Review: Apple Watch Ultra

I’m going to start this review of the Apple Watch Ultra in a different manner by starting with the battery life that this watch has.

I got this watch last Wednesday and as part of the setup process, I had to put it on the charger so that it could update to watchOS 9.1 and then transfer my data from my Series 6. Once that was done, it was 7:51 PM and I put it on my wrist for the first time. I went about doing some house work, did a workout for 45 minutes, had dinner and went to bed leaving the watch on for sleep tracking.

I then woke up at 7 AM on Thursday and the battery had a charge level of 89%. I went about my day and got to noon where it was at 72%. By the way, my day was going to the dentist at 8 AM, then working at home for the rest of the day. Though I had to go out once for about 10 minutes where I left my iPhone 14 Pro at home. Meaning the Apple Watch Ultra was on cellular which uses a bit more battery. By 8 PM which was just over 24 hours into this experiment, it had a 57% charge when I checked it during dinner. I then did a 1 hour workout and did some chores. When I went to bed that night at 11:27 PM it had a 50% charge. Again I left it on for sleep tracking.

Friday was a day where I was in and out the house a few times for 10 to 15 minutes at a time without my phone, but otherwise still working from home. In the morning at 7 AM I had a 42% charge. And I posted this on Twitter when I hit hour 37 which exceeded Apple’s claim of 36 hour battery life for the Apple Watch:

By 1:15 PM I was doing to 28%. Then by 6:15 PM when my wife and I went out to dinner after I did a 30 minute workout, I was down to 20%. And by 8:40 PM I was down to 13%. That’s when I ended this battery drain experiment as my wife and I were going hiking the next day to test the GPS functionality as well as the emergency siren. Thus I need the battery to have a full charge for that. But I think you get the point here. Apple says that you’re going to get 36 hours of battery life during “normal use” and I got just under 49 hours. That implies that with my use case, I would have been into the mid to high 50 hour range if I continued the experiment and ran the watch down to zero. This is impressive battery life for an Apple Watch. Key words being “for an Apple Watch.” I say that because there are dedicated sports watches from Garmin and Coros for example that promise weeks or months of battery life. Something that Garmin decided to point out on Twitter when the Apple Watch Ultra was first launched:

While it is true that their smart watch functions aren’t anywhere near as good as what Apple offers, Apple has positioned this watch directly against watches like those. Thus this comparison will be made. And Apple starts that comparison with the unboxing experience.

You get a more compact box with the same opening experience with the pull tabs on each side. Any branding on the front of the box is embossed.

Opening up the box you get a book that details how to put the watch bands on and how to charge it among other things. The mountain graphic on the book reinforces the fact that Apple is marketing this towards people like triathletes, hikers, ultra runners, etc. By the way, this is a lot of paper that Apple is using. For a company that claims to care about the environment, isn’t that a bit wasteful?

The box with the Apple Watch Ultra is underneath the book. We’ll put this aside for a moment.

Your watch band is next and I opted for the orange alpine loop. I normally go for black bands, but Apple doesn’t have a black alpine loop. The other options were the trail loop which looks like a hopped up sport loop, and the ocean loop which is a rubber watch strap designed for divers and people who do watersports. Neither of those appealed to me. Thus I chose this one. We’ll circle back to this band in a bit.

Opening the box with the watch gives you two things. The Apple Watch Ultra on the left, and the charging puck on the right in a package that has the co-ordinates of Apple Park. That’s reinforces Apple’s marketing of this watch towards triathletes, hikers, ultra runners, etc.

Let’s look at the charging puck. It has a braided cable and it’s really upscale. It also has fast charging abilities which we will get back to later.

And here’s the new Apple Watch Ultra which looks like something that was designed to accompany you into the zombie apocalypse. It’s got a flat screen and unlike other Apple Watches, the screen does not flow over the sides of the watch. The screen is made of sapphire crystal which is durable, measures 49mm diagonally and has 2000 nits of brightness which makes it insanely bright outdoors. It’s also a very sharp and detailed display. Text and graphics are extremely readable as well. On the right you can see the enlarged Digital Crown which is covered by a crown guard. The Digital Crown is easy to use with gloves, but the size of the crown can sometimes create a situation where the crown rubs against your skin.

