Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965 — which watch should you buy?

a photo of the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and the Garmin Forerunner 965
(Image credit: Future)

So you’re looking to upgrade your running watch and trying to choose between the new Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Garmin’s most premium Forerunner, the Forerunner 965. To help you decide, we’ve put the two watches head-to-head. 

Before we get started, it’s worth pointing out that if you’re an Android user, the choice might be far simpler than you’ve anticipated. As with all of the best Apple Watches, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is only usable with iOS devices. The Garmin Forerunner 965 is compatible with both iOS and Android via the Garmin Connect app.  

If you’d prefer to read the full reviews before deciding which to buy, check out our Apple Watch Ultra 2 review and our Garmin Forerunner 965 review here on Tom’s Guide. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Price and availability 

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the newer of the two watches, released in September 2023. Costing $799/ £849/ AU$1,299, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 doesn’t come cheap. It's a singular model, outfitted with cellular support. In other words, cellular connectivity isn't optional the way it is for the Apple Watch 9. 

The Garmin Forerunner 965, on the other hand, was released in March 2023, so is the older of the two watches. It’s slightly cheaper than the Apple Watch Ultra 2, costing $599/£599/AU$899.

Both watches are available from third-party retailers, such as Amazon, as well as from Apple and Garmin directly. If you are looking for a slightly more affordable option, the Apple Watch Ultra is likely to be on sale now the Ultra 2 has been released.

Winner: Garmin Forerunner 965. The clear winner here in terms of price is the Garmin, which comes in $200 cheaper than the Apple Watch Ultra. If you’re after a marathon-tracking watch and want to save some cash, opt for the Garmin.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Design and display 

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 and the Garmin Forerunner 965 both have beautiful, bright displays, but look different from a design perspective. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 looks pretty much identical to its predecessor, the Apple Watch Ultra, which was Apple’s first stab at an adventure watch. The Ultra 2 has a flat 49mm display, a protruding right-side button array, and an orange action button on the left side, which can be programmed as a quick launch for an assigned purpose. It doesn't come in alternative colors like the Apple Watch Series 9, and its one-size-fits-all approach may continue to deter those with smaller wrists. 

The main difference between the Apple Watch Ultra and the Apple Watch Ultra 2 lies beneath the surface. The newer watch has the brand's S9 processor, which Apple claims is 25% more efficient, built on 5.6 billion transistors with 30% faster GPU animations and 4-core neural engines that enable machine learning twice as fast.

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

It’s also worth noting that from a sustainability standpoint, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the better pick. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is made of 95% recycled aluminum, a major improvement from the virgin material used in the first-gen model. Apple has made a serious commitment to making all its devices carbon-neutral by 2030, with the 2023 Apple Watch family taking a major step in that direction.

The Garmin Forerunner 965 looks like most of the best Garmin Watches, with a circular screen, and five buttons to make navigating around the watch with sweaty fingers, or when wearing gloves, a little easier. There are three buttons on the left and two on the right to start, stop, pause, and lap your workout. The Forerunner 965 also has a touchscreen, although this is automatically disabled in sports modes. The screen on the Forerunner 965 is by no means small — it’s 47.2mm/1.4 inches, and unlike other Garmin watches, there are no different sizes, or bezel configurations to choose from. 

smartphone notifications on the Garmin Forerunner 965

(Image credit: Future)

As mentioned above, both watches have bright displays, although the display on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is brighter. On the second iteration of the Ultra, the display has a brightness of 3,000 nits, which is brighter than the Apple Watch Ultra, and the Apple Watch Series 9. It looks beautiful and is easy to read, even in direct sunlight. Plus, in workout modes, the bigger screen allows for seven data fields, rather than six. This is a lot brighter than the AMOLED screen on the Forerunner 965, which has 1,000 nits brightness. It’s also bright and easy to read in direct sunlight, but the Apple’s screen is slightly better. 

From a wearable perspective, it’s worth mentioning that when purchasing the Apple Watch Ultra 2, you have three different strap options — the Alpine, Trail, and Ocean loops. As a runner, I found the Trail loop the most comfortable, but you can look at the pros and cons of each of Apple’s Ultra loops here. With the Forerunner 965, the watch comes with a silicone strap as standard, but there is the option to swap this out with a different Garmin QuickStrap if you’d rather. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

That said, there’s a difference in weights between the two watches, and if you’re someone who prefers a lighter watch on your wrist, this might make the decision easier. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 weighs 61.4g/ 2.1 oz, whereas the Forerunner 965 weighs 53g/1.8 oz. 

