Apple Watch Ultra In-Depth Review: It’s a Start!

The Apple Watch Ultra is Apple’s real first foray into a watch suited for endurance sports, and other sporty adventures. Sure, Apple’s WatchOS 9 update for many of their other watches, including the recent Apple Watch Series 8, has brought a massive slate of new features aimed at that crowd – such as running power, triathlon support, and more.

But historically, one of the biggest blockers to many athletes using an Apple Watch was lack of battery life, combined with lack of buttons. The Ultra aims to solve both of those concerns, while adding in a number of other features along the way, such as the emergency siren.

I’ve been testing the Apple Watch Ultra, and in particular, yesterday I put it to the ultimate test: Could it survive a 14+ hour non-stop trail run/hike through the Alps? And if it could, how well would it handle such a mission. In this review, I’ll cover that, plus plenty more in terms of day-to-day use, as well as other new features like the new emergency siren and the action button.

Finally, note that Apple sent me out a media loaner Apple Watch Ultra edition, which as always will head back to them shortly once I’ve wrapped up with a few other tests. If you found this review useful, feel free to hit up the links at the end of the site, or consider becoming a DCR Supporter. With that – let’s begin!

What’s New & Where It Differs:

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The Apple Watch Ultra is basically an Apple Watch Series 8 at its core, and then has an added slate of hardware and software features/differences above that. In other words, when comparing an Apple Watch Ultra to a Series 7 (prior year), you basically first need to consolidate all the new Series 8/WatchOS9 changes, then once you’ve got those identified, you can add in the differences from Series 8 to Ultra. Got it? Good.

So, to start, here’s the more general hardware changes first from Series 7 to Series 8:

– Improved gyroscope
– New high-g accelerometer (for vehicle crashes)
– Wrist temperature sensor

And then here’s the Ultra-specific hardware differences:

– Increased case size to 49mm
– New titanium case with sapphire glass display
– Added a new button, called the Action button, designed for glove usage
– Increased size of the rotating digital crown for glove usage
– Increased water resistance to WR100 (100m) for dive usage
– Added an extra speaker for louder outside volume
– Now has three microphones for wind-cancellation audio
– Added an 80db alarm siren, for emergency usage/attention
– Added dual-frequency/multi-band GNSS for higher accuracy GPS tracks
– Increased standby battery life to 36 hours, or up to 60 hours in Low Power Mode
– Added Low Power Workout Mode, which Apple says can handle an Ironman race (with GPS).
– Increased Display Brightness to 2,000 Nits
– Cellular is built into every Apple Watch Ultra
– Changed to new braided charging cable with standard Apple Watch charging puck
– Now three different Apple Watch Ultra bands (more on that later).

And while the software side has a massive slate of changes, including fitness and non-fitness, here’s a look at the sports/fitness changes first, all except the end ones go to Series 8 units too, but the end ones marked ‘Ultra’ are specific to Ultra mode:

– Compass App: Revamped user interface
– Compass App: Added new waypoints option (saving, navigating to)
– Compass App: Added Backtrack capability to save a track without starting a workout
– Compass App: Added Backtrack to track back following your route
– Workout App: Adding three new running form metrics for efficiency: Vertical Oscillation, Stride Length, and Ground Contact Time
– Workout App: Can now see heart rate zones during the workout zones
– Workout App: Can now create new custom workouts, including repeats based on distance or time intervals
– Workout App: New alerts for heart rate zones, cadence, and other metrics (not shown yet)
– Workout App: New Running Power support, now natively tracks running power
– Workout App: Revamped data pages with more data per page
– Workout App: Will race against past workouts, which are saved to the workout app
– Workout App: Triathletes get triathlon support including auto-switching between swim/bike/run and triathlete tracking time
– Workout App: Adding kickboard swim detection
– Workout App (coming later this year to the US): Track mode for running tracks
– [Ultra] Added Dive app (called ‘Depth’) for diving, supports dives up to 40m (140ft)
– [Ultra] Added Workout App Precision start option, means you can avoid the 3…2…1 countdown sequence and start exactly when you want with known GPS lock
– [Ultra] Workout App now supports up to 7 data fields on a data page (6 customizable + time)
– [Ultra] Added New Way Finder watch face (day use), plus a night use version

Finally, we get to pricing. Here’s where we see the biggest jump. While the Apple Watch SE price decreased slightly, and the Apple Watch Series 8 pricing remained the same as the prior year, the Ultra introduced itself at a far higher price point. Here are the basics of the lineup:

Apple Watch SE (2022): $ 249
Apple Watch Series 8: $ 399+/$ 499+ with LTE
Apple Watch Ultra: $ 799

Note that if you’re in Europe, it’s even more pricey. It’s 999€, which is btw what I paid when I ordered mine (this loaner unit will go back to them once mine comes in). And the bands? Those are an eye-watering 99€ each.

