The Apple Watch’s biggest changes usually involve new health-tracking features, like the temperature sensor in last year’s Series 8. But something else happened in 2023. The Apple Watch Series 9’s main new feature had nothing to do with health at all.
Instead, Apple launched a new way to interact with the watch through a gesture called Double Tap, which came to the company’s new watches through a software update on October 25. Just press your index finger and thumb together twice and you’ll be able to dismiss notifications, answer calls and summon your widget stack. The gesture essentially adds an invisible button to your Apple Watch.
At face value, Double Tap might not seem like a monumental change. But when you factor in other additions Apple has made in recent years, like the Apple Watch Ultra’s Action button and WatchOS 10’s widgets, it’s clear the company has rethought what it means to interact with the Apple Watch. The first Apple Watch went on sale more than eight years ago, and in that time Apple has learned a lot about the difference between how a minicomputer that sits on the wrist should behave compared to a larger one that fits in the pocket.
I’ve been using Double Tap since it came to Series 9, and I’m starting to understand the promise behind it. The less you have to rely on touch-based interactions like tapping, typing, and scrolling, the easier it should be to use the Apple Watch’s tiny screen. The version of Double Tap that exists today, however, feels like a starting point. Using it for several days and previewing it in September when I reviewed the Series 9 left me wanting more customization options and other improvements.
Double Tap is not meant to replace primary gestures like tapping the screen, turning the Digital Crown, or dictating Siri commands. Instead, it’s a supplement to those measures, designed for times when it might not be possible to touch or talk to your watch. Maybe you’re walking down the street with a cup of coffee in hand and need to answer an incoming call. Or maybe you’re in the middle of baking and don’t want to trip a timer by touching your Apple Watch with dirty hands after kneading dough.
Double Tap only works on Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2, as it requires the company’s new S9 chip. It processes data from sensors such as the accelerometer, gyroscope and optical heart rate sensor using a machine learning algorithm to detect wrist movements and changes in blood flow, allowing it to see when you squeeze your index finger and thumb together.
You can use Double Tap to pull up your widgets from the home screen and dismiss notifications, but there are a handful of other uses as well:
- Display an incoming text message and trigger a dedicated reply.
- Answer or end a phone call.
- Snooze an alarm.
- Stop, pause or resume a timer.
- End or resume a stopwatch.
- Resume and pause music, audiobooks and podcasts.
- Take a photo with your iPhone in the watch’s camera app.
- Start or stop automatic exercise reminders.
- Open the elevation view in the Compass app.
It is easy to understand how and when Double Tap can be used. My problem though is that I haven’t found myself using it very often. I’ve been thinking about why Double Tap hasn’t become a big part of my daily Apple Watch experience, and it boils down to two answers.
The simplest, most obvious explanation is that I have yet to find myself in many situations that require Double Tap. I’ve largely been working from home this past week, which means I haven’t fumbled with a cup of java on the way to the office or used one hand to grab a subway pole during a commute. None of that is Apple Watch’s fault, but it underscores my point that Double Tap is intended for very specific situations.
The other is that Double Tap just doesn’t feel intuitive yet. Touchscreens have played a major role in our lives for about a decade and a half, meaning we’re conditioned to tap and swipe screens whenever we feel the buzz of an incoming message or see our screens light up. But joining the index finger and thumb? Not so much. It will take time to build a new habit.
That said, I have used Double Tap in some scenarios, mostly to dismiss notifications. When I’m focused on a work-related project and get a reminder to get up or get an Apple News alert on my wrist, Double Tapping has allowed me to quickly dismiss those alerts without breaking my concentration. The idea that you can check a text, come up with a reply and send it without touching the watch once is also significant. This worked well in my experience and didn’t require multiple attempts.
It’s moments like these that make me interested in what Double Tap means for where the Apple Watch is headed. The Apple Watch feels more ambient and intuitive in this scenario, as it doesn’t require me to press a specific button to get the job done. It just knows I want to reply to my new message and sends it when I press my numbers.
But there are also ways that Double Tap can become more useful. First, it doesn’t always respond immediately. I noticed this happened most often with alarms, but there have been times when I’ve performed the gesture multiple times to call my widgets or dismiss a notification as well. For what it’s worth, colleagues who have tested the Series 9 and Ultra 2 have not reported the same problem.
Double Tap only works when the screen is fully awake (not to be confused with the always-on display that shows your watch face even when your wrist is down and the screen is inactive). It’s possible that I did some of my attempts when the screen was technically in sleep mode, but maybe that speaks to how intentional the gesture is. But it’s certainly better than having Double Tap be too sensitive, which can result in accidentally dismissing notifications or accidentally answering phone calls. Even so, it can feel frustrating when Double Tap doesn’t work.
Beyond that, I wish there were more customization options available for Double Tap. You can currently choose whether Double Tap advances the widget stack or selects a widget, and you can choose to use it to play or pause music, or skip a song. These are useful options, but I wish there were others, especially for alarms and timers.
I often set 30-second timers during my workout to make sure I do each stretch long enough. And to avoid injury, I usually repeat these stretches several times. This means I usually hit the repeat button when my 30-second timer runs out, instead of dismissing it. But since you can only dismiss timers with Double Tap, I can’t use the gesture when stretching. I realize this is a very specific and niche circumstance, but it’s a situation I find myself in almost every day. And since the Apple Watch is designed for fitness enthusiasts, that seems like a reasonable use case.
Together, the Double Tap, Action button and widgets represent an attempt to make the Apple Watch more intuitive and easy to interact with. And that is good. While Double Tap isn’t perfect, it’s another sign that Apple isn’t just copying and pasting a shrunken iPhone experience.
Before Apple makes an announcement, it’s almost impossible to know what the tech giant has in store for future products. But I have a feeling the company will focus on new gesture-based interactions even more in the coming years, thanks to its upcoming Vision Pro mixed reality headset.
Right now, the idea of Double Tap and what it means for the direction of the Apple Watch excites me more than actually using it. But I look forward to seeing how Apple refines and develops it.
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