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Home / Reviews / Wearables / Smartwatches / Apple Watch Ultra review: let’s go outside

Apple Watch Ultra review: let’s go outside

The Apple Watch Ultra built for adventure and endurance - how does it get on in the hands of our ultra-marathon runner?

Stuff Verdict

The most adventure-ready Apple wearable yet and a really great all-rounder. Still, the Apple Watch Ultra’s battery life pales compared to sports watch rivals

Pros

  • Excellent screen
  • Bigger battery life than other Apple Watches
  • Better durability

Cons

  • Lacks some navigation skills
  • Carries a hefty premium
  • Needs longer battery life to compete with the best

Introduction

With a bigger battery, new rugged design and some beefed up outdoor smarts aimed at runners, hikers, divers and climbers, the Apple Watch Ultra is the first Apple smartwatch built with adventure and endurance in mind. Previous Apple Watches may have dipped a toe in Garmin’s waters, but the Ultra put its wetsuit on and dived straight in.

Can it compete with the best outdoor GPS watches, though? And now that Apple has introduced a successor model, should you save a bit more cash and go for the Watch Ultra 2 instead? Stuff has comprehensively tested the Apple Watch Ultra to find out.

The original version of this review was published on 21 September 2022

How we test wearables

Every smartwatch and fitness tracker reviewed on Stuff is worn 24/7 throughout the testing process. We use our own years of experience to judge general performance, battery life, display, and health monitoring. Manufacturers have no visibility on reviews before they appear online, and we never accept payment to feature products.

Find out more about how we test and rate products.

Competitors and value

At launch, the Apple Watch Ultra was the best of Apple’s wearables for battery life and durability. It promised double the ‘general usage’ lifespan as the Apple Watch Series 8 and was certified for 100m water resistance, compared to the Series 8’s 50m. Its larger screen was also a much brighter 2000 nits, and it includes dual-frequency GPS.  

The other major difference was design. The Watch Ultra is armoured up for outdoor life, packs a bigger glove-friendly digital crown, and a new customisable action button.

It otherwise offered the same hardware, and ran watch OS 9 out of the box. That meant the same Apple S8 dual-core chipset, same suite of sensors (including blood oxygen and ECG), an always-on altimeter, compass, high g accelerometer and gyroscope. It also includes temperature sensing for female cycle tracking, sleep stage tracking, atrial fibrillation heart history, fall detection and access to Apple Fitness+. You won’t find anything on the Series 8 that’s not on the Apple Watch Ultra.

It comes at a premium, though. At launch, the Apple Watch Ultra was almost an entire Watch SE pricier than the Series 8. Now Apple will only sell you the newer Apple Watch Ultra 2, with third-party retailers being your only choice for the original model – which has only dropped in price a small amount.

Outside of Apple’s stable, only the range-topping solar-skilled Garmin Fenix Sapphire Solar and the new Garmin Enduro 2 cost more than the Ultra. If battery life is your priority, those two Garmins pack endurance that dwarfs the Apple Watch Ultra – 150 hours on the Enduro 2 and up to 122 hours on the  Fenix 7. Though it’s no secret that the Apple Watch smartwatch skills easily surpass Garmin’s somewhat limited offering.

Apple Watch Ultra features

Much of what’s new and standout about the Apple Watch Ultra is in the design and hardware rather than the features. Apple’s biggest, brightest wearable display shines twice as hard, with 2,000 nits to the Watch Series 8’s 1,000 nits. That larger 49mm aerospace-grade titanium case also rises up to surround and protect it from the kind of bumps, knocks and edge impacts you’re likely to get in the wild.

The digital crown is bigger than the Series 8 and features more pronounced grooves to make it easier to use with gloves. A titanium guard around the crown also helps prevent any accidental crown nudges. Another design tweak is a new Action Button that lets you create quick action shortcuts, like launching straight into a workout or taking a lap split while running or cycling.

Runners in the US got a special automatic track detection mode at launch. It’s a bit like those I’ve seen on Coros and Garmin watches, but this one recognises when you arrive at a running track and locks your lane for better accuracy. It has since rolled out to more countries including the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy and Canada.

All runners got a larger suite of form metrics via Watch OS 9, including running power, vertical oscillation, stride length and ground contact time. There’s also room on the Ultra’s larger screen to display up to six customisable stats per swipe.

New workout views added handy elevation and running power charts, plus more visual heart rate zone displays. Race Route recognises any route you’ve previously run twice, giving you the option to race and pace against your recent routes and times. Triathletes also got a Multisport workout that automatically switches between swim, bike, and run.

