With the launch of the 2nd edition of the Apple Watch Ultra series, Apple has set the tone for an annual release cycle. As they’ve done with the existing/regular Apple Watch lineup, that cadence has focused on incremental updates from year to year, rather than massive changes (at least from a consumer-facing perspective).
This year, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 revamps the internal processing on it, while also getting a 50% brighter display. Using the new faster processor, Apple is also adding a handful of software features only available on the new Ultra 2 & new Series 9 editions, which both leverage the Apple Silicon S9 chipset. However, while Apple’s hardware upgrades are somewhat minimal here, it’s the larger WatchOS 10 software upgrades that are far more sweeping – especially for cyclists. Likewise, Apple has also rolled out an initial slate of mapping features bringing in topographic maps, however, the nuance of what is and isn’t available today is important. More on that down below.
As usual, this watch is a media loaner, and it’ll go back to Apple. After which, I’ll go out and get my own for any future testing needs. If you found this review useful, you can use the links at the bottom, or consider becoming a DCR Supporter which makes the site ad-free, while also getting access to a mostly weekly video series behind the scenes of the DCR Cave. And of course, it makes you awesome.
With that, let’s get into it.
For the Apple Watch Ultra 2, the newness features are divided into three categories: First are the new hardware bits on the Ultra 2, then there are the new software features leveraging the new S9 chipset on the Ultra 2. Finally, there’s the flotilla of updates arriving with WatchOS10 (which are available to all semi-recent Apple Watches).
So, let’s tackle those three categories. First up is the hardware changes on the Apple Watch Ultra 2:
- New Apple Silicon S9 chipset, which Apple says has 5.6 billion transistors and is 60% more than before
- New GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), which Apple states is 30% faster, allowing for faster rendering
- New 4-core neural engine, which Apple states is twice as fast in machine learning applications
- New far brighter 3,000 nit display (previously the Apple Watch Ultra was 2,000 nits, and the previous Series 8 is 1,000 nits)
- New display can also go down to just 1 nit, versus the previous 2 nits. Apple says that in turn drives a big savings in battery consumption due to the always-on side of things (of course, that battery savings is then spent on the faster processor bits)
- New UWB 2 (Ultrawideband) chip, which increases finding of things (like your phone), including exact distance and direction, but also increased Homepod integration
- New watch bands
- Updated case made from 95% recycled aluminum (versus 0% prior)
Next, we’ve got the software features that are new to the Apple Watch Ultra 2, and require/leverage the new S9 chipset:
- New Double tap: This allows you to double-tap your index and thumb together, acting as a virtual button. You can answer a call, hang-up a call, snooze an alarm, take a picture from the camera, or any number of other custom actions (more on this down below)
- New Flashlight boost: This leverages the brighter display for a brighter virtual flashlight option
- Siri now newly processes requests entirely offline (without cellular/WiFi) for things it can do locally
- Siri can now log Apple Health metrics (purely via voice), including weight, period information, as well as respond to Health requests (e.g., asking for last night’s sleep stats) – available later this year in English and Mandarin.
And finally, we’ve got the key new features that are part of WatchOS 10, which was announced back in June, but finally released this past Monday. The highlights here include:
- New Modular Watch Face (this is unique to the Apple Watch Ultra series, both editions
- New Widgets from watch face: You can use Digital Crown to access
widgets directly from the watch face.
- New Cycling Sensor Support: Adds data from Bluetooth power
meters, speed, and cadence sensors.
- Will estimate cycling power FTP: When using a power meter sensor and
heart rate from the watch.
- Will automatically determine cycling power zones: This also requires
a power meter (and HR from your watch). These zones are customizable and
specific to power, both in the ranges of each zone, but also the number of zones
- New Workouts API: Allows 3rd party apps (like
TrainingPeaks, TrainerRoad, and others), to push workouts to the Apple
- Adding new topographic map view to WatchOS: This map view
is an offline map using your phone’s offline map view
- Adding the ability to see trails around you, and the specific trail
route data: This will show you the nearby trails and specifically the
- Adding new dynamic 3D elevation view to WatchOS: In this
view you can see your previously added waypoints, with relative elevation shown
- Shows last known cellular location: In the Hiking sport
profile, watchOS will automatically create new waypoints for the last known
cellular location, for both your carrier and other carriers (for
- Adding new WatchOS high-frequency motion data for
developers: This new data is at a higher frequency than previous data,
and also supports greater ranges of motion data.
- Adding two new watch faces: Palette, and Snoopy &
- Adding NameDrop to iOS 17 and watchOS 10: This is the new ability to
quickly share contact info via NameDrop.
But those updates are all coming to all Apple Watch Series 4 and higher, plus both Apple Watch SE editions.
With all those new items covered, let’s dive into the daily usage first.
