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Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 review: small but smart improvements

Iterative updates aren’t flashy, but these smartwatches are mainly for folks who don’t have Apple Watches yet.

Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

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Some years, there are updates that completely upend an entire category. Others, you get something like the $399-plus Apple Watch Series 9 and the $799 Ultra 2 — steady improvements that technically add up to the best Apple Watches we’ve ever seen. Just not by a whole lot. And not if you’ve already got a recent Apple Watch model.

It makes sense that 2023’s updates are quiet compared to last year when Apple effectively kicked down the door with not one, not two, but three new smartwatches. This year, the Series 9 and Ultra 2 are nearly identical in design to their predecessors, save new colors, strap options, and carbon-neutral packaging. Instead, the big updates this year are the S9 SiP, the addition of a second-generation ultra wideband chip, and watchOS 10. The former promises a 30 percent faster GPU and a four-core Neural Engine with twice the performance of the Series 8. That, in turn, enables onboard Siri processing, greater power efficiency, and the handy double-tap gesture. The upgraded UWB chip enables Precision Finding, much like AirTags. Meanwhile, watchOS 10 reintroduces widgets to Apple’s smartwatch landscape.

After a few months with watchOS 10 and about a week with the Series 9 and Ultra 2, I genuinely like the new updates. But whether the latest Apple Watches are the best options for iOS users isn’t the point anymore. They are. The real questions are whether the new updates are worth the cost to upgrade, and if you’re going to buy a new Apple Watch, which one makes the most sense for you?

Pink is in, leather is out

The aluminum Series 9 comes in a new pink color — and as far as design goes, that’s all that’s visibly new. Otherwise, you’re looking at the same design and 41mm / 45mm sizes as the Series 8 and the Series 7 before that.

Pink is easily the best new color Apple’s introduced for the watch in years. First, it’s actually pink, unlike the green Series 7, which only looked green if the light hit just right. Second, this is the year of our queen and savior Barbie. Technically, it’s more Millennial pink than Barbie pink, but that’s probably a good thing. Normally, I kvetch about how Apple shies away from saturated color, but the extra subtlety here makes for a more versatile watch. Depending on the strap, you can either emphasize or de-emphasize the pinkness for whatever the situation calls for.

Person wearing pink Apple Watch Series 9 in the most ridiculous pink outfit you’ve ever seen.
Because we are living in a material world, and those materials are now carbon neutral. (And pink!)

The Ultra 2 is even harder to differentiate from the Ultra. When I got my hands-on at Apple Park, a representative advised I stow my Ultra in my bag — lest I accidentally leave it behind. Even the back crystal on the Ultra 2 just reads “Ultra,” unlike the Series watches, which always specify which Series they are. This entire week, I’ve had to rely on very minimal signs of wear and tear on my original Ultra to tell these two watches apart.

Even less visible is the fact that Apple is using more recycled materials in both the Series 9 and Ultra 2. The Sport Loop, for example, is made of 82 percent recycled yarn, up from 0 percent. The aluminum Series 9 is made from 100 percent recycled aluminum, while the Ultra 2 is made from 95 percent recycled titanium. The speckled flecks in silicone Nike straps you’ll see throughout this review are also recycled. Apple also sent me its FineWoven strap, which is made of 68 percent post-consumer recycled material and is meant to act as a leather alternative. ‘Cause Apple doesn’t do leather anymore.

Person wearing FineWoven strap on 45mm Stainless Steel Series 9.
FineWoven is Apple’s new leather alternative. It’s suede-like and, if an informal poll at The Verge’s office is any indication, very polarizing.
Underside of Fine Woven strap on Series 9 showing light scratches.
You can see that Fine Woven does show “scratches” like real leather if you accidentally scrape it against something.

FineWoven is fine. It’s kinda like suede: soft and a lil’ fuzzy. If you scrape it with a nail, it shows the scratch like suede would. It’s hard to say whether it’ll develop a patina, as I simply haven’t had it long enough, but I wouldn’t recommend working out in it (or in any leather strap, for that matter). I thought the strap was fetching on my stainless steel 45mm review unit, but the texture was a lot more polarizing among my co-workers. Most said they weren’t fans but couldn’t articulate why. If you’re debating getting one, I would swing by an Apple Store first to get a feel for it first.

S9, Siri, and Screens

I never like it when gadget companies say a new processor makes things a lot better. Unless you have a very laggy device, minute improvements in performance are hard for the average person to see. Granted, processor specs matter more with Android smartwatches because they’ve historically been plagued by laggy screens and performance issues. But with the Apple Watch, this has been less of a problem. That said, there are a few instances where you can see the slight difference the S9 makes.

