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At Apple Park, this has been the year of the premium product, with the company aggressively pushing customers towards Pro versions of the iPhone and AirPods. The Apple Watch too has got its flagship product, and this time it actually offers some extra features beyond being made out of a costly material.
But the Apple Watch Ultra is a different proposition to the iPhone 14 Pro and AirPods Pro. The Apple Watch Ultra isn’t a straightforward upgrade where you pay more to add only improvements; it’s a niche device that some customers will love, but most absolutely shouldn’t buy.
A big change: Design and comfort
The Ultra is considerably bigger than any previous Apple Watch model. It’s almost twice as heavy as the lightest Series 8 model and weighs 19 percent more than even the heaviest. At 14.4mm it’s roughly 35 percent thicker than the standard 10.7mm chassis of all non-Ultra models from the Series 4 onwards. It’s worth bearing in mind that the Ultra comes in only one physical flavor–49mm titanium–so there’s no option to pick a lighter or more petite edition. The Ultra is always big.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve worn the larger 44mm and 45mm sizes of previous Apple Watches, but I generally didn’t find the extra weight noticeable. Sometimes when I wore the strap slightly loose I could feel the extra momentum as it moved about, but I wasn’t aware of having to work hard to lift my arm up. Your mileage may and probably will vary if you’re used to a smaller model, but Apple has done a good job of hiding the weight.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
I was far more conscious of the thicker chassis. For one thing, it’s more prone to get caught if you wear it under a sleeve, which is mildly annoying when trying to subtly check a notification without attracting the attention of muggers. It can also be distinctly awkward if you sleep, as I do, with your watch arm under the pillow. (I ended up rotating my arm so the watch wasn’t facing downwards, but this wasn’t very comfortable.) Given the long battery life, it’s a shame that for some of us this is a less-than-ideal sleep tracker.
It’s worth pointing out that the Ultra isn’t really designed for suburban use: the makers will have envisioned it strapped over a wet suit, not under a light spring jacket, and the long battery life is designed to last through multiple days of hiking, not for sleep tracking. But I record these observations for anyone who does have Series 8-style usage in mind and is expecting something that’s physically the same. It’s not.
A (slightly) bigger and better screen
Of course, the extra bulk brings benefits. Aside from the larger battery, that chunky design means you also get a bigger screen—although not proportionately larger, because of the heavy-duty metal bezels around the edge. You get roughly 4 percent more display area and 7 percent more pixels than on the 45mm Series 8. (The figures are 31 and 36 percent respectively when compared to the 41mm model.) This means the interface is easier to read and watch faces can include more complications without losing legibility or being too fiddly to tap: I use and recommend the Ultra-exclusive Wayfinder face, which has room for eight complications.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
As well as being bigger, the screen of the Ultra is brighter than those on other Apple Watches. It offers, according to Apple, up to 2000 nits, which is twice what’s offered by the Series 8. While I wasn’t conscious of this upgrade in general testing the difference became obvious when the two devices were placed side by side.
I suspect that my enjoyment of the clarity and legibility of the Ultra’s screen, which I assumed was due to its larger size, has just as much to do with the improved brightness. Once you’ve tried the upgraded screen you won’t want to go back.
The same factors that increase the Ultra’s bulk—the chunky bezels and tough but heavy titanium–contribute to its robustness, which surpasses that of other Apple Watches. On paper at least, this is a device that can stand up to some serious punishment. I’ve not actively tried to damage the Ultra, but I’ve not coddled it either, and after three weeks of testing it hasn’t got a single scratch or blemish anywhere on its body.
It carries the same IP6X dust-resistance rating as the Series 7 and 8 (note that the SE does not have this rating), but it’s further undergone tests for altitude, high and low temperature, temperature shock, immersion, freeze/thaw, shock, and vibration under the MIL-STD 810H military standard. Whereas the Series 8 is rated as water-resistant to 50m, the Ultra goes to 100m, and to the “swimproof” claim made for the Series 8, the Ultra adds an EN13319 certification (the same that’s used for diving accessories), so Apple says it’s fine for recreational diving up to 40 meters. With the caveat that two out of three of the bundled bands are prone to retain water, this is a diving watch with excellent credentials.
