Apple Watch Ultra: The Watch For Fitness Nerds and Nerd Nerds

Apple Watch Ultra: The Watch For Fitness Nerds and Nerd Nerds

I’ve always really loved the Apple Watch because it’s such a seamless smartwatch. It does all the main things I need it to do in a way that is easy and obvious and gets out of my way. However, when it comes to proper, in-depth workout metrics and long-lasting batteries, the Apple Watch has always been left in the dust by watches from Garmin and Suunto. Even the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro delivered more on what I want from a fitness watch than the standard Apple Watch. The Apple Watch Ultra paired with WatchOS 9 is Apple’s response to that criticism, and it’s almost everything I wanted from a fitness-focussed Apple Watch.

However, it’s still clear that this Apple Watch Ultra is a first-generation device, and as excellent as it is, there is plenty of room to grow.

Here are my thoughts on the Apple Watch Ultra after taking it through its paces for a few days.

How is the Apple Watch Ultra different to the Apple Watch Series 8?

Left to right: Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch Series 8, Apple Watch SE. Image: Alice Clarke

The Apple Watch Ultra is just a lot more watch in just about every way.

  • 49mm case instead of 41-45mm (though, the screen is almost the same size as the 45mm, it just feels bigger).
  • L1 and L5 GPS instead of just L1 (so it’s more accurate with tall buildings and trees around).
  • Twice as much battery life (18 hours of all-day LTE, 36 hours of regular use, 60 hours in a new battery optimiser mode that’s coming soon).
  • It works like an amateur dive computer, rated for diving to 40m with EN13319 certification, and has a depth gauge.
  • It has no mouth, but it must scream (it has an 86dB siren that can be heard 180m away if you get lost).
  • All Apple Watch Ultras (Apple Watches Ultra? Is this a Surgeons General situation?) have cellular.
  • The Digital Crown is protected in a little titanium guard, along with the button.
  • Has a size and heft that would come in handy if you ever found yourself in hand-to-hand combat and are willing to fight dirty, but surprisingly isn’t that much heavier than the Series 8. It’s 61.3g compared to the 45mm stainless steel’s 51.5g. The difference is starker between the 40mm GPS SE (26.4g) and the Ultra (61.3g), so you will notice the weight more depending on which watch you’re coming from.
  • Titanium case, so it’s lighter, stronger and gets Sia stuck in your head.
  • Brighter display goes to 2000 nits so you can read it in bright sunlight and blind your opponents. Also makes a good torch.
  • An action button.
  • A Wayfinder face that includes a compass and eight complications.
  • Night mode (only on the Wayfinder face).
  • It’s more expensive, with the only model retailing for $1299, which is $510 more expensive than the cheapest cellular Series 8 option.
  • The screen is a flat sapphire crystal with display edge protection, which means it’s less likely to break if you slip over while hiking or biking.

On top of that, it has all the new stuff introduced with the Apple Watch Series 8:

  • Car crash detection.
  • Temperature sensor for retroactive ovulation tracking (giving you insight into why you were grumpy five days ago, also handy for getting pregnant/avoiding pregnancy).

Apple Watch Ultra fitness features

The main reason to buy an Apple Watch Ultra is because it’s a fitness watch and you, the user, are super into fitness. At the September event in Cupertino, Apple put a lot of emphasis on how you can swim 3.8kms, cycle 180kms and then run a marathon as part of a long-distance triathlon with your watch on Low Power Mode, and that’s really impressive. I did not test that ability, because that doesn’t sound fun to me and I think I would die.

What I did do was use the new pacer workout mode (which is part of WatchOS 9) to set a PB on a 30km outdoor cycling workout, mostly on my favourite Melbourne cycling trail, the Capital City Trail. It’s a gorgeous path, partially along the Yarra. You’re riding through the city with all the tall buildings, and then in amongst a lot of tall trees, which can be a real challenge for GPS. I chose this area for three reasons: I love riding there, it provides a good test, and I thought it would look good in photos of the watch. Unfortunately, I last minute decided it would be better to test the capabilities of the watch without the phone, forgetting that would mean I couldn’t take photos. So, please enjoy this artist’s impression of my ride:

A poorly drawn arm with a large Apple Watch near a bike and water and the worst illustrated trees you've ever seen
I forgot about the rest of my arm, and I realised mid-way through that I don’t know how to draw trees. But this is roughly what it looked like on my ride. You can see the red and green bar that shows if you’re on track to make your goal. Also, my little finger doesn’t look like that, but I don’t know how to draw the left hand, either. Image: Alice Clarke

That new pacer view really helped me keep on track, and even smash my goal. Because the screen was so bright, I could read it easily even with my sunglasses on in the unseasonable sunlight. I’m used to my Series 7 not quite capturing all of my route, but the Ultra nailed it on the GPS.

