Have you seen the meme about people who dangle too many things on their fingers for no reason whatsoever? I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m one of those. No matter how big of a bag I’m carrying, I always find my hands full, making it difficult to interact with my phone or smartwatch on the go. And I’m not alone there. Which is why voice controlled assistants and hands-free gestures are so appealing.
With the Apple Watch Series 9, the company is introducing a new method of interaction while improving another: Double Tap and Raise to Speak (to Siri). It’s also rolling out on-device Siri processing, which will let you ask the assistant for your health data and to log your daily stats. These are enabled by the new S9 system-in-package (SiP) that powers the device, meaning they likely won’t be available to older models via watchOS 10.
Apple Apple Watch Series 9
- On-device Siri is convenient
- Double Tap is helpful in some situations
- Comprehensive health and fitness tracking
- Product is carbon neutral
- Battery life could be longer
The Series 9 also has a new second-generation ultra wideband (UWB) chip like the one in the iPhone 15 series, which allows for an updated interface when pinging your paired phone. On the outside, the new Apple Watch looks just like its predecessor, but the new gesture alone may be intriguing enough to coax some of you into upgrading this year.
Full disclosure: Due to a series of FedEx mishaps, I wasn’t able to receive a separate sample of the Apple Watch with Double Tap enabled until just yesterday. That means I’ve only spent about a day testing out the new gesture in the real world. To be clear, the feature will not be available on the watches that ship come September 22, and will be activated over the air later in October. Apple sent reviewers supplemental units with Double Tap enabled for our coverage and testing purposes, in addition to the actual devices that will be going to consumers. Not to worry, though, the rest of this review is based on a Series 9 I’ve had since the Apple event last week. It’s only the Double Tap sample that I received late. Still, I already have a better sense for when and how it might be useful.
When both hands, or at least my watch hand, are occupied, Double Tap will obviously not be helpful. You’ll need to at least have your thumb and index finger available to pinch. But when I’m cleaning my apartment, holding a side plank, raising a single dumbbell or reading a book, the gesture does make my life easier. In fact, I love it just for the pleasure of continuing to scroll Reddit on my phone in my right hand without having to put the device down to swipe something away on my left wrist.
The Series 9 is fairly good at recognizing when I’ve pinched twice quickly, but it took me a few attempts to figure out the right cadence. You can’t tap too quickly or too subtly, or it won’t register. I hate when companies tell us we’re doing something wrong, but in this case where we’re learning a new gesture altogether, I’m inclined to put in the work.
Apple uses a combination of data from the accelerometer, gyroscope and optical heart rate monitor to detect movement and blood flow changes. This lets the watch understand the difference between, say, when you’re touching your middle finger versus your pointer. I was able to trigger Double Tap by pretending to snap my thumb and forefinger, and also when striking the side of my digit rather than the pad.
This is also a good time to clarify that Double Tap is quite different from Assistive Touch, which was brought to watchOS in 2021. The latter is an accessibility-minded feature that was already available for years in iOS, and allows those with different mobility needs to interact with the respective operating systems. You’ll have to first go into the settings to enable it on the watch, and then you can use gestures like pinching and clenching to navigate. Clenching twice will activate Assistive Touch,which brings up an outline around items on the screen. Then, pinching will move through individual elements and clenching will act like tapping on them.
Assistive Touch is more complete and nuanced than Double Tap, as it has to help users access all of watchOS. Meanwhile, the new feature is more of a convenience and there’s only one action available. It also does very specific things. You’ll first have to make sure the Series 9 is awake. From the home screen, double tapping pulls up the Smart Stack, and subsequent pinches scrolls through the widgets on that page. You can change the default setting so that follow-up double taps on the Smart Stack enters the top card instead.
Everywhere else in watchOS, the Double Tap will trigger the primary button. Start or pause a timer, snooze your alarm, play your music or reply to messages, for example. Apple’s programmed some of these applications thoughtfully, too. If you’ve used Double Tap to reply to a message, it will bring up the voice typing option so you can dictate your response. That’s a nice touch, considering you’re likely unable to use your other hand to tap out a message if you’re already pinching to react to a notification.
