Apple Watch Ultra review: Rugged and ready

Apple announced three new smartwatches during an event in September 2022 and while two are upgrades to devices we’ve seen before, the third is a new kid on the block. The Apple Watch Ultra is pitched as a smartwatch for extreme sports enthusiasts and its rugged casing and tougher shell moves it into Garmin’s territory.

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Does it have the minerals to compete though, and what’s it actually like? I’ve tested the Apple Watch Ultra from an everyday point of view rather than the extreme sports angle, though if you’re looking for the nitty-gritty details of how the Watch Ultra performs in the wilderness, our sister site, The Gear Loop has an in-depth review that focuses on the GPS, diving capabilties and anything else you might want to know. If you’re considering buying the Apple Watch Ultra to wear as an everyday device though, I’ve got you covered. Here’s my review.

Apple / Pocket-lint

Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch Ultra is the Apple Watch Series 8 on steroids, plus so much more. It’s bulked up to offer a more rough and ready device with not only a tougher casing, but a bigger one too, alongside a bigger and stunning display, more tactile buttons and extra buttons too. If you want an Apple Watch that stands out from the rest of the portfolio, delivers great performance and offers a great design, this is it. You’ll just need to dig deep to get it.

Pros

  • Bold and chunky design
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Lovely display
  • Great battery compared to other Apple Watches
Cons

  • Pricey
  • Will be too large for some


Rugged, premium design

  • 49mm casing, titanium
  • IP6X, MIL-STD-810H, EN13319, WR100
  • Customisable Action button
  • One colour option: Natural Titanium

The Apple Watch Ultra borrows from the tried and tested Apple Watch design that hasn’t really changed much since its initial launch in 2015. Sure, the display space has expanded within the footprint available and new sensors have been added, but the rectangular shape with curved edges and rounded corners remains.

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That design is super-sized on the Apple Watch Ultra though. It is tougher, bulkier and quite significantly larger – possibly too large for some. The casing moves from aluminium and stainless steel – both of which the Series 8 is offered in – to titanium, like the older Apple Watch Edition. Titanium is said to be more resistant to scratches and drops, which makes the Apple Watch Ultra more suitable for the rough terrain environments it’s pitched towards. It’s beneficial in everyday use too though, with not a scratch on it and I’ve had it since September 2022.

The bulkier 49mm casing has rounded edges with an extra section at the top leading into the display, which is completely flat, rather than rounded like the Series 8. The Ultra’s casing is intentionally not as streamlined as the Series 8, with a bit more about it. The Digital Crown has an extra layer, with more ridges for a more tactile approach and the ability to use it with gloves and it’s lovely in practice. There’s also an added customisable button on the left edge, which is bright orange and can be used to start a workout, a new dive, or a new segment, for example. If you press and hold it, it will also activate the built-in siren, which is 86dB and designed to be heard 180-metres away – it’s exceptionally loud so be prepared if you’re giving it a go. Alongside that orange Action button – as Apple calls it – are dual-speakers too, as well as the GPS antenna so there is plenty on offer here.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 8

The button on the right edge beneath the Digital Crown remains a function button but it is larger and more prominent on the Watch Ultra than previous Watch models. There are also lugs at the top and bottom of the Watch Ultra, attaching the specially-designed straps – which are still interchangeable. There are three options – Alpine Loop, Trail Loop and Ocean Band – though the Watch Ultra is also compatible with the 44mm and 45mm straps available for standard Apple Watch models too, and actually I highly recommend trying out the simple Sport Loop options with the Watch Ultra as it gives the device a very different feel to the bulkier Ocean Band that came with my review model.