The Action Button was helpful to mark segments and pressing the regular button and the Action Button to pause made for more accurate pausing with my gloves on.

After doing the 30km ride in 88 minutes, I started a new Open Goal cycling workout for the extra 5kms home, which I followed up with a walk for a little more than 7kms with my mum. Mum has a Series 5 Apple Watch, and we started the GPS at the same moment and stayed together the whole time, going through the city and then down the other side of the Yarra. For the start of the walk, her watch said she’d walked further, but by the end my watch said I’d walked further. Looking at the route in the Fitness app, it’s unsurprising that the Apple Watch Ultra was the more accurate.

Series 5 and an Ultra on arms that look disturbingly similar, separated by only 40 years.
Not only can you see the difference in the metrics, but also in the brightness and readability of the two watch generations. Image: Alice Clarke

After that I did sleep tracking with it on, tracked a 45-minute Pilates class, tracked a walk with my phone in my pocket, tracked a run without my phone, and, after all that, the watch ran out of battery 29 hours after being taken off the charger.

Those new GPS chips, coupled with the more rugged watch housing, and significantly larger battery, along with the new workout tracking features introduced in WatchOS 9 mean that this watch will suit most Apple-using fitness enthusiasts. Those who need even more metrics, or a lighter watch, or weeks of battery, might be better off with other brands, but this will suit the majority of fitness enthusiasts.

I do wish there were more improvements to cycling workouts, and that I could pair my cadence sensors with the workout app so I didn’t need to bring my phone with Cycle Meter on it to properly track my metrics. But this is a first-generation device, and I’m sure if enough cyclists ask for it, that feature will come to the second generation.

The new interval training for running made a huge difference. I used to do a few half marathons a year, but I hadn’t run at all since lockdown 3 in Melbourne. Being able to build in rest times and see my heart rate zones (which I first got into during the Adidas MiCoach watch days, remember them?) made going from zero to 2kms seem less daunting and more fun. The watch was noticeably heavy on the run, but not detrimentally so, and it’s something I will adjust to over time.

New bands

The yellow Ocean band on the Apple Watch Series 8 and the regular sports loop on the Apple Watch Ultra
The Ocean band on the Apple Watch Series 8 and the regular sports loop on the Apple Watch Ultra. Image: Alice Clarke

It’s not a new Apple Watch without shiny new accessories, and it’s obvious the care and thought that’s been put into the new bands for Apple Watch Ultra. The two that I’ve been testing have been the Alpine Loop and Ocean Band.

The Alpine Loop looks striking and cool in fluro orange and I love it. It has a hook system designed to keep it in place while you climb up a snow-covered mountain. It also stays firmly on your wrist while doing a Body Attack class, which is arguably a harder challenge. It’s a touch chunky, but it’s light and comfortable to wear and sleep in.

Ocean Bands are designed to stretch so you can wear them over a wetsuit when you go diving, but they also look like they belong in a room with a lava lamp and inflatable furniture, so they’re right on trend. You can easily move the metal strap holder thingy, and it really locks in place.

There is a third band that I really like, the Trail Loop, which I saw at the event in California that Apple invited me along to. It’s like a thinner, lighter, easier to adjust version of the Sport Loop. This is probably more of the everyday Ultra band, because it’ll blend better with more outfits and situations.

That said, you can use any 44/45mm band with the Ultra, and vice versa.

Never get lost again

What backtrack looks like on the Apple Watch Ultra. Image: Apple

The big addition in WatchOS 9 for hikers is Waypoints, which allows you to save areas of interest. On Apple Watch Ultra, you can add these more easily by just pressing the Action Button, then you’re given the option to name and decorate the Waypoint. If you leave Wi-Fi and mobile network coverage, the watch will automatically set a Waypoint and turn on Backtrack so you can retrace your steps and find your way back. This way you can set Waypoints for your campsite, medical tent, where the creek is, where the pretty waterfall is, where you parked the car, etc. If you customise it, you can just use the Action Button to set Waypoints on the fly.

