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Apple Watch Ultra review: Ambitious aspirations

Diving with Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch Ultra

4.5 / 5

The new Apple Watch Ultra packs features tailored for athletes and extreme conditions. It does an exceptional job but still has room to grow.

The new Apple Watch Ultra was unveiled at Apple's fall event in tandem with the launch of the new Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 8. We picked one up with the green Alpine Loop to see if it was enough of an upgrade to sway users away from Garmin and other wearables.

Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch Ultra

The premium Apple Watch Ultra has a 49mm titanium case and up to 36 hours of battery life during normal use.
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Unboxing a new generation of Apple Watch

Upon receiving our new Apple Watch Ultra, we eagerly dug into its packaging. Opening the Ultra felt reminiscent of early Apple Watch models, where Apple put in an abundance of effort crafting the unboxing experience.

That isn't to say recent Apple Watch boxes have been poor, just underwhelming with what Apple had used with the original versions.

As you unwrap the outer paper — which is thick and has a matte finish — you'll see a mountainous vignette printed on the inside like some adventurous mural.

Rather than a thin sheet of paper or a small pamphlet, a whole booklet is enclosed to walk you through the basics of the Apple Watch Ultra. On the front of this booklet is like a puzzle piece, blending in with the wrapping paper imagery.

The band and watch are each packaged separately, stacked in the center. The Apple Watch Series 8, plus the last several generations, have small, compact packaging, whereas the Ultra has more space, highlighting the watch itself.

Braided Apple Watch charging cable
Braided Apple Watch charging cable

Aside from the Apple Watch Ultra, you also receive a braided USB-C charging puck. The puck has a metal cover, and the nylon braid will hopefully extend the cable's lifespan. If nothing else, it feels more premium.

Apple Watch gets a redesign

Sure, the Apple Watch has gotten thinner over the years, but it still looks about the same as that first fashion-oriented model. Apple Watch Ultra did retain that rounded rectangular face, not circular like so many others, which we don't mind after using it all these years.

Apple Watch Series 8 (left) and Apple Watch Ultra (right)
Apple Watch Series 8 (left) and Apple Watch Ultra (right)

One notable change is the display. It's a new, larger size measuring 49mm. The previous maximum was 45mm, which is notable side by side.

It's big enough that on petite wrists, it may look funky or too large. We have average or slightly below average it looks better on our wrists in person than we expected.

Protected Digital Crown
Protected Digital Crown

This time, the Digital Crown has sized up, increasing by roughly 30 percent with increased knurling that should make it easier to control with gloves. It sits in a new lip that protects the Digital Crown on either side.

The opposing side of the Apple Watch Ultra has a larger speaker and the new Action Button, highlighted in vivid "International Orange" color.

In this new arrangement, the Digital Crown is more protected — but also harder to press and rotate. You can't slide your finger too far forward when rotating it, or you'll hit the new lip.

Louder speaker and Action Button
Louder speaker and Action Button

Similarly, when we squeeze the watch to press the Crown or side button, we wind up inadvertently pressing the Action Button quite frequently. This is mostly muscle memory, and personal retraining more than anything else.

A narrow bezel encompasses the new flat display, dropping the rounded edges all other Apple Watch models have. The idea here is the very slightly raised bezel will protect the screen from casual bumps and nicks.

After some early rumors suggesting vast incompatibility with every other watch band, all 42mm, 44mm, and 45mm bands will work with the Ultra. That means the Leather Loop you purchased with your original Apple Watch almost a decade ago will still work with this new model.

Some bands will not fit perfectly seamlessly and may not go entirely across the width of the watch, but it's largely unnoticeable.

What sets the Apple Watch Ultra apart

Internally, Apple Watch Ultra has the same S8 SiP as the Apple Watch Series 8 — which houses the same CPU as the Apple Watch Series 7. With the same internals, Apple has several hardware changes to differentiate it from the other models.

Apple Watch Series 7 had two titanium hues to choose from — but the Series 8 does not.

Durability is a big theme with the Apple Watch Ultra and its new design. You've probably heard about the titanium's strength and the improvements to the front sapphire crystal. It can withstand extreme temps too, from -20 C to 55 C.

