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Apple Watch Ultra review: A high-end smartwatch for athletes

Our Rating :
£849.00 from
Price when reviewed : £849
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The Apple Watch Ultra is the toughest, longest lasting Apple Watch ever, but is that enough?


  • Improved two-day battery life
  • Very accurate dual-frequency GPS
  • Action button is great


  • Patchy heart rate monitor
  • Expensive
  • Rivals offer even better battery life

The Apple Watch Ultra represents a bold move on Apple’s part. That’s not because of the price, which is rather high, or the design, which will certainly divide opinion. Rather, with its decision to break from the usual, and long-expected, ‘Pro’ epithet and move to ‘Ultra’ instead, Apple has burdened its new wearable with a whole load of new expectations.

In the sporting world, the word ultra is typically associated with ultra marathons and ultra runners – endurance running events run over 50km and often more, taking many, many hours to complete. To qualify as a smartwatch that an ultra runner might seriously consider taking out on training runs and races, a fitness wearable needs to have great battery life and top-notch fitness features, not to mention a rugged build.

Does the Apple Watch Ultra measure up? As we’ll find out over the course of this review, not quite. While it’s certainly Apple’s toughest, longest-lasting smartwatch to date – and it should be commended for that – it can’t match the best that the endurance-focused competition can muster.

Apple Watch Ultra review: What you need to know

The key thing to know about the Apple Watch Ultra is that, at its core, it’s still very much a smartwatch. It might have a different design and a bigger battery than the others, but it uses the same internal tech as the Apple Watch Series 8 and runs the same software – WatchOS 9. That means that functionally it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the regular Apple Watch. There’s nothing dramatically different about the way it works.

The key differences are that it has a bigger, brighter display, framed by a much chunkier, heavier titanium case (available in only one size – 49mm) and a selection of new wristbands, which I’ll go into detail on below.

There’s an extra button on the left that can be customised to perform various functions – the new “Action Button” – while the Digital Crown (also bigger) and side button on the right are protected from accidental presses by an extra protrusion. Plus, the watch is now water-resistant to 100m, and adheres to the EN13319 certification for dive equipment, so it can be used for recreational scuba diving down to depths of 40m.

The improvements don’t stop there, though. You also have two speakers instead of just the one, with one designed specifically to act as an emergency siren if you get into trouble when you’re out and about. There’s a triple microphone array to improve voice capture quality for calls and Siri discussions, and the exclusive Wayfinder watch face, which comes with a number of handy features for outdoors enthusiasts.

In terms of internal upgrades, the Watch Ultra has the new S8 chip inside and an extra temperature sensor, just like the Apple Watch Series 8 – the latter enabling the new more sensitive and feature-packed menstrual cycle tracking feature. There’s dual-frequency GPS for better accuracy in urban settings and, of course, there’s that bigger battery which at 36 hours (or up to 60 hours on low-power settings) delivers nigh on double the stamina of the regular Apple Watch Series 8.

Apple Watch Ultra review: Price and competition

The other major difference between the Watch Series 8 and the Ultra, of course, is the price. The Apple Watch Ultra starts at a fairly hefty £849, which is £300 more than the 45mm Apple Watch Series 8. There’s only one model for now, which simplifies your choices when buying, and only three different wristbands, all of which are the same price: the Alpine Loop for general outdoor activities, the more rugged, rubber Ocean Band for water sports and scuba diving and the Trail Loop, which is designed with a bit of stretch so “endurance athletes” can achieve a snugger fit.

Given the target market, there’s not really a direct competitor for the Apple Watch – no other manufacturer is producing a smartwatch aimed at serious endurance athletes. In that sense, it stands alone.

Most competitors approach the problem from the other side, focusing on sports features first and relegating smartwatch features to second place. Of these, the Garmin Epix gets closest to the Apple Watch Ultra; it’s still a serious endurance sports wearable focusing on multisports features, training and tracking first but it’s the most smartwatch-like endurance fitness wearable out there thanks to its bright, colourful AMOLED display.

The Epix is even more expensive than the Apple Watch at £900 but it lasts longer on a single charge and, as we’ll see below, is better suited to the job of serious training, workout tracking and long-term fitness analysis than the Apple Watch.

