There’s a yearly 10K that comes around each October in the back country outside my town that I always try to run. The pandemic dinged it for a few years but it came back strong, and I took it on again last week for the second year in a row.
True to form, it was a crisp fall day with another great turn-out. A little over 600 people, many dressed in the bright yellow event shirts, eventually made their way around the route and over the finish line.
As an enthusiastic, but by no means elite, runner, I try to choose gear that’s going to give me the best chance of reaching a PR. On my feet were the Nike Invincible 3 that sit comfortably in our list of best running shoes while strapped to my wrists were two of the newest smartwatches 2023 has to offer: The Apple Watch Ultra 2 and the Coros Pace 3.
I was interested to find out how these two watches performed at an actual event, considering their different price points and target consumer. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a $799 adventure juggernaut for those iPhone users that want the best wearable the company offers. Meanwhile, the Coros Pace 3 is a $229 dedicated fitness watch with stellar battery life and an update over the much-loved Pace 2.
Crucially, both devices boast dual-frequency GPS which promises a greater level of accuracy when the signal is hard to pin down. In my case, the route took me through forested areas but it’s just as applicable if you’re running in the city through a clutch of skyscrapers. At no point during the 10K — a little over six miles for those using imperial — did either watch falter and throughout the course of the race I was able to look at either wrist and see my current pacing.
In terms of a user experience, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has the edge. Firing up the workout mode was as simple as hitting the Action button, while the Coros had me hold its main button to unlock the device, then jab that same button twice to get to the run option and finally another couple of times to get started. It also took longer to lock onto a GPS signal than the Ultra 2. When you’re standing in a gaggle of runners jostling to get over a start line and into their rhythm, you don’t want to be messing about with smartwatch controls.
While running, the larger, brighter 3,000 nit, 1.9-inch screen on the Ultra 2 was easier to see and displayed more metrics at a time than the 1.2-inch circular LCD Coros. But the Pace 3 was more comfortable, due to its much lighter weight (30g with the Nylon band compared to the Apple Watch’s 61g) and thinner casing.
Coros has added a touch screen for the Pace 3 that was missing on its predecessor but it’s not a smooth experience. You can use the rotating crown at the top of the watch but, sweaty fingers aside, I tend to favor a quick swipe to move through the display. So I found it easier to use the Apple Watch Ultra 2 to check things like my heart rate zone while on the move. One thing to note is that triathletes can use a single button on both devices to quickly switch their legs — not something I had to use but it’s good to see this kind of quick functionality included.
Both watches have all the usual array of sensors: optical heart rate, barometer, altimeter, compass, Sp02 and temperature. So you can dive into the nuts and bolts of your run through the accompanying app and dissect your performance to the nth degree. As I said up top, I’m no elite runner so I tend to just focus on the big hitters: heart rate, pacing and lap times and GPS accuracy. All of which both watches handled perfectly.
If there’s a couple of things to differentiate the two, price and battery life are the big ones, followed by interoperability. Although I finished the day with both watches battery lives only slightly impacted, the Coros blows Apple away when it comes to longevity. It’s nearly a week later and I’ve had to recharge the Apple Watch Ultra 2 a couple of times while the Coros Pace 3 is still sitting pretty on 68%. Coros claims a massive 24 days of regular daily use and 30 hours of full GPS battery on board. Even with the Apple Watch Ultra 2’s improvement over the regular Apple Watch Series 9, its battery will still give out after around 72 hours of usage when you factor in Low-Power Mode.
Similarly, when you look at the fact the Pace 3 costs around a third of the price of Apple’s offering it starts to make a whole lot of sense for most people interested in ramping up their 10K performance. The fly in the ointment is during the rest of the time, you won't benefit from the huge array of apps and smartwatch features available on the Apple Watch Ultra 2. You can’t, for example, respond to notifications on the Pace 3 and it won’t ping the emergency services if you fall down.
What it all boils down to is personal preference. I’ve found both of these wearables have different strengths and I’ll opt for a different one depending on the circumstances. In the case of running a 10K, I'd actually give the nod to the Coros over the Apple Watch because it's light, accurate and a whole heck of a lot cheaper. But for everything else, Apple will probably earn its place on my wrist. And yes, as it happens, I did manage to post a PR by the time the race was run.