We’ll start off here with all the basics of using the Apple Watch Ultra 2, everything from the hardware aspects like the buttons and display, to the bands. Plus aspects including battery usage stats. Then from there we’ll dive into the main focus of this review, all the health/fitness pieces like daily activity tracking, sleep tracking, and more. Sports tracking (such as going for a run), is in a dedicated section under ‘Sports Features’ down below.
For more generalized pieces like playing music or adding credit cards, I’ll save that for plenty of other sites out there. Though I will cover some of the newer general pieces like Double Tap (and how it differs from previous yet similar accessibility features).
So, with that said, let’s start with the buttons – as the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has an extra one compared to the rest of the Apple Watch units. On the right side you’ll find the two regular buttons, one being the digital crown (which both rotates and can be pressed), and below that being a regular button. Generally speaking the digital crown is used to iterate through menus, and sometimes zoom in/out. Whereas the lower right button is used for accessing the control panel quickly, as well as items in your wallet.
Whereas on the left side you’ve got the ‘Action Button’, which is a semi-customizable button only found on the Apple Watch Ultra series. This button generally is tied to a specific function in a given app. For example, within the default Apple Workout app, it allows you to trigger ‘Precision Start’, which basically just means you can manually start a workout (versus a 3-second countdown). But in other apps it can serve a more useful purpose. Likewise, it can be used to automatically open/do a specific thing anytime.
Additionally, if you long-hold this button, it’ll show a menu including the emergency siren, medical ID, SOS emergency call, and compass backtrack.
The emergency siren is also unique to the Apple Watch Ultra, and transmits an ever-increasing loud beep, that can be heard an absurd distance away. I did some tests last year when it first released on the Apple Watch Ultra 1, and I could easily hear it some 300m away, despite being in a fairly busy locale. I was going to go out again last night, but the winds were gusting about 70KPH, so….all I heard was wind.
Meanwhile, back on the front of the watch is the updated display. While it’s the same sized touchscreen as last year, it’s now 50% brighter, claiming 3,000 nits, versus last year’s 2,000 nits. Both are frankly overkill, even in bright sun atop a mountain, or beach, in summer. But hey, as a bonus of that yo get an even brighter flashlight. You can activate the flashlight from that controls menu, and it’s arguably the easiest way to see the differences between the Apple Watch Ultra 1 (left) and Ultra 2 (right), albeit even then it can be hard to see the differences, even when forced to full brightness:
As handy as Apple’s virtual flashlight feature is (which has multiple brightness levels), I feel like the Apple Watch Ultra series is ripe for following Garmin’s lead on adding an actual flashlight to the front edge of the watch. It’s one of those features that once you start using on a daily basis (mainly at night), is just so effing useful. And such a feature would undoubtedly be much appreciated by the Ultra crowd, arguably even more than the orange-colored action button.
From a battery standpoint, Apple has maintained the existing battery claim of 36 hours, or 72-hours in low-power mode. The 36hr claim seems accurate, though probably a bit conservative. I’ve been charging it every other day, even with 45-90 minutes of workout time per day (usually GPS based). That’s also inline with the Apple Watch Ultra 1. I found it notable that the Apple Watch Series 9 units I have got the new fancier braided cable that the Ultra came with. Nice!
Apple has updated the Apple Watch Ultra series bands this year, which are both new colors, and updated and more sustainable materials. From a practical standpoint, they all feel the same. Note that the heavier duty Ocean Band is technically not fully carbon neutral, whereas the other units are. I go back and forth between the Alpine Loop and Trail Loop. I think I like the look of the Alpine Loop better, but the Trail Loop is slightly less fiddly if you’re new to it. The Ocean band is totally fine, but definitely a beefier strap. I’ve worn all of them for sustained periods over the last year, so none are bad.
Note that all previous bands are fully compatible with the new Apple Watch Ultra 2, so you can always choose that traffic cone orange Alpine Loop if you’d prefer (which, I do…well, till it became more like rusted orange after a mud run earlier this summer).
Next, we’ve got the watch face. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 debuts a new Modular watch face, which supports up to 7 complications, including a zoomable one in the middle. This watch face is also available to the Ultra 1, via WatchOS10.
Each of the components on the screen can be customized, which are called ‘complications’ in watch industry lingo. These complications come from a pile of Apple ones (like your activity rings), as well as 3rd party apps that add them too.
Now, tying right into this are the new Double Tap features. This lets you double-tap your index and thumb together, to perform certain actions. For example, you can Double Tap to open up the dashboard widgets and iterate through them – showing calendar items and other tidbits of info. Alternatively, if you open the camera app on the watch and your phone, you can double-tap to take a picture. Or you can double-tap to answer a phone call or end a call. The idea is if you’ve got your hands full (coffee in one, donut the other), that you can still perform important actions like hanging up that telemarketer.