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Apple Watch Ultra review: Design and key new features

The Apple Watch Ultra is undeniably chunkier than the standard Apple Watch but it is by no means oversized. Even on my skinny wrists, its 49 x 44mm dimensions fit perfectly well and you’d have to be absolutely tiny for it to look too big on your wrist. It is quite thick, standing proud of the wrist by 14.4mm, however, and if you wear snug shirt cuffs it will likely prevent you pulling them down over your wrists.

In terms of aesthetics, I think it looks rather good with its large 401 x 502 resolution flat screen and subtly bulbous casing but your mileage may vary on this. It’s certainly not what you would call classically attractive. However, I’d wager that it’s likely to retain those looks over time, given the construction materials. The case is constructed from titanium, the front glass from sapphire crystal, the rear from ceramic and the whole thing is rated dust proof (to IP6X), 100m water proof and is US military standard tested to MIL-STD 810H.

Other design touches that are worth mentioning are that the digital crown is larger than on the Apple Watch Series 8, with deeper grooves in it that supposedly make it easier to use with gloves on. It’s still small and fiddly with gloves, though, and I found it caught occasionally on my wrist bone, refusing to budge smoothly.

Then there’s the Action Button on the left edge. By default, this is set to launch the Workout app and, within that, it works as a lap button. However, it can also be customised and is used to kick off a particularly useful new feature called Precision Start, which allows you to start your workout exactly when you want to, instead of on a 3-2-1 countdown as with other Apple Watches. This is particularly useful for races when you can’t 100% guarantee when you’re going to cross the start timing plate.

More unusually, the Watch Ultra also comes with EN13319 certification – and an extra depth gauge sensor – which means it’s perfectly suited for use as a diving computer. On that note, the Watch Ultra also comes with a new Depth app, which can be set to activate as soon as the watch is submerged and with the upcoming Oceanic+ app, the Apple Watch Ultra can also be used as a fully-fledged dive computer. That’s a somewhat niche feature, however, especially for us here in the UK.

The display, speaker and microphone improvements, on the other hand, are things that do impact the day-to-day and they’re a decent step forwards. The larger display means there’s an extra line for metrics on the main workout screen (six rather than five on the Watch Series 8), which leads to less flicking between screens when you’re exercising. And the screen goes twice as bright as the Watch Series 8 when needed, too, although I can’t say I ever found the display on the Series 8 or even the Series 7 lacking for brightness, even on a bright, snowy day in the French Alps.

Perhaps more useful – and certainly something I appreciated – is a feature that makes the watch more comfortable to use in low-light environments. If you choose to use the new Wayfinder watch face, which is exclusive to the Watch Ultra, you can spin the crown and the display instantly dims and turns red – it’s a useful alternative to Theatre Mode as it keeps the watch face visible without disturbing people around you.

In fact, the Wayfinder watch face is one of the best things about the Ultra. Not only does it look great, but you can tap the dial to turn it into a digital compass for a quick heading check, which is pretty neat. Although you will need to launch the revamped compass app if you want to take advantage of Watch OS 9’s retrace steps feature.

Despite the supposed improvement to the speakers, the audio is still a little on the quiet side for my liking. I run a lot in an urban environment and I’ve often struggled to hear announcements on the Ultra’s speaker, even with the volume turned right up. To my ear, the Series 8 sounds clearer. The new microphones are a step forwards, however, capturing clearer audio with more body and better background noise cancellation.

On almost all other fronts, the Apple Watch Ultra is a match for the Series 8 when it comes to features, both new and old. Which is to say it has crash detection, thanks to a new, more sensitive accelerometer, and advanced menstrual cycle tracking, which comes courtesy of a second temperature sensor. You can read about those features in more detail in our Apple Watch Series 8 review.

The Ultra comes with all the new features of Watch OS 9, some of which I’ll cover below, and it has all the core Apple Watch features inherited from previous Apple Watch models. Ignoring the high price for a moment, and the endurance sport specific features, it’s the best smartwatch you can buy on any platform.

Apple Watch review: Battery life, accuracy and advanced sports features

When it comes to performance, the Apple Watch performs pretty well. I’ve so far been using it for a few weeks and the 36-hour battery life claim seems on the money. In fact, I’d say that it was conservative for the most part. I’ve been getting a solid two days out of it without having to drop it back on the charger, even with around two hours of GPS usage and Always-On display enabled.

WatchOS 9’s new Low Power mode, which disables the watch’s Always-On display, turns off various other features and delivers notifications once an hour, extends the battery life by a further half day or so if you turn it on when you’re prompted to. This happens when the battery hits at around 10% but you can turn on Low Power mode whenever you want and Apple says it will give you around 60 hours of use if you activate it on full charge.

