Apple Watch Ultra review: The Apple Watch we have been waiting for
Apple Watch Ultra review: The Apple Watch we have been waiting for
Note: This review was first published on 21 September 2022.
The new Apple Watch Ultra is as what its name implies: a super-powered Apple Watch for users who have been craving for more of what the vanilla Apple Watch couldn’t provide.
Longer battery life? Checked. A larger display? You got it. Improved durability for sports use? The casing is now crafted out of titanium, which was last used in the older Apple Watch Edition. In fact, the Ultra will be the only Apple Watch model from here on to feature the light and tough metal, which in theory make it more suitable for the rough terrain environments it’s pitched towards.
For Garmin users who are also part of the Apple ecosystem, the Ultra is the Apple Watch many will have been waiting for. With a price point of S$1,199, the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t cheap but if you’re looking to get all the benefits of a watch that can truly communicate with your iPhone - becoming an extension of it - and helps you achieve your fitness goals, then the Ultra is the one to go for.
However, brands like Garmin, Suunto and Polar, just to name a few, have been dominating the ‘extreme sports smartwatch’ market for a while now, where their fitness and other health-monitoring features are so much more advanced. Can Apple catch up and how does it feel to wear and use the Ultra?
Same, same but very different
The first time I laid my eyes on the Apple Watch Ultra in person, I was pleasantly surprised not just by how it looked but how it felt on the wrist too. The metal mould around the outside of the watch and the big bulge on its right side are not unsightly at all. The photos you see online and from Apple’s marketing videos don’t do it justice. Overall, the watch’s design borrows from the tried and tested Apple Watch design that hasn’t really changed much since the first model’s launch in 2015.
But guess what? I do think the Ultra is the design revamp that Apple Watch fans have been craving for. Albeit with a design built for specific fitness and sports purposes. The bulkier 49mm casing has rounded edges with the bezel slightly raised to protect the display better. The aforementioned bulge on the right side helps guard the newly-designed Digital Crown so that it cannot be knocked off. It also has more ridges for a more tactile approach, and the side button is also raised so that it can be easily activated even when you’re wearing gloves.
There’s even a new customisable Action Button on the left side that allows you to quickly start workouts or leave a waypoint on the redesigned Compass app.
In my road cycling workouts, I found that pressing all of these buttons was a very smooth and tactile experience, allowing me to quickly start and stop activities on the go without needing to fiddle about with double-pressing anything (as you do on the mainstream Apple Watch Series) just to confirm I’ve finished cycling.
Then there’s the always-on OLED display, and the Ultra sports the largest display of the Apple Watch models offered. It is also the brightest, coming in at 2000nits - the same as the iPhone 14 Pro’s. The display is protected by Sapphire Crystal, and Apple says it is designed to be able to withstand scratches and edge impacts. How true that works in reality is hard to say for sure until I get to trial the Apple Watch Ultra on some good old fashion outback adventures - hopefully soon.
As a sports watch built for use in rugged environments, these are great practical features. But I also suspect that some Apple users, like me, will also see these as great quality of life upgrades even for normal wear. The larger screen and its 2000nits brightness, for instance, is great for readability.
Like the new Series 8, the Apple Watch Ultra is powered by an S8 processor, has new temperature sensors, as well as an improved gyroscope for Crash Detection. But it also comes with a water temperature sensor for swimmers and divers, a three-microphone array (for better voice call quality) and a second speaker that can sound off a really loud emergency siren as well as increase the volume of phone calls - all of which the Series 8 lacks.
The Ultra also has WR100 water resistance and EN13319 certification for scuba diving enthusiasts, although it’s not going to replace a dive watch for serious divers - the watch has a 40 metres water depth limit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to test the swimming and diving aspects of the Ultra out in time for this article, but it’s worth noting that Ultra isn’t quite the finished dive watch yet, as Apple is working with Huish Outdoors on a new Oceanic+ app coming later this year, that will allow users to see all manner of diving metrics.
For hikers, there is BackTrack on board, where you can set your own waypoints and then use the compass to retrace your steps, but it looks a little fiddly at this moment because this requires an eSIM connection or the Ultra being tethered to your iPhone. It’s a little odd as you would assume (and rightly so) that BackTrack is a safety feature, so I can’t understand why Apple hasn’t got offline mapping (and with its own Map apps?) added into this watch, with auto-running routes or similar.
Speaking of running. Well, apart from the new hardware design, the Ultra doesn’t quite make a compelling sell for runners. But that’s not exactly a fair statement, because it has the new metrics in the shape of running power, interval training, heart rate zones and so on, but all of these came with watchOS 9, and so are available on the Series 8 and a number of the older Apple Watch models.
And tough luck for cyclists and triathletes, Apple still hasn’t allowed for third-party cadence readers and power meters pairings with watchOS 9 - much less the Ultra, which is a shame.
What about battery life? Here are a couple of my experiences with the Ultra without low-power mode turned on:
- Started using the Ultra at 100 per cent on Thursday, 10pm. Went to bed at 11pm, tracked my sleep, and woke up at 5am in preparation for my Friday social cycling ride. Turned on Cycling workout mode twice, each lasting for 60mins. Went through the rest of the day with the usual calls and other notifications on the watch. Slept at 10pm, tracked my sleep and woke up at 8am on Saturday with 48 per cent battery left.
- On Sunday, I used the Ultra with 100 per cent charged at 9am. Went about doing my usual activities without any workouts. I did take a 5-minutes call on the watch, and ended my day at 11pm with 82 per cent battery left.
If my experiences were anything to go by, the Apple Watch Ultra should easily last two full days on standard use. Turning on workouts will invariably drain the battery quicker.
Looking forward to the Ultra 2
When it comes to fitness, the Apple Watch Ultra seems more geared toward being robust than it does being the watch for all manner of sports tracking. Don't get me wrong, it's a great first attempt at a rugged sports watch. But for those who have been demanding for a “pro” version of the Apple Watch - a proper fitness tracking smartwatch - from the Cupertino-based company, the Ultra is definitely what we have got.
So the watch is still far from rivalling the powerful and more dedicated fitness watches in the market, and I suspect that isn’t what Apple is going after in the first place. The Apple Watch Ultra felt like it was designed to extend the appeal of its timepieces (as an example, I really do appreciate the bigger 49mm watch face) to a wider audience, those that are serious about their fitness but not the ultra-hardcore that live and breathe their mornings and weekends on brick sessions.
The weekend hiker? Yes. The leisure diver? Absolutely. A runner who just wants a bigger Apple Watch? Hands up.
And I do know of a few friends like that who have already pre-ordered the Apple Watch Ultra.