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Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Series 9 first impressions: Double Tap is accurate but tricky

The new gesture could be very useful, but it can also be fooled.

Photo by Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Not much was leaked about the Apple Watch Series 9 and Ultra 2 ahead of the company's launch event today, and it might be because most of the changes weren't easily photographed. One of the biggest updates to the company's flagship smartwatches is the S9 SiP (system-in-package), which promises better animations, on-device Siri processing, as well as a whole new gesture called Double Tap. The latter allows you to make a pinch gesture twice in mid-air and use it to do things like answer calls, pause music, dismiss alarms and more.

There's also a new material called FineWoven that's meant to replace leather, and features in some new straps and accessories. While most of the other changes this year, like brighter displays and greater use of recycled material, are less exciting, I found myself very intrigued by Double Tap.

This isn't Apple's first attempt at gestures that minimize having to tap a smartwatch screen, by the way. It introduced Assistive Touch in 2021 to allow people who may not have full use of their fingers or have other mobility issues to clench their fists (and perform other actions) to navigate watchOS.

Based on my experience with both so far, Double Tap feels like a more refined approach. I put on a demo unit of the Watch Ultra 2, and pinched quickly in mid-air. By default, doing so from the home screen brings up the Smart Stack, and continuing to double tap will scroll through individual cards. You can also tweak it so that the subsequent pinches will launch the top card of your Smart Stack.

For the most part, the Watch Ultra 2 recognized all my pinches, and wasn't tricked by me clenching other fingers together. It also wasn't fazed when I touched my thumb to my knuckles, only reacting when I quickly brought thumb to index finger pad.

Apple uses the same mechanism that's looking for blood flow anomalies to recognize when you're pinching, by tapping the optical heart rate sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope. It's surprisingly accurate, but didn't always detect when I put my thumb to my pointer finger. You'll have to be quite deliberate when doing it, but I imagine over time users will learn the right way to double tap.

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 with an orange strap, hanging on a stand. Its screen shows the new modular ultra face in night mode, with red wording and graphics.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 with an orange strap, hanging on a stand. Its screen shows the new modular ultra face in night mode, with red wording and graphics.

As someone who hates getting dirt or smudges all over my devices, I love the idea of this gesture for when I'm cooking or cleaning. It could also come in handy if you've forgotten to start a workout when you're out on a run, and the watch prompts you to launch one after it auto detects your activity.

Double tap is arguably the most interesting new feature, and also the easiest one to check out at this hands-on space. From my limited time so far, I can't tell you whether the Watch Ultra 2's new display, which can get as bright as 3,000 nits, is truly more readable on a hike, for example. Nor did I get to see how much faster on-device Siri is or ask the assistant for my health queries.

I do like that the new Modular Ultra face manages to squeeze in so much info at once. With this new layout, Apple's making full use of the space, expanding content all the way to the extreme edges of the screen — so much so that it's even saying you can find information about elevation or depth in the bottom bezel. (It's not actually in the bezel, since bezels aren't screens and are not capable of displaying anything.)

The new Watches will also activate Night Mode automatically when the ambient light sensor detects it's too dark. I especially appreciate that the Ultra 2 can go down to one nit so those who are particularly bothered by bright screens can be exposed to as little as possible while still reading their watch displays.

As mentioned earlier, as part of Apple's goal to be net carbon neutral by 2030 the company has stopped selling leather bands and accessories and in place of that material, it's developed FineWoven. I tried putting on a FineWoven magnetic loop, and it felt... normal. That's a good thing, since FineWoven is made from recycled materials and yet manages to have a suede-like feel.

While the Series 9 and Watch Ultra 2 may not seem like massive upgrades at first glance, I have a feeling that features enabled by the S9 SiP, like Siri on-device and Double Tap will make for a meaningful change in the long run. But I will only be able to know for sure after spending more time with a unit out in the real world, so make sure to stay tuned for our detailed review.

Follow all of the news live from Apple's 'Wonderlust' event right here.

Update, September 20 2023, 2:33PM ET: Read our full review of the Apple Watch Series 9, which is now live on Engadget.