That display isn't just bigger, but it is brighter too. It can reach up to 2000 nits of brightness in sunlight — twice as bright as the Series 8.

Setting up the Action Button
Setting up the Action Button

We also briefly mentioned the new Action Button. Upon setup, Apple prompts you with several choices on how to program the Action Button. You can turn on the flashlight, jump into the Workout app, start a dive, log a waypoint, start Backtrack, or even run a Shortcut.

Once the Ultra is set up, you can change this Action Button functionality anytime from within Settings. It's here in Settings you can further customize this control.

For example, if you choose the Workout app, you have multiple options. You can launch the Workout app or start a pre-chosen workout, like that run you go on each morning.

Apple has opened this button to developers so it can do different things for other apps. The upcoming Oceanic+ app will let you start logging your SCUBA dive as another example.

On diving, the Apple Watch Ultra is rated for 100M of water resistance and recreational diving down to 40M. Apple even went the extra step to receive EN13319 certification, an internationally-recognized standard for dive accessories.

Apple Watch Ultra touts the largest battery life. Compared to the Apple Watch Series 8, it should last twice as long with regular use.

Then there is the siren. The new siren, which has a dedicated app, is far louder than any other Apple Watch speaker. It can reach 86 decibels which can be heard from 600 feet away.

If you trigger it, it will repeat a pattern to help make it more discernible for those listening. Indoors, and obviously, the siren is deafening. What you get outdoors depends on the clutter around you.

When in the Siren app, it dims the screen, shows the time, and gives you a timer on how long before the battery dies. Helpful if you're ever lost and in need of rescue.

Wayfinder face
The new Wayfinder face

On the software side, Apple Watch Ultra does come with the exclusive Wayfinder face, specifically designed for exploring and taking advantage of the screen real estate.

The Wayfinder face supports eight total complications, with four in the center and four in the corners. It can show your current elevation and position without the need for dedicated complications.

When you rotate the Digital Crown, the face dims and features a black background with red letters, numbers, and icons. It looks slick, but it's only the watch face that gets this Darth Vader-looking color scheme.

Diving with Apple Watch Ultra

As winter is quickly approaching, we couldn't take the Apple Watch Ultra SCUBA diving quite yet, plus the Oceanic+ app Apple promoted isn't yet available. That said, we could take the plunge into a pool to test out the Depth app before it was closed for the season.

The Apple Watch Ultra comes preinstalled with the new — and barebones — Depth app. Logically, you need to submerge the watch before it can do anything.

Apple Watch Ultra underwater
Apple Watch Ultra underwater

A waterline drops down from the top when submerged, denoting your depth. The left side reads in feet while the right reads in meters.

In the center, you'll see your current depth, time underwater, the water temperature, and the deepest recorded depth during that excursion.

Post-dive recap
Post-dive recap

The Ultra will show your dive summary as you surface and prompt you to exit water mode. Exiting the water mode will play precisely-selected tones to help eject water from the speaker grille.

While we dove, it was easy to see the face, and it was plenty bright, even on a sunny day in shallow water. The Ocean band was comfortable, with enough stretch to fit over our hefty seven-mil wetsuit.

Apple Watch Ultra versus Cressi dive watch
Apple Watch Ultra versus Cressi dive watch

While the Depth app is more than sufficient here in a pool or even for most free divers, SCUBA differs. We already dove — pun intended — into the Apple Watch's capabilities with casual diving, but we're eager to put it more to the test.

We can confidently say that the first generation Apple Watch Ultra is a good entry-level dive watch for recreational divers. We hope Apple explores further enhancements for diving in subsequent versions.

Taking on Garmin

At launch, the Apple Watch was wanting. Since then, Apple shifted away from the fashion-heavy debut to fitness. It has evolved from a single product with multiple finishes, to an entire lineup.

After the Apple Watch SE and too-long available Apple Watch Series 3 started the lineup expansion, the Apple Watch Ultra arrived with new features and a new design while also incorporating changes from the standard Series 8.

But it was also tackling another issue for Apple — Garmin and others were drawing away athletic customers. Garmin's Fenix line is popular with pro athletes and weekend warriors who want something a bit more capable.

