For years now the Apple Watch has dominated the smartwatch category. In actual fact, the Apple Watch dominates the entire watch industry. Rolex sits squarely at number 2. But the Apple Watch Ultra has a new goal. Apple wants to take on high-end sports watches. The most demanding and discerning of athletes and adventurers need features not found on the standard Apple Watch lineup. And the Apple Watch Ultra is Apple’s answer to that call. But how well does it achieve this goal? Well if you’re looking for all of the answers to this question, this might not be the review for you. This review is written from the lens of a general Apple Watch user. A person considering this purchase for general daily use and would like some of the added capabilities such as better battery life, a larger display and so forth. With that thought in mind, let’s dive in.
The Apple Watch Ultra is a big watch without question. It has a 49mm face that makes the 41mm and 45mm Series 8 seem positively tiny. But in addition to a larger face, the case is thicker, heavier and wider. But that’s very intentional. The design evokes function over form. That isn’t to say the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t beautiful, it is. But it’s a beauty born of utility rather than aesthetics.
The case is made from a raw Titanium alloy. Titanium offers similar strength to steel at half the weight and can withstand high pressures. Not only is it strong, but it is also more corrosion resistant. That makes it the perfect choice for climbing, exploring and deep sea diving. The Titanium case follows the familiar curved shape that we’ve come to know from the standard Apple Watch but with some notable deviations. Firstly, the curvature of the case forms upwards into an extruded lip. This extrusion enables the display glass to be flat, reducing the risk of cracks. Secondly, the Digital Crown is protected with a robust crown guard while the side button sits proud of the case. All of this adds up to be quite a different beast to the standard Apple Watch.
Apple has stuck with a Sapphire crystal watch face for superior optical quality and scratch resistance. The back crystal that houses the various health sensors is protected by ceramic. The ceramic is a handsome light grey which perfectly compliments the natural Titanium finish. Given the choice of materials and the subsequent size of the watch, it is notably heavier when you pick it up. Though I haven’t found it to be uncomfortable on the wrist. The weight feels well distributed when worn.
The more durable case and the changes made to the design have also enabled an increased water resistance rating. It is now rated to be submerged to depths of 100 meters. And it is advertised as being suitable for scuba diving at depths of up to 40 meters. The improvements are so much so that Apple is actively marketing the watch as a dive computer replacement.
A criticism I have with the design is the digital crown. It has increased in size and the grooves have been made more prominent, presumably to make it easier to interact with while wearing gloves. The problem is that for users with a prominent wrist bone, the crown can get stuck and becomes harder to turn due to how low it sits on the case. This won’t be an issue for everyone, but if you have bonier wrists like me, functionality can sometimes be compromised. I solved this by wearing the watch in a different orientation so that the crown didn’t need to rest against my wrist bone. But if you have to change your behaviour to suit the product, then that is a failure of design. Technology should give way to the user, not the other way around. It’s not a deal breaker by any means but just know that for folks with smaller wrists or with a more prominent bone structure, it may be an issue for you.
I also discovered in my testing that the highly polished, laser-cut chamfered edge is very susceptible to dings and dents. I was able to chip the chamfered edge on mine with extremely casual use. To be specific, I bumped the watch against a wooden table while taking my seat at a restaurant. Not during the extreme use cases that Apple markets this product for. While the functional durability is excellent, cosmetic durability is in my opinion not as good as the stainless steel Apple Watch Series 8. The chamfered edge is a weak point and the bead-blasted Titanium finish can not be polished. At least not without totally changing the matte finish. If this is a concern for you, the Ultra may not be for you. Just ask anybody that owned an iPhone 5/5S or an iPad Air 1/2/3 or even an iPad Mini 1/2/3/4 or 5. They all featured chamfered edges that would chip very easily without a case or extremely careful use.
One final thought on the overall design is that while this product is clearly about functionality over form, a functional imperative of a wearable device is to be comfortable and easy to wear. So in some ways, the Apple Watch Ultra is an oxymoron. Its increased size enables a larger battery (we’ll get to that), more microphones, sensors and a larger display but at the expense of wearability. It also isn’t the most inclusive experience. Some users no matter how much they want to, just won’t be able to wear this Watch as the larger bands and case size won’t provide a good fit. I would have liked Apple to offer a slightly smaller size, perhaps 46mm that traded off a little bit of battery life. I imagine we’ll see that with generation 2.
