However under the surface – and on the surface, in fact – there is a pretty compelling series of upgrades and updates that make it a bigger improvement than we were expecting.
Is it enough to make the average owner of an Apple Watch Series 8 throw their pricey timepiece in the microwave and use it as an excuse to buy the new best Apple Watch? Perhaps not, but a few of these changes could, over the next few months, subtly and irrevocably change how we interact with and use our smartwatches.
Oh, and if you do decide to upgrade, do the sensible thing and trade-in or sell your Watch Series 8 rather than microwaving the thing. It would really ruin Apple's whole lengthy spiel about carbon neutrality (see #8).
If you're looking for a more rugged and outdoorsy wearable from Apple, it's also unveiled the new Apple Watch Ultra 2.
1. Brightness to match Apple Watch Ultra
The Apple Watch Series 9 screen doesn’t get any bigger or sharper this year, but peak brightness does leap up to the same level as the first-gen Apple Watch Ultra.
It can hit peaks of 2,000 nits, which is roughly double that of many high-end smartphones. The Apple Watch Series 8 was rated at 1,000 nits too. To be perfectly honest, we find 1,000 nits clear enough for outdoors fitness use on a bright and sunny day. But a higher brightness ceiling? We’re up for that, it'll look even clearer.
Our test nerd brain wonders whether the Watch Series 8 screen was technically capable of 2,000-nit brightness all along. But perhaps we’ll never know.
2. New movie-friendly low brightness
If we sound a little unconvinced by the new 2,000-nit max brightness of the Apple Watch Series 9, we have no such doubts about its new 1-nit brightness minimum.
This is something that will sure come in handy when you head into a movie theater or anywhere like that. Smartwatches can be intensely annoying for other patrons, shining out like torches even when just displaying a basic watch face. No longer, fingers crossed, with the Apple Watch Series 9.
3. Upgraded gesture control
The Apple Watch has used gestures since the series began. You know when you raise your wrist up to your face, and the screen lights up? That’s technically gesture control. However, most of this gestural stuff has been semi-invisible, until now.
Apple’s Watch Series 9 supports control via a 'Double Tap' thumb and index finger gesture. You bring the two together in fairly quick succession, the watch can recognize it and set off a command. In the music app, this is used as play/pause. It can accept a call, and end that same call once you’re in it. The finger gesture can snooze alarms, which is perhaps the most dangerous use of the lot.
“We think you’ll use this all time,” says Apple.
This feature relies on the Apple Watch Series 9’s new processor. And it recognizes the gesture using a combo of the accelerometer, the gyroscope and the way this pinch movement affects your blood flow, which can be witnessed by the optical heart-rate hardware.
4. New Apple S9 chipset
Apple has finally given the Watch Series 9 a truly new processor. It says it has 60% more transistors than the last model’s, a 30% faster graphics section, and double the machine learning power – which factors into the gesture control above, as well as Siri, below.
It’s the “most powerful watch chip yet” according to Apple, and is also used in the Watch Ultra 2. While these figures sound like the sort of thing you hear at every tech launch, the Apple Watch is a little different. Apple tends to give its watch processors a new name each year, but the Apple Watch Series 6, Series 7 and Series 8 chipsets were basically the same in performance terms, with new other features added, so it gave them a new name. This is the first real power upgrade in years.
5. Phone-free Siri commands
The increased power of the Apple Watch Series 9 isn’t, for now, going to be used to run fancy new 3D games on your wrist. One of the key uses is in enabling interactions with Siri that do not require any internet access or phone connection at all.
Obviously, you are not going to be able to ask Siri to tell you sports scores, internet-free. Examples Apple has used include things like asking Siri to start a workout. This is because the Apple Watch Series 9 has enough power to reliably recognize such commands using its own machine-learning power.
6. Apple U2 wireless chip
As well as a new Apple S9 primary chipset, the Watch Series 9 has an upgraded Apple U2 chipset. The Apple Watch Series 8 had an Apple U1. Good news: it has nothing to do with Bono, or albums being added to your phone regardless of whether you want them.
This is the chip that enables the high-fidelity “Find My” experience with recent Apple devices. Not used it? Rather than just setting off a bleating alarm, Apple U1 devices let you see the direction the lost item is in, and how many feet away it is.
But what’s new about the Apple U2? It has three times the range of the older generation, which will presumably let you see higher-fidelity Find My info from further away. Just follow the arrows to your misplaced iPhone.
7. Auto-interaction with HomePod
The HomePod mini and HomePod 2 exemplify one additional way the Apple U2 chip can be used, other than just for finding your stuff. When you approach your HomePod, music suggestions will be placed at the top of your Apple Watch Series 9’s Smart Stack.
This is the pile of widgets you’ll see when you use the crown to navigate down below the watch face. Neat, right?
It's possible that feature will come to Watch Series 8 as a normal feature of watchOS 10, though. After all, the HomePod mini has an Apple U1 chipset, not an Apple U2, but we'll see.
8. New straps (and no leather)
Is this one an upgrade? That’s up for debate. Apple has ditched leather for its straps going forwards, citing the lower carbon footprint of other fabrics.
The leather strap will be replaced by a new design called FineWoven. This tightly-knit fabric is not a leather impersonation, which is probably a good thing as the top-most layers of synthetic leather tend to flake off after some wear. Apple talked more about a suede effect.
For maximum smug points, though you’ll want to pair an aluminum Watch Series 9 with a Sport Loop, which apparently will be Apple’s first “carbon neutral” product in combination.
9. Fresh pink flavour
2023 is the year of Barbie, so it makes sense Apple would put out a pink Apple Watch this year.
In classic Apple fashion, though, this is not the hot pink of some Barbie leggings. It’s a far more muted and sensible color, a sort of pastel pink. And, yes we’re boring, we’re kinda glad it’s not a vibrant, violent pink.
This new shade is available in the aluminum version of the Apple Watch Series 9, not the stainless steel version.