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Apple Watch Ultra review in progress: Big, tough and made for runners

The Apple Watch Ultra is a seriously good sports and adventure watch

A photo of the Apple Watch Ultra
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The Apple Watch Ultra doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but Apple has made its best sports watch yet. Features like the Action Button and the better battery life make this a contender for athletes in a way Apple never has been before. However, the Ultra might be too big for petite wrists and it's expensive.

Pros

  • +

    Best battery life of any Apple Watch

  • +

    Added Action Button

  • +

    Emergency siren

  • +

    Precision start option

Cons

  • -

    Too large for petite wrists

  • -

    Battery life still doesn’t compare with competitors

  • -

    No offline maps

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    No recovery metrics

The Apple Watch Ultra is Apple’s first real stab at an adventure watch. It’s got a durable design, a huge 49-millimeter display, an Action Button (here's how to use and customize the Action Button), and a host of outdoor sports features to make the watch feel at home on the wrist of a runner, hiker, or ironman. With 60 hours of battery life, it also has the stamina to keep up — something that’s been missing from the best Apple Watches for the past few years. 

Yet at $799/£849/AU$1299, it’s also the most expensive Apple Watch on the market, and at the pricer end of things when compared to some of the best running watches around. At its core, it’s still an Apple Watch Series 8 — it runs watchOS 9, has all sorts of health tracking and can be used to communicate. But if you want know how the Apple Watch 8 vs. Apple Watch Ultra compare, this Apple Watch Ultra review in progress goes over the key differences.

Apple Watch Ultra review: Price and release date

The Apple Watch Ultra costs $799/ £849/ AU$1,299. 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 8, which starts at $399 (AU$649) for the GPS-only version.

The Apple Watch Ultra was released on September 23, and is available from Apple and on third-party retailers such as Amazon.  You probably won't find any Apple Watch deals on this new smartwatch, but if you know how to trade in your Apple Watch, you might be able to get credit on an older device and put it toward the Apple Watch Ultra.

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Apple Watch Ultra review in progress: Design and display 

Turns out good things don’t just come in small packages. The first thing you’ll notice about the Apple Watch Ultra is its size — it’s huge on the wrist, and measures 49mm. It’s considerably larger than the 41mm and the 45mm displays of the Apple Watch Series 8, and whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your personal preferences. I found the Ultra as hefty on my wrists — the lugs were only just narrower than my wrist itself, but it didn't feel too heavy, and I soon got used to it. (Then again, I also like wearing chunky watches, like the Garmin Fenix 7.) If you have particularly skinny wrists, however, I’d try before you buy. 

The display has a brightness of 2,000 Nits, which is twice as bright as the screen on the Apple Watch Series 8. 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. 

Apple has also made the Ultra more rugged, and more able to cope with the knocks and drops that come with outdoor sports. The bezel is made from titanium, with a lip around the screen to add more protection. The display is made from sapphire glass, and the watch has an increased water resistance of 100m. 

Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch Series 8 41mm and Apple Watch Ultra (Image credit: Future)

The digital crown is larger and has deeper groves, and melds with the side button in a protruding ledge on the right side of the device. This supposedly makes the buttons easier to use while wearing gloves. On the left side of the Apple Watch Ultra is an added action button, which can be programmed as a quick-launch for an assigned purpose. 

Above the new button is a visible speaker grille, which serves two purposes: 1) it improves sound quality on phone calls, even in windy conditions and 2) it blasts an emergency siren of 86 decibels, letting your alert be heard up to 180 meters away. I’ve not been into a remote enough location to test this yet, but will do so over the next few days. In principle though, it's a great feature, and one that should be rolled out across all Apple Watches.

A photo of the Apple Watch Ultra bezel

(Image credit: Future)

During testing, I loved the Action Button just as much as I thought I would. I programmed the Action Button to take me straight to the workout function on the Apple Watch. If I wanted to, the button could take me right to an outdoor run, but as I often use my Apple Watch to track hikes with my dog, swims, and bike rides, I opted to go to the full list of workout modes. I also used the button mid-run to pause the activity — I found squeezing the Action Button and the side button while running far easier than swiping the screen, or trying to tap both the bezel and the side button at the same time. 

The Ultra is available with three different bands to suit your chosen activity — the Trail Loop band is the thinnest Apple Watch band to date, designed for endurance athletes and runners. The Alpine Loop band features two integrated layers and a G-hook fastening, designed for explorers, and the Ocean Loop is, you guessed it, designed for water sports and diving.