But Double Tap isn’t available in every part of watchOS. When I was looking at the Phone app or my Move rings, for example, the gesture didn’t do anything. A small indicator appeared to show that it did register; It just didn’t map the action to anything on the page. I like the little indicator bubble, by the way, as it goes a long way in helping me learn the gesture.
All that said, it feels like Double Tap might not be as groundbreaking as it may have seemed from the keynote. But it still is a useful tool that will likely reduce my need to lift my wrist and swipe the screen.
A better Siri
Another way Apple is reducing my reliance on the Series 9’s display is through voice control. Specifically, Siri requests on the new watches (including the Ultra 2) will be processed on-device. There are quite a few benefits to this — speed of response being the least significant. I compared the Series 9 and Series 8 side by side and this year’s watch was only marginally faster at responding to my “Hey Siri” requests.
Other advantages of on-device processing are more impactful. The ability to still ask Siri for help when offline or disconnected from my iPhone, for example, was a surprisingly simple upgrade. I left my paired iPhone 15 Pro at home when I went to the gym, and was relieved when I could still tell the assistant to record an outdoor walk when I made my way home (since my hands were full, as usual).
Since your requests no longer leave your watch, Apple is also able to let you ask Siri for your health data. You can ask the assistant how long you slept, how many steps you’ve taken that day, or to log a period and more. Some of this is available now, while others will be available in a software update later this year.
Right now, the responses aren’t great. I asked Siri to tell me how many steps I’d taken or calories I’d burned, and instead of giving me a direct answer, it’d take me to the Move or Exercise ring pages. I asked for my heart rate, and was brought to the Heart Rate app for a reading, which is reasonable. But hopefully, with the software update, I’d get a straightforward answer of how many steps or calories.
Since I can’t test it just yet, I can’t fully evaluate how impactful Siri Health Requests will be, but it’s something I suspect will put Apple ahead of its smartwatch competitors. Being able to edit your stats with just your voice could make it much easier for people to input data, which will ultimately improve the insights you’d get from your watch. No other wearable OS offers this yet, either.
Finally, with the Series 9, Apple is also improving “Raise to Speak,” tweaking its algorithm to better anticipate your "Hey Siri" request before you raise your wrist. It uses the S9 SiP's power efficiency and the always-on mic to capture a rolling 2-second audio buffer that lets the device catch what you were saying before the trigger. This way, it might feel like Siri is faster to respond and hear your request.
In theory, this means you should be able to just bring the watch to your mouth and ask Siri for things. But in my experience, this barely worked half the time. I wish it were more consistent, because, and pardon my hyperbole here, when it did behave as expected, it felt almost magical. I’d lift my wrist and speak into the watch case, and the Siri icon would appear, along with the words I’d just uttered. No more long pressing the Digital Crown or saying “Hey Siri.”
The good news is, even when Raise To Speak doesn’t register, I can still go back to saying “Hey Siri.” It just got really annoying trying to test this feature, because I quickly grew tired from all the repetitive wrist lifting. Look, it’s been arm week at the gym, okay?
UWB precision finding, in use and battery life
One last hardware-related feature on the Series 9 is its second-generation UWB chip, which enables a new interface for locating your paired iPhone. Currently, all you can do is use your Apple Watch to ping your handset and make it ring. With the Series 9 paired to another device with the new UWB chip, not only can you also see exactly how many feet you are from your misplaced device, you can also see what direction it’s in.
I nearly panicked after clearing security at the San Francisco airport, when I thought I had lost the iPhone 15 Pro Max. Thankfully, I had a moment of clarity and used the Series 9 to buzz the phone. I was immensely relieved to hear the ringtone, but also amused when the watch told me I was only a foot and a half away from the handset.
