as the Watch connects to the iPhone 15 using a different generation of UWB chip.
A top sports watch
When the first Apple Watch was launched, sports tracking was lightweight. But now, it’s one of the best experiences you’ll find on any sports watch.
The Series 9 doesn’t bring anything specifically new to the party – but the Apple Watch is one of the best in the business in the art of getting sweaty.
Series 9 doesn’t feature the multiband GNSS of the Ultra 2, so it’s just normal GPS on show here. It’s reliable and offers good accuracy in our tests in most environments, as it has for us over the years.
I put it up against the Ultra 2 on several runs and found accuracy within 50m over 5K. It’s not prosumer accuracy, but more than good enough for most people, even if racing marathons or half marathons.
Heart rate is also a steady performer, and across multiple runs, we found accuracy comparable to a heart rate strap.
The number of sports tracked is extensive – and Apple is, one-by-one, leveling up each to prosumer standards.
Last time out it was running that got the treatment with running power and form tracking (cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, stride length), heart rate zones – plus the ability to race yourself on common routes. You get so much data from every workout – all well presented in the Fitness app.
With watchOS 10 it’s cycling that gets the love, with support for external sensors, FTP, and the ability to use your iPhone as a bike computer.
That’s all part of watchOS 10, and thus not exclusive to Series 9. But the message is that Series 9 is a damned good sports watch, and by no means inferior to the best Garmins (or Polars) around.
Where the experience is inferior to like likes of Garmin, is the analysis of fitness. There’s a lack of performance analysis, as we’ve come to expect on top sports devices, so Apple’s metrics won’t advise you on training load, recovery, or fitness levels.
You can see VO2 Max trends in the Fitness app, and we found that to be nailed on to Garmin. It had us at mL/kg/min and knowing our levels, this feels right as well as matching up to rivals. VO2 Max is the one true data point when it comes to fitness, but we’ve become used to more analysis of workouts.
Likewise, all running form data is presented without comment. So it doesn’t intuitively help you work out what needs improvement. The data is accurate and comprehensive, but like Apple Health, you need to know what you’re talking about or show it to a professional, to get use out of it.
Wellness and health
As a health watch, the Series 9 offers a strong suite of features – but a set that feels geared towards serious conditions and not dying – over wellness in general.
There are ECG and high/low heart rate notifications – which have had a high-profile role in preventing serious conditions in users.
Then there’s Fall Detection and Car Crash Detection, and the Series 9 is a smartwatch (and perhaps the only smartwatch) that could save your life.
Apple also led the way in using skin temperature readings for menstrual tracking on Series 8 – and data from Series 9 will retrospectively validate your cycle. This makes it one of the more advanced biometric cycle trackers out there.
It will also screen for serious conditions. The Apple Women’s Health Study found that 12% of participants reported a polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) diagnosis, which carries a 4x risk of four times the risk of endometrial hyperplasia (pre-cancer of the uterus), and 2.5x risk of uterine cancer. So it’s important stuff.
It’s another robust health feature for Series 9, which increasingly feels like a tool that could make a real difference in health outcomes.
Rivals are innovating in other areas, however. The Galaxy Watch 6 has blood pressure tracking when calibrated with a cuff. Fitbit will actively screen users for AFib using the PPG sensor. Apple can do that, but its feature is limited to those who are diagnosed with AFib.
But when it comes to the everyday, the wellness track does feel a little dated. It still focuses on the three rings: exercise, calories, and stand hours.
They’ve worked well over the years and are good for the general user – but we can’t help but feel Apple Watch starting to lag behind the likes of Whoop, Oura, Fitbit, and Garmin when it comes to proactively assessing health and wellness.
The Apple Watch Series 9 opts not to focus on areas we’ve seen explored by pretty much every other wearable tech manufacturer, so there are no metrics on readiness or recovery based on the tracking of heart rate variability and sleep.
There’s a serious amount of health data collected in Apple Health (breathing rate, HRV, resting heart rate) – but they’re all displayed without analysis or comment, buried deep in the app. You need to know what you’re looking at to make any significant learnings, and the onus is on the user to go and make sense of this data themselves.
So while the Series 9 is a serious health watch, and a tool that can be used to have serious conversations with your doctor, it’s not geared towards making sense of the vast array of metrics it tracks.
The mantra of Apple and its Series watches has been to keep the hardware and software innovations coming but to keep battery life the same. As ever, the Series 9 offers an official “18 hours”, just as it did on the original.
We’ve never had as little as 18 hours, and regularly find it to be around 30 hours. That means a full day, probably a workout, track sleep, and then it will die sometime the next morning.
The Apple Watch Ultra lasts around 3 days and ends battery anxiety with the Apple Watch. So, returning to the Series 9 was a little bit of an awakening about how awkward a one-day battery can be.
It’s easy if you don’t track sleep, just pop it on charge when you go to bed. But if you do, you’ll need to find time to charge that morning. And that didn’t sync with my routine that well.
There are now more tools to help. Low Power Mode will extend the battery to around 36 hours but sacrifice a lot of your functionality. It also charges rapidly, so just 10 minutes will give you an extra night or until the end of the day.
But it’s still the biggest compromise of owning an Apple Watch Series 9.
Should you buy it?
The Apple Watch Series 9 lays the groundwork for the next generation of Apple Watch, but it is a minor update. It stands out for excellent running and sports tracking features, the App Store, and Apple Pay, and the new gesture is very cool.
Tech enthusiasts won’t want to miss the new gesture control – which feels like a genuine innovation in smartwatches, and we’re so interested to see where Apple takes this next.
We can’t help feeling something seriously cool is coming next year – so it may be worth waiting. If you’re looking for a top Apple Watch today, then this is a great addition. But it’s not worth upgrading from Series 8 and pales in comparison to the excellent Ultra 2.