The large size of the Watch Ultra does mean that it is not going to suit dainty wrists quite as well as the smaller Watch Series 8, but this all depends on the look you’re going for, as well as what you want from your smartwatch. It’s very comfortable to wear, surprisingly so in fact, and the large format didn’t look awful on our small wrists either. It’s certainly a statement and this is a watch that doesn’t go unnoticed – I get daily comments about it when I wear it. I love that though, and I love the flat display and its unapologetic chunkiness. It’s big, bold and it owns it.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 12

The Apple Watch Ultra is water resistant to 100 metres, and it is also IP6X rated, offers a MIL-STD-810H rating, and it is EN13319 rated, which is the dive computer standard. That all means the Watch Ultra is suitable for most conditions, so it is more than capable of handling average environments.

Larger, flatter display

  • Always-on Retina display, 410 x 502 pixels
  • 2000nits brightness
  • Flat Sapphire Crystal

The Apple Watch Ultra has the largest display of the current Apple Watch models offered and it is the brightest too at 2000nits – the same as the iPhone 14 Pro. Protected by Sapphire Crystal – and flat as we mentioned – the Ultra’s display is designed to be able to withstand scratches and edge impacts. In my experience, it achieves this too, as while my Watch Ultra’s body has avoided scratches and scruffs, the display has also managed to avoid them. My Series 8 isn’t doing too badly either for what it is worth, though it does have small scratch on it, while the Watch Ultra is still pristine.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 17

There’s an Always On Display too, like the Series 8, meaning you can always see information on the screen, such as the time or your Activity Rings for example. There’s also a Night Mode function when you rotate the Digital Crown upwards when on the Wayfinder technical face, turning the details of the face to a bright red. The Wayfinder face offers up to eight complications and it features a time dial that can be switched to a live compass.

The borders around the display on the Watch Ultra are super slim too, offering plenty of screen real estate within the footprint and it’s a genuinely lovely user experience. The Retina display has a resolution of 502 x 410 pixels that delivers a great amount of detail on a bright and punchy screen with vibrant colours and deep blacks. There’s also ample brightness, with absolutely no problems seeing the screen in outdoor conditions when the sun is shining at its brightest. As I said though, I’m coming at this review from an everyday usage point of view so it might be different if surfing with the water reflection or up a mountain, but in general, the display on the Watch Ultra is excellent in my experience.

Hardware and features

  • S8 with 64-bit dual-core processor
  • W3 wireless chip, U1
  • LTE and UMTS
  • Bluetooth 5.3

The Apple Watch Ultra runs on the S8 chip, which is a 64-bit dual-core processor, and there is a W3 wireless chip and U1 ultra-wide band chip on board too, like the Apple Watch Series 8. It also features the same plethora of sensors like the Series 8, including the usuals like an optical heart rate sensor, blood oxygen sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and altimeter.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 16

The accelerometer has been upgraded since the Series 7, offering up to 256g-forces instead of 32g-forces, and there is a body temperature sensor too. The body temperature sensor aids the Watch Ultra – and the Series 8 – in detecting when a woman ovulates. This feature is more useful in the Watch Series 8 though, in my opinion, as the Watch Ultra isn’t really a device you want to sleep with, much like the Garmin Fenix 6 isn’t. It’s that little bit too large, while the 45mm Apple Watch Series 8 just about gets away with it for me in terms of size. Still, if you do decide that sleeping with a chunky smartwatch on your wrist is something you want to do, the Watch Ultra offers great sleep tracking that is significantly more useful with watchOS 9 than it was beforehand. There’s a separate feature on sleep tracking with the Apple Watch that’s worth a read if you are interested in the data offered and how you get the most out of it.

Alongside being able to take an ECG, track blood oxygen, track a multitude of sports, receive smartphone notifications and use various apps, the Watch Ultra also detect if you’ve been in a car crash, calling and sending your location to the emergency services and notifying your emergency contacts. It also has international roaming. I thankfully haven’t had to test the Crash Detection feature, though performance of the other features on the Watch Ultra are excellent. The Apple Watch is fantastic when it comes to heart rate tracking and the Watch Ultra is no different, while the multitude of workouts available to track and the Rings feature make you want to get up and move, even on the days that TV and the sofa are more appealing.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 13

There’s also a compass on board the Watch Ultra – as you would expect, a depth gauge, precision dual-frequency GPS that uses L1 and L5 GOS for more precise metrics and there’s a built-in siren too, as we mentioned. It is also LTE, with no GPS-only model available, as there is with the Series 8 and it has an operating temperature between -20-degrees celcius to 55-degrees celcius.