That is, admittedly, a lot better than the regular Series 8 but it still lags a long way behind most serious endurance sports watches, which measure battery life in days or weeks. Even the Garmin Epix, which also has an always-on AMOLED display, lasts longer. We’ve found it delivers three to four days of use with the screen in always-on mode and a similar amount of GPS usage. Garmin says it will deliver up to 16 days of usage with the always-on display disabled.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Epix is the weakest of Garmin’s endurance-level sports watches when it comes to battery life. The Garmin Fenix 7, which uses the far more power-efficient MIP (memory in pixel) display technology, can last even longer: up to 18 days in general use or 22 days if you buy the model with solar charging built-in.

GPS accuracy is excellent, as it has been for most Apple Watch releases recently, with the dual-frequency system kicking in whenever needed. I did most of my test runs in suburban areas with the occasional foray into fairly dense woodland and the Apple Watch UItra barely skipped a beat. Across 65km of running, it deviated on average by 1.41% when compared with the distance reported by my Stryd Wind pod. That’s a touch more accurate than the Watch Series 8 (1.54%) and even the Garmin Forerunner 955 (1.98%).

And for those interested in getting the best possible accuracy, the precision start system is particularly helpful here. Select the workout mode you want in the workout app and, instead of counting you in straight away, the Ultra transfers you to a holding page where you can wait until the watch has a GPS lock – indicated by the compass icon in the top-left corner. This means you can be sure you’ve got a lock before you get going whereas with other Apple watches, it’s guesswork.

The holding page also lets you know if the watch has a lock on your heart rate. Alas, the heart rate monitor on the Ultra didn’t perform as well as the GPS, whether I waited for it to lock onto my heart rate before starting to exercise or not. On one occasion, the watch barely registered my heart rate until six minutes into a workout, and I found it would drop out frequently during longer periods of exercise, too. This is surprising as I experienced none of the same issues with the Series 8, a watch that uses the same set of heart rate monitoring sensors and LEDs.

That’s a shame but not an insurmountable problem. I’ve come to the conclusion over years of testing fitness watches that, if you want accurate heart rate monitoring for training, you’re better off buying yourself an ECG chest belt monitor and using that instead. Plus, the heart rate monitor on the Apple Watch Ultra didn’t seem to exhibit any problems when spot-checking my pulse, establishing a reliably accurate resting heart rate or taking an ECG reading to check up on atrial fibrillation.

This is all a bit disappointing but not irrevocably so. And to make up for the patchy heart rate monitor performance, it’s good to see that you get the same selection of new fitness and workout features as all Apple Watches with WatchOS 9 on board do, including the ability to create structured workouts, a selection of new workout screens, heart rate zones and the ability to track running power. The latter, incidentally, is surprisingly accurate when compared with Stryd’s averages, only deviating around 2%.

There’s also a triathlon mode that is able to automatically detect the various different legs of the event, so you don’t have to worry about fussing around with your watch in each transition. Running form metrics tell you advanced stats such as your vertical oscillation and ground contact time and there’s an automatic running track detection mode coming soon – although initially, this will only work on 400m outdoor tracks in the US.

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Apple Watch Ultra review: Verdict

All in all, it’s a bit of a mixed picture for the Apple Watch Ultra. On the one hand, the design is great. It’s super rugged, looks lovely and has twice the battery life of the regular Series 8.

The new depth gauge and diving features ensure you can use it for more extreme water sports as well as all the usual running, cycling, gym and myriad other sports. Meanwhile, the Action Button is a godsend for anyone who frets about distance measurement accuracy.

Plus there’s all the stuff that makes an Apple Watch the best smartwatch around. You get great notification handling, the ability to take and make calls, download music and podcasts and listen to them on your AirPods during your workout without having to have your iPhone nearby, among numerous other excellent features.

However, it is far from perfect. You can get better battery life from other, more fitness-focused wearables, including superior fitness analysis and better help with your training. The heart rate monitor performance is extremely patchy on the Watch Ultra, too, and the price is very, very high.

For me, that’s a few too many weaknesses to warrant a wholehearted recommendation: if you want a smartwatch with great fitness features, the Apple Watch Series 8 remains the wearable to buy; and if you’re desperate for an endurance watch with serious training features and super long battery life, go get a Garmin Epix or Fenix 7 series watch instead.

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