If you’re worried about physical damage, the screen is protected from impact by slightly raised edges. The Digital Crown, meanwhile, is shielded within a raised module, which also makes the side button easier to locate when wearing gloves.
Swings and roundabouts: The new button
Talking of buttons, there’s a new one on the opposite side of the Digital Crown. The function triggered by this “Action Button” can be selected from a shortlist of seven options (Workout, Stopwatch, Waypoint, Backtrack, Dive, Torch, and Shortcut), but for several of these, you can further customize which app to use, which workout or shortcut to trigger, and so on.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
The Waypoint, Backtrack and Dive options are where the Action Button will really earn its keep. Since these are single-press actions, pressing the orange button is much quicker than manipulating onscreen menus. Back in suburbia, I used it for starting workouts, which isn’t much of a time-saver over using the Dock to jump quickly to the Workout app. So for me, it’s very much a “nice to have,” not a “must have” feature.
In fact, for some the Action Button may turn out to be more trouble than it’s worth. Multiple times I’ve accidentally triggered a workout via this button, and sometimes not noticed until later. (No harm done, I suppose; it’s not like you’re going to accidentally buy an iPhone or start a FaceTime call with your boss.) Apple Watch owners will be used to the design convention where all the controls are kept to the righthand side of the display, which means you can use the left edge for bracing your thumb. With the Ultra, this bit of muscle memory risks triggering an erroneous action.
This issue has lessened as I’ve grown more used to the Ultra, however, and on the whole, I’m glad that the Action button exists. I suspect, as I discussed in an article last month, that Apple’s original decision to offer just one button was made on the basis of aesthetics rather than usability, and once we’re used to this new design it will prove to be only positive. Now that the hardware is in place Apple can brainstorm different functions that users can bind to the button, and you’ve always got the option to disable it entirely if false positives start to drive you mad.
Battle of the bands
One last thing is worth discussing before we leave behind the physical side of things, and that’s the range of bands that are offered with the Ultra. And my main takeaway here is that there’s no single option that’s as appealing as the classic Sport Band from previous Apple Watches, which is elegant, water-resistant, and reasonably easy to put on and take off.
The Trail Loop is familiar: it’s a plain-looking velcro band that’s much like the Series 8’s Sport Loop, with the addition of a pull tab. This is a popular option for comfort and ease of adjustment, but it’s not especially smart, and it absorbs, retains, and afterward gradually leaks water if you wear it in the shower.
The Alpine Loop, which I’ve been testing, has a similar outdoorsy, hard-wearing look to the Trail Loop, and the same annoying habit of absorbing water. Where the Alpine Loop particularly falls down, however, is on being a massive pain to put on and take off. The clasp is tricky to hook and unhook, while the doubling-back section next to the Ultra’s body is reluctant to pass through the aperture. Tightening or loosening the band with one hand is awkward and slow, and I worry that the hook is liable to fray the fabric loops over prolonged use.
The last option, the silicon-like Ocean Band designed with swimmers and divers in mind, is the only option that’s suitable for liquid immersion. But it’s got a very niche look and a complicated clasping mechanism, and while I haven’t tried it myself, this excellent and thorough review of the three bands puts it in last place.
On the whole, the Alpine Loop has been the least satisfactory element of my Apple Watch Ultra experience, and even with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure which of the other two would have improved matters: probably the Trail Loop is the best of a disappointing bunch, but it’s also, sadly, the least colorful option. On the plus side, the Ultra is compatible with 44mm and 45mm straps so you can simply recycle a Sport Loop from an older device or bite the bullet and buy one–just be aware, as Apple warns, that the larger chassis of the Ultra means some bands will fit slightly differently, and you should try them on before buying if possible.