First off, the improved Neural Engine on the S9 SiP means Siri processing happens on device. That, in turn, purportedly leads to 25 percent better dictation and the ability to issue Siri commands when offline. Later this year, you’ll also be able to ask Siri health-related queries.

<em>The Betty Botter butter tongue twister. The first text was sent by the Series 9, the second by the S8-powered Ultra.</em>


The Betty Botter butter tongue twister. The first text was sent by the Series 9, the second by the S8-powered Ultra.

To test the improved Siri, I ran two experiments. First, I dictated several long texts, tongue twisters, as well as Bohemian Rhapsody and Alphabet Aerobics lyrics, and sent them to my best friend. (She is a patient saint.) For the tongue twisters and song lyrics, I simultaneously dictated to an S8-powered Ultra and an S9-powered Series 9. You can check the gallery above with screenshots of the results. It’s impressive that both watches got about 95 percent accuracy (and I dictated these fast), but I didn’t see a huge difference between the results.

With texts featuring Korean words, Siri did an admirable job for more common words like bulgogi but still messed up some names of our favorite K-pop singers and actors. It’s not a perfect test, but to me, that means I still have to enunciate clearly when using foreign words in English (aka Konglish). That said, I’ve used actor Mahershala Ali’s name as a Siri litmus test over the past few years. Back in 2018 and 2019, Siri would often get tripped up on it. I’m happy to say this year, it nailed it 100 percent of the time.

Apple Watch Series 9 will Siri pulled up
Siri can now handle offline tasks. Later this year, it’ll be able to handle health requests as well.

What might be more useful is the fact that you can issue Siri basic tasks when you have no internet or cellular connectivity. For example, I was able to ask Siri to set timers and workouts with airplane mode enabled both on the watch and on my iPhone. Say your laundry room is in the basement, your hands are full with a laundry basket, and you forgot your iPhone upstairs. You can now ask Siri to set a timer and not worry about it. This won’t work 100 percent of the time when Siri has to pull information from the internet, however. But, if you do get a weather update preloaded from when you had internet, I found that Siri can still give you an update. (Though it may not be the most up-to-date information.)

Apple Watches at max brightness lined up next to another. The max brightness appears the same.
From top to bottom: Apple Watch Ultra 2, Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch Series 9, Apple Watch Series 7. All of these are at max brightness, but Apple uses the ambient light sensor to account for your environment.

The S9 SiP also results in greater power savings, but you should already know that Apple’s reinvested that somewhere other than better battery life. In this case, Apple decided to make the displays brighter. The Series 9 now goes up to 2,000 nits from 1,000 nits, while the Ultra 2 is 50 percent brighter at 3,000 nits. Indoors and outdoors, it’s difficult to tell the difference if you don’t have older models on hand for comparison. And even if you do, as I did, it can still be difficult to tell under certain lighting conditions.

That’s because Apple makes ample use of the ambient light sensor. Just because you can manipulate the Series 9 or Ultra 2 to go up to maximum brightness doesn’t mean the watch is giving you everything it’s got. It’s dependent on your environment, which is to give your eyes a break and save battery. You’re most likely to see the difference outside on a very sunny day.

As for battery life, I’m still investigating. Without any low-power settings, I’ve gotten roughly 25 to 30 hours on both the 41mm and 45mm Series 9 and about two and a half days on the Ultra 2. Granted, I’m recovering from some calf strain; we’ll have to see how both watches fare when I get back to training.

On the one hand

Perhaps the most novel update to the Series 9 and Ultra 2 is the double-tap gesture. Or, as my colleague Dan Seifert more accurately describes it, the pinchy pinch. It’s similar to double-clicking with a mouse, except you’re making a pinching motion with your index finger and thumb. It’ll come via a software update sometime in October, but Apple sent us a separate Series 9 loaded with a beta version of the feature so I could give it a whirl.

Technically speaking, this tech isn’t new. With watchOS 8, Apple debuted AssistiveTouch, an accessibility feature for those with limb differences, and double-tap uses the same underlying technology. The sensors can detect changes in blood flow when the muscles in your forearm move, and that, in turn, allows you to control the device and navigate menus with one hand.

A person doing the double-tap gesture to dictate a text.
The double-tap gesture is arguably more of a pinchy pinch.
Person making double tap gesture while using the watch
You can technically use any finger to make the gesture, though index and middle finger work best.