This feature won’t release in production till sometime in October, but so far on a preview device I have, it works really well. So much better than the accessibility features – or at least, so much more intuitive. Apple says it leans heavily on the new S9 custom silicon chipset for this function, as well as also leveraging the accelerometer, gyro, and even the heart rate sensor to detect tiny changes in blood-flow.
Now, many people have said this sounds like Apple is just rebranding a previous Assistive Touch/Quick Action features in Accessibility that’s been on Apple Watches for years. And at first glance, that seems true. But once you start using the two features side by side (or, wrist by wrist as I have been the last few years), the difference becomes clear. To begin, the Quick Actions kinda suck. And by ‘kinda’, I mean, it strongly does. It’s finicky, doesn’t always trigger, and half the time just looks at me confused like my adorably sweet but minimally smart dog. Whereas ‘Double Tap’ has a strong Apple-like ‘Just Works’ factor about it.
Double Tap is designed to be available 24×7, running in the background. Apple says the new S9 chipset is required to do this efficiently. Whether or not that’s true, is probably debatable. However, what’s less debatable is that the features, while having some overlap, are indeed different. Speaking of overlap though, you can’t use both features at the same time. Meaning, you can’t enable both Double Tap and Assistive Touch with Quick Actions.
With all that covered, let’s shift to health and fitness components (saving the sport-specific stuff for later sections). Undoubtedly, the most well known aspect of the Apple Watch is the activity ‘rings. Apple uses a three-color ringed approach to monitoring your daily activity levels. These rings have daily goals, and complete a circle (ring) each time you achieve that goal. For example, the blue standing ring is goaled by default at 12 hours of standing. Which means you need to stand once every hour, ideally 12 hours of the day. The pinkish-red is for ‘Moving’, and the green is for ‘Exercise’.
Once you’ve opened these up, you’ll see your progress in each of the three categories, plus a bit more detail on how you stack up on the day. This includes total steps, distance, floors climbed, nacho cheese sauce consumed, and time spent standing. In case you’re trying to ‘close rings’, you’ll also get an alert at 10-minutes prior to the top of the hour (e.g. 10:50AM), and you’ll need to stand and pretend to be doing something for 1 minute in order to get credit for that hour. I’d recommend going to the candy drawer.
You’ll also get a summary the first day of your week in the morning, such as I did this past Monday morning:
As always, all of this is synced to your iPhone, where you can see the details in two core apps. The first app is Apple’s “Health” app, which is essentially the database repository for all Apple and non-Apple Health data. So everything from the Apple Watch (of any type) flows into there, be it your constant heart rate readings, your workouts, how much noise (sound levels) are around you, wrist temperature measurements, and plenty more. Now, that app isn’t really where you’ll look at your daily activity stats (albeit, you can). Instead, it’s the Apple Fitness app, which shows the stats I mentioned above:
You can also see details of your workouts here too, but I’ll cover that later down below. Further, this is the same app that holds the Apple Fitness+ platform, which is Apple’s premium/subscription platform. There’s some minor tweaks here in iOS17, such as ‘Trainer Tips’ visible on the homepage. Fitness+ is Apple’s paid/premium subscription service with coached workouts. It’s roughly akin to Peloton, except also included in various Apple subscription bundles (including 3-month trial periods with a new watch). I’m going to cover a number of the other Fitness+ updates in a follow-up post down the road here, as there’s actually a few noteworthy changes that come with iOS17 (and other platform updates).
Now, while most of your movement type stuff is shown in the Apple Fitness app, components like sleep data. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 automatically tracks sleep, and then shows the data on both the watch (in the Sleep app – little bed icon), as well as later in Apple Health.
This data includes both the time you sent to sleep, and time you woke up. In addition, it also estimates sleep phases. I find the times it assumed I woke-up/fell-asleep pretty darn accurate. Whereas, I generally don’t rate/judge sleep stage accuracy for a few reasons (on any wearable), instead focusing on the exact sleep times as a better proxy. The reason I don’t look at sleep stage/phase accuracy is that the comparative technologies that are available to do so aren’t all that accurate to begin with (about 80-86% accurate in most cases), and thus, we’d never judge a heart rate sensor or GPS track against something that was wrong 1/5th the time. It does seem like companies are at least getting more consistent here (Apple included), but I wouldn’t focus on this a ton at this time.
However, as is often the case, Apple gets the ‘Time in Bed’ very wrong (even if it gets the ‘Time Asleep’ correct). For example, looking at the day above, it says I was ‘In Bed’ at 10:30PM. Except, I wouldn’t get off the indoor bike trainer ride with the Apple Watch Ultra till 10:48PM (seen in my photo down below on the bike), and then I showered, ate a late snack, then editing for a bit at the table, then watched some TV, before finally heading upstairs to the bedroom around 12:15AM or so – far later than the 10:30PM it thought. The time I feel asleep was correct though, because of course I got distracted on my phone for a long while. The time I woke up was also correct.