On the right is the crown as well as the side button, along with a microphone between the two. To the right of the Digital Crown is a depth gauge for the diving functions that this watch is capable of, and to the left of the side button is another microphone.

You get a pair of speakers on the left and the new Action Button on the right. You can map the Action Button to do a handful of functions. Specifically these functions:

Third party apps need not apply apparently. Though you could create a shortcut that starts a third party app. But that’s a lot harder than Apple simply giving you the ability to pick any app that you want to start and going from there. Thus I would suggest to Apple that they need to address the ability to use third party apps with the action button in a future software update. Though to be fair, the action button is good for one other thing:

You can also turn on the emergency siren by holding the action button as per the setting at the bottom of this screenshot. More on the siren later in this review.

The bottom of the Apple Watch Ultra is made of ceramic for durability reasons. While I am sure that the screws are functional, they are a bit of a flex by Apple as it makes the watch look more rugged.

My Apple Watch Ultra came with the alpine loop which is a nylon loop with titanium hardware. You get a choice of three sizes and you should ensure that you choose the right size based on your wrist size for best results because if you get it wrong, you will have to exchange the entire watch and strap to get the right size. Once you put it on your wrist and hook it in, it is not coming off your wrist. That makes it the choice to go to if having your Apple Watch stay on your wrist is a concern. It’s also very comfortable and I’ve even slept in it. The only complaint that I have is aimed at MacBook and notebook users. The hook has a tendency to rub against the top case of the MacBook or laptop. And given that the hardware is titanium, it’s going to scratch your MacBook or laptop. The one thing that I should note is that any Apple Watch band for any 45mm, 44mm, or any other larger sized Apple Watch should work with the Apple Watch Ultra. I’ll have more on that in a future article.

Here’s a look at the Apple Watch Ultra on my wrist. It’s big, but it’s not outrageously huge.

I have the Series 6 44mm for comparison purposes. In short, if you are comfortable with a larger sized Apple Watch like a 44mm or 45mm, you can likely wear the Apple Watch Ultra. If however you have a smaller Apple Watch, I don’t think you can rock the Apple Watch Ultra. I put it on my wife’s wrist as she wears a 41mm Series 6 and it was comically huge on her slender wrist. This brings me to the fact that the Apple Watch Ultra only comes in one size which is 49mm, and one colour which is brushed titanium. The size seriously limits who can wear this watch and Apple should have made a smaller size option along with this 49mm version. Apple’s whole idea behind the Apple Watch Ultra is that you can run a marathon one day and then wear the watch the next day to work. But the 49mm size takes that off the table for someone like my wife who wants an Apple Watch Ultra, but can’t make the 49mm size work for her because it is simply too big for her to pair up with office attire. Then there’s the colour. A black option would have been cool as with a watch of this size, having the watch in black would give the watch a bit of a smaller look. Though I get why Apple went this route with having only one colour choice as black would just scratch if you used the Apple Watch Ultra as Apple intends it to be used. Having said all of that it is comfortable to wear and it is lighter than what I was expecting it to be. By that I mean that big watches tend to be heavy watches. And this watch is big, but I don’t notice the weight on my wrist at all. And while I was expecting the size to create an issue for me while wearing it for sleep tracking, I had no issues on that front.

Now while Apple’s marketing focuses on features that for the most part are part of watchOS 9 and are available on any other Apple Watch for the most part, or are shared features between the Ultra and Series 8 (as the guts of the Ultra are basically the guts from a Series 8), there are five features that are exclusive to the Apple Watch Ultra. Let’s start with the emergency siren.

