Improved performance, features and accuracy make the Watch Ultra 2 Apple’s finest wearable
- Double tap gesture works well
- Improved accuracy
- On-device Siri is great
- HR monitor still has issues
- Battery life isn’t great
Apple is in a bit of a holding pattern with its wearable devices this year (2023) with nothing having changed physically, and only a few small updates elsewhere. In some ways, that makes the Apple Watch Ultra 2 an easy product to review. I don’t have to labour the physical descriptions too much, other than to say it’s exactly the same as last year. And I don’t have to go into too much depth about all the new features either, because there aren’t all that many of them.
That doesn’t mean you should dismiss the Ultra 2 out of hand, though. It’s still a great smartwatch, and although expensive, remains the best wearable Apple makes. But if you already bought one last year or you were waiting for Apple to improve things like battery life, then you’re going to be disappointed.
Apple Watch Ultra 2 review: What you need to know
Just like last year, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 comes only in one size and it’s a fairly chunky thing. I’m a fan of big watches, so this doesn’t bother me that much, despite having very skinny wrists, but I can definitely see this as being an acquired taste.
That said, it still looks great and it’s designed to be tough enough to take on the harshest of environments, with a titanium alloy case, a hard sapphire-crystal glass lens and a 100m water resistance rating, plus EN13319 certification. The latter means you can use it to track recreational scuba diving down to an impressive 40 metres.
The new features are fairly subtle and they follow along the same lines as the updated Apple Watch Series 9. There’s a faster, S9 SiP chip, a brighter 3,000-nit display, and new gestures that allow you to take control of the watch without having to touch the screen or press a button.
That new S9 chip doesn’t just improve the watch’s responsiveness. It also enables on-device Siri for certain commands and improves performance, especially for things like dictation. You can now use the Precision Finding capability of the Ultra Wideband chip to locate your iPhone within centimetres. And the quoted battery life is a little longer now on low-power settings, rising from 60 hours to 72 hours.
There’s also the new exclusive “Modular Ultra” watch face, which adds an extra choice to last year’s Wayfinder option. And, finally, there’s a complete overhaul for the way the UI works in the shape of WatchOS 10. However, this isn’t exclusive to the Ultra 2 and is also coming to every other Apple Watch, right back to the Series 4.
Last, but by no means least, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 joins the Series 9 in being Apple’s first carbon-neutral product. You do have to purchase it with either of the two new straps, though: the carbon-neutral Alpine Loop and Trail Loop.
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Apple Watch Ultra 2 review: Price and competition
At £799, the Ultra 2 is, surprisingly, cheaper than the original Ultra, although a difference of £50 doesn’t exactly make it affordable. It’s still an expensive wearable by any stretch of the imagination.
As mentioned earlier, there’s still only one model, thus simplifying your choices, and a mere three straps to pick from (in various colours): the two carbon-neutral nylon straps, and the chunk rubber Ocean Band, designed for water sports and recreational diving.
At that price, there aren’t many direct competitors for the Apple Watch Ultra 2. The Huawei Watch Ultimate (from £699) is the closest when it comes to design, features and target market. It’s a smartwatch with an OLED display and diving capabilities, just like the Apple Watch Ultra 2, although it has significantly better battery life and a lower price. However, I found its heart rate accuracy during exercise was poor when I tested it.
The Garmin Epix Pro (£829-£929, depending on size), meanwhile, is the gold standard among expedition-style sports watches. It has better battery life than the Ultra 2 and more serious sports features but can’t compete with the Apple wearable for smartwatch-type useability.
Apple Watch Ultra 2 review: Design and new features
Nothing has changed when it comes to the way the Apple Watch Ultra 2 looks compared with its predecessor. It’s fairly chunky, measures 44 x 14 x 49mm (WDH) and weighs 61g without a strap attached. The body is made from “aerospace grade” titanium alloy, with a sapphire crystal glass topping the display. This combination has thus far proved resistant to scuffs and scratches.
Just like last year, there are three physical controls scattered around the edges of the Watch Ultra 2: the digital crown and side button on the right; and a customisable “Action” button on the left. However, these have now been augmented with the “new” double tap gesture. I’ve put “new” in quotes here because the feature actually existed before, buried in the accessibility settings, and wasn’t turned on by default.
It also wasn’t live when the watch initially launched but now that it has finally arrived on my review sample, I can report that it’s pretty effective, but not perfect. To recap, this feature allows you to navigate various key functions simply by double-tapping your forefinger and thumb together. It works by monitoring data from the gyroscope, accelerometer and heart rate monitor and analyses it using what Apple calls its “sensor-fusion” machine-learning algorithm.
You have to raise your wrist to wake the watch first, but with that done you can view messages and initiate dictation-based replies, bring up the new Smart Stack view from any watch face and cycle through each card in the view. You can also start and stop the stopwatch, remote control the camera on your iPhone and a bunch more.
The camera remote is the most useful function I’ve come across so far. It lets you keep a good, solid grip on your phone while triggering the camera with your free hand and is especially useful for selfies. I’ve also found it useful while cooking: when your hands are sticky or dirty with ingredients, it’s a lot easier to dismiss timer alarms with a double tap than by dabbing the screen with your nose.