Here’s a quick comparison of a few different units:
In addition to the per-night sleep data, you’ll also see corresponding respiration rate (aka breathing rate) data, as well as various charts you can plot over longer timescales:
My main criticism here is that as import as sleep data is, it’s kinda buried in with the rest of the Apple Health data in what is essentially a dumping ground of metrics. Whereas for the things under the Apple Fitness realm, it’s a more tidier presentation that feels like a typical cohesive app from a fitness watch maker. Of course, you can favorite things within Apple Health, to make them surface to the main dashboard view when you open Apple Health.
For example, you can do that with HRV (Heart Rate Variability), a metric that almost every other wearable company has leveraged more deeply in the last 1-2 years (Garmin, Whoop, Oura, Polar, Suunto, Samsung, Google, Fitbit, etc…). And yes, Apple increased recording of the data last year, but largely in a passive sorta way. Apple isn’t making any associations or claims about how that data could be used, nor presenting it in anything other than a data-point driven method. And while we can debate the merits of HRV, it’s just an example of many metrics that other companies lean into, where Apple aims more for the simplistic nature of sleep/steps/rings.
This is relatively similar to the wrist temperature tracking that’s available in the Apple Watch Ultra series, which Apple introduced last year (in the Series 8/9 as well). That feature monitors your wrist temperature, or more specifically, your skin temperature. Within that, it’s going to show changes compared to the baseline (e.g. + 1°F). This is similar to how other companies do it, as it’s a bit more useful and easier to consume. There are two ways you can use this data. The first, is that women can use this data to get historical cycle tracking data, including (historical) ovulation estimates. The second, is that you could use this data to find trends between nights where you’re body/skin temperature is higher or lower and you’ve got better or worse sleep. For example, a hot room might lead to poor sleep, so you could potentially figure that out and adjust accordingly.
This starts showing in the app after 5 nights of data on that specific witch, and then also shows more female cycle tracking data once you get far deeper historical data. In the event you’re upgrading from a Series 8 to the Apple Watch Ultra 2, then it’ll reset that data gathering period until you’ve established a new baseline on that specific watch. For males, there probably isn’t much use for this feature yet (or, we haven’t really seen any company leverage it in that way, other than just geek curiosity).
In terms of using this data for female health tracking, Apple will retroactively show estimated ovulation dates on the calendar (on the watch itself). That said, they have changed much in this realm since last year. I had hoped to see predictive ovulation data (like Oura and Whoop both do), but have instead held off on diving into that area. While historical data can be useful, most of the value of these sorts of features really comes from forward-looking period/ovulation estimations. Of course, there are also 3rd party apps that can do some of this as well, leveraging this data.
Finally, I should briefly mention ECG support. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 does support ECG, as well as downstream features like automatic Afib detection (24×7). None of this has changed since last year, and as with before, that ECG functionality is dependent on being approved by regulators in your country (Apple has a list here). To use it, you’ll simply open the ECG app on the watch, and then use your finger from the other hand to touch the digital crown. The app will then take 30 seconds to complete the ECG.
Once it’s done, it’ll give you a result on whether or not your rhythm is normal or abnormal, and if it shows signs of atrial fibrillation. These results are also available in the iPhone Apple Health App, including exporting out the result as a PDF to send to your doctor.
Each of the last few years Apple has successively increased their sporting capabilities via software updates. Last summer we first saw running power and custom workouts, and triathlon support. Then last fall we got backtrack features, followed by running track support. This year it’s the year of cycling and structured workout support via WatchOS10. That’s brought cycling sensor support including Bluetooth power meters, speed sensors, and cadence sensors. Plus, a phone companion/mirroring mode that shows a large-screen version of your watch – ideal for putting on bike handlebars. And finally, the big ticket item for athletes in WatchOS10 is structured workout support via API. This may sound geeky, but it allows 3rd party apps to instantly push a structured workout to the Apple Watch, without you having to make it manually on the watch itself.
Now, with all that said, from a pure hardware standpoint, virtually nothing has changed with the Apple Watch Ultra 2 when it comes to sports stuffs. In any event, let’s get started with a workout. For the most part, all of these sports act roughly the same way when it comes to the basics of them – be it run, bike, or yoga. There are of course data-field specific differences, which I’ll cover somewhere in this section. To begin, you’ll tap the Workout app, which shows you a list of sports. You can swipe through these, and they’re ordered by the most recently used sports:
I like how if I scroll far enough it suggests not just kickboxing, but specifically 2 rounds of it. I’d be more than likely to kick myself in the face just during the warm-up. At the very bottom is a list of additional sport types. Which, you can also find here.
Once you’ve selected a sport, you can tap the three little dots in the corner to choose various options for it. This can be a so-called ‘Open’ workout (basically, nothing structured and no goals), or you can choose a goal (e.g. time or distance), or you can create a structured workout.