Winner: It’s a tie — Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I’d argue it’s largely personal preference. While the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has a brighter screen, the Garmin Forerunner 965 in general is slightly easier to navigate around on the run. The Forerunner 965 is also lighter, if that matters to you. You don’t have an awful lot of customization choices with either watch, aside from the strap. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Battery life 

Whether you’re training for a marathon or taking up a new sport, you don’t want your fitness tracker to permanently be on low battery. There’s a big difference between the battery lives of these two watches —  the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has the best battery life of any Apple Watch, but it’s still a lot less than you’d expect to find on the best Garmin watches. Even with a brighter display, the watch gets 36 hours of battery life with normal use. With low power mode, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 gets up to 72 hours of battery, increased from 60 hours offered through the original. 

a photo of the PacePro feature on Garmin Forerunner 965

(Image credit: Future)

The Garmin Forerunner 965, on the other hand, lasts 23 days in smartwatch mode, 31-hours in GPS mode without music, and 8.5 hours in GPS mode with music. There are a few caveats, however, one being the option for the always-on display on the Forerunner 965. When this is turned on, Garmin reckons the battery life in smartwatch mode drops from 23 days to 7 days. Still, it’s a hell of a lot longer than the Apple Watch Ultra 2, but worth noting if you are taking the watch on a multi-day adventure without a charger. 

Winner: Garmin Forerunner 965 — If you’re travelling for a weekend marathon, you could probably get away with not packing your Garmin charger, whereas we wouldn’t travel overnight without the Apple Watch charger to hand. If battery life is important to you, it’s an easy decision to make. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Workout and health tracking 

Both of these watches can do a lot more than just track your daily runs — they both have the ability to track a lot of data, including your steps, calories, in-depth sleep analysis, VO2 max, heart rate, and body temperature. The main difference is what each watch does with this data. 

Garmin has spent a lot of time developing features such as Body Battery and Recovery Time that help you get a better understanding of how your body is coping with your training load, and these features really are brilliant. If you take a long-haul flight a couple of days before your marathon, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 will record the lack of sleep, but not give you any feedback. The Garmin Forerunner 965 will indicate you need more recovery time, or show a depleted Body Battery, and a bad sleep score will tie into other metrics on the watch.

a photo of a sleep graph on the Garmin Forerunner 965

(Image credit: Future)

The data you can get from your Forerunner 965 is extensive — as well as a morning report telling you how well you slept, you’ll be able to see the load your training has had on your body. Garmin’s Training Readiness Score is second to none —  this shows you at a glance how ready you are for a workout based on sleep, recovery time, HRV status, acute load, and stress. Each category carries a different weight, so your Training Readiness might go up during the day, as your needed recovery time goes down. Apple are yet to develop such in-depth features, and I’d argue even finding such data in the Health app can be tricky.  

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

From a workout perspective, both watches are able to track a wide variety of workouts. The Apple Watch Ultra has most of the traditional workout modes covered, and its more durable display and water resistance of up to 100 meters mean you could use it for sports like water skiing, windsurfing and diving. You can also customize all of the data screens in each workout mode. That said, the Garmin Forerunner 965 has a lot more options, especially for niche workouts like stand-up paddle boarding, bouldering, and even fishing. Both have multi-band GPS, which allows the watch to connect to more satellites for accurate GPS tracking. 

Both watches also have advanced mapping capabilities, for taking your watch off the beaten track. Plus, the Ultra 2 got some new mapping features not available on the original version of the watch —  it now displays current elevation in real time and display waypoints in a 3D view based on relative elevation. For hiking workouts, there’s a more detailed topographic map that flags points of interest. Nearby trail information appears upon starting a hike, providing insights on the trail length, type, and difficulty. The Forerunner 965, on the other hand, has 32 GB of storage, and comes pre-loaded with the maps for your particular region. Other maps can easily be downloaded. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

From a safety standpoint, the Garmin Forerunner 965 doesn’t have the flashlight available on some of the more expensive watches, such as the Garmin Fenix 7, Fenix 7 Pro, and Garmin Epix Pro, but it does have safety features including Incident Detection and LiveTrack. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 has crash detection, tracking (using the Find My feature), and a siren. 