The Apple Watch Ultra has a 86 decibel emergency siren that Apple claims can be heard up to 600 feet away. My wife and I tested that on a hike that we did and the best that we could get before the siren became too faint to hear was 337 feet. Though that was in a very open environment. Perhaps in a forest it would have been better as there would be objects for the sound to bounce off of. But I will say that the the siren sound is going to attract attention as it is clearly designed not to be confused with anything else outdoors.

Next is the dual frequency GPS that comes with the Apple Watch to improve accuracy. Especially in dense environments like cities with tall buildings or dense tree cover. We tested this on our hike by going on the Orchard Trail in the Rouge National Urban park which has a mix of tree cover and open spaces and we noticed two things. The trail is rated at 5.1KM and the Apple Watch Ultra was pretty much on the money with the recording that I got from the hike. However, the recording that my wife’s Series 6 got was 0.07KM or 7 meters longer. Not a significant difference, but a difference none the less. The second thing that we noticed is that her GPS track on her Series 6 was not nearly as smooth as mine. Meaning that it was jagged in a lot of places while mine was smooth in the same places. I am thinking that this is because Apple uses Maps data where it can to smooth things out combined with the accuracy of having two GPS frequencies to work with. More on that in a bit.

Then there’s the fact that the Apple Watch Ultra has three microphones with beam forming capabilities to improve sound quality during phone calls. In short, the microphones are supposed to help the watch filter out background noise so that the person on the other end of the call can hear you. I tested this first in an indoor environment to get a baseline:

Then I tested it in an outdoor urban environment.

I was kind of surprised about how good this was given that this recording was taken with all sorts of background noise like cars and people. I think it’s safe to say that if you take calls on your Apple Watch Ultra “Dick Tracey” style, people on the other end of the call are likely not to have any issue hearing and understanding you. And in terms of hearing them, the two speakers are loud.

Next there’s the fact that the Apple Watch Ultra can be used as a dive computer. Out of the box it comes with the Depth app which turns on automatically when you enter a pool or a lake and measures your current depth as well as the temperature of the water. But if you want more, Apple has apparently partnered with Huish Outdoors to create the Oceanic+ app for Apple Watch Ultra which adds a full function dive computer to the Apple Watch Ultra. Now I tested the Depth app by taking a swim in my condo’s pool. In conversation with the lifeguard who was on duty at the time, I was able to verify the depths that the watch was reporting relative to what he saw in terms of how far down I was in the pool. In short, it was accurate.

Durability is the main calling card of the Apple Watch Ultra. Apple threw out these durability specs when they announced it:

  • 100m of water resistance (twice that of a “normal” Apple Watch). Though for some reason Apple says that it shouldn’t be used below a depth of 40 meters for diving if you read the fine print on the Apple website.
  • Tested to MIL-STD-810H which means that it was tested to see if it would survive in high and low temperatures: rain, wind, humidity, fungus, rust, sand and dust, explosive atmospheres, shock, gunfire vibration and more.
  • IP6X dust resistance. Meaning that no dust gets into the watch enclosure.
  • It’s designed to operate in -20° C to 55° C temperatures.
  • It’s EN13319 certified which is the international standard for dive computers.

Some YouTubers have tested some of these claims and found that while the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t indestructible, it will survive an incredible amount of punishment above and beyond any other Apple Watch. In one case, a YouTuber hit an Apple Watch Ultra with a hammer and his desk broke before the watch did. You can take that for what it is worth. But in the real world, the durability is a factor for me getting this watch. I had three scratches on the screen of my Series 6 with Apple’s tough sounding by rather useless Ion-X Glass. And I was always worried about breaking the watch if I bumped it on a door frame for example, which happens from time to time. I don’t even think about that with the Apple Watch Ultra as it’s built to handle way more than that.

One thing that Apple highlights as an exclusive feature is the Wayfinder watch face:

It gives you a lot of information to have at a glance. In my case, I have customized my complications to have 90% of the information that I need at a glance. The only thing missing is having my next appointment displayed on the watch face. But tapping on the date brings that up so I am okay with that omission. This watch face does have two party tricks:

Tapping on the dial where the hours are brings up a compass that gives you your current co-ordinates, replacing the date with a numeric readout of the direction that you’re going in. Which is handy if you are navigating your way through a hike or something like that.

