Apple Watch year in review, 2023: Small hardware changes, big software ones

Double Tap on Apple Watch Ultra 2
(Image credit: Future / Apple)

The Apple Watch had a mixed year in 2023 - pretty much an inverse of 2022. While last year saw an exciting new Apple Watch Ultra line introduced and relatively minor updates to watchOS, this year was much more heavily weighted on the software side.

The latest version, watchOS 10, transforms much of the foundations of the platform that have remained in place since its inception, but both the Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2 feel like relatively minor upgrades that aren’t likely to entice a bunch of users to upgrade.

Still, the Apple Watch feels like it’s prepped for its big update with the Series X/Series 10 next year, with watchOS 10 setting the foundation with an array of updates that make this, on balance, a good year for the platform.

Hardware

Apple Watch Series 9 review

(Image credit: Future)

As mentioned above, there felt like less to get excited about with both the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and the Apple Watch Series 9.

While the mainline series has arguably not seen a significant revision since the Series 5 in many respects, the decision to update the Ultra within 12 months surprised many - myself included.

Yet, if you live in the United States and you're thinking of buying one, we'd recommend buying one now, due to the ongoing ban saga that's currently going on.

This year’s big focus on both models was the new S9 chip, the first truly new System in Package (SiP) in years. That’s allowed for a speed boost of up to 30%, but as a regular Apple Watch user it’s hard to spot any significant improvements in the day-to-day use of the device.

Arguably the bigger result of this spec bump is the new on-device Siri responses, which make it much more useful if you’re lacking signal or not near your phone. Apple’s smart assistant is reported to be a big focus for the company in 2024, so there’s every chance the decision to have requests processed on-device will prove an even shrewder one this time next year.

Siri can also access health data now, which feels like it’s been a long time coming, meaning you can ask about your metrics to save digging through the Health app. It’s a touch that’s flown under the radar a bit, but like the iPad’s new Health app, it’ll make it easier to share pertinent information with loved ones, carers, or medical staff.

Elsewhere, the Ultra 2’s screen now has a max brightness of a very, very bright 3,000 nits, while the Series 9 saw its brightness punched up to the same level as the original Ultra with 2,000 nits, and storage has been doubled to 64GB on each - ideal for runners to take their playlists with them.

Software

Apple Watch Ultra running watchOS 10

(Image credit: Future)

It’s been a long time since we could say it’s been a big year for watchOS, but its tenth version was well worth the wait by overhauling much of the system.

That overhaul does come at the cost of muscle memory, and this writer still occasionally swipes up to open Control Center (it’s now a much better use of the Side Button), but the new home screen and widget system is a triumph.

Smart Stack returns, only much smarter and better able to read user intent while working glances back into watchOS, and having them accessible with a quick swipe is much better than their original implementation.

At this point, it feels like very little of what launched with watchOS 1 in 2015 remains in watchOS 10 here. That’s to Apple’s credit, in a space where the likes of Google, Fitbit, and more also occasionally feel like they’re fumbling to find the right balance between ease of use and lots of features.

For fitness, maps have been improved, notably with trails to help keep you guided in otherwise confusing locations, and cycling metrics can now read from Bluetooth-enabled accessories to add measurements like cadence, power, and estimated functional threshold power.

Fitness Plus also saw improvements with custom plans, and while that’s not necessarily strictly an Apple Watch feature, it’s a nice-to-have bonus if you are invested in the ecosystem.


A homerun for software

Overall, 2023 was a year that showcased the Apple Watch’s maturity. From further refinement, and a pseudo-overhaul, of watchOS, to further tweaking of the hardware lineup, the whole platform has never been in a better place.

watchOS has never felt better to use, and it might just make any fitness-related New Year’s resolutions easier to stick to.

Lloyd Coombes
Contributor

Lloyd Coombes is a freelance writer with a specialism in Apple tech. From his first, hand-me-down iMac, he’s been working with Apple products for over a decade, and while he loves his iPhone and Mac, the iPad will always have his heart for reasons he still can’t quite fathom.

Since moving from blogging to writing professionally, Lloyd’s work can be found at TechRadar, Macworld, TechAdvisor and plenty more.

He’s also the Editor in Chief at GGRecon.com, and on the rare occasion he’s not writing you’ll find him spending time with his son, or working hard at the gym (while wearing an Apple Watch, naturally). You can find him on Twitter @lloydcoombes.