Last year in my review of the Apple Watch Ultra, I said that it was the ideal watch for fitness nerds and nerd nerds. As someone firmly in both camps who used that original watch for a year, I stand by that. While it is a huge extra expense over the vanilla watch ($1,399 VS $649) for a lot of features that most people won’t actually take advantage of, for the people who will use the extra features, it’s fantastic.
But, I also must admit that I did not imagine any universe in which it would be the kind of device that would get an annual upgrade from Apple. I assumed there would only be a release every two years.
So, what’s new in the Apple Watch Ultra 2, who needs it, and is it good? I’ve spent roughly a week with it, and here’s how it stacks up.
What’s new in the Apple Watch Ultra 2
There are lots and lots of new features coming to the Apple Watch Ultra, and other Apple Watches through WatchOS 10. The update to cycling workouts is my favourite thing, but there’s also NameDrop, Widget changes, and the ability to view offline downloaded maps. All great, all coming to both models of Apple Watch Ultra and compatible Apple Watches. So, these don’t really count as new features worth upgrading for (unless you’re coming from Apple Watch Series 3 or older).
What’s actually different is that the Ultra is made out of 95% recycled (or Chad) titanium, whereas the original Ultra was supposedly made out of virgin titanium. You won’t really notice this difference, but it is a nice touch.
The watch has been updated to the new S9 SiP chip that’s in the Apple Watch Series 9, so it’s a bit faster, the screen gets 50% brighter (and it was already extremely bright), and it allows for the new double tap gesture (which is similar to, but different than a previous accessibility feature). The double tap gesture I think is why the Ultra 2 exists, because it’s a significant enough change to how people interact with their watch, and makes a lot of sense for fitness people, that it would likely put some people off going for the original Ultra in favour of the Series 9.
There’s also a new watch face, called Modular Ultra, and it’s perfect for people who want the most complicated watch face imaginable. There are 8 complications on this thing, but it’s still easy to read all the info. I now rely on it completely, but it does take a bit of getting used to, because of how busy it is. It’s probably for people who loved the complications of the wayfinder face, but didn’t want to deal with an analogue clock.
What’s the same about the Apple Watch Ultra 2?
Everything else, really. The battery life is still 36 hours (though I did have some issues with that), it’s still got the same excellent dual-frequency GPS chip (which is far more accurate than your phone, and makes a real difference for hikers and bikers), it’s more rugged than the usual Apple Watch, it’s got the extra action button, and it can be used as a diving watch.
It really is almost the same watch, but with a few key tweaks that will give people who didn’t get the Ultra this year a bit more motivation to upgrade. If you have an Ultra already, this watch is like that, but without the precision finding of your phone or double tap gesture.
Is the Apple Watch Ultra 2 good?
Absolutely. The Apple Watch Ultra was really my ideal Apple Watch, and the Ultra 2 is basically that same watch with a couple of tweaks.
The bigger screen is easier to read. I love the action button because I always, without fail, forget to set up my cycling workout before I get on the bike, and it’s so easy to just press the button to start the work out when I’m at an intersection. Now that the double tap gesture is coming and it’ll be easier to start workouts that are auto-detected, I might start using the action button to mark points of interest on my rides so I can remember to take my wife back there on future rides, or nice picnic spots. Or mark places where magpies have viciously swooped me (twice in two weeks in different towns is starting to feel personal).
The longer battery life of 36 hours has been my favourite feature in the past, because my watch never ran out of battery on a long ride as long as it was charged that morning, and it meant I only had to charge every second day, even if I had a bunch of shorter workouts during the day. But while testing this watch, after 3.5 hour ride I came home with only 9% battery left, despite having had 100% when I left home. I didn’t have any Bluetooth accessories connected to the watch (aside from my phone). I was viewing the workout on my phone (and also had a Strava workout going in the background, and maps, and music playing over Bluetooth headphones, so my phone also got down to 11%, which was understandable at that point).
While I haven’t done many 3.5 hour rides before, I’ve done plenty of two hour rides with WatchOS 10 and iOS 17 in the beta period with my old Apple Watch Ultra, and never had to charge my watch before bed on those days.
I have taken it out for long rides and walks since without any battery issues, so it could just have been a fluke. I’ll update this in a month with some longer-term findings, because batteries are one of those things you have to live with to fully assess.
As for the extra brightness, I never had a problem with the 2,000 nits of brightness of the previous Ultra. At no point have I ever said “Oh no, it’s so sunny that I can’t read this watch, I wish it was brighter” it was mostly “oh god, my retinas, I didn’t mean to turn the brightness up so high”. But, I also live in Melbourne and shun sunlight as a concept, so I might not be the right audience for this feature. It would be useful for people who use their watch as a torch sometimes, but I have never felt the need to do that.
The double tap is really the most significant upgrade in terms of day to day usage, and I can’t test that because it’s not available right now. The videos of it look good, I guess, and I’m looking forward to it, it seems significant.
There are also three different types of bands designed for the Apple Watch Ultra. You can use any Apple Watch band, of course, but these three are designed for sports: Alpine Loop for hikers and cold weather people, Ocean Band for divers, and Trail Loop for runners and cyclists.
Some of this years’ bands are made out of a new “Fine Woven” material which is made out of micro twill. Micro twill can be made out of recycled fibres of the cotton, wool and plastic persuasion. Apple will not specify which, and judging by the feel, these new environmentally friendly bands are made out of recycled plastics (but that’s just a guess).
The Fine Woven fabric feels so soft. I cannot stop patting my soft, soft Trail Loop. Online, I covet the navy Alpine Loop, because it looks so pretty, and I like the hook closure that keeps everything in place. The Ocean Band looks fantastic, but I have never utilised it for its intended purpose, as the ocean is terrifying and it can keep its secrets.
Who is the Apple Watch Ultra 2 for?
If you already have an Apple Watch Ultra 1, look away now, You don’t need this watch. This is just the watch you already have in a new hat.
However, if you’re coming from an older Apple Watch Series, and you spend a lot of time in situations where precise GPS would be helpful, or you need the extra battery life, or you’re just really outdoorsy/sportsy, I can’t recommend the Apple Watch Ultra enough. The Apple Watch is the best general smart watch on the market, and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the regular Apple Watch on steroids. Not everyone needs it, and it’s super expensive, but it is tough and excellent.
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