Finally, from a female health tracking perspective, both watches can use body temperature to track your sleep and menstrual cycle. If you are looking to track your periods, Apple has recently integrated with Natural Cycles, allowing the app to use the skin temperature readings on the Apple Watch to predict your fertile and infertile days, helping women prevent and plan pregnancies. That said if you do get pregnant, Garmin allows you to pause your training status and track your pregnancy from your wrist, whereas Apple doesn’t. You can read more about the menstrual tracking on Garmin here. 

Winner: Again, this is a tricky one. You could easily train for, and run, a marathon with either watch on your wrist, but if you’re looking for a lot of data about how well your training is going, the Garmin Forerunner 965 is the obvious choice. This isn’t to say Apple won’t add more recovery tools to the Apple Watch Ultra 2, or offline maps in the near future, but right now, the Forerunner 965 has some really useful features not available on the Ultra 2. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Smartwatch capabilities 

These days, smartwatches and fitness trackers are designed to be worn 24/7 and both the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and the Forerunner 965 have smartwatch capabilities to make them handy devices to have on your wrist. I would argue that, compared to the Apple Watch 9 or the Garmin Epix Pro, both watches still look pretty sporty on the wrist, but if you can get over that, you’ll reap the benefits of all that health data. 

That said, there’s a big difference from a smartwatch perspective — while the Forerunner 965 has Garmin Pay, the ability to see your phone’s notifications (you can only respond to text messages if the watch is connected to an Android phone), check the weather, and view your calendar, but that’s about it. You can download different watch faces, or different apps from the Garmin app store, but these are pretty basic. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2

(Image credit: Future)

The Apple Watch Ultra 2, on the other hand, is like having an iPhone on your wrist. The list of apps is pretty much endless, and with cellular support, you can also make and receive phone calls on your wrist (the build-in speaker and microphone are excellent). 

It’s also worth mentioning that outside of workouts, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 also has the brand’s new double-tap gesture — you can double-tap your index finger and thumb on your watch to start a call, stop your alarm, pause a timer, and cycle through your smart stack. 

Winner: Apple Watch Ultra 2 — without getting into the smartwatch/sports watch debate, if you’re looking for a smartwatch, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is undoubtedly the better option for you. 

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Garmin Forerunner 965: Verdict 

So, which should you buy? This really depends on your budget, and what you’re hoping to track. If you’re serious about your training, and you’re looking to qualify for Boston, I’d recommend saving $200 and buying the Forerunner 965 — it’s easier to use on the run, and it has a bunch of advanced training metrics that just aren’t available on the Apple Watch yet. 

On the other hand, if you want an Apple Watch that can keep up with your sporty pursuits, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the best Apple Watch to buy. The Action Button isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it does make exercising with the watch better. Plus, you could easily marathon train with the Ultra 2 on your wrist, while calling your Mom, replying to an email, and checking your Whatsapp notifications. Plus, things like the new double tap gesture only make it an even more superior smartwatch. 

If you’re looking for a cheaper option, the Garmin Forerunner 265 has a lot of the same features as the Forerunner 965, but doesn’t have the same mapping capabilities if you are heading out on an adventure. The Apple Watch Ultra is also likely to be on sale now the Ultra 2 has been released, and while it doesn’t have the new double tap gesture or mapping options, from a sports perspective, a lot of the features are the same.

More from Tom's Guide

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy. 

  • Fred from France
    Thank you for this helpful comparative article Jane.

    For a future update, it would be great if you could expand on how both the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Garmin Forerunner 965 handle sports like marathon running, HIIT, swimming, ice skating, downhill skiing, scuba diving, surfing, etc.

    Additionally, you may want to consider including Polar watches like the Ignite Grit X Pro Titanium, which could fall into the same premium sports watch category. The Ignite Grit X Pro has impressive battery life up to 7 days, advanced running metrics like running power and running index, and robust multisport features for activities like swimming, cycling and triathlons. The titanium case is lightweight yet durable, and the watch includes navigation features like back-to-start routing. For serious athletes training for their next event, the Ignite Grit X Pro packs a lot of advanced technology into a stylish watch design. Adding Polar to the comparison would give readers a more complete overview of the top players in the high-end sports watch market.

    I left this comment on the Tom's Guide face-off article comparing the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Forerunner 965 (link below), and thought this additional context on Polar could make for an even more robust comparison.