Apple is taking a big risk with the Apple Watch Ultra. That’s not because of the price, which is kind of high, or the design, which is sure to be controversial. Instead, by ditching the usual and long-expected “Pro” name and going with “Ultra,” Apple has given its new wearable a whole bunch of new expectations.
In the world of sports, the word “ultra” is usually linked to “ultra marathons” and “ultra runners.” Ultra marathons are long-distance running races that are over 50 kilometers (km) or more and take many, many hours to finish. A fitness wearable needs to have a long battery life, great fitness features, and a rugged build to be a smartwatch that an ultrarunner might seriously consider taking on training runs and races.
How well does the Apple Watch Ultra work? Not really, as we’ll see as we go through this review. Even though it’s Apple’s toughest and longest-lasting smartwatch to date, which is a good thing, it can’t keep up with the best that the competition can make when it comes to durability.
The Apple Watch Ultra is definitely bigger than the regular Apple Watch, but it’s not huge. Even though I have thin wrists, the 49 x 44mm size fits perfectly. You’d have to have very small wrists for it to look too big. It is 14.4mm thick and stands out from the wrist, so if your shirt cuffs are tight, you might not be able to pull them down over your wrists.
I think it looks pretty good, with its large flat screen with a resolution of 401 x 502 and its slightly bulbous case, but you may not agree. It’s definitely not what you’d call a classic beauty. But, based on the materials used to build it, I’d bet that it will keep its looks over time. The case is made of titanium, the front glass is sapphire crystal, and the back is made of ceramic. It is dust-proof (to IP6X), water-proof (to 100m), and tested to US military standard MIL-STD 810H.
The digital crown is bigger than on the Apple Watch Series 8, and it has deeper grooves that are supposed to make it easier to use with gloves on. It’s still small and hard to use with gloves, and it sometimes got stuck on my wrist bone and wouldn’t move smoothly.
The Action Button is on the left side of the screen. By default, this button opens the Workout app and works as a lap button within that app. But you can also change it and use it to start a very useful new feature called Precision Start. This lets you start your workout exactly when you want to, instead of waiting for a 3-2-1 countdown like on other Apple Watches. This is especially helpful in races where you can’t be sure for sure when you’ll cross the start timing plate.
More unusually, the Watch Ultra is also certified by EN13319 and has an extra depth gauge sensor, so it can be used as a diving computer. Also, the Watch Ultra has a new Depth app that can be set to turn on when the watch is submerged. With the upcoming Oceanic+ app, the Apple Watch Ultra can also be used as a full-fledged dive computer. Still, that’s not a very common feature, especially in the UK.
The improvements to the screen, speakers, and microphone, on the other hand, are things that can be used every day and are a good step forward. Because the screen is bigger, there are six lines of metrics on the main workout screen instead of five on the Watch Series 8. This means you don’t have to switch screens as often when you’re working out. When needed, the screen can be twice as bright as the Watch Series 8, though I can’t say I’ve ever found the Series 8 or even the Series 7 display to be too dim, even on a sunny day with snow in the French Alps.
The Apple Watch does pretty well in terms of how it works. So far, I’ve used it for a few weeks, and the claim that it can last for 36 hours seems to be true. In fact, I would say that it was mostly conservative. Even though I use GPS for about two hours a day and have the Always-On display turned on, I don’t have to charge it for at least two days.
The new WatchOS 9 Low Power mode turns off the Always-On display, turns off other features, and sends notifications once an hour. If you turn it on when you’re prompted to, it can add another half day or so to the battery life. This happens when the battery is at about 10%, but you can turn on Low Power mode whenever you want, and Apple says that doing so on a full charge will give you about 60 hours of use.
Even though that is a big improvement over the regular Series 8, it is still a long way behind most serious endurance sports watches, whose battery life is measured in days or weeks. Even though the Garmin Epix also has an AMOLED display that is always on, it lasts longer. We’ve found that it can be used for three to four days with the screen on all the time and the GPS on. Garmin says that it can be used for up to 16 days if the always-on display is turned off.
Also, the Epix has the shortest battery life of all the endurance-level sports watches made by Garmin. The Garmin Fenix 7, which uses the much more power-efficient MIP (memory in pixel) display technology, can last even longer: up to 18 days in normal use or 22 days if you buy the model with built-in solar charging.
As with most recent Apple Watch releases, the GPS accuracy is great, thanks to the dual-frequency system that kicks in when it needs to. Most of my test runs were in suburban areas, but I also went into fairly dense woods once in a while, and the Apple Watch UItra didn’t miss a beat. When compared to the distance my Stryd Wind pod said I ran over 65 km, it was off by an average of 1.41 %. That’s a little more accurate than the Watch Series 8 (1.54%) and even the Garmin Forerunner 955 (1.98%).
That’s a shame, but it’s not a problem that can’t be solved. After years of testing fitness watches, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to accurately track your heart rate while training, you should buy an ECG chest belt monitor instead. Plus, the heart rate monitor on the Apple Watch Ultra didn’t seem to have any problems when I used it to check my pulse on the spot, find a reliable resting heart rate, or take an ECG reading to check for atrial fibrillation.
All of this is a little sad, but not in a way that can’t be fixed. To make up for the heart rate monitor’s inconsistent performance, it’s nice to see that you get the same new fitness and workout features as all Apple Watches with WatchOS 9. These include the ability to create structured workouts, a variety of new workout screens, heart rate zones, and the ability to track running power. When compared to Stryd’s averages, the second one is surprisingly accurate, only being off by about 2%.
Overall, the Apple Watch Ultra is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the design is great. It’s very tough, looks great, and lasts twice as long as the regular Series 8.
With the new depth gauge and diving features, you can use it for more extreme water sports in addition to running, cycling, going to the gym, and a whole host of other sports. The Action Button, on the other hand, is a godsend for people who worry about the accuracy of distance measurements.
Plus, it has everything that makes an Apple Watch the best smartwatch out there. You can take and make calls, download music and podcasts and listen to them on your AirPods while you work out without having to bring your iPhone with you, and do a lot of other great things.
But it is by no means perfect. Other wearables that are more focused on fitness can give you a longer battery life, a better analysis of your fitness, and more help with your training. The Watch Ultra’s heart rate monitor is also very unreliable, and the price is very, very high.