Apple Watch Ultra review: an aspirational first attempt
The Apple Watch Ultra is big, a lil’ chunky, and goes hard on features that the average Joe won’t need in their everyday life. And at $799, it’s the most expensive watch in the current Apple Watch lineup (Hermès edition excluded). After a week of testing, I don’t think it’s going to bump Garmin, Polar, or Coros watches for the Ironman, thru-hiker, or deep-sea diving crowds, at least not yet. But it’s legitimately good for weekend warriors and intermediate athletes — and very tempting for folks who aspire to that status and a whole lot of people who just want the biggest, baddest Apple Watch they can get.
Back before Apple announced the Ultra (and we thought it’d be called the “Apple Watch Pro”), I wrote about the features it would need to succeed: better durability and physical controls, improved battery life, and more recovery metrics.
First attempts at new form factors are a mixed bag — promising features with a dash of annoying omissions or kinks that’ll get worked out down the line. This is true of the Ultra, but Apple proved it’s at least done its homework by adding the Action button, beefing up durability including multiband GPS, and improving battery life to the point where you don’t have to charge daily. It falls short for Garmin loyalists, but I do think it’s enough to make a few of them curious.
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I like big screens and I cannot lie
I don’t normally love big smartwatches. I have petite wrists, and anything over 45mm is generally too uncomfortable for all-day wear, looks ridiculous on my arm, and leads to activity tracking inaccuracies. But I’ve found that some watches “wear small” — the Polar Grit X Pro, Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, and Suunto 7 all feel smaller than they look. To my surprise, the 49mm Apple Watch Ultra is one of them.
This is one of those things that’s hard to convey through pictures alone. In photos, the Watch Ultra dwarfs my wrist. In person, it feels smaller than some of the 45mm to 47mm round watches I’ve tested. I was beginning to think I’d been Ultra-pilled, so I bought digital calipers so I could confirm the size for myself. It is, indeed, 49mm tall, 44mm wide, and a little over 14mm thick — over 3mm thicker than the Series 8. The extra thickness isn’t a problem in the summer, but it does get caught on the cuffs of my leather jacket. With the Alpine Loop strap installed, it’s roughly 57mm lug to lug. That is legitimately wider than my wrist, which measures 46mm across. The watch is large, but believe me when I say it somehow doesn’t feel that big in person.
On the one hand, the larger screen is great for readability. I’ve got bad eyesight, and a big screen means I can crank up the font size so it’s easier to read. (Though with a screen this big, nosy friends might be able to read your texts from a decent distance away.) It also makes texting via the wrist so much easier, especially compared to the typo city I’m used to with swipe to type on the 41mm Apple Watch I typically wear. If those are meaningful features for you or if you like the look of an oversized watch, then the Ultra will be right up your alley.
For people with extremely petite wrists (under 130mm around), the Ultra just may not be physically possible — and even some folks with larger wrists don’t want a huge, honking watch.
My issue with big smartwatches has always been comfort. Many are simply too heavy for me, so when I got a demo of the Ultra after Apple’s launch event, I was pleasantly surprised by how light it felt for its size. Now that I’ve worn it for a full week, it’s solidified my theory that a 49mm rectangular watch wears like a 50–51mm round watch. Thanks to its titanium body, it weighs 61.3 grams without the strap, which isn’t too far off from the 61g of the 51mm Fenix 7X. I do notice the weight when I’m running compared to the Series 8, but like the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, it’s not egregious, and the lighter than expected weight helps offset the big dimensions.
Specced out for performance
The Series 8 is a great watch. It’s fast enough and durable enough for almost everyone. The Ultra says, “Hold my beer.”
Like the Series 8, the Ultra has an S8 chip, new temperature sensors, the new high-g accelerometer, and an improved gyroscope for Crash Detection. The Ultra takes it a step further by adding a water temperature sensor for swimmers and divers and cranks the maximum brightness of the always-on display up to 2,000 nits for better visibility in direct sunlight. It’s got a three-microphone array for better voice call quality in the elements and a second speaker that can sound off an emergency siren and increases the volume of phone calls and Siri responses.
