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Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 review: Pretty in pink

The latest Apple Watch has the same design as last year’s but a much more powerful chip powering it, and a very cool new feature

David Phelan
Wednesday 20 September 2023 17:38 BST
<p>Pink is the newest colourway to join the Apple line-up. Your old bands will still work here, too </p>

Pink is the newest colourway to join the Apple line-up. Your old bands will still work here, too

Apple’s latest smartwatch, on sale from Friday 22 September, looks identical to last year’s. Even though you can’t tell the difference by looking at them, except for the one colour that’s new (pink), under the hood, lots has changed.

Apple launched the first Apple Watch in 2015 and, since then, the design has changed subtly, screen sizes have grown, direct mobile network access on some models has meant you don’t need your iPhone nearby and a huge range of increasingly essential health features have been added.

The first Apple Watch had a heart monitor, but since then the smartwatch has evolved to do much more, such as read an ECG, check blood-oxygen levels and monitor your sleep. Recent models could even contact emergency services or close contacts, if you fell heavily and didn’t get up. Since last year, that fall detection has expanded to detecting accidents while cycling and driving. So, what’s new with Series 9 and should you buy it?

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How we tested

It’s a watch, so we kept an eye on how accurately it tells time and how comfortable it is to wear all day. We paid close attention to ease of setup, how intuitive it is to use and how quickly it responded to commands and inputs. Something so focused on time shouldn’t waste yours while you wait for it to do stuff.

We tested workouts, how many of them there are, and how accurate they proved to be (was that really 18 lengths of the pool as it said?). How resilient was it during everyday use?

Above all, since this is something you wear on your wrist all day, and it can’t be plugged in while you’re using it, did the battery last the full day, as Apple claims?

Apple Watch Series 9: From £399, Apple.com

The look of the Apple Watch has been pretty decent since day one, though the latest design, introduced two years ago with Series 7, is the best yet. The rectangular display is perfect for viewing text such as emails, SMS or app data, and the gently curved glass means you can view what’s on screen from almost every angle.

Since Series 5, Apple Watches other than the SE models have had an always-on display, handy for sneaking a look at the time or other stuff while your wrist remains under the desk at a dull meeting, say. The SE requires you to raise your wrist to wake the display, a mechanic we’ll be coming back to in a moment for a new feature on Series 9.

In short, it’s an understated but glamorous device that looks and feels good on the wrist. And there are lots of straps to choose from, as well as more than 50 watch faces. So, you can team the antics of Toy Story characters on-screen with a braided solo loop during the day, but switch to a classic analogue face and classy metal Milanese loop in the evening.

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Apple’s bands are uniformly well made and are durable. I still have some I bought in 2015. The uniform design of the bands means they all still fit my larger-sized Watch, even though case sizes have gone from 42mm to 44mm to 45mm and 49mm for the Ultra. The same applies for straps made for the smaller size Watch case, which is currently a 41mm size.

Along with the colours held over from last year – midnight, starlight, silver, and Product(Red) – there’s a new one: pink. This is a pastel colour but with a feisty punch. These are the colours for the aluminium finish. The pricier stainless steel models come in the same three colours as last year: silver, gold and graphite.

The only other design change this year is screen brightness. Previously, Apple Watches other than the brighter Ultra have had a maximum of 1,000 nits. That’s just doubled to 2,000, making the display very easy to read in even the brightest sunlight. The difference is evident as soon as you see it. Just as importantly, it can dim right down to just 1 nit, so it won’t disturb you at night. The original Apple Watch Ultra had 2,000 nits brightness, though the new Ultra Watch 2 takes this to 3,000 nits.

Performance and new features

Most of the changes here are down to the new processor, the S9 SiP (system in a package). Recent Apple Watches have seen gradual processor updates but this is a big leap forward. Apple took the A16 Bionic – found in the current iPhone 15 – as a starting point and it includes 5.6 billion transistors (don’t try to count them).

The result is that the Apple Watch Series 9 is fast, smooth and responsive to use. And it makes possible a very cool new feature called double tap. This feature is being added to the Series 9 in October, but I’ve tried it on early software and it’s effortless and responsive. You can use it to snooze an alarm, pause a timer, play music and more.