That said, double-tap and AssistiveTouch are not quite the same thing. For starters, AssistiveTouch is more power-intensive, as it’s run directly on the CPU, while double-tap’s algorithm has been optimized to run in the background via the S9’s Neural Engine. (Apple says this is why double-tap is limited to the Series 9 and Ultra 2.) That’s also why AssistiveTouch is something you have to set up, whereas double-tap is enabled systemwide by default. Plus, AssistiveTouch supports a wider range of gestures, like a single tap or fist clench, and you can customize what certain gestures do (i.e., scrolling, moving forward or back, selecting an action, etc.). It has to be that way because it’s designed for you to navigate the entire Apple Watch single-handedly. Double-tap is meant to be a more contextual way to handle the primary actions of an app.

For example, say you get a text. If you double-tap, it’ll bring up the ability to reply via voice messages. Double-tapping again will send the message. For a timer, double-tapping once will pause the timer. Doing it again will unpause it. When the timer goes off, pinchy pinching will stop the timer. I’ve also used it to control the camera shutter, control my music, snooze alarms, scroll through watchOS 10’s widget stack, and answer / end calls.

double tap gesture menu on Series 9
You have some customizability, mainly for music playback and the widget stack.

This is an excellent feature, but it’s not without its quirks. For one thing, it comes with a learning curve. For it to work, you must first do the raise-to-wake gesture. (This is to prevent accidental triggers.) You also have to learn the timing. Too fast or too slow won’t work, and between selecting actions, there’s a slight pause. When I was first trying out demos at Apple Park, I was definitely too fast and aggressive. Once I got my review unit, however, I got the hang of it relatively quickly.

It’s also not the best at multitasking. If you navigate away from a timer, for example, you won’t be able to just double-tap to pause or restart while it’s running in the background. Once it goes off, you can double-tap again since it’s back at the forefront. The same goes for snoozing alarms. You’ll probably have to use Siri — or your other hand — if you’ve got a lot going on at once.

Another thing: I wish it were slightly more customizable. Apple designed this to be intuitive, but not everyone will think double-tap ought to do the same thing. I get why in the Messages app, the gesture will bring up a voice reply. However, I’d love it if I could use it to scroll through quick text replies, select one, and send it. Apple is aware of this, as you can customize what the double-tap will do for music playback and the smart widget stack. For instance, you can decide whether the gesture will pause / play a track or skip it. (I prefer the skip function!) For the smart stack, you can decide between scrolling through widgets or selecting the first one you’ve got pinned up top.

Double tap glyph appears on the timer app
A glyph appears when you use the double-tap gesture. It “shakes” when you can’t use it for something, but you’re mostly encouraged to explore on your own.

Overall, there’s more to like about double-tap than not. It quite literally turns the Apple Watch from a two-handed device into one that can be used single-handedly like a smartphone. If you’ve got an Apple Watch, then you’ve undoubtedly had an instance when your hands were occupied, and you had to use your nose to select a button. This solves that. Frankly, I firmly believe it’ll change the way we interact with wearables going forward.

I also dig that you don’t have to use your index finger. The feature also works with your middle, ring, and pinky fingers — though it may not work quite as well with the latter two. Even so, it’s great that you have alternatives in the event you lose or break your index finger.

Apple isn’t the first to come out with a gesture-based smartwatch feature. Samsung also has something very similar to AssistiveTouch for its Galaxy Watches. That said, Apple’s taking it a step further and making this part of the default system interface. It’s a powerful example of how accessible design benefits everyone. I hope Apple continues to iterate and improve on this feature and that other smartwatch makers follow suit.

Precision Finding

Some of us never misplace our phones. Precision Finding on the Series 9 and Ultra 2 is not for those people. This is for those of us who ring our phones multiple times a day and lose them in odd places. True story: I once left my phone inside my fridge while dazed, hangry, and confused at the height of the covid-19 pandemic.

Precision Finding on the Apple Watch is similar to how you find AirTags with your phone. At first, you bring up the control panel and ring your phone like normal. Once you’re within range of your phone, you’ll see an approximate distance and some directional guidance. When you’re within six feet, you’ll hear another beep from your phone.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 showing Precision Finding feature
Before it locks onto a direction, you get an estimate of how many feet away your phone is.
Person reaching for phone with Precision finding on the Ultra 2
Success! You also get a haptic buzz when you find your phone.

To test the feature, my co-worker Owen Grove sent me on a scavenger hunt in The Verge’s office. He hid an iPhone 14 Pro Max paired with an Ultra in one area and an iPhone 15 paired with a Series 9 in another. Although I heard the iPhone 14 Pro Max ring first, it was incredibly faint, and I didn’t really have a clue where it could be. After meandering around, the Series 9 was able to pick up a signal once I was within roughly 50 feet. It was super easy to find my iPhone 15 after that — the whole thing only took about three minutes. Finding the iPhone 14 Pro Max was trickier since I had to rely on sound — The Verge’s office layout is maze-like, so my Ultra lost connection fairly frequently because of all the walls. It took about double the time to find the 14 Pro Max.