If choosing to create a structured workout, you can pick your intervals and recovery periods, as well a customize warm-up and cool-down. These options are all inline with their competitors:
Next, you can choose your workout views (this applies to all sports). You can specify which metrics you want, and toggle entire pages on/off. One downside here is that starting last year with WatchOS9 and continuing into WatchOS10, Apple took away to do this configuration on your phone. Thus, you kinda have to tediously do this all on the watch itself, which can be finicky across multiple sport profiles – especially using all touch for selecting everything.
Heart Rate and Power Zones are configured via the phone. Note that Apple supports separate heart rate zones for both running and cycling, however for power zones, there is only cycling power zones (not running power zones, despite having running power). However, you can customize the cycling power zones a fair bit. You can leave them automatic based on automatically detected FTP, or you can adjust them (quantity and sizing) accordingly, as well as manually override your FTP.
Once you’ve sorted out everything you wanted, then you can tap the sport to begin. Or, you can use Precision Start, which means you’ll press the action button to start the workout, while it goes off and finds GPS and HR (compared to the regular Apple Watch units, which simply have a 3-second count-down). With Precision Start, the top GPS icon will turn solid, along with the HR icon at the bottom locking to your heart rate.
Note that the Apple Watch Ultra 2, like the Apple Watch Series 1, uses its internal GPS for all real-time GPS functions. It no longer leans on your phone’s GPS for tracking purposes. It will however download a mapset of data behind the scenes which is used for GPS alignment, including when you travel. In fact, it’ll even look at your calendar to see upcoming flights and pull in the map data for those cities. Albeit, as you’ll see in my tests below – that didn’t always work out.
In any case, once you’ve started running, you’ll see all your data bits accordingly:
The same general concept is also true for cycling. However, with WatchOS10, you can now pair a cycling power meter (any Bluetooth cycling power meter, which is basically any power meter made in the last 8 or so years), as well as cycling cadence & speed sensors. Cycling smart trainers are supported as long as they broadcast the cycling power profile (and all do), but it won’t control the smart trainer. To pair these, you’ll do so within the Bluetooth control panel:
You can pair/save multiple sensors of the same or different types, and for power meters it’ll show both crank length (if pedal based), as well as a calibration option. However, for calibration, it just returns that something succeeded (or failed), but not an actual value.
The only thing you need to remember to do is to enable the cycling power display page in your activity settings on that sport profile. The data will be captured regardless, but you won’t see it mid-ride without this toggled on. The same is true for cycling power zones:
Then, while riding you’ll see your cycling power displayed on the watch:
All of this works well in my testing. Note though that at this point Apple isn’t recording left/right balance of the power meter, nor any of the more advanced cycling metrics (like pedal smoothness or such). All of this data is available afterwards in the app, just as with other metrics. Speaking of which, here’s a small gallery of different metrics from both a run and a ride, so you can see the type of data shown:
Beyond the cycling power meter support, Apple also added a new cycling companion feature to the iPhone. This will broadcast all of your Apple Watch metrics in real-time to a dashboard on the iPhone. This dashboard is accessible from the lockscreen, and will appear when you start either an indoor or outdoor cycling workout. The metrics mirror exactly what you’ve setup on the Apple Watch itself, however, some of them are scaled larger and have slightly more UI polish to them, because of the larger real estate of the phone screen.
I’ve used this for both general bike commuting purposes, indoor cycling, as well as some outdoor rides on my road bike. All of them work well, but I think the most useful scenario here is probably just the bike commuting one – especially in seasons where your watch is under long-sleeve clothing, and you’ve got a phone mount for your bike.
In my case, I’ve used both QuadLock mounts and Peak Design mounts, and we’ve switched everything in our household over to Peak Design ones (for both myself and my wife, and all our bikes), mainly because the cases are so thin. But both work perfectly fine.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Apple technically has a few toggles for battery consumption on the Apple Watch Ultra 2, which can double the battery life. The first set of toggles in “Low Power Mode”, which takes the battery life from 36 hours to 72 hours. Here’s what happens in each:
– Regular mode – 36 hours: This includes always-on display, cellular connectivity on, and all features in their normal state
– Low power mode – 72 hours: This includes turning off always-on display, lowering cellular connectivity to once per hour, stopping automatic workout detection, and irregular heart rate notifications
That option is toggled on the phone under Watch > Workout.