During my initial testing, I’ve used the Alpine Loop and found it comfortable and fast drying, but pretty damn fiddly to adjust. I’m also on the second-smallest loop, and don’t have particularly skinny wrists. As a runner, I’m sure the Trail Loop will be more my vibe, so will report back once I’ve had a chance to test. Read more about the different Apple Watch Ultra bands here. 

Apple Watch Ultra review in progress: Features 

Like the Apple Watch Series 8, the Apple Watch Ultra has a skin temperature sensor and crash detection, but there are a host of other features designed to make the watch more suited for adventure. 

Let’s start with the revamped compass app, which makes the Apple Watch Ultra a more capable navigation accessory. It lets you save waypoints, or specific markers when you're somewhere you want flag. There's also a track back feature that helps you retrace your steps, say, if you're lost. 

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

Apple has added dual-frequency GPS to the watch, integrating L1 and L5 algorithms. Apple says this allows the Ultra to “deliver the most accurate GPS of any Apple Watch to date,” according to the company. 

The Ultra also has clever features like Precision Start, which allows you to bypass the 3…2…1 countdown sequence when starting an activity, and wait until you know the watch has found GPS signal. During testing, I was impressed with this feature — it’s nothing new in the world of the best Garmin watches, but it makes the Ultra a more reliable watch to have on your wrist on race day. (You can read more about my experience with Precision Start when I ran 10 miles with the Apple Watch Ultra — and thought this feature is a game changer.)

precision start on the Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

Along with all the watchOS 9 features coming to watchOS 9 supported devices, the Apple Watch Ultra has an exclusive Wayfinder watch face that packs all the outdoor sports-adjacent complications into a single face. The entire face can be fully customized, and when you rotate the crown, the face turns red, for better visibility in the dark. 

A photo of the Wayfinder in night mode on Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Future)

There’s also a new dive app called Depth, which I haven’t had a chance to test yet. The watch has a new depth app that can automatically measure your dive while swimming, and you can go twice as deep in water as you can with the standard Apple Watch (rating = WR100). Apple is working with Huish Outdoors to turn the Apple Watch Ultra into an on-wrist diving computer. Niche, but cool. 

Apple Watch Ultra review in progress: Battery life 

With everything on, the Ultra has a battery life of 12 hours. In Apple’s new low-power mode, the Ultra still has the same GPS and heart rate capabilities, and a battery life of 15/16 hours. In a new update coming to the watch this fall, this will be extended to 60 hours, as the setting will have the option to reduce the frequency of GPS and heart rate readings. 

While this is great for an Apple Watch, it’s still shorter than a lot of the other running watches on the market. The Fenix 7, for example, can last up to 89 hours (or 122 hours with solar) in GPS mode. 

a photo of the Apple Watch Ultra in run mode

(Image credit: Future)

During testing, I went for a 10-mile run with the watch at 100% charged, and ran for a total of 85 minutes, without low power mode on. I finished the run on 91%, making Apple’s predictions about right. I will continue to test the battery life over the coming days.

Apple Watch Ultra review in progress: Early verdict 

The Apple Watch Ultra is, without a doubt, the best Apple Watch for anyone doing serious training due to the Action Button, the Precision Start feature, and the better battery life. It’s the most exciting Apple Watch in years, but it is still missing some of the features the likes of Garmin and Polar have mastered. There’s no recovery data, for example, and at the time of writing, no option to upload offline maps onto the watch. 

If you’re buying an Apple Watch to check your texts, and for the odd workout in the gym, however, I’d argue you’re better off saving your money and investing in the Apple Watch Series 8, as aside from Precision Start, the dive app, and the Way Finder face, all of the new and improved WatchOS 9 workout features are the same. Stay tuned for my full review.

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. 

  • Jim_Lewis
    When you say there's no recovery, that's strange. I have an Apple Watch 6 GPS. When I exercise, there's an AutoRecovery mode that shows up in Apple Health. Try Apple Health, Browse, Heart, Heart Rate, and scroll down the page for your most recent recovery period. If instead in Apple Health, you pick Browse, Heart, Cardio Recovery, you'll get the average heart rate drop by days, weeks, months, etc., for the first minute after you stop exercising. Perhaps you mean viewing heart rate recovery hasn't been integrated directly into the Apple Workout app?

    One thing that would be nice to know about any Apple watch is whether there is planned obsolescence built in in terms of the watch ceasing to function with the iPhone when we've been through five years of iOS and WatchOS upgrades. It doesn't seem right if a fine, expensive watch is guaranteed to become nonfunctional after five years or so. Crazy idea that we should blow $800 (and more with tax) every five years just for a watch. I have ordered an Ultra but I hope Apple finds a way to support it on into the future. The battery is replaceable for $99 so there is no reason it shouldn't last a long time.
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