We also tested the feature outside, and this time, the range extended to roughly 80 feet on account of all the open space. That said, it had a hard time getting a precise lock when Owen was actively moving around with the iPhone 15. Instead, an icon pops up, letting you know that the phone is currently in motion. In other words, this feature works better if your phone is stationary.

Iphone moving message in Precision Finding feature on the screen
If the phone is moving, you’ll see this message pop up telling you why the reading may not be accurate.

But as much as I love this feature, it requires that your phone also has the new second-generation UWB chip, which means it’s limited to the iPhone 15 lineup. So, if you plan on upgrading only your Apple Watch, this isn’t a feature you’re going to have right away. Also, for now, it’s limited to your phone only; you can’t use this to find an AirTag with your Series 9 or Ultra 2.

watchOS 10

I’ve written about most of the new features in watchOS 10 in my preview earlier this year. In a nutshell, widgets are back in a big way. Apple’s native apps have been redesigned so they’re more glanceable, and there’s a hell of a lot less scrolling. The controls have also been reconfigured. Swiping up no longer brings up the control panel but a list of widgets. To get the control panel, you now have to press the side button while double-pressing the crown brings up your recent apps.

Person looking at Apple Watch Ultra 2 on one wrist and the Series 9 on the other.
The brighter screens are more noticeable outdoors.

However, there are a few new watchfaces that we didn’t get to see in the beta — a solar analog face and a new Modular Ultra face. The solar analog face is on the simpler side. Its main thing is that the light trail behind the second hand changes from light to dark depending on whether it’s day or night. The Modular Ultra face is exclusive to the Ultra and Ultra 2 but is a dream for data nerds, aka me. You can pack in seven complications — six small ones and a larger one in the center. The bezel can also show either elevation, depth, or seconds in real time.

Like double-tap, watchOS 10 is one of those updates that has larger implications for how we’ll interact with the Apple Watch down the road. Together, these two updates make the Apple Watch much more glanceable and distinct from a “mini phone on your wrist.” Meanwhile, cellular capability and the fact that Siri now works more seamlessly offline give you a device that’s more independent of your phone. There’s a shift happening here, but Apple isn’t busting down the door like the Kool-Aid Man. It’s a gentle shift where Apple puts down some building blocks, sits back, and waits to see what people build with it.

Watches for newbies

Iterative updates aren’t bad. They’re just not flashy, and that’s the biggest problem facing the Series 9 and Ultra 2. These are the best smartwatches Apple’s ever made, but while the updates do make the overall experience better, it’s like paying another dollar to add an extra topping to your pizza. For some people, that makes the pizza. For others, it’s nice but really not necessary. And, of course, smartwatches cost hundreds of dollars.

If you have a Series 7 or later, you don’t really need to update. For owners with a Series 5 or earlier, it might be worth it since you’ll get a bigger screen, several new sensors, and a processing bump. Series 6 owners are the ones I see being most on the fence — and to those folks, I mostly encourage upgrades if your battery life isn’t cutting it anymore. For folks with an Ultra, seriously. Cool your jets. You’re getting the Modular Ultra watchface with watchOS 10, and 3,000 nits vs. 2,000 nits doesn’t make a huge difference.

Pink Series 9 on a reflective pink surface.
The Series 9 is a great watch, and pink is an excellent color.
Apple Watch Ultra 2 on a reflecive pink surface
The Ultra 2 is, by and large, the same watch with a 50 percent brighter screen and double-tap.

Otherwise, the biggest case I can make for an upgrade is if you must have double-tap — either because you’ve got minor dexterity issues or think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. If you’re on the fence, I suggest trying AssistiveTouch out for an afternoon to see whether you like the idea of using gestures (understanding, of course, that double-tap has a different purpose within the context of the UI). That said, if you don’t often find yourself tapping your Apple Watch with your nose, this probably isn’t a feature you’d need right away.

But speaking frankly, Apple did not make these watches for folks looking to upgrade. It made them for people who don’t have an Apple Watch already. And it’s still true that the majority of people buying Apple Watches each year are new to the platform. For those folks, these are the latest and greatest. Well, until next year.

Got any lingering questions about double tap, precision finding, Siri, the S9, why they didn’t call this the Ultra Deuce? I’ll be answering your questions live today, September 20th, from 12:30-1:30PM ET! Just post your questions in the comments of this quickpost.