- Vivid display
- Improved features for runners
- Better battery life
- Some actual personality
- Battery doesn't beat the competition
- Protruding case edge is a bit ugly
- No native mapping features
When Apple unveiled the latest additions to its smartwatch lineup in early September, it was the Ultra that stole the show.
At its core, this is still very much an Apple Watch. The difference, however, is that it's one built for athletes, explorers and watersports enthusiasts.
And while the standard Apple Watch models (the Apple Watch Series 8 and Watch SE) could already cater to those types of users in features, the Ultra represents the first time we've seen the design to match.
Apple says the Ultra can comfortably cover a marathon, dive into watery depths, and help users navigate the wilderness. There's also a more rugged design, more buttons, and the biggest battery life ever offered in an Apple Watch.
Over the last couple of weeks, we've been putting the Ultra through the wringer, with plenty of running, swimming, hiking and daily use testing, to find out exactly who it's for, and how it performs.
We think Apple has successfully produced a high-performing statement smartwatch that fits the outdoorsy lifestyle, but this first-gen model also isn't without its flaws. Let's explore the key points.
Compared: Apple Watch Series 8 vs Watch Ultra
Design and comfort
The Apple Watch Ultra is big - considerably bigger than any other Apple Watch that's been launched before. The larger design does take some getting used to, as well, especially as previous case sizes feel dainty in comparison.
Unlike the 41mm and 45mm case options of the Series devices, this is a 49mm one, with a bigger screen, a tougher design, and a bigger battery. To put that into some sort of context, the Garmin Fenix 7 measures in with a 47mm case, and the Fenix 7X has a 51mm case.
It's big and brash. Unlike the Apple Watch, it doesn't try to be all things to all men and women – and finally, this feels like an Apple Watch with some personality. It's unashamedly masculine and channels huge Casio G-SHOCK energy as an obvious aspirational, lifestyle statement.
It doesn't look like your typical outdoor watch, though, and instead retains the feel of the Apple Watch.
The titanium build also ensures you don't feel like you're wearing a heavy watch, as you might suspect at first glance. It carries that weight well, and its size is something we got used to a day or two after strapping it on.
What we don't really love is the slightly thicker edge of the Ultra's case, which hosts the side button, and the Digital Crown, which is substantially bigger and less dainty than previous iterations.
On the other side is the new Action button, and this has multiple uses that you can set up from the settings on the Watch. It can quickly launch a particular workout, offer waypoints when using the compass app, activate the torch, and enable Apple's back-to-the-start feature during activities like hiking.
It can also be used to pause a workout, which we think might be its most useful application, as it was an awkward process to do that on previous Apple Watches.
Is it a groundbreaking feature? Of course not. Cheaper smartwatches have been doing this for some time, but it's good to see Apple acknowledge that you can't beat having another button sometimes, even if touchscreens are great for most things.
Despite our reservations about the size of the jut out, the Digital Crown still feels great, and the Side button will still handily get you into your currently opened apps. This gives you easy access to features like your medical ID, an SOS emergency call, the compass' backtrack mode, and also the new Siren, which plays a high pitched on repeat, and, according to Apple, can be heard 600 feet away.
We can confirm that the siren is seriously loud, and it should offer some assistance if you get into a spot of bother in the wilderness.
With a bigger case, you're also getting a bigger screen. It's a sharp, 1.8-inch, 410 x 502-pixel resolution Retina OLED display.
Apple has also sought to give visibility a boost by delivering up to 2,000 nits of brightness, and that's to ensure it doesn't falter where many AMOLED screens do - in bright outdoor light. That bump-up in brightness is the most notable thing here, and, even in challenging light conditions, the Ultra performed very well.
It wouldn't be an Apple Watch without some high-grade straps, either, and the Ultra does get its special collection. We had the orange Alpine Loop, which we had in a large size - and was unfortunately too big for our smaller wrists - and the yellow Ocean Band, which was a much better fit.
It has a lovely crinkled design and didn't budge day-to-day, during swims, runs, or hiking time. If you've got a Watch band designed for Apple's 44mm or 45mm Watches, those will work with the Ultra, too.
For waterproofing, Apple is giving you double water resistance compared to the Series 8 and SE, letting you submerge it in water up to 100 meters in depth. It's also scuba diving safe, but only up to 40 meters.
Running and workouts
While most recent Apple Watch models, including the Series 8, have been excellent sports watch performers, Apple is promising to offer more for runners, hikers, and water sports lovers in particular with the Ultra.
