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Apple Watch S9 v Ultra 2: what’s new with the 2023 wearables?

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Apple’s September 2023 event didn’t just cover its four new iPhones, but also brought updates for flagship Apple Watch models.

With the feature sets varying between three models (only two of which are new) and prices ranging from $249 to $799, choosing which one to buy can be a minefield. So let’s examine what’s changed – and what’s not changed – when it comes to the Apple Watch lineup of products.

Understanding the lineup

At its most basic, the intent behind each device is at least easy to grasp. There’s the regular one, Apple Watch Series 9; and the big rugged outdoorsy one, Apple Watch Ultra 2. There’s also the cheap one, last year’s Apple Watch SE, to give customers more choice. There’s a great comparison page on the Apple Store website that breaks down all the technical specs of each model, but we’ve recapped the similarities and differences below for anyone wanting to know more about what’s new this year.

Apple Watch Series 9

The Apple Watch Series 9 is Apple’s latest mainstream smartwatch, and if we’re being brutally honest it’s not all that different to the Series 8. While it might look and even feel the same, however, there are a couple of notable improvements besides its status as Apple’s first carbon neutral product.

S9 SiP improves Siri and dictation

Apple’s new S9 SiP (System in Package – essentially the very small chip that drives everything on the Apple Watch) has 5.6 billion transistors, which is 60% more than the S8. It also includes a GPU that’s 30% faster than before. Its four-core Neural Engine is twice as capable as before.

All of which means that the Apple Watch Series 9 is considerably more powerful than its predecessor. The most obvious beneficiary of this will be Siri, which is now able to process requests locally on the Apple Watch rather than with the help of a nearby iPhone, making them faster and more secure. Additionally, it can now gain access to your health data and answer related queries.

This new S9 chip also makes dictation up to 20 percent more accurate than before. In short, you’ll be talking more to your Apple Watch Series 9, and getting a lot more back in return.

A display that’s both brighter and darker

The Apple Watch Series 9 is following in the footsteps of last year’s original Apple Watch Ultra, and greatly bolstering the display brightness. It’s not up to a maximum of 2000 nits, which is double the brightness of the Apple Watch Series 8. This should make it much more viewable in bright outdoors conditions.

But the Series 9 display has also gotten better in the opposite direction. It can now dips it brightness all the way down to a mere 1 nit, making it much more pleasant (and less anti-social) to use in dark rooms and theatres.

New pinch-tap gesture

Apple has added an intuitive new pinch-tap gesture for one-handed control of your Apple Watch Series 9. A double-tap of your forefinger to your thumb will be picked up by your Series 9, and used to press the primary button in apps. So, you’ll be able answer calls, scroll through widgets, snooze alarms and more without touching your Watch.

This facility actually already exists in some form on Apple Watch, but as an accessibility function. Now it seems Apple is picking that function up and applying it to more general usage.

Same old same old

The Apple Watch Series 9 design is identical to the Series 8, as is the stated battery life of 18 hours.

Pricing and availability

Apple Watch Series 9 pricing starts from $399/£399 for the 41mm Wi-Fi-only aluminum model with a Sport Band or Solo Loop, moving all the way up to $799/£799 for the 45mm cellular stainless steel unit with a Braided Solo Loop. As always, there are an abundance of variations in between. You can order now, with availability set for September 22.

Apple Watch Ultra 2

Last year Apple introduced a whole new form of elite-level, outdoors and extreme sports-focused smartwatch with the Apple Watch Ultra. Now it’s announced the Apple Watch Ultra 2, and it looks very similar indeed, as evidenced by the fact that it received the least air time of all of the products announced on September 12.

Besides the S9 SiP features and the double-tap gesture announced with the Apple Watch Series 9 (see above), here are the main talking points.

Brighter display

One thing you could never accuse the Apple Watch Ultra of having was a dim display. Even so, Apple has cranked the screen brightness up to an eye-scorching 3000 nits. If you’ve been putting off that desert hike until the right Apple Watch product came along, you might be safe to make plans.

Like the Apple Watch Series 9, it can also dip all the way to 1 nit, making it perfect for pitch-black scenarios. What’s more, at such points, Night mode will now activate automatically.

Modular Ultra watch face

Apple took this opportunity to announce a new Modular Ultra watch face, which makes full use of the edge area of the screen to show added dynamic details like altitude, depth or seconds.

Ultra Wideband chip

It tells you something about the incremental nature of the Apple Watch Ultra 2’s improvements that this third an final point also applies to the Apple Watch Series 9. Both watches get a new second-generation Ultra Wideband chip, which opens up a precision finding function on compatible iPhones. Essentially, it’ll show you exactly how far away you are from your phone, and in which direction you should be looking.

It will also know when you’re near your HomePod, opening a Now Playing screen while music is playing, or offering media suggestions when nothing is playing.

Same old same old (again)

Just like the Apple Watch Series 9, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 design is identical to its predecessor. Battery life also remains unchanged, which means 36 hours of normal usage, or 72 hours on low power mode.

Pricing and availability

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 costs $799/£799 for its sole base unit, but with a choice of strap types. You can order now, with availability set for September 22.

Apple Watch SE

One more thing… it might not have been updated along with the Series 9 and Ultra 2, but last year’s Apple Watch SE remains a budget-friendly alternative to the latest models.

Apple Watch SE uses the old-style 40mm and 44mm displays with chunky bezels and no always-on option. It’s not dust resistant like the other models, but it’s waterproof enough to take swimming. There’s no Blood Oxygen or ECG support, but the basic heart rate and cardio tracking remains, as do all the standard sensors. And battery life is comparable to Series 8, though without a fast charge option.

It also uses the same processor as the Series 8 and Ultra 1, meaning its should offer decent performance for years to come. And all that comes at a much lower start price of $249/£249.