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Apple Watch Ultra review: Not just for the fitness fanatics

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Apple Watch Ultra
4.0
★★★★★
Finder score

Summary

Quick verdict: The Apple Watch Ultra sells itself as a fitness-first watch. There's a lot to like here if you're into ultramarathons, diving the ocean's depths and longer battery life.

Pros

  • Larger display is easier to read in all situations
  • Considerably more durable for impact and water ingress
  • Massively improved battery life
Cons

  • Expensive
  • Big chunky style won’t suit everyone
  • Some competing fitness watches have even longer battery life

In this guide

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Apple Watch Ultra

Apple has long had "expensive" versions of its Apple Watches, but to date, these have all been style plays, whether you wanted fancy casings, bands or fashion tie-ins.

The Apple Watch Ultra is something different.

It's quite a bit more expensive than either the Apple Watch Series 8 or the Apple Watch SE 2nd Gen but that extra cost isn't because it's encrusted in fine diamonds or bearing the logo of a fashion house to speak of.

It's instead because it's designed to take on the higher-end fitness watch market, which it does quite aggressively.

That could mark it out as quite the niche Apple Watch were it not for the fact that the improvements in durability and especially battery life make it a very suitable alternative to the Apple Watch Series 8. That's presuming you can meet its $1,299 asking price.

While I do really like the Apple Watch Ultra in a whole host of ways, there's just no getting around the fact that this is one expensive smartwatch.

Buy Apple Watch Ultra products


Design: Bold, but with a single style choice

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

Apple has made a lot of Apple Watches over the years. You've generally had a wide array of choices to make when buying one, whether that's in display size or case materials, leaving bands aside for the moment.

That's not what you get with the Apple Watch Ultra. It comes in a single style with a 49mm case, 4mm larger than the Apple Watch Series 8's biggest model. This is one chunky little watch body available only in a titanium finish. The idea here isn't style – it's durability.

The Apple Watch Ultra isn't just a scaling up of the existing Apple Watch design, either. Down the right-hand side, there's the familiar digital crown and side button, but they're housed in new bulky bulges, with a top ridge above the crown and a thick protrusion housing the side button.

I initially found the action of the digital crown a little stiffer than that of the Apple Watch Series 8, although this quickly settled down. Its larger size does mean that I can feel it each time I spin it on the skin of my wrist though.

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

The bigger dial is here so if you're out getting hyper-fit in an activity that requires gloves, you should still be able to work the Apple Watch Ultra. Sadly, Finder's budget didn't extend to a quick jaunt up Mount Everest for me to fully evaluate this, but ad-hoc testing with gloves in summer weather showed it's certainly feasible, if a little sweaty.

The other big change in design terms is an additional button on the left-hand side, which Apple calls the "Action Button". It's a configurable button with an orange ring around it so it's easily visible, designed for quick actions such as starting a workout without a countdown or commencing a dive. It's smartly contextual too, so you can set additional parameters such as measuring an interval in a run if you tap it while already working out.

Adding a button to a watch might not seem like such a big step, but it's genuinely changed how I use the Apple Watch for exercise purposes. As an example, I've long used watch faces with a direct workout complication on them so I could start up my runs as rapidly as possible.

With the Action Button, I can switch to any face I want, with a fast run only a single tap away. I seriously hope Apple doesn't keep this as an Apple Watch Ultra-specific feature for future generations because it's damned handy.

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

New Apple Watch models, especially the pricey ones, tend to come with exclusive watch faces so you can show off that you're not just an ordinary Apple Watch user.

Narcissism aside, it's slightly disappointing that even with the extra space the Apple Watch Ultra's display allows, there's only 1 new face on offer.

The Waypoint face provides easy compass directions and a slew of customisable configurations, as well as quick switching to a red face for low-light situations. I can see the utility here, but I wish Apple had done more in this respect.