In addition, there’s also a further lower battery consumption option, which I’ve outlined in more detail here. But the gist of it, is that in this mode, even more changes are made:
– Turns off always-on display
– Reduced cellular connectivity to only update hourly
– Makes cellular on demand when not in range of your phone
– Limits background features including irregular heart rate notifications and auto-workout detection
– Reduces heart rate to once per minute, and GPS updates to once every 2 mins
– Reduces distance and pace updates to once every 1-2 minutes (varies slightly)
– Turns off running power (entirely)
– Turns off all running efficiency metrics (e.g. vertical oscillation/ground contact time)
– Reduces altimeter readings
– Turns off splits and segments
– Turns off alerts
So to recap, you’ve got basically four levels:
Normal Mode – Smartwatch: 36 hours
Low Power Mode – Smartwatch: 72 hours
Normal Mode – GPS tracking: 12 hours
Low Power Mode GPS (with full fidelity GPS/HR data): 17 hours
Low Power Mode GPS (reduced HR/GPS updates): Up to 35 hours
In looking at my data, I’d say the battery burn rates for my activities are in-line with the estimates for normal usage. I haven’t re-tested all of the different low-power scenarios on the Apple Watch Ultra 2, but have plans to do so over the coming weeks.
Oh, and last but not least, it’s worth noting that when it comes to getting your data to various other non-Apple platforms, you’ve got a few options. For apps like Strava & TrainingPeaks, they have importing tools built into their apps, making that pretty easy. But not all platforms have that, or if they do, it might not work well. Apple themselves doesn’t “push” your completed workouts to anything. Instead, it dumps that responsibility on 3rd parties to sort out (which, they do to vastly different levels of success).
For me personally, I primarily use HealthFit to do all my workout syncing. It supports all the both all the running power/efficiency metrics from last summer, as well all the new cycling power meter data. It’s generally my go-to for data export to 3rd party platforms (and also, for most reviewers), because I can easily export it to Dropbox and other platforms. Well, actually, it does it automatically for me.
There are other options of course, RunGap being another popular one. Given Apple Watch and iOS are vast platforms with tons of apps on them, there are undoubtedly countless other options out there. In my case, I just use what has worked for me over the years reliably.
With that, let’s dive into the accuracy of the watch.
As part of WatchOS 10, the Apple Watch series gets mapping and basic navigation features. I talked about these quite a bit back in July when they first launched, and largely speaking it’s all about the same today. Still, it’s worthwhile recapping where things stand.
WatchOS 10 has brought with it a few specific items:
1) Topographic maps on the watch (with contour lines)
2) Ability to download offline maps to your phone, that the watch can access
3) Ability to do point to point navigation using Apple Maps app on watch
4) Some minor tweaks in how the compass is displayed
5) The ability to see the last known cellular point on the map
With that, let’s focus specifically on where the mapping piece stands. To begin, you’ll want to download the maps offline first, to your phone. While the watch can pull map data without cellular coverage, the process is quick and simple. You’ll do this within the Maps app on your phone, selecting the region you want to download. Because these map sizes aren’t that big, the process is pretty quick and simple:
Once that’s done, you can go get lost in the woods. However, as noted above, you have to have your phone with you. You can’t just take the watch alone and see map data. On the watch, open up the Maps app. This is separate from the Workout app, largely owing to how Apple is structured from a business perspective, internally. It’d be nice to see cleaner integration here, somewhat like you see today with the Race Pace option for running.
In any event, once opened, you’ll see your location – and you can use the digital crown to zoom in/out. You’ll also see a radius showing how long it’d take to walk there, albeit, that doesn’t appear to account for terrain, or mountain lion encounters.
On the maps you’ll see the contour lines ones you zoom in far enough, additionally, you’ll see trail names and some POI’s (points of interest). You can tap on a location to save a point/waypoint as well (which can be referenced later for direct navigation purposes). From a comparison standpoint, Garmin & Apple are roughly showing about the same amount of information here within the zoomed in one. Garmin also shows heatmaps (popularity routing), but I’d say that the zoom mechanism for Apple works better. Of course, Garmin also numerous other map types you can download.
Comparing these maps to Suunto and COROS, both of those companies have downloadable maps too – but they don’t contain trail/street names, nor POI’s at this time. But inversely, they’re available for anywhere on the planet.
Which gets to the biggest catch right now: The maps are only available at the moment to California and things roughly within a short drive of California’s borders. And within that, they’re only available in certain parklands – but not all parklands, or outside of those realms. This is a change from the previously announced plan to have this be available across the US by launch of WatchOS 10. Apple says that timeline is now “end of year” to have “most” of the US covered. I asked whether ‘most’ meant beyond parkland type limitations, and they confirmed that most ground in the US should have topo map coverage by the end of the year (thus an improvement over the current parkland type limitation).
Obviously, something clearly went wrong here on the progression of this feature – be it technical or licensing. There’s no realm in which a California-only feature should be the marquee launch function of WatchOS10, especially when it doesn’t work in even many of the most popular regions of California. But frankly, that distracts from the reality that it’s still not actual navigation of a downloadable route (as is typical in hiking), nor is it even offline to the watch. It requires the phone, requires swapping between apps, and isn’t really suited well to walking/running/cycling usage and how people navigate with watches on trails (usually route-based, rather than point to point).