It won’t replace a dive watch for serious divers, but the Ultra has WR100 water resistance and EN13319 certification so you can go scuba diving (down to an Apple-recommended 40 meters) and partake in high-speed water sports. The battery is also 76 percent larger than the 45mm Series 8’s, with an estimated 36 hours of normal usage on a single charge. You can push that to 60 hours with low-power battery settings. Lastly, Apple also added multiband GPS for better accuracy in challenging environments.
Several design tweaks make the Ultra visually distinct from the Series 8 and SE. The digital crown is larger, with deeper grooves that make it easier to turn midworkout and a raised guard to prevent accidental presses. It’s also got an additional physical control in the form of the customizable Action button. Like the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, the Ultra has a raised lip to protect the screen — though it’s much shallower than the Samsung’s. Unlike every other Apple Watch, the Ultra’s face screen is completely flat, making it less likely to get dinged if you smack it against something. (It also makes the Ultra really look like a mini iPhone on your wrist.)
The first Apple Watch with multiday battery (if two is “multi”)
Apple has always been conservative with battery life estimates for the Watch, sticking with a claimed 18 hours of battery life for the past few years — even if you’re likely to get a bit more in practice. The Ultra’s 36-hour battery estimate is also a bit conservative; if you’re not partaking in a triathlon, you’re likely going to get closer to 48 hours. And that’s without low-power mode enabled.
Here are some real-life examples, all without low-power mode turned on:
- This past weekend, I charged the Ultra to 100 percent. I then hiked for two hours and 15 minutes, used the compass and GPS extensively, and tracked my sleep that night. I woke up the next morning with 50 percent battery left.
- Another day, I went for a 30-minute GPS run and did another 20-minute rowing workout. I also took a short call on the watch and ended the day with 84 percent battery.
- Nilay, our editor-in-chief, managed to get 56 hours on a single charge and still had 14 percent left. He was mostly staying at home, so he wasn’t using cellular data or GPS. Still, that should give you an idea of what you’d get if you need a few rest days or aren’t interested in the Ultra’s fitness features.
It’s still only been a week, but I’ve been regularly blowing past the 36-hour estimate. And with its fast charging ability, the Ultra is definitely the best Apple Watch for sleep tracking. I never felt like I needed to turn on the low-power mode with my daily training schedule.
Low-power mode turns off the always-on display and background health sensors and limits Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, pausing most push notifications. Heart rate and GPS remain on. Apple says that using this mode, you should be able to get through a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a full 26.2-mile marathon in one go — an Ironman triathlon. The Ironman takes roughly 14 hours, depending on your individual speed, so that’s around what you can expect. There’s also an additional battery optimization setting coming later this year that will extend battery savings even further.
Not every endurance athlete will need the Ultra’s battery life. I ran a half-marathon with a Series 7 and still had 50 percent battery left, with no battery-saving options enabled. If you run around a five-hour marathon, the regular Series 8 will be just fine. The Ultra’s longer battery life is more of a neat perk if you want to sleep track or participate in long events.
The Ultra will handle a weekend trip, but it’s not going to outlast a Garmin or Polar if you want to go on a weeklong backpacking trip. Of course, you don’t need to justify wanting better battery life. It’s simply something to factor in when you’re deciding which watch to get.
Every Apple Watch should have the Action button
The Action button — a large physical button on the opposite side of the digital crown — is a much-needed addition. Physical buttons are simply more reliable when you want to flip through workout views midexercise. They’re also immune to sweaty fingers and gloves. It not only improves accessibility but it’s also programmable. Apple should put it on every Apple Watch, not just the Ultra.
You’ll be prompted to program the Action button during setup, though you can also do it from the Settings menu. (Here’s how to do it.) Your options are Workout, Stopwatch, Waypoint, Backtrack, Dive, Flashlight, and Shortcuts. Depending on which one you select, you’ll either open up the associated app or see a list of gestures. For example, if you set it to Workout, you can decide whether a single press will open the Workout app or enable the Precision Start feature. The latter will launch right into the workout of your choice without the traditional 3-2-1 countdown. There are also secondary actions once you’re within an app. Triathletes can also use the Action button to manually switch from one leg of the race to the next, while runners can use it to mark segments. Holding the Action button for five seconds will also trigger the siren.
