Apple Watch Ultra review: A highly capable smartwatch aimed at sports enthusiasts and anyone willing to splurge

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Make no mistake: The Apple Watch Ultra is geared toward avid outdoors people and endurance athletes. But even if you’re not either of those types, there are plenty of reasons you might want Apple’s rugged high-end wearable.

The Ultra stands out from the rest of the Apple Watch lineup for its long battery life, durable titanium casing, unique functions (deep-sea diving, anyone?), large display, and a customizable Action button. After testing it for several weeks, I believe its everything Apple promises it to be. 

But the Ultra costs a whopping $800, which is almost twice the price of the aluminum 45mm Series 8, the model that it’s based on. This makes the Ultra tricky to recommend. The Apple Watch Series 8 is not only more affordable, it also offers everything most people want in a smartwatch. But if you’re willing to pay up, the Ultra is certainly worth the splurge.

The Apple Watch Ultra is a rugged version of the Series 8

The Ultra shares the main specs and features with the Apple Watch Series 8, including the S8 processor. Both models have Apple’s new safety features, including Emergency SOS and Crash Detection. The Ultra and Series 8 also have the same health features, including the new sensor that can track your temperature while you sleep, which can be used for ovulation cycle tracking. 

Save for battery life, the Apple Watch Ultra and the Series 8 are identical in everyday use, which I cover later.  

But the Ultra isn’t a Series 8 clone. It represents the most significant advancements to the Apple Watch in years. It has a corrosion-resistant titanium case with a hardened glass display — not just for durability, but also for water resistance of up to 328 feet and certified depth-gauging and water temperature sensing for diving down to 130 feet in saltwater (it can be used as a dive computer via the Oceanic+ app). For extra safety, the Ultra has an 86-decibel siren and a more precise, dual-frequency GPS for location tracking.

If you don’t need the extra features, then the Ultra is a niche Series 8. That’s not to say the Ultra isn’t worthwhile for its intended user, but the Series 8 (and even the new SE) should satisfy most people. However, there are three features found only in the Ultra that may appeal to the mainstream: Styling, the handy Action button, and the superb battery life. 

It looks good on and off the trails

For many, the Apple Watch Ultra’s size will be an appealing characteristic. Large watches allow for bigger screens, which means more information that’s easier to read, especially when combined with a bright, always-on display.

For others, the Ultra’s chunkier design could be a deal-breaker, and there’s no smaller size option available. 

The 49mm Apple Watch Ultra looks significantly bigger than the 45mm Series 8. The bigger appearance is mostly due to the Ultra’s flat glass design compared to the curved glass edges of regular Apple Watches. Even the Digital Crown is bigger than usual. According to Apple, that makes the Ultra easier to use while wearing gloves.

While the Ultra is more rugged than regular Apple Watches, the titanium exterior looks appropriate for everyday wear as it would while running on a trail or climbing a cliff. When paired with Apple’s stainless steel Link Bracelet, the Ultra made such a strong style statement that it reminded me of a pricier Tag Heuer watch, even though fashion isn’t the Ultra’s selling point.

Weighing 2.16 ounces, the Ultra is the heaviest Apple Watch to date — the 45mm Series 8 weighs 1.36 ounces — but it’s surprisingly lighter than it looks. It’s comfortable to wear for daily use, and despite its size, it doesn’t feel cumbersome when worn during sleep. 

Every Apple Watch should have an Action button

In addition to the standard Digital Crown and right side button on all Apple Watch models, the Ultra has an Action button, which is located on the opposite side of the casing.

The Action button can be programmed to perform a specific task, whether it’s starting a workout, setting a waypoint, enabling backtrack, starting a dive, or turning on the flashlight. This makes performing tasks much speedier, and it’s particularly useful if you’re in the middle of exercising or some outdoor activity. 

For example, I use the Action button to quickly turn on the flashlight rather than swiping up on the screen to find the flashlight button. In fact, the Action Button with the flashlight shortcut is easier than using my phone’s flashlight, which I use on a daily basis. 

I hope to see the Action Button incorporated in all future Apple Watch models because it can be very useful, but in its infancy, it falls short in the way of options. While you can also add a custom function via the the Shortcuts app, it’s a convoluted experience. I’d like to see more presets like measuring heart rate or opening the weather app. However, I imagine this could be expanded through a software update. 

The Apple Watch Ultra’s battery life is phenomenal

Apple says the Ultra gets 36 hours of battery life, but I can easily get three days and two nights with normal usage if I’m just checking the time and receiving notifications. That’s basically an extra day-and-a-half compared to the battery life I get with the Series 8.

The Ultra’s extended battery life is also appealing for tracking fitness metrics during lengthier activities, like long-distance running or a triathlon, where a standard Apple Watch’s battery life may not suffice.

Apple’s new Low Power Mode extends that battery life even further — around an extra day. And you can still track certain functions with the mode enabled, like heart rate and pace for workouts and activities like hikes, which comes especially handy when you’re on a weekend trip with limited access to a charger. 

However, Low Power Mode is not a feature I’d use on an everyday basis, as it dramatically reduces the Ultra’s core functionality. Features like the always-on display and background heart-rate measurements are disabled, complications (widgets) are updated less frequently, and notifications are disabled when your iPhone isn’t nearby. 

Apple Watch Ultra vs. Series 8 vs. SE: Specs at a glance

Should you buy it?

The Apple Watch Ultra is an excellent smartwatch, but I can’t outright recommend that you should spend $800 on it, especially when Apple’s other less expensive smartwatches are so good. 

The biggest, most appreciable aspects of the Apple Watch Ultra for most people are its design, large screen, Action Button, and battery life. If any combination of these aspects appeals to you, and your budget allows for it, you could justify the Ultra’s cost.

If $800 is too much to spend, the aluminum Apple Watch Series 8 offers a pretty much identical experience in Apple’s sleek original Watch design, and the only difference would be the need to charge it more often. 

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