On the bright side, I get the impression Apple knows they’re falling short in this realm. So hopefully, it’s something we’ll see them focus on expanding the navigation features going forward. But I suspect that will be more of a WatchOS 11 thing, rather than an annual December update thing (as watch fitness-focused December updates tend to be for previously announced features like Track Mode, etc…).
Back in June when I spoke with Jay Blahnik, Apple’s Vice President of Fitness Technologies, we discussed a number of topics related to the new WatchOS10 cycling metrics, but I asked him whether or not we’d see a shift from the current Apple Watch mapping paradigm, which is point-to-point focused (getting to a destination), versus the sports/recreation realm tends to be focused on following a specific route (the journey). To that, Jay says:
“We are really excited about the journey we’re on, in all the spaces that you see us working on, including the way Maps [app] and Workouts [app] will integrate, now and in the future. The way our users are using maps now and the way they might use them in the future. It’s a really exciting space for us. So we’re just going to continue to keep working on it.”
As powerful of a company as Apple is, with as many resources as they have, it’s nearly impossible to implement every sports & fitness feature we want in the timespan of roughly the last year since the Apple Watch Ultra 1 launched. As he says, it’s going to be a journey. And ultimately, one that’s going to take time.
GPS & HR Accuracy
In this section I’m going to look at the accuracy of the optical sensor, as well as the accuracy of the GPS/GNSS. The optical heart rate sensor here is the same as most other recent Apple Watches over the past three years, and to save you some time reading, it performs the same as those (which is, generally quite good). On the GPS front, it has the multiband/dual-frequency capabilities, the same as the Ultra 1. As I’ve said in other reviews, while I appreciate the multi-band option, I judge a watch based not on specs, but how it performs. There’s countless examples recently of watches that have multi-band in them but do poorly, and watches that don’t have it, but do great. Judge a watch based on the actual GPS tracks, not on marketing specs.
For all these tests, I’ve got multiple other recording devices and sensors. As always, no two watches are on the same wrist so as to not interfere with each other. Extra watches are either worn elsewhere on the body (like a running pack) or bike (handlebars), or sometimes hand-carried. Those watches not on the wrist are collecting heart rate data from connected HR sensors/straps.
Let’s start off with a trail run in the mountains. This is mostly in moderate tree cover, so it’s a good test of how the GPS handles. In this case, it’s compared against a Garmin Epix Pro, as well as a COROS Pace 3 – all of which are multiband GPS units. Here’s the high-level GPS track:
Zooming into one particularly canyon-like area, you can see all the units actually did well here:
Same goes for other sections of this trail. Every once in a while you’d get one unit that might be 1-2 meters offset from the others, but then they all join back together again.
Looking at the elevation, the COROS Pace 3 seems a bit off here. And likewise, we see a bit of drift from either the altimeter of the the Apple Watch Ultra 2 or the Garmin Epix Pro. The start/end points aren’t exactly the same, but I also finished on opposite sides of the parking lot (though, I believe that was flat-ish).
Next, we’ve got a relatively easy (GPS-wise) run along the beach in Santa Monica. In theory, this should be a slam dunk, but I’ve long ago learned that’s not always the case. This is against the Apple Watch Series 9, Garmin Venu 3, and COROS Pace 3. Here’s the high-level look:
And as expected, looking at the tracks, it’s silly spot on. Zero concerns.
Next, let’s look at an outside road cycling ride. Here’s the high-level view. The two Apple Watch units were worn on the left/right wrist, with the Garmin Vivoactive 5 on the handlebars.
As we zoom in, to pretty much any portion of the ride, all the tracks are near identical:
About the only spot I could find any, even slight, difference is moment in the woods where the tracks were a couple meters apart at one point. But that’s it, all spot-on, and in agreement with each other.
Next, we’ve got one of my famed downtown city tests, which puts the GPS watches up and down teh business distract streets with 20-30 story buildings on each side. It’s a hard test, but no different than running in any big city. And, unquestionably, things did not go well for Team Apple here, on either the Apple Watch Ultra 2, or Apple Watch Series 9:
Above, you can see the Apple Watch Series 9 GPS track going all over creation. Likewise, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is struggling mightily as well. I’ve highlighted in yellow, below, where I actually ran. Multiband clearly didn’t help the Apple Watch Ultra 2 here, it just seemed drunk.
Out of curiosity, I chatted with Apple about this, and in particular about some of the street-locking that Apple will do to Apple Maps, in post-processing. That clearly didn’t happen here.
Out of curiosity though, I went out again the next day, and re-did the same test – since the above is a horrific result. I even switched wrist sides, though, the test actually accounts for that, by switching street sides half-way down each stretch. Nonetheless, things were improved, but still pretty rough for the Apple Watch Ultra 2 in some sections. But again, clearly much better than the first time. As for why? No idea.