We'll start with the positives for runners. First and foremost, that bigger screen means more room for data to spread out over - and, even on longer runs, the big case didn't feel cumbersome to wear.
The core run tracking remains largely the same, but you're now seeing more data post-run in the Apple Fitness app. Advanced running metrics like running power and stride length are watchOS 9 additions, but information like heart rate is much better presented than it was on previous versions of that Fitness app.
GPS tracking compared: Apple Watch Ultra (left) and Garmin Epix Gen 2 (right)
During the run, Apple has sought to make changes to the level of accuracy the Ultra can deliver with tracking positioning and movement.
It's added a dual-frequency GPS mode and a more precise location feature that means, when enabled, doesn't instantly jump into the '3,2,1' countdown and makes sure the Watch makes tracks your movements reliably.
The dual-frequency GPS is something that watches from Huawei, Coros and Amazfit have all introduced on watches - and with mixed results, based on our testing.
Dual-band vs multi-band: Apple Watch Ultra (left) and Garmin Epix Gen 2 (right)
On the Ultra - up against the very impressive Multi-Band Mode on Garmin's Epix Gen 2 - we found there was generally a small disparity in the distance tracked on our long runs. And while tracks seemed similar on the whole, the Ultra did have us floating a little off the pavement at times.
Heart rate during exercise, particularly for running, has been a strength for Apple's most recent Watch models - and with the Ultra it's mostly more of the same. Apple's optical sensor performed very reliably against Garmin's HRM-Pro Plus chest strap monitor on most of our short and long, steady-paced runs.
Heart rate tracking compared: Apple Watch Ultra (left) and Garmin HRM-Pro Plus chest strap (right)
In one longer run, though, the maximum heart rate reading was significantly higher than the chest strap monitor, as the screenshots above show, so it didn't deliver spotless data all of the time.
Apple does let you pair up a Bluetooth smart external heart rate monitor, however, and there are plenty of third-party apps that can take advantage of that external monitor support, as well as the native ones.
If you prefer to slow things down and amble around, then the Ultra offers some features for you, as well.
Apple wants you to think of this device as a smartwatch for going on an adventure, so it's including things like a redesigned compass app to help you get your bearings - and that includes a technical and orienteering view that gives you details like course waypoints, elevation and incline data.
There's also a backtrack feature, which is pretty commonplace on most outdoor watches, and the new siren to raise an alarm if you get lost or into trouble. So, Apple has thought about navigation and emergency aspects of going out to explore new surroundings.
What the Ultra doesn't give you, however, is the kind of mapping features you'll find on a Garmin Fenix or Epix watch. You can't also upload maps to the watch natively, either.
You can get these kinds of features if you head over to Apple App Store and download apps like AllTrails, ViewRanger, Komoot, and - what we tested out the most - Workoutdoors. These will help fill in some of the obvious gaps in the Ultra's navigation and mapping departments.
To get the best hiking experience from the Ultra, you need to make sure the compass settings on your iPhone have enabled precise location tracking to make use of the backtrack features and marking course waypoints.
It's perhaps the element of the Ultra's software that feels a little archaic, as it doesn't feel very well connected to the hiking tracking mode in Apple's native Workout app.
There's also the fact you don't get to view any maps as you move around. The backtrack feature uses a basic breadcrumb trail to lead you back to your start point, which does at least work well enough to roughly guide you home.
Apple Watch Ultra with Workoutdoors third-party app to add mapping and navigation support
It wasn't until we switched to using the Workoutdoors (pictured above) that the Ultra felt like an outdoor watch, with the third-party app offering a proper level of mapping and the ability to upload GPX route files and store them offline.
Apple might need to better communicate that these types of apps exist, and give users a better experience out of the box, but, even still, we hope a software update or two fixes some of the native issues and makes the native hiking experience a little fuller.
Swimming and diving
The Apple Watch has been capable of surviving pool and open water swimming for a few years now, and things haven't changed on that front for the Ultra.
It's a solid performer, on the whole, offering a good, reliable breakdown of stats - and that bigger screen is much nicer to use when poring over those stats in real-time. You've also got good third-party swimming apps to tap into if you don't enjoy the native support.
The difference with the Ultra is that Apple now wants to let you go deeper into the water.
Along with boosting the water resistance rating to WR100 (up to 100 meters in depth), it's now safe to be submerged in water up to 40 meters when scuba diving and is fit for to be strapped on for kitesurfing and wakeboarding as well. It carries an EN13319 certification, which is the international standard for dive computers.