At other times, however, it doesn’t feel like it adds much. For instance, if the watch automatically detects a workout, and you have your AirPods Pro connected, it will ask you, over the headphones, if you want to start recording your activity as a workout.
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You might think all you need to do at this point would be to double-tap, but no; you have to raise your watch first, before double-tapping to confirm. At this point, you might as well simply tap the button on the screen with your free hand.
The introduction of the new S9 SiP chip also brings another improvement for the Apple Watch Ultra 2 this year: on-device Siri, which significantly speeds up voice recognition for those requests where an internet connection isn’t required. Think replying to messages with dictation, setting timers and starting workouts, as opposed to asking about the football results, which still requires internet connectivity for Siri to resolve.
On-device Siri also means you can now ask your watch to display various health-related metrics such as the status of your activity rings or how you slept last night, which wasn’t allowed before. The list of what Siri will respond to isn’t exhaustive, though. If you ask for your resting heart rate, for instance, it will tell you that “you can find that in the Health app on your iPhone”.
The fact that the display now goes up to 3,000 nits of peak brightness isn’t a huge deal because, frankly, the original Apple Watch Ultra was plenty bright enough. The new precision find feature is also nice, but only works for locating your phone, not other devices such as AirPods or AirTags.
I do like the new Modular Ultra watch face, though. It really makes the most of the extra screen real estate of the Watch Ultra 2, and provides more customisation than the Wayfinder watch face. I am not a fan, however, of how WatchOS 10 has changed the way Night Mode is enabled.
Previously, you could simply spin the Digital Crown to manually flick between regular and Night Mode, where the entire watch face turns deep red. Now, Apple forces you to use Auto mode, where it toggles depending on the ambient light (even under your shirt cuff), and the only way to switch it manually is to delve into the customisation options. That’s just plain irritating.
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Apple Watch Ultra 2 review: Battery life, heart and GPS accuracy
In addition to adding new features, however, Apple does appear to have been working on general accuracy, which makes it a potentially more useful tool for those who want to use it to track workouts and general fitness.
In my testing, across a total of 91km of running, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 performed impressively. The average heart rate it recorded per run was a mere 0.76% different from the Polar H10 chest belt I was wearing as a comparison. And, in terms of total distance recorded per run, it registered a difference of a mere 1.04% when compared to my Stryd Gen 3 running footpod. These are impressive numbers, especially when compared to the performance of the first Apple Watch Ultra, which delivered disappointing heart rate results during exercise.
As with the Apple Watch Series 9, however, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. The GPS accuracy is beyond reproach, thanks to the Watch Ultra 2’s continuing dual-frequency support, but if you look at the heart rate traces you might spot a particular problem.
On my wrist, at least, it would frequently stop recording my heart rate in the middle of workouts – and not just for a few seconds. In the chart below, you can see that, for the most part, the Apple Watch’s heart rate trace follows that of the Polar H10 but at the start, there are periods where the reading gets stuck, indicated by the flat portions of the orange line.
Still, for measuring resting heart rate the Ultra 2’s optical monitor is spot on and if heart rate readout accuracy really matters to you, it’s possible to pair a chest belt ECG monitor (such as the Polar H10) to the watch via Bluetooth. The Ultra 2, incidentally, also now supports the connection of Bluetooth cycling power meters, plus cadence and speed sensors, so it’s certainly not a critical problem.
As for battery life, that’s also pretty good, but don’t get too excited. It’s rated 36 hours of “normal use” and 72 hours of use in low-power mode. The good news is that these claims appear to be pretty conservative, and I regularly saw it last a lot longer. On one occasion, the watch lasted almost three days before running flat. That’s including a couple of GPS workouts totalling 1hr 15mins tracked during that time.
The bad news is that it still can’t hold a candle to the stamina delivered by rivals. The Huawei Watch GT4, for instance, might not be as clever as Apple’s wearable but it lasts far longer – up to seven days – with even more time spent tracking workouts with GPS. The Garmin Epix (Gen 2) with its OLED always-on screen enabled, will last five days or more, and if you switch to a proper sports watch with a memory-in-pixel display, such as the Garmin Fenix 7, you’ll see battery life extend into weeks.
Apple Watch Ultra 2 review: Verdict
That doesn’t mean the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a poor product. Far from it, in fact. This is Apple’s most capable smartwatch and, by extension, that makes it the best smartwatch on the market.
No other wearable has the app ecosystem, the flexibility and the features that Apple’s smartwatches do, and no smartwatch straddles the worlds of sports and everyday use in the same way as the Ultra 2. The new features, such as they are, are the icing on a very capable cake.
It must be acknowledged that the watch still does have shortcomings. It’s expensive, the heart rate monitor still has some issues, although overall accuracy has improved, and battery life falls well short of non-Apple Watch rivals.
But, overall, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a fantastic (if pricey) product. If you want the best wearable to pair with your iPhone, this is the one to buy.