Longer-lasting battery

  • Up to 36-hours
  • Up to 18-hours LTE
  • Up to 60-hours in Low Power Mode

The Apple Watch Ultra has a larger battery than the Series 8 – or any other previous Apple Watch, with claims of a 36-hour life compared to the 18-hours offered by the standard model. This is still a far cry from the Garmin Fenix’s of the rugged smartwatch world, but substantially better than the Apple Watch has offered in the past and it’s very refreshing in use.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 2

Not having to charge the Watch Ultra every night is great and aside from the different design, it’s the best thing about the Watch Ultra when it comes to everyday use. In my experience, I got just under the claimed 36-hours in standard use, but that includes workouts, sometimes multiple in a day, and it’s also two days more than the Watch Series 8 offers so it makes a big difference in day-to-day use. With thee Watch Series 8, I have to remember to charge it before I go to bed. The Watch Ultra meanwhile, allows me to go at least a couple of days without needing to be hooked up with its white disc, though GPS does impact battery life and what you get out of it will depend on your personal usage so keep that in mind.

There’s also a 60-hour promise when used in Low Power mode, which arrived via a software update several months after the Watch Ultra launched. There’s a separate feature all about the Low Power mode on Watch Ultra you can read if you want to learn more about what how to turn it on and what features you lose when it is on.

Software

  • watchOS 9
  • Will support watchOS 10

The Apple Watch Ultra runs on watchOS 9 for now, though it will be compatible with watchOS 10 when that launches later this year. WatchOS 10 was previewed during Apple’s Worldwide developer conference (WWDC) in June 2023 and it will bring some big changes to how you use Apple Watch and the interface, with widgets playing a key role. There’s also a Snoopy watch face coming, which is going to look epic on the Watch Ultra’s large display. You can read more about watchOS 10 in our separate feature but for now, it’s watchOS 9 that runs the show on Watch Ultra and it’s a great show. The software update brought more advanced sleep tracking with sleep stages, as we mentioned, along with several other features that I’ve detailed in the watchOS 9 feature, many of which you also get on the Watch Series 8 so you don’t necessarily need a Watch Ultra to get access to the features but the experience on the Ultra is great overall, showcasing the software capabilties brilliantly.

Apple Watch Ultra review - 7

There are a couple of extras with the Watch Ultra though, including the ability to programme the orange Action button. It means you can choose to get that button to start a workout for example, which stops you having to swipe the screen – much handier when you have wet hands or it is raining. There are also plenty of other uses, as we mentioned.

Verdict

The Apple Watch Ultra is the Apple Watch Series 8 on steroids, plus so much more. It’s bulked up to offer a more rough and ready device with not only a tougher casing, but a bigger one too, alongside a bigger and stunning display, more tactile buttons and extra buttons too. And that’s without the better battery life compared to other Apple Watch models.

Its size and chunkiness mean it won’t suit everyone’s tastes, and for some, it will be overkill for what you need in terms of features, or perhaps well out of budget as let’s face it, it isn’t cheap. For others though, the Apple Watch Ultra is the Apple Watch you’ve been waiting a long time for, especially with all the extra features and the differentiation in design. Whether you should buy it in place of a Garmin Fenix model if you’re interested in extreme sports is perhaps arguable, and the Watch Series 8 offers pretty much all the same sensors for half the price, but if you want an Apple Watch that stands out from the rest of the portfolio, delivers great performance and offers a great design, this is it. You’ll just need to dig deep to get it.

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