Specs and features
The Ultra’s feature set is largely the same as that of the Series 8, which means users can get cycle tracking via the new temperature sensor, and Crash Detection. As with the Series 8, I experienced no false positives with Crash Detection, but other users have been less lucky.
The Ultra also has the same processor as the Series 8: the S8, which delivers slick performance without being appreciably faster than the also-fast S7 on the Series 7 or the S6 in the Series 6. It also has the same wireless chip (W3) as the Series 8 and current SE, and the same U1 ultra wideband chip as the former. LTE connectivity is the same, too.
But this being a premium product, the makers have thrown in a few extras you won’t see on other Apple Watches. Instead of a single speaker, you get two; instead of a single mic, you get three. And you can put those speakers to work blaring out an 86-decibel siren if you get lost and/or need assistance. Apple reckons this can be heard 600 feet away.
You should be less likely to get lost in the first place, however, thanks to the improved GPS that’s also included. It’s based on dual frequencies: L1 and L5, as opposed to the L1-only GPS offered on the other current Apple Watch models. Apple claims this will deliver “amazing” accuracy, although the accuracy I’ve experienced with previous watches was already so strong that it was difficult to notice any improvement. Checking through maps from workouts with both the Series 8 and the Ultra, I’m seeing almost exactly the same pattern of frequent nodes closely matching the paths I’ve followed: the occasional drift away from this is a matter of meters and nothing that would cause any serious problems with navigation.
Finally, the Ultra caters to divers and swimmers with a depth gauge, which activates automatically when you submerge, and a water temperature sensor.
Battery life and charging
Since the Ultra is a bigger device than previous Apple Watches, there’s space for a higher-capacity battery. With the perilous exploration market presumably in mind, Apple boasts that it offers up to 36 hours of battery life, twice the standard 18 it has promised for every other model.
Justifying Apple’s optimism, the Ultra passed our battery tests with flying colors. The Series 8, which we tested earlier this month, lasted 32.5 hours; the Ultra managed 72.5, scraping into three-day territory. Very few previous Apple wearables have managed even two.
The Ultra’s battery performance doesn’t just beat the Series 8. It even beats older models from the days when Apple Watches didn’t have to worry about power-draining sleep-tracking duties during the night… such as previous record-holder the Series 2, which lasted 54 hours in our tests.
When you do come to charge the Ultra, however, you should budget for a longer session that is necessary with the Series 8—for understandable reasons, since you’re topping up a larger cell. It’s rated for fast charging, but these things are relative. Whereas the Series 8 reached 43 percent after 30 minutes and 73 percent after the full hour, the Ultra only got to 31 percent and 65 percent, respectively.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Should you buy an Apple Watch Ultra?
The Ultra is a terrific but niche product, and if you fit the niche you should certainly buy one. The key word there is if.
The battery life may not be quite in Garmin’s league, but it’s a major step forward from Apple’s more mainstream wearables and enough to make it a serious proposition for hikers and extreme athletes. The large bright screen is a pleasure to use outdoors, and the rugged design makes you far less worried about smashing it when you do so. The Action button is a pleasing concession for users wearing gloves or other impediments. And there are excellent facilities and physical upgrades to make this a fine diving watch.
Combine these improvements with the existing advantages of buying an Apple Watch—the quiet excellence of watchOS, a solid range of third-party apps, and integration with Apple’s ecosystem—and you have a convincing Garmin killer.
What the Ultra is not, however, is simply a premium edition of the Apple Watch for those with a higher budget. The upgrades and modifications mentioned above carry downsides, and if you don’t plan to dive or sail or hike or spelunk with the Ultra, you’re not getting the benefits to make those downsides worthwhile. You’ll find that it gets caught on your jacket sleeve, is uncomfortable in bed, triggers actions by mistake, and above all costs far more than it should.
If you’re looking for a chunky action watch with good battery life and a strong feature set, this is an excellent and good-value choice. And it’s on that basis that I’m going to give the Apple Watch Ultra 4.5 stars out of 5.