Garmin has models with massive days-long battery life, support for marathons and triathlons, and withstand the elements. Garmin has had an everyday smartwatch capable of SCUBA dive tracking for years. Apple had to play catch-up.

In some ways, the Ultra answers those shortcomings. Battery life can now last more than just a day, and as we've already discussed, it can act as a dive watch.

With watchOS 9, there are more metrics for runners too. This update also brought the new BackTrack feature to help prevent you from getting lost in the wilderness — another prominent competitor feature.

Holding Apple Watch Ultra
Holding Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch Ultra will sway some Garmin users. But, battery life still isn't terribly long compared to 7-day to 10-day wear times, and Garmin's Descent MK2i has full air integration for diving.

There's a lot of potential here, and the Apple Watch Ultra proves Apple is willing to listen to athletes that need more.

Historically, Apple's very first version of a product is good enough for most. Improvements on a second version start to convince some hold-outs that it'll do what they need it to do.

The Apple Watch Ultra is not an exception to this general rule.

Battery life

Most frequently, you'll hear Apple boast about Apple Watch as having "all-day" battery life. If you want to put a number on that, it's around 18 hours. Apple Watch Ultra is supposed to double that, yielding 36 hours on a charge.

You can wear Apple Watch Ultra for up to 36 hours
You can wear Apple Watch Ultra up to 36 hours

We have found Apple's ratings for Apple Watch batteries on the conservative side, often getting more than was promised. That's what we've seen here with the Ultra.

We've repeatedly been able to get two full days of use with two nights of sleep tracking before the low battery alert appears. Your experience will vary based on how you use your watch.

Later this year, Apple will release a device-specific low-power mode for Ultra users that should get about 60 hours of usage by disabling features such as the always-on display.

The Apple Watch Ultra also takes a little longer to charge than we'd initially anticipated. It still supports fast charging, but since it has a larger battery life, it is a little behind the speed of the Series 7 and Series 8.

Some new bands

Alongside the Apple Watch Ultra, Apple released three new styles of bands. All are purpose-driven in their design.

The new bands are Ocean, Alpine Loop, and Trail Loop, which are loosely designed for diving, climbing, and running, respectively. Our favorite so far has been the Alpine Loop.

Green Alpine Loop
Green Alpine Loop band

Each band is intricately crafted with small details to aid their intended uses, though it's just as valid to use them day-to-day.

Alpine Loop has a titanium buckle that tucks into the loops and is exceptionally strong. Ocean is comprised of a rubberized material that can easily fit over a wetsuit and uses a movable titanium latch. Trail Loop has a quick-grab tab for on-the-go adjustments and reflective fibers for enhanced visibility.

These new bands aren't exclusive to the Ultra. They can all be used with any 45mm Apple Watch.

Should you buy the Apple Watch Ultra?

If we were summarizing the Apple Watch Ultra into a single word, it would probably be "great."

You have all the benefits of the Apple Watch Series 8, such as crash detection, temperature monitoring, and the S8 SiP but many others as well. It has a new look, premium materials, plus thoughtful considerations and customizations.

Not to mention the improved durability and its ability to be used as a full-fledged dive watch. It's a lot to love.

At the same time, it feels a little like a first-gen product. There's one color option, no air integration for diving, and harder-core athletes will still be asking for more.

Apple Watch Ultra
Apple Watch Ultra

There isn't anything wrong with picking up the Apple Watch Ultra this year though I think the part we're most excited about is the future of this upgraded product line.

With Apple Watch Ultra, Apple has some high ambitions to meet its users' aspirations, and in many ways, it delivers.

Apple Watch Ultra pros

  • Biggest change to Apple Watch since launch
  • Finally, multi-day battery life
  • Premium materials and ultra-rugged design
  • First Apple Watch to work as a dive computer
  • Crash detection and temperature monitoring
  • New physical controls with programmable Action Button

Apple Watch Ultra cons

  • Still not as capable as specific gear for devoted athletes
  • Using as a dive computer requires paid subscription
  • Battery life still not as long as competition
  • Low power mode optimized for Ultra hasn't arrived yet

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Where to buy the Apple Watch Ultra

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You can also order the Ultra at Amazon, with easy price comparison at your fingertips in our Apple Watch Ultra Price Guide.