When I go hiking next week, I’m looking forward to using this feature for its intended purpose.

However, there are so many applications for this. Ever gotten lost in a shopping centre and can’t find the car? Just set a Waypoint, or even turn on Backtrack if you’re only going in for a couple of things. Passing one of those new cafes that are too cool for signage and want to check it out later? Waypoint.

Waypoints don’t clear automatically, either, so I’m really excited to start setting them all over the world in my favourite places when I travel, so I can go back to them later. You can clear Waypoints manually, but I’m told you can set at least 1,000 before you start running into issues (and even then, it’s probably fine).

Waypoints aren’t exclusive to the Ultra, but they are more accurate because of the two GPS sensors. They’re also not perfect. They only show up as a random dot point in a black void rather than on a map, which would make more sense. If the concern was that people off the grid wouldn’t be able to view maps, why not allow people to download maps for offline use like other brands do? That would solve many problems. Hopefully Waypoint map support comes in an update later.

What’s missing from the Apple Watch Ultra?

And Apple Watch Ultra with a yellow Ocean band on a wooden floor
Image: Alice Clarke

While the Apple Watch Ultra is my favourite smart watch ever, it’s still clear that it’s a first-generation device, and so there are some things missing that will hopefully be added in future updates or the second generation.

For example, the Digital Crown is designed to be used with gloves, which is great. However, you can’t control the whole watch with the buttons, so there are many things you just can’t do with gloves on. Perhaps one day soon they can introduce “glove mode” or something.

There also aren’t any extra cycling features – you still need a bunch of third-party apps and subscriptions to do things that Suunto and Garmin watches include by default. What I really want to see for cycling is the inclusion of a map view in workouts, the ability to pair cadence sensors and the ability to share cycling routes from the watch with friends. On the Samsung Galaxy Watch5 Pro (which I also love), you can make routes to do again later and compete on. I want that for Apple Watch Ultra.

As I just mentioned, you can’t download maps, and you can’t view Waypoints on a map.

Unlike many other fitness watches, it doesn’t have recovery metrics. That was my favourite thing about the Whoop fitness band. It’s all well and good to know how hard you worked out, but recovery is just as important. I go to the gym 6-8 times a week, cycle 30-60kms and walk a lot. Could I stand to switch out some Pilates classes for more weightlifting? How long should I be leaving between big rides if I’m also lifting? Other watches can give me a good idea about this, and the Apple Watch Ultra has more sensors and metrics than most, so surely this would just be a software thing?

I still don’t find phone call quality to be great on it with the tiny speaker, which is fine, because it is a watch. But Apple does tout the new speaker system and call quality, and I was unimpressed. 

Is the Apple Watch Ultra good and who needs one?

An Apple Watch saying someone ran 2kms in 13 minutes in front of a lawn
Most Apple Watch Ultra users will run further than this, but they don’t have to. Image: Alice Clarke

While it’s not perfect, this is the best Apple Watch for fitness enthusiasts. Yes, there are more things I want to see in later generations, but it’s mostly nit-picking things that won’t affect a lot of users.

If there is a particular sport you love, and you just stick to that sport and want all the metrics you can get with a long battery life, then there are Garmin watches that might suit you better. If you want to be motivated to exercise by seeing a heat map of where people are doing your favourite exercise near you, then Suunto is a better choice.

But if you want an Apple Watch with double the battery life, designed to withstand harsh climates and being bashed around, with more than enough metrics for most non-Olympians on most sports, then you can’t go past the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s a more than good enough upgrade over the Series 8 to justify the price bump (in fact, I expected it to be $1500). This is pretty much the Apple Watch I have been waiting for. It’s not going to fit or suit folks with very small wrists, but those who like to pull off a chunky watch will love it.

If you’re not a fitness enthusiast, but still have the cash to splash and want more battery life, it’s not as good value over the Series 8, but there’s no reason not to go for it if you like it. Sure, it’s designed for those hardcore into fitness, but it’s still got everything an Apple Watch does, plus more battery, a cool chunky look and an extra button.