And if you look under the date you will see the cellular signal strength. That’s handy when you’re out without an iPhone for it to connect to. Speaking of connections, the Apple Watch Ultra supports 5 GHz 802.11n and Bluetooth 5.3 as well as LTE.

One observation that I would like to make is that the Taptic Engine in the Apple Watch Ultra is stronger than any previous Apple Watch I have owned. When I was driving to the dentist and using CarPlay to navigate, every time it used the Apple Watch to alert me of an upcoming turn, I was shocked at how strong it was. There’s two settings for the Taptic Engine on an Apple Watch, which are default and prominent with the latter being stronger than the former. It honestly felt like I was set to prominent but I checked the setting at the dentist’s office and it set to the former. I guess that this would be handy if you want to ensure that you don’t miss some sort of notification.

I’ll highlight two other features that are not exclusive to the Apple Watch Ultra as it is available with the Series 8 as well. Both watches have a new wrist based temperature sensor. That enables insights for women’s health and advanced cycle tracking including retrospective ovulation prediction. As a side note, Apple in their presentation for the new Apple Watch models went way out of their way to say that this data is fully encrypted and not even Apple can see it which is a clear nod to the times that we currently live in. For men and women it records overnight temperature changes which you can see in the Health app. But it takes five days to surface that information in the Health app as it is trying to get a baseline of what is “normal” for you so that you can observe changes over time and use that to decide if you might be sick or not. Which is interesting as the app Athlytic surfaces this info after my first night with the watch. I also should note that there is no ability to do any sort of “on demand” temperature taking as there is no app for that on the Apple Watch. Likely because you don’t measure body temperature at your wrist normally as it would not be as accurate as doing it via your forehead or under your tongue for example.

Car crash detection is the second feature that isn’t unique to the Apple Watch Ultra as the Series 8 and the new Apple Watch SE has that as well. This is where the watch will call emergency services if you get into a car crash and don’t respond. I didn’t test this and I hope that I never need it. But I covered this in a bit more detail in my iPhone 14 Pro review as those phones have a similar feature as well.

The final thing that I will cover is charging. As I mentioned earlier, you get a charing puck that’s USB-C that enables fast charging. That’s important to keep in mind as there’s a version of the charging puck from Apple that doesn’t do fast charging. And not all third party and even first party accessories do fast charging. So keep that in mind when you buy your accessories for this watch.

In any case, Apple says that you can expect it to charge from 0% to 80% in “about” 1 hour. I tested that from 13% and got these results:

  • 13% – 50% : 42 minutes
  • 50% – 75% : 70 minutes
  • 75% – Full : 110 Minutes

My assumption is that in an effort to maximize battery health, Apple throttles back charging speed as you get more of a charge as they’ve done that with iPhones for some time. Thus I will say that this test makes Apple’s claims of 0% to 80% charge in “about” 1 hour plausible as I assume that the charge speed slowed down earlier because I started with a 13% charge. But it also means that you can put the watch on the charger for 30 minutes and get about a day’s worth of charge if you need to. Or more than that if you wait an hour or so.

While I’m on the subject of the battery, let me cover a couple of features to extend battery life more. Something that appeared with watchOS 9 is a low power mode feature that came to every Apple Watch that runs watchOS 9. That turns off the following:

  • Always On display
  • Heart rate notifications for irregular rhythm, high heart rate, and low heart rate
  • Background heart rate measurements
  • Background blood oxygen measurements
  • Start workout reminder

And if you don’t have your iPhone nearby, it turns off these features:

  • Wi-Fi and cellular connections
  • Incoming phone calls and notifications

And these features get affected:

  • Making a phone call can take longer
  • Background app refresh happens less frequently
  • Complications update less frequently
  • Siri can take longer to process a request
  • Some animations and scrolling might appear less smooth

On top of that, you also get a power saving mode that during workouts, the Apple Watch will dial back on heart rate and GPS readings. In the case of the latter, Apple uses mapping data to fill in the gaps which I discovered via my GPS testing earlier. According to Apple that will give you 60 hours of battery life on the Ultra. But from my testing, that’s at the expense of heart rate detail and GPS accuracy if you are not in a location that Apple Maps can work with. I’m likely to never turn on that feature as nothing I do would ever push the battery that hard. Also this feature only works if you use the built in workout app. Which for some of the sports that I do, I don’t use the built in workout app due to the fact that I want metrics that are specific to a sport like cross country skiing.