It's a similarly laid-back story with watch bands, with just 3 Ultra-specific bands to pick from. The Alpine Loop uses a fiddly hook system to latch into place, although once it's there it's not likely to move all that much. Likewise, the Ocean Band is designed for the diving crowd with a very solid locking mechanism. For day-to-day use, I very much prefer the simple elastic Trail Loop, if only because it's much easier to get it on or off my wrist.

The Apple Watch Ultra will work with existing 45–46mm bands without too much fuss as well, though some do end up looking a little odd against the chunky watch body itself.


Performance: Goes the extra mile – if you can

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

The Apple Watch Ultra's primary selling pitch is that it's an Apple Watch for athletes that need more than they can get out of the regular Apple Watch.

As such, it's essentially the Apple Watch Series 8 on steroids, with the same S8 chip under the hood accentuated by improvements such as dual GPS and a significant upgrade in durability for most extreme athletic conditions.

This includes a bunch of situations that I can't possibly replicate. Finder's budget won't stretch to letting me climb Mount Everest to check how well it can handle low temperatures or being accidentally plunged into the snow, for example.

Apple states that it's capable of surviving at as low as -20 degrees Celsius, or up to 55 degrees in the other direction. There are parts of Australia that might hit the latter over summer the way the climate is going, so stay tuned on that score.

Likewise, it's also sold as a dive watch, with an inbuilt depth sensor and the capability to go down to 40 metres underwater for your scuba adventures.

Again, I couldn't pack that into my review period – and my own health makes scuba a slightly risky activity even with an Apple Watch Ultra strapped to my wrist. I tried jumping into a bath of cold water to see how it would work, but it's just not the same.

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

For the deep dive crew, the Apple Watch Ultra will go a little further with the Oceanic+ app for dive measuring and planning, albeit at a subscription cost of $15.99 a month or $129.99 annually.

What I could – and did – test was its usability as a run tracker. My own running doesn't extend to hyper-marathons to speak of, but the larger screen and faster GPS capabilities of the Apple Watch Ultra are certainly welcome additions.

In the case of GPS, it can manage a lock-on a few seconds faster than the Apple Watch Series 8 in the same conditions, even when you're surrounded by larger buildings.

As for the larger watch face, the benefit here is that it'll show you more metrics while you're running compared to the smaller Apple Watches, as well as being substantially brighter. On a park run on a particularly sunny day, I could still clearly make out just how badly I was doing and how much more I needed to pick up my pace to meet my goals.

That's good for workouts, but it is worth noting that there's not much more where the Apple Watch Ultra uses that extra screen space. You can – as is feasible on other Apple Watch models – play around with default font sizes, but most apps just default to the same kinds of displays for apps that you'll find on other cheaper Apple Watch models.

There's only 1 Apple Watch Ultra model you can buy and that means that the division between Wi-Fi and LTE doesn't exist here. All Apple Watch Ultra models are LTE-ready, though your telco will typically charge extra for you to access that functionality, if it offers it at all.

The one big change here is that the speakers on the Apple Watch Ultra are a little louder and the microphones are also boosted compared to the Apple Watch Series 8. That means you can hear callers a little more clearly when you're out and about and you should have clearer call quality for your own voice as well. I'd still lean towards headphones for those situations because most passers-by (or drop bears) probably don't want to hear your calls anyway.


Battery: Longer battery life than an Apple Watch, less than some competing fitness watches

Apple Watch Ultra review

Image: Alex Kidman/Finder

A bigger watch naturally gives Apple more space to pack in batteries under the sapphire glass of the Apple Watch Ultra's display. In typical Apple style, it doesn't say how big the battery is, but third-party teardowns reveal a 542mAh battery pack lurking within. By way of comparison, the Apple Watch Series 8 has a 308mAh battery to use.

So it's got more power, but it's also got a bigger screen as well as integrated LTE and dual-band GPS to drain the battery away. Like current Apple Watch generations, the default is for an always-on display as well.