To make it a better fit for divers, there are depth gauges and water temperature sensors, along with a native depth app built for free diving and snorkeling. It springs into action after the Ultra is submerged in water up to one-meter depth, delivering depth and water temperature data.
An Oceanic+ companion app, which isn't available just yet, will also let you plan dives to establish the appropriate time to head into the water and essentially promises to turn the Ultra into a dive computer for recreational scuba divers.
You can pick up dive computers for considerably less money, but many likely won't give you the kind of display and level of software smarts that Apple offers with the Ultra here. We look forward to testing this out in the future.
Something you cannot fault the Apple Watch Ultra for is its brilliant smartwatch experience.
It's still only compatible with the iPhone, but, if you care about having something that offers great notification support, widget-rich watch faces, music and payment features, slick cellular connectivity, and, crucially, a great app store, then this is still by far the best.
The setup with the Watch iPhone app remains straightforward, and then there's the Fitness app to check your Rings, workouts, and Award history.
If you've used an Apple Watch before, things will feel very similar. The big differences are that you're getting a bigger screen, as well as a triple microphone array and a dual speaker system that makes interacting through the Ultra via voice or calls much clearer. According to Apple, it's also 40% louder than the Watch Series 8.
On our hiking and trail running travels, taking calls from the wrist was suitably loud in nice open surroundings. So, if you've found the microphone and speaker performance on previous Watches not quite to your liking, you'll be happy with the improvements here.
App support, as we've already said, is a really important component of getting the best out of the Ultra. We've downloaded a range of apps, including Strava, Todoist, Workoutdoors, Bus Times, Komoot, and Google Maps, and Apple's apps shine above all others - not only in their execution but also in how they work in conjunction with notifications and when streaming music.
One thing is for sure, if you're hoping the Apple Watch Ultra smartwatch experience is just as good as Apple's standard models, then it's not going to disappoint.
Battery life tested
It's taken over 7 years for Apple to budge from its 18-hour battery life for the Apple Watch. And while you don't get significantly more than that on the Ultra, there is a clear improvement.
So, let's talk about battery life expectations. According to Apple, you'll get 36 hours in normal use, up to 18 hours when you use LTE, and 12 hours when using GPS. The Ultra also gives you a Low Power Mode, which restricts features like the always-on display, auto workout detection, and irregular heart rate notifications.
You can switch on this new mode for workout tracking, too, and you're still going to get full GPS and heart rate stats when you do.
Apple is also bringing a low power setting at a later date, which delivers up to 60 hours of battery but takes less regular GPS and heart rate readings to deliver it. If you're familiar with Garmin's UltraTrac mode, this, we expect, will perform similarly.
So, how did the battery stack up in our testing? With some pretty intensive sports tracking and regular daily use, we'd say we generally got around two days of battery life.
At some point, the Low Power Mode needs to be put into action to stretch things further. At midday on one day with the watch at 7%, we switched on the low power mode. By 8-9 pm, the Watch was dead.
For outdoor runs, a 20-minute run saw a 4% drop in battery life, and over three hours of run tracking saw a 34% drop. On a 50-minute open water swim, the battery dropped by 14%.
In a four-hour hike, using a mix of Apple's hiking mode and the Workoutdoor apps - with a couple of hours streaming some podcasts stored offline on Spotify - the battery dropped by just over 30%.
The promised GPS battery seems about right, and, even with some intensive use, it's a smartwatch that can last a couple of days and potentially a little bit more.
It's the Apple Watch with the best staying power, but, compared to the standard outdoor watch, it's not even close to offering the same battery life.
Should you buy the Apple Watch Ultra?
Considering the Ultra is double the outlay of the Series 8 and a similarly lofty price to comparable outdoorsy smartwatches, there are a few ways to look at this.
Ultimately, the Apple Watch Ultra offers the best battery, screen, and sports tracking features of any Apple Watch ever released - and that's reason enough to pick one up. We also think it's a great fit for aspirational types who just love the look of a more outdoorsy Apple Watch.
If you're not really into that vibe, though, and don't care about scuba diving or super accurate GPS running data, either, then the Apple Watch Series 8 will give you great sports tracking and a smartwatch experience for much less.
Similarly, if you're after a serious, sporty watch with a color screen and an in-depth level of tracking, mapping, and navigation features, the Ultra isn't the best pick just yet. We'd still advise grabbing Garmin Epix Gen 2, instead.
All in all, though, we think the Ultra has the makings of a very strong outdoor watch. If Apple makes some software changes and boosts the battery life in future generations, the competition will have a serious problem on its hands.