But one thing I really love is how it gives you a more intuitive way to pause workouts using physical controls. On other Apple Watches, you can pause by pressing the digital crown and side button at the same time. Depending on how you orient the watch, it may not be comfortable (e.g., wearing it on your right wrist with the crown and side button on the right.) Now that the Action button is here, you can just press any two of these three buttons to pause. It’s subtle, but it ensures that you can easily pause regardless of which way you’ve oriented the watch.
Apple should add the Action button to the Series 9, too
While the majority of Action button shortcuts are fitness-related, you can also set it to trigger a Shortcut, which opens up a lot of possibilities. For instance, you could alert attendees at your next meeting that you’re running late — though if you need a dedicated button for that, you might have larger time management issues — or queue up a top 25 playlist. You can also pick the “what’s a shortcut?” action, which gives you a better idea of what the Action button could do. Right now, your choices are limited, and Shortcuts are clunky to program — but if you’ve got the willpower to tinker with this, more power to you.
This is the first iteration of the Action button, and I can see Apple and developers getting creative with it down the line. (Psst, I’d love to see it start timers.) I get why the Action button is getting its debut on the Ultra, but Apple should add it to the Series 9, too.
Sirens, compasses, and multiband GPS — oh my!
The siren is another Ultra exclusive that’s meant to draw attention if you find yourself injured or lost. For that to work, it has to be pretty dang loud. Apple says it’s 86db and has a range of up to 600 feet, but it might seem quieter or louder in practice. It starts off low before gradually increasing in volume. It also alternates between two sound patterns that mimic distress and SOS signals. It was blisteringly loud indoors, but my experience varied when outdoors. In a hilly park, a colleague mistook it for a bird — though the Canadian geese nearby were wholly unperturbed by the sound. Another time, I was hiking in a fairly open area with my friends off in the distance. According to them, it was “freaking loud.”
I only used the siren for a short time because I didn’t want strangers to think I was in real distress. However, if you’ve got a lot of battery left, the siren can last hours — which is great if you’re injured in a remote area. You’ll also see your battery percentage on the screen. I also think it’d be useful in everyday life. It might be a placebo, but I feel safer running in my neighborhood knowing I can draw attention to myself if I need help. I hope to see other companies copy this idea on future smartwatches.
Meanwhile, the new compass features in watchOS 9 upgrade the hiking experience on the Ultra (as well as the Series 6, both SE generations, Series 7, and Series 8). I tested the Waypoints and Backtrack feature on a two-hour hike in the mountains where I barely had any cell signal. Waypoints are virtual markers you can drop at your current location as you see fit. For example, I dropped Waypoints in the area where we parked, the state park visitor center, and several restrooms, and the Compass app showed the distance and direction back to each. This came in clutch when my friends and I couldn’t load Google Maps to save our lives.
I mostly didn’t need Backtrack — which helps you retrace your exact route — but I was happy to have it when we briefly got lost. One of the gates we’d passed through closed early, meaning we had to find another path to our destination. The signs on this particular trail were small and not that visible, and for a hot second, we were flustered. In this instance, I was relieved that a combination of Waypoints and our Backtrack path helped us know we were on the right track while figuring out an alternate route. At no point were we in any danger, but it took a load off knowing we didn’t have to rely on a single bar of intermittent LTE to help us out.
Another neat feature: if the Ultra detects you’re no longer in a Wi-Fi-rich area, it’ll automatically start the Backtrack feature in the background in case you need it. It’s similar to how the Apple Watch’s auto-detect workout feature will record walks or runs for 10 minutes before prompting you to start a workout.