Apple's claim for the Apple Watch Ultra is it's capable of up to 36 hours of operation, including a 60-minute workout and 8 hours of LTE operation. If you were relying solely on LTE, that drops to 18 hours or just 2.5 hours if you're on a particularly long voice call.

If grandma calls and she's chatty, you're possibly in trouble for battery life, but that scenario aside, the Apple Watch Ultra does actually deliver on those promises, with an easy 24 hours and more battery life in my own tests.

I could stretch it to around 30 hours at best, but I could see how with slightly different checking frequency that Apple's 36-hour figure wasn't too far off the mark.

For the folks who really want to go off the beaten trail, there's an optional low-power mode that can pump battery life up to 60 hours by disabling features such as the always-on display and lowering the frequency that other sensors such as heart rate tracking operate under.

You can certainly stretch out the battery life of the Apple Watch Ultra a lot with low-power mode. I'm not in a position to go on a 50-hour hike, but I could easily get the Apple Watch Ultra to last through a weekend without looking at a charger with low-power modes enabled. That was more in the space of hiking to and from the sofa or kitchen, mind you.

The catch here is while this is great if you're an Apple Watch fan, it is worth noting that this is still less than many higher-end fitness watches claim. Indeed, some cheaper models such as Huawei's Watch GT 3 SE can outlast the Apple Watch Ultra in this respect, though that's not anywhere near as capable in heavier-duty environments as the Ultra is.

Like the Apple Watch Series 8, Apple provides a magnetically attaching charging cable with the Apple Watch Ultra, but not an included charger.

I could get it to work with older Apple Watch chargers at a slower rate, but sadly not with standard Qi chargers or even MagSafe ones. I do wish Apple would change this up and make it easier to keep an Apple Watch charged. Even with the extended battery life of the Apple Watch Ultra, it'd be nice to top it up more easily.


Should you buy the Apple Watch Ultra?

  • Buy it if you're in the Apple ecosystem and need either its extreme athlete features or extended battery life.
  • Don't buy it if you don't like chunky watches or only need features already on the Series 8 or SE 2nd Gen.

It should be pretty clear that I'm not quite the target market for the Apple Watch Ultra. I just don't have the rugged physique or desires of an ultramarathon runner in me, it seems. Equally, I'm not about to plunge into the ocean's depths any time soon.

On paper, the Apple Watch Ultra should only appeal to that kind of crowd. If that's you and if you're already heavily in the Apple ecosystem and looking for an Apple Watch that will go further and harder, then it's an easy enough recommendation.

It's worth checking what you can get in similar watches from the likes of Garmin at this price point, but Apple's done some smart work here to attract the iPhone faithful.

What if you're like me and don't quite need a scuba-capable Apple Watch? I didn't expect to like the Apple Watch Ultra as much as I do… but I certainly do.

It's primarily that enhanced battery life tied into a brighter screen and the utility of the Action Button that does it for me.

If Apple does bring the Action Button to the series 9 Apple Watch, that pendulum may swing the other way, but in the meantime, if you can afford the Apple Watch Ultra's hefty asking price, it's a great smartwatch choice.


Pricing and availability

The Apple Watch Ultra sells in Australia for $1,299 outright.


Specifications

Specs

Water Resistance Depth
100
Weight
61.3

Features

Gps
Yes
Heart Rate
Yes
Rechargeable
Yes
Touchscreen
Yes
Type
Smartwatch

How we tested

Apple loaned me the Apple Watch Ultra for the purposes of review and I've tested it out over the past few weeks paired to an Apple iPhone 14 Pro. These tests include battery exhaustion tests over multiple days of usage in regular and low-power modes to get a feel for how it operates, as well as standard app usage and exercise tracking, mostly for outdoor running routines.

As a product reviewer, I've got more than 20 years of experience covering the consumer tech space including all Apple products released in that timeframe. I'm a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including winner of the 2022 Best Reviewer award.

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