To see the new interface that tells you which direction your missing item is in, you’ll have to be more than five feet away from it. I came home from the gym and used the Series 9 to see where the iPhone was, and the onscreen arcs and distance indicators easily guided me to my couch where I had left it. As I got within five feet, the phone buzzed and rang, which helped in locating it.
I didn’t have a HomePod to test this with, but the Series 9 will also know when you’re within four meters of one, and automatically pull up the Now Playing screen so you can quickly control playback.
If your Series 8 (or older) is a little too dim in sunlight or too bright in your blacked-out bedroom, you might appreciate that the new model’s screen can now get up to 2,000 nits and as low as 1 nit. That’s double the brightness of the Series 8, which I never had trouble reading, so it makes sense that I found the latest model easy to see on a bright day as well.
It’s worth noting, though, that, in a dark room, the low-nit display might be hard for some to read. I was wearing both the Series 8 and 9, and the newer watch was noticeably dimmer, to the point where smaller text with low contrast was almost illegible. If this affects you, the good news is you can still adjust the general device brightness to avoid having the screen going as dim.
There’s not much else drastically different about the Series 9 that you won’t get by updating to watchOS 10. That is, unless you like the new pink color option so much that you’re willing to buy a whole new device just for it (which I would understand, since I love the pink of my review unit). Springing for the latest hardware will get you the S9 SiP, which is supposed to process machine learning tasks up to twice as fast as the last generation while delivering 25 percent more power efficiency.
Honestly, I barely noticed a difference in performance, and battery life felt a little shorter, with the Series 9 needing a charge every evening rather than every night. I’d chalk that up to the fact that the review unit I received is the smaller 41mm size, while the Series 8 I’ve been using is the larger 44mm version, and understandably has a longer-lasting battery. Apple says you’ll still get 18 hours of runtime with the Series 9, and though that’s in line with previous generations, I wish it lasted longer. Samsung and Fitbit’s smartwatches generally clock about two or more days, and it’d be nice to see Apple give us more.
There are a lot of changes coming via watchOS 10, too, but since those will be available to people with older Apple Watches, I won’t cover them here. I also won’t delve into things we’ve already tested, like fitness and sleep tracking or fall detection and emergency SOS. They won’t affect your decision on whether to get the new watch.
One more new thing you can use regardless of the generation of watch you own: FineWoven bands. This is Apple’s replacement for leather, which it declared it will stop selling in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. FineWoven is a suede-like material made from recycled material, and is meant to feel premium. I don’t mind it, and though I prefer the texture of leather, I’m more than happy to give up a nice tactile sensation in the interest of saving our environment.
The fact that the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 are the company’s first carbon neutral products is a significant achievement that’s worth calling out. We have to give Apple credit for making an effort to minimize its adverse impact on the earth, despite all the marketing bluster (and the fact that it ironically outlined its 2030 vision at a launch event for new devices it wants people to buy).
If you’re environmentally conscious, the company’s efforts to be net carbon neutral may affect whether you buy the Apple Watch Series 9 over something from a competitor like Fitbit, for example. But if that’s not a priority for you, then you’re more likely to base your decision over features like Double Tap and Siri, as well as performance and battery life.
The Series 9 is a capable, well-rounded smartwatch that remains the best in the category. Double Tap and on-device Siri alone may be reasons enough to trade in your older Apple Watch (yes, even the Series 8), especially if you hate having to swipe or tap a tiny screen on your wrist.
What intrigues me more is the vision of the future that’s starting to take shape. With gestures like Double Tap and a stronger focus on voice commands, as well as the introduction of the Vision Pro headset earlier this year, it’s clear Apple has a direction in mind for the next few years. I’m curious to see where wearables fit in, and I have a strong suspicion the Series 9 is simply laying the groundwork for a more immersive, hands-free ecosystem to come.
Update, September 20 2023, 2:10pm ET: This review was updated to clarify that while Raise To Speak with Siri has been updated for the Series 9, it is not a brand new feature on the Apple Watch. The Siri portion of this review has also been edited to further clarify what has been updated and how the S9 SiP plays a role.