While we’re on the subject of GPS-powered features, multiband GPS using both L1 and L5 frequencies is a big deal. Consumer GPS devices use the L1 frequency, but a handful of other rugged smartwatches like the Ultra, Coros Vertix 2, and the Garmin Fenix 7 lineup have also added the L5 frequency. There’s some neat science behind it, but the bottom line is that you’ll get better GPS accuracy in challenging environments like cities or in dense tree cover. One difference with the Ultra is that you don’t have to select multiband GPS in the settings. It just always uses it.
On some of my running routes, I have to trek up four flights of stairs in order to cross a bridge. This usually leads to some hilarious GPS maps due to all the interference. While I dig these routes, I’m occasionally discouraged from running them because I know it’s going to mess up my overall distance tracking. Multiband GPS on the Ultra didn’t completely fix this, but it’s a lot more accurate, as you can see in my screenshots.
Not a dive watch, but you can swim with it
As for swimming, I must confess: I am no Katie Ledecky. I’m great at destroying kids in water gun fights, but my swimming for exercise days ended after high school. We’ll eventually get my colleague Thomas Ricker’s take on the Ultra’s ability to handle water sports, but for now, you’ll have to settle for my experiences splish-splashing in my local pool.
Apple says the Ultra can handle swimming and scuba diving at depths of up to 40 meters, and it includes a new Depth app that can track various diving-related metrics like depth, water temperature, and time under water. To start it, you need to fully submerge the Ultra. My local pool is pretty shallow at 4 foot 9 inches, which the Ultra was able to confirm. When I resurfaced, I could see it reporting in real time and correctly identified zero feet when I was standing in the shallow end or leaning over the pool edge.
Apple is also working with Huish Outdoors to release the Oceanic Plus app later this fall. The accuracy will be the same as with the native depth app, but in addition to the current depth, water temperature, and time, the Oceanic Plus app will include decompression limits and other safety guidance for divers. Basically, it’ll function as a wrist-worn dive computer.
watchOS 9 and a wish list for the Ultra 2
The Ultra has the same health and fitness software as the Series 8, and you can read more about temperature tracking, Crash Detection, new running metrics, and workout views in that review. The main thing that watchOS 9 adds for the Ultra is an exclusive Wayfinder watchface. I like it. The face makes it easy to drop Waypoints, and if you scroll the digital crown, everything will turn red for better readability at night. New York City has a lot of light pollution, so I didn’t get to test the night mode in a pitch-black setting. But it looked cool when I turned off the lights and sat in my dark closet.
But while the Ultra went beyond my expectations in many areas, there are still a few things it needs to improve to really compete.
For starters, recovery metrics are still almost nonexistent on the Apple Watch platform. While Garmin has Body Battery and Polar lets you view your training load, Apple doesn’t contextualize recovery for you outside of sleep consistency — even though it tracks the relevant metrics like heart rate variability. Rest and recovery are vital to any serious athlete’s training, and that’s reflected in fitness-focused wearables. Whoop 4.0 and the Oura Ring are beloved by professional athletes precisely because they give insight into how much physical strain you can take on. Even Fitbit’s gotten on the readiness train with its Daily Readiness Score. Meanwhile, Apple continues to push you to do more and maintain streaks. There’s no way to hit a pause button if you’re sick or injured.
Apple doesn’t contextualize recovery for you outside of sleep consistency
Another thing is satellite connectivity. While this is something Apple added to the iPhone 14, it’s absent from the Ultra. That’s likely due to size limitations — there’s a reason satellite phones are gigantic. But if Apple can shrink a satellite radio to fit in a slim iPhone, there’s reason to believe this might eventually make its way to the Ultra. If so, that would be an incredible safety feature for adventurers that would eliminate the need to carry a bulky InReach device or a satellite phone.
Lastly, the Ultra 2 would benefit from expanded navigation features. Don’t get me wrong — the redesigned Compass app and Backtrack are great. But it’s not the same thing as an offline topographical map or turn-by-turn navigation. Those are popular with trail runners and hikers for a reason.
A sportier Apple Watch, not a Garmin replacement
While the Apple Watch Ultra is a great first attempt at a rugged smartwatch, it’s a sporty Apple Watch. It’s much better at being a smartwatch than any of the multisport fitness watches, but it won’t replace a multisport fitness watch for serious athletes, at least not yet.