Last up on the GPS front, we’ve got an openwater swim. I wore the Apple Watch Ultra 2 on one wrist, and the Apple Watch Series 9 on the other. Then I had a swim buoy with me with a reference GPS atop it. Finally, my wife swam within 1 meter of me, and she had a Fenix 7 Pro on one wrist, and Garmin Vivoactive 5 on the other. Here’s those results:
Generally speaking, pretty good. There were a few blips where the Apple Watch units lost tracking, but because it connected the dots on this roughly rectangular shaped route, it wasn’t a big deal. That wonky back and forth section is where my wife got tired of getting pounded by cross-current waves, and decided to go back and forth with the waves for 45 minutes or so, for extra mileage.
Looking at some heart rate bits here, we’ve got the trail run I did, and here we see great optical performance from the Apple Watch Ultra 2, matching that of the chest strap. Even the COROS Pace 3 only has one minor optical blip here:
Next, taking a look at the the run I did in LA, which was mostly steady-state with a few surges here and there, both the Apple Watch Ultra 2 & Apple Watch Series 9 are spot-on with the chest strap:
Looking at an outside ride, at a high-level, things generally look pretty good between the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and Apple Watch Series 9, compared to the chest strap:
There’s a few moments where we see a tiny bit of lag in sprints and such, but those are generally fairly minimal in delays. You can see below, the chest strap in yellowish start to rise faster, and recover faster. This is complicated because it’s outdoors, so there’s lots of road vibrations that require algorithms to think just a little bit extra, compared to indoors.
Overall, the performance I see from both the GPS and heart rate sensors matches that we’ve seen from the previous editions of both the Apple Watch Ultra series and regular Apple Watch units. That is to say, GPS performance of the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is generally in the mix with other top multi-band GPS units, such as the Garmin Epix Pro series. However, the two city tests were significant outliers in that realm, which are relatively unexplained at this time. I have seen occasional Apple Watch issues in that area over the last year (from various models), and wonder if some of Apple’s corrective algorithms are actually causing more issues than not. Maybe I’ll get bored this fall and go down a famous DC Rainmaker rabbit hole into it.
In the case of heart rate tracking though, Apple continues to have one of the best optical heart rate sensors on the market, which I’d say is largely a wash between Garmin’s ELEVATE V5 HR sensor at this point. All of which is great for consumers.
(Note: All of the charts in these accuracy sections were created using the DCR Analyzer tool. It allows you to compare power meters/trainers, heart rate, cadence, speed/pace, GPS tracks, and plenty more. You can use it as well for your own gadget comparisons, more details here.)
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is an incremental hardware update to the first-generation Apple Watch Ultra edition, but it’s also perfectly in line with how Apple has historically done Apple Watch annual upgrades. It’s rare that we’ve seen major leaps, and thus just one year later – it makes sense we wouldn’t likely see that here either. Instead, we’ve got a bunch of internal processor things that we can’t quite leverage at this point, as well as a huge slate of sports-focused enhancements via WatchOS 10. Some of which are live today (cycling bits), some of which are just starting to be leveraged (structured workout push), and some of which are still clearly early days (mapping). Plus of course the upcoming Double Tap and SIRI enhancements.
If I look at how Apple appears to be approaching the Apple Watch Ultra series, it appears to be an initial three-part act. Last year we saw a huge number of enhancements focused on running. That included running power, Race Pace, track mode, advanced efficiency metrics, structured workout creation on-watch, triathlon/multisport support, and more. Plus of course, the introduction of the first Apple Watch Ultra hardware, including things like diving support. In this second year, we’ve seen a clear shift towards a cycling focus. Be it power meter support, a companion app for the iPhone (acting as a bike computer), FTP detection, or cycling power zones. Plus, structured workout push to support 3rd party apps like TrainingPeaks and TrainerRoad (TR already went live yesterday supporting it for their Outside Workouts). And of course, the aforementioned initial mapping bits.
So that leaves 2024 as the next act. Sure, there will be typical minor updates between here and next summer (when WatchOS 11 would be expected), but I suspect most of that fitness focus will be tied to integrations with Apple’s Vision Pro platform, expected to come online in early 2024. That’s likely why we haven’t seen many promises of other features for the Apple Watch, like we did last year. Whatever is being worked on will stay quiet till after the December holidays.
Hopefully though, as they work towards that, they’re keeping teams focused on arguably the biggest potential area for improvement: Mapping and navigation. At present, as noted above, things are pretty limited there. But it’s the core area left to box-tick against their main competitors. Sure, Apple isn’t likely to overnight compete on the sheer quantity of features Garmin or others have. But they don’t have to. They just need to box-tick on enough big-ticket items to make people ignore all the less critical features. It’s why we’ve seen an increase in people using Apple Watch’s in running events, even UTMB three weeks ago. They’ve ticked enough boxes to make it viable for endurance athletics, and then carry that purchasing decision momentum into the other areas of the smartwatch experience that Apple does exceptionally well.
With that – thanks for reading!