Now let’s go over to the elephant in the room. The question that I get asked the most is if this is a credible competitor to a Garmin or Coros watch. I would say no because of four reasons:

  • The first is battery life as I discussed earlier.
  • The second is that the Apple Watch Ultra does not natively pair to external sensors using Bluetooth or the ANT+ standard (which the Apple Watch doesn’t have) like Garmin or Coros watches do. The only exception is that a heart rate monitor will pair via Bluetooth with no issues to an Apple Watch Ultra, or any Apple Watch for that matter. Why is the lack of sensor support on the Apple Watch an issue? Triathletes for example will pair their Garmin watches for example to cadence, speed and power sensors on their bikes so that they can keep track of how fast they are going and how much effort they are putting out. Which is important in a race that lasts 8 hours or more if you’re trying to pace yourself so that you don’t blow up mid-race. If Apple is seriously aiming this watch at that crowd, the lack of native support for those sensors is a #fail.
  • Apple’s native Workout app doesn’t do mapping. By that I mean that you can create a map for say a 10K trail running race, download to your watch and follow that route and still see the metrics that interest you like speed and distance for example. This is something that Garmin and Coros watched have been doing since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. But the Apple Watch Ultra does not and is an absolute requirement for it to play in that space with Garmin and Coros.
  • Finally, the Apple Watch has always been amazing at collecting data. However it does a craptastic job of helping you to use that data to guide how you train and how you recover. Again this is something that Garmin and Coros watches have done for years.

In the those last three cases, some third party apps from the Apple App Store do fill in most those gaps which is the main strength that the Apple Watch has over those sports watches. And I will be covering some third party apps that I use to fill in the gaps that matter to me in a future article. But even with all of that, I would say this: Companies like Garmin and Coros do not have anything to worry about when it comes to the Apple Watch Ultra. At least not today. I say that because if Apple gets serious about addressing the above issues, and does so quickly, then Garmin and Coros might have something to worry about in the future. And if the battery life reaches anywhere near the same area as Garmin or Coros, then a lot of their users who have iPhones may ditch those watches for an Apple Watch Ultra. After all, life is better in the Apple ecosystem. Or so Apple would lead you to believe.

Let’s get to the price. The Apple Watch Ultra is $1099 Canadian with your choice of band. It only comes with cellular but you don’t have to activate it if you don’t want to. But to put that price in perspective, a stainless steel Series 8 starts at $899 Canadian which also only comes with cellular. Which means for “only” $200 more, you get a better screen, significantly better battery life, more durability along with some unique features. At that point it starts to look somewhat compelling from as Obi Wan Kenobi would say, a certain point of view.

But here’s the reason question: Should you get one? Let’s face facts. This watch is total overkill for 95% of people out there. And those people would be served just fine by a Series 8 or even an SE. And that includes yours truly. But if you do want the better battery life, or more durability, or you simply want your next Apple Watch to look different than the way Apple Watches have looked for years, then the Apple Watch Ultra is the watch for you. As long as you have the wrist to make it work for you.

UPDATE: A reader asked me for a picture of the Wayfinder watch face in night mode.

You enable and disable night mode by spinning crown until you either enter or exit night mode. Also, I should note that the inner bezel can be configured for elevation/incline as well.

One Response to “Review: Apple Watch Ultra”

  1. […] getting the Apple Watch Ultra I have done a bit of a revamp of my watch band collection to match the vibe of the Ultra. And […]

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