Double-tap doesn’t mean you tap the display. Instead, when you raise your arm to wake the watch to full brightness, you can tap your index finger and thumb together twice instead of touching the screen. It’s a natural and instinctive action, using the accelerometer and gyroscope in conjunction with the new, third-generation optical heart sensor.

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It’s impressive, almost magical, how well this gesture works. The watch is looking out for the change in blood flow that accompanies a hand gesture of this nature. It’s highly satisfying to end a phone call with a snap of your fingers, and it allows you to interact with your watch even when you’re holding something in your other hand. As they used to say, it’s all in the wrist action. Watch Series 9 owners will get a lot of use out of this.

One of the other benefits of the new and more powerful chip is on-device Siri. Commands asked of Apple’s voice-activated virtual assistant are now processed on the Watch itself. So, if you’re setting a timer or starting a workout, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have access to the internet, like if you’re in a gym basement with poor reception, for instance. It’s a small but highly useful upgrade.

There is also a second-generation ultra-wideband chip on board. This is useful for locating your iPhone when it’s somewhere nearby. Until now, this would be done by the Watch pinging your phone and the phone tweeting a little song. But with the new Watch, if you have an iPhone 15 or iPhone 15 Pro, the process just got much better.

I forget where I’ve put my phone multiple times a day. Now, the iPhone sings as before but the Watch tells me exactly how many feet away it is and points me in the right direction. When I’ve reached it, the iPhone sounds again (happy to be reunited with its owner, I suppose) but also useful for locating it if it’s under a cushion.

Watch faces

As mentioned above, there are plenty of new watch faces to choose from, though there’s one small change to the new watchOS 10 software that I don’t appreciate. In previous versions of the OS, you could quickly swap faces just by swiping from left to right, which I found very useful. I’m meticulous about keeping accurate time, so when resetting my microwave clock at the end of summer time, I’d use the digital face to make sure I was getting the minute exactly right. Then, as I set the timer, I’d swap to analogue for second-perfect precision. You can still switch between Watch faces easily on the Series 9, but it’s not quite as quick.

It’s a small change, but I’d like this back as an option. On the other hand, my previous experience of inadvertently brushing the Watch to discover I’d changed the face without meaning to is not something I miss.

There are new Watch faces in watchOS 10, all of them pre-loaded on the new Series 9 and available on all Watches going back to Series 4. Note that you need to pair it with an iPhone running iOS 17, meaning iPhone Xs or more recent.

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The new watch faces themselves are wide-ranging in their designs. One, called Modular Ultra, is an info-heavy face that is exclusive to Apple’s bigger and more rugged Ultra models. There are two new analogue faces too. One is called Solar Analogue and has a sweeping second hand that illuminates and casts shadows across the watch face, and Palette with constantly changing colours.

Then there’s the Snoopy watch face. I’m not joking when I say this is one of the most fantastic achievements of watchOS 10, It’s a small wonder to behold. There are 148 endearing animations, with more wit than anyone has a right to expect of a watch face, and plenty of Woodstock appearances. It’s so good, it deserves its own feature. More on that another time.

Battery life

Apple Watches have always had a full-day battery life. If you forgot to charge it overnight it would usually see you through to lunchtime or beyond the following day. The new processor is efficient enough that even though it’s working harder, battery life is maintained. Apple claims 18 hours battery life, though I think that’s an understatement. Get into a pickle and you can swap to low-power mode for double the battery life.

The only downside is, if you wear the Watch to track your sleep, you may need to recharge before you turn in. However, whenever you recharge, it does so quickly.

Verdict: Apple Watch Series 9

The latest Apple Watch looks like last year’s but is definitely a different and more capable device. It’s worth the upgrade for the double-tap feature alone, but there’s also precision finding for iPhone, the simplicity and security of some Siri actions being handled entirely on-device, and the brighter display. If you have a Series 8 Watch, this is a decent improvement. If you have Series 7, SE or earlier, this is a no-brainer upgrade.

Apple continues to make the best smartwatches by far, with a wide range of features, a smooth-as-silk interface and a gorgeous design.

Buy now From £399, Apple.com

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