For recreational divers and watersports fans, there’s now 100m water protection, a depth gauge, water temperature sensor and a dedicated Depth app with all your underwater vitals. The Watch Ultra is also designed to withstand high forces from faster water activities like kitesurfing, and it’ll operate on-wrist anywhere from –20° C to 55° C. To help improve audio performance in those wilder conditions, Apple has added a three microphone array and dual speaker system. 

Safety features have been boosted with an emergency siren that packs a 86 decibel alarm and can be triggered quickly using the action button.

The Apple Watch Ultra has a choice of three new bands too: an alpine loop, trail loop and an ocean band. I tested the Alpine loop, and though I loved the look with the strengthened band and G hook fastening, I found it hard to get a perfect fit. The Trail loop looks more adjustable.

Performance

The Apple Watch Ultra is everything you’d expect from an Apple smartwatch. The crisp, sharp, responsive Retina touchscreen has lightning fast response and is excellent, bright and easy to read in all conditions.

The design is perhaps a little more fussy than your regular sleek and minimal Apple Watch, but the added ruggedness feels more robust without losing all of its sleek subtlety. It is noticeably heavier and chunkier on the wrist – but show me an adventure watch that isn’t.

The Action Button is a nice addition, great for instantly launching a workout, for example. If you’re coming from outside of the Apple bubble, a shortcut button won’t feel all that new and exciting – but the fact it’s customisable and you can assign workout-specific actions is a win.

The larger digital crown had a tendency to catch on the arm a little (maybe I’ve got chubbier arms) but that sometimes made it harder to use on the move.

Battery life

On paper the Ultra offers up  to 12 hours of GPS workout time with everything powered on, or 36 hours of ‘normal’ usage. This dips to 18 hours with all-day LTE. Low power mode cuts back on some features, like the always-on display and the frequency of mobile connected updates, to extend the Ultra’s life up to 60 hours – including a 15 hour hiking workout.

Apple represented the Watch Ultra’s bigger endurance powers with images of a desert runner tackling the famous Marathon Des Sables multi-stage race, but in reality there’s still not enough staying power to last much beyond a stage or two. Not with meaningful insights beyond distance. I found that even with moderate exercise usage, I had to charge every second day.

In my tests, an hour-long run burned 8% battery life in full power mode. I got 3.5 days of general usage, including that run. A separate hour-long walk burned 12% in full power mode, with GPS and heart rate tracking on along with the Backtrack tool for retracing my steps.

A 2.5 hour run in low power mode still burned 18%. At that rate many people reading this would struggle to complete a 100km ultramarathon before the Ultra died.  

Fitness & health tracking

The Apple Watch Ultra has a moulded antenna for better dual-frequency GPS, and now has a GPS fix indicator to let you know when you’re tracking. In my tests, the dual-frequency GPS performed well. Real-time pacing matched the Garmin Enduro closely and was nicely responsive to shifts in pace.

There were no crazy route errors through buildings or down the middle of rivers and overall, the distances came within a pretty standard margin for error.

Heart rate was a little more hit and miss. Up against a chest strap, the Apple Watch Ultra’s second generation heart rate sensor clocked both higher and lower reads throughout runs in real time.

There was also some lag when I pushed up rapidly through the gears, and on runs where I stopped – say at a set of traffic lights – the Watch Ultra seemed to drop slower than the chest strap. Pretty classic optical heart rate stuff. Luckily, the Watch Ultra will let you pair a chest strap if you want that extra accuracy.

Apple Watch Ultra verdict

Watch fans hankering for a bigger battery, more controls, a beefed-up rugged design and features tailored to outdoor pursuits, will find a lot to love here. The Apple Watch Ultra is definitely another step into Garmin territory, and undoubtedly the best adventure-friendly Apple Watch to date.

When you consider the smarts the Ultra offers beyond your adventures, it’s a fantastic all-rounder for straddling life on and off the beaten track. However, it’s not the most capable adventure watch and that battery life will still force you back on grid faster than top-end Garmin models.

Stuff Says…

Score: 4/5

By far the best adventure-ready Apple Watch yet and a really great all-rounder, though battery life pales compared to rivals

Pros

Excellent screen

Bigger battery life than other Apple Watches

Better durability

Cons

Lacks some navigation skills

Carries a hefty premium

Needs longer battery life to compete with the best

Apple Watch Ultra tech specs

ProcessorS8 SiP with 64‑bit dual-core processor
DisplayAlways-on 2000nit retina display, 410 x 502 pixels
Storage32GB
Connectivity4G LTE (cellular models), 802.b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.3, dual-frequency GPS
Rating100m waterproof (WR100)
Size49 x 44 x 14.4mm
Weight61g
Profile image of Kieran Alger Kieran Alger Stuff contributor

About

Editor & writer on all things tech, running, health & fitness. Ultra & marathon runner. Expat Devoner.

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