Apple has been able to retain compatibility with all 42mm/44mm and 45mm bands which is great to see. It means that users upgrading from an older model in those sizes will be able to enjoy their existing band collection with the Ultra. The fit might not be quite as flush with the new watch case due to the variations in its geometry. But it’s still great to see Apple offer this level of backwards compatibility. In actual fact, the new bands designed for the Apple Watch Ultra will also work with 42/44/45mm models. It’s also possible to buy the Apple Watch Ultra bands separately.
I haven’t been able to review this band at this time. However, for information purposes, it follows the same design as the Sport Loop but uses a thinner, more durable mesh. It is intended to be lightweight and unobtrusive according to Apple while also breathable for marathon running.
The first of Apple’s new bands is the Alpine Loop. As the name implies it is designed for high-altitude exploration. The light fabric weave and titanium G-hook fastening ensure a secure and comfortable fit. This is the band that came with my Apple Watch Ultra and so far I’ve found it to be very comfortable. Some people have reported difficulty in fastening this band but that hasn’t been my experience. It’s definitely trickier than some of the traditional Apple Watch bands such as the Solo Loop or Milanese Loop. But it’s no harder than putting on the Sport Band that has been sold since the original Apple Watch.
I also haven’t reviewed this band. I’m also unlikely to do so as it is intended for Ocean sports and diving. But for those that partake in high-velocity watersports, the Ocean Loop should have you covered. It is made of durable rubber with two highly secure titanium clips that can be adjusted in various ways for a secure fit. You can also purchase a larger extension for this band to make it easier to wear over a wetsuit should that prove useful for you.
One of the key benefits of the Apple Watch Ultra is its long battery life. According to Apple, it can last for 36 hours. In my testing, I could get comfortably over two full days with battery life to spare. My testing included mixed-use including outdoor walking with GPS and cellular-enabled, sleep tracking, short phone calls and text messages in addition to numerous time checks and checking notifications. For more rigorous use, Apple claims that it’s possible to complete a full iron man triathlon on a single charge (I won’t be testing that!).
So far I’ve been really impressed with the battery life. But what is really exciting is that Apple states that a new extended power mode is coming later this year than can provide up to 60 hours of battery life. This is not to be confused with the low-power mode that came to all Apple Watch models with watchOS 9. It isn’t clear yet however, how this exclusive Apple Watch Ultra feature will impact functionality. Until the feature is out, take this claim with a pinch of salt.
The larger flexible retina display really steals the show. At 49mm and a peek outdoor brightness of 2000 nits, it is the brightest Apple Watch display that Apple has ever shipped. Colours are vibrant, the text is highly legible and the various watch faces pop. And this is of course an always-on display. You can turn this off if you’d like but the watch faces really shine on this larger display.
Unlike every other Apple Watch on sale or that came before it, the display is completely flat. This is to protect it but it also results in a different tactile experience. It doesn’t feel quite as smooth when swiping from the edge of the case due to the raised lip around the display. All other models have glass that curves to meet the case for a smoother feel. It isn’t uncomfortable by any means, but you’ll notice that it feels somewhat different to other models if you’re upgrading.
The Action Button
One of the headline new features of the Apple Watch Ultra is the addition of a new button. Apple calls this the action button. It can be customised to perform any one of a number of things. For example, it can launch an app of your choice, start a workout, launch a shortcut and can even be programmed to perform a different action while inside a particular app. The button is easy to access and is bright, international orange for visibility.
I really appreciate the added capability but I have found that I accidentally press the action button from time to time. This usually occurred while interacting with the digital crown and button on the other side of the case. Not consistently but enough for me to note it in this review. If you have the action button set to immediately start a workout, you could find yourself having logged a workout that you didn’t intend.
The Apple Watch Ultra is chock full of sensors to help you monitor your health. It contains all of the sensors found in other Apple Watch models such as an optical heart sensor, an electrical heart sensor for taking an ECG, a blood oxygen sensor and more. The Apple Watch also adds a body temperature sensor, a depth sensor and an improved altimeter and accelerometer.