Rugged multisport watches will get you more in-depth training metrics and programs. watchOS 9 added heart rate zones and elevation, among other things, but Garmin lets you see your stamina deplete in real time. Fitness watches have much better mapping features, including offline topographical maps and turn-by-turn trail navigation. The Ultra does have Backtrack, but not the rest — though third-party apps may emerge that help close the gap. Battery life on these watches is also measured in weeks and months, not days. As for screen brightness, the Ultra is bright and better in indoor settings — but it’s hard to beat transflective displays when the sun’s beating down on you.
The Ultra, however, runs circles around fitness watches in terms of connectivity and simplicity. Notifications are better, the UI is more intuitive, and if you don’t have your phone, it doesn’t hobble the Ultra’s safety features. If you’re worried about nasty falls or crashes or want a siren for help, the Ultra condenses all of this into a single device. And let’s not forget music streaming. Working out to tunes is easier on the Ultra, and you have many more options thanks to a better third-party app ecosystem. You can also stream over cellular, while other rugged watches rely on offline playlists. When you’re not on the trails, you can also use the Ultra to control your smart home or do anything else you can do on an Apple Watch.
The Ultra is reasonably priced for this category, and it’s available starting today at Apple’s online and retail stores, as well as third-party retailers. It’s expensive at $799 but not when you’re comparing it to the Garmin Fenix 7 lineup, which starts at $699. The Garmin Epix 2 has an OLED screen, seven-day battery life, and starts at $899. That said, Garmin, Polar, and Coros also have more affordable options in the $400 to $600 range that can play ball with the Ultra on the fitness front. One thing the Ultra has that these don’t? Cellular. You have to pay an extra fee with your carrier to activate it, but every Ultra model has cellular capability.
Which platform you choose is a matter of priorities. The Ultra is the better bet if you want a watch that’s as excellent indoors in everyday life as it is outdoors. But if you don’t care as much about smart features or battery life is your No. 1 must-have, stick with your Garmin (or Polar or Coros.) If you want every conceivable chart, map, and graph under the sun, the Ultra isn’t going to scratch that itch.
While Apple is going to sell a ton of these to weekend warriors, tech dads, and aspiring non-couch potatoes, I’d argue the Ultra is best for athletes hovering at the cusp between intermediate and advanced levels. The battery life is best for weekend excursions, and the simpler UI and metrics are preferable if you’ve yet to crave overly complex charts. Hardcore athletes or explorers are more likely to want extra features they’re used to that the Ultra doesn’t have. (Yet.)
All in all, the Ultra is one of the best debuts in a new product category that I’ve seen in a while. A lot of thought was put into the Ultra, and it shows. It’s not enough to make Garmin shake in its boots just yet, but it’s more than enough to pique interest and spark competition. Apple’s officially a viable contender in the rugged watch category — and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Correction, September 22, 9:30AM ET: A previous version of the article referred to the Oceanic Plus app as Ocean Plus. We regret the error.
Update, September 23, 9:38AM ET: Updated to include availability info, and link to a How-to for programming the Action button.
Agree to Continue: Apple Watch Ultra
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
You can only use the Apple Watch Ultra with an iPhone. That means you’ll have already agreed to the iPhone’s terms of service and privacy agreements. Using optional services, like Apple Pay, Apple Music, or Fitness Plus, with your Ultra will also come with their own agreements. Using the Health app also comes with its own terms and conditions.
If you choose to enable cellular service, you’ll also have to agree to your carrier’s terms. I activated cellular on T-Mobile and was asked to agree to one mandatory agreement. If you download the Huish Oceanic Plus app, that will require more optional agreements.
If you add any third-party apps or integrations, you must also agree to those individual terms and privacy policies.
Specific to the Apple Watch, you must agree to the following:
Some features, like EKG, may also require you to disclose your location data, as it depends on local regulatory clearances.
Final tally: one mandatory agreement plus any mandatory agreements for your iPhone. Several, several optional agreements.