The body temperature sensor does not take active readings. Instead, it operates in the background when you’re sleeping. You need to activate the sleep focus on your iPhone before it will start to capture readings. Fortunately, the sleep focus is a one-time setup that then activates automatically each day at the time you set as your regular bedtime. After five nights to calibrate the data, the data captured by the Watch is presented in the health app on your iPhone. The data is best utilised by the cycle tracking app and can help determine when a person’s menstrual cycle has begun. For those that this doesn’t apply to, the data can still be useful in helping you gauge if you might have a fever. The watch doesn’t proactively do this and Apple is conservative in its description of the feature. To advertise in a medical capacity, Apple would have needed FDA clearance which it doesn’t have at this time.
The depth sensor can accurately determine your depth in a body of water. This works with the all-new dive app and also works in tandem with the temperature sensor. The temperature sensor can detect the temperature of the water. Furthermore, the new accelerometer helps to determine position while in water. It also enables an entirely new capability…
For a few years now the Apple Watch has been able to detect a fall and alert emergency services. Now it can also detect a car crash. If you don’t respond after a short time, it will ring emergency services, notify your emergency contacts and send them your location. This is a feature that I can’t test and one that you’ll hopefully never need. But if you ever do, it’s great to know that it’s here. I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of this feature but here is a video from another creator that might reassure you. They tested it in the iPhone 14 Pro rather than the Apple Watch. But given that the feature is enabled by the same new sensors on both devices, it should give you an idea of how it works.
Another unique feature of the Apple Watch Ultra is the added siren. It is capable of playing a high-pitched sound and creating an SOS at 86 decibels. This according to Apple, is loud enough to be heard from 800 feet away. You can activate it by pressing and holding the side button and then sliding across the siren button on the watch face. It is extremely loud and is impressively so given the relatively small size of the Apple Watch. At least compared to a personal safety alarm. It emits the sound in various patterns including in morse code. I can attest that it works as advertised. Let’s just hope parents don’t buy this watch for their kids. You can probably imagine the chaos that would ensue.
Compass and Backtrack
Thanks to the addition of both L1 and L5 GPS radios, the Apple Watch Ultra can get a lock on your position in no time. And Apple takes special advantage of this in the new and improved version of the compass app. You’re able to mark waypoints when on a trail, akin to breadcrumbs. And when you’re done, you can activate backtrack. The UI then guides you back along your trail to help ensure you don’t get lost. This is a great new feature that you’ll also find on the Series 8, albeit with just L1 GPS. The L5 radio in the Ultra means you can get an accurate GPS lock on even if surrounded by heavy foliage or even buildings.
The Apple Watch Ultra gives you everything that you would expect from the standard model. Features like making phone calls, paying with Apple Pay, installing apps, receiving notifications and tracking your health and fitness. But it elevates the experience with added core functionality like increased battery life, a larger and brighter display in addition to new health sensors. Furthermore, it adds a programmable Action button, a siren for personal safety and it can detect if you’re in a car crash. Even if you aren’t an endurance athlete, a deep-sea diver or a mountaineer, you can still benefit from all of these features. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should necessarily rush to buy the Apple Watch Ultra.
The Series 8 offers crash detection. Its battery life can be extended to 36 hours with low power mode. It adds the new temperature sensor and offers all of the core features we expect from the Apple Watch. But it does this at half the price of the Ultra unless you choose to splurge on the stainless steel models. Most users will likely prefer the aesthetic appeal of the series 8 too with its slimmer, more rounded and smooth design. However, if you did intend to buy the series 8 in stainless steel, for just $49/£49 more you can get the Apple Watch ultra and the extra features it offers.
I think it comes down to two things. Are you a high endurance athlete, an explorer or an adventurer? Or are you looking for additional battery life or other new features that are missing from the Series 8? If so then buy the Apple Watch Ultra. Otherwise, most users probably should consider the Series 8 or the new Apple Watch SE. You’ll save a lot of money and the general day-to-day experience from a software point of view will be very comparable.
Overall the Apple Watch Ultra is a great addition to the lineup. It offers features that users genuinely want and will likely tempt some users of high-end sports watches from the likes of Garmin. But it isn’t perfect. The new design is larger and heavier to enable additional features but some might see the added heft as a downgrade in functionality. Those users looking for something unobtrusive won’t like the Ultra as it is anything but subtle. For anyone who doesn’t yet own an Apple Watch and doesn’t mind the size, this is the best Apple Watch you can buy.