Got all that? Good. Let’s dive into it.

The Basics:

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This first section is all about the basics of the watch itself, primarily from a fitness/health standpoint. So things like usability of the touchscreen, buttons, and then all the fitness/health bits around activity tracking, sleep, and more. For more general non-fitness aspects like calendaring or watch faces, I’ll be skipping over that. There’s already a million sites/articles that cover that, and despite the Ultra getting an extra button – none of that changes.

To begin, let’s talk about the buttons and controls – since those are somewhat new here, specifically the new ‘Action Button’. While that button adds specific functions, it also actually adds functions when used in conjunction with the other buttons. As you can see below, the Apple Watch Ultra has three dedicated buttons. On the right side there’s the digital crown, which is both a button and a rotating dial. That’s protected on the Ultra edition by a so-called ‘button guard’, making it tougher to accidentally press under jackets or long sleeves. And with the larger size, it’s viable to use the digital crown with gloves – even underwater. Below that is a secondary button, which acts as an app switch of sorts. It too has a button guard around it.

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Then, there’s the new Action button, hanging out on the other side of the watch. This button can be programmed to perform a specific action when pressed. And really, there’s up to three levels of viable actions. The first is a single press to open a given app (such as opening the Workout App in Running mode). The second press can then be configured within the app (such as pausing or starting a workout). And the third action can be assigned to a long-press (such as triggering the siren).

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Ironically, this button doesn’t have a button guard around it. And I can confirm I’ve accidentally pressed it a number of times since I started testing it. Usually it’s if I’m relaxing on a couch or some other position where my arms/hands might be crossed. It seems to find the perfect way to press the button, which in my case opens up to start a run workout. I guess it’s always trying to get me to run.

Meanwhile, the screen itself is an always-on touchscreen, which is rated for 36 hours of usage. The only exception to this is if you put it in Low Power mode (which gets up to 60 hours of standby watch time). Still, even in that mode, once you raise your wrist the watch turns the display on. Apple’s gesture-based algorithm is pretty good, so it’s usually responsive. That said, I’d recommend you leave it in regular mode as it otherwise reduces some functions (turns down LTE to once per hour checking, turns off some heart rate related notifications, and turns off background HR recording for non-workout usage).

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While the Ultra battery life means you’ll probably be charging every other day, many ask ‘when’ is the best time to quick charge it. I find the best time is just after I get to my desk and start doing e-mails and such first thing in the morning. That’s a good block of time where it can charge and I’m not missing out on any activity tracking.

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Now, before we get to activity tracking, note that we can change the watch face displayed on the unit. Apple provides a handful of watch faces, on which you can customize the so-called ‘complications’. These are basically the tidbits of data on them. I ebb and flow with the season as to which watch face I like, sometimes just some more technical stuff, and sometimes the one that automatically pulls photos from my phone so that each time I glance at it, I get a new favorited photo. In this case, it’s just the new compass watch face:

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I’ve often talked about the subtle integration bits that Apple has on the Apple Watch that seals the deal for a lot of people, and this is one of those. There’s no complex setup, it just works, and every time (literally) I look at my wrist there’s a new photo, typically of my family or a memorable moment. Contrast that with other watches where you set the watch face photo and it’ll likely stay that way for years. And of course, plenty of them have sports/fitness metrics that can be displayed on the watch face, or customized as well. Even 3rd party apps have the ability to provide data which can be selected from complications.

So let’s turn our attention to the activity tracking pieces. In the Apple fitness realm, everything revolves around the ‘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’.

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If you swipe down from the rings, you’ll see how you’re doing in each category, as well as a bit of a timeline on the day. This was a relatively busy day for me, but it’s not over yet – so the rings aren’t fully complete. You can also see total steps, total distance, and floors climbed listed one swipe lower.

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Also, DesFit is always at a solid disadvantage to me from a photographic standpoint, given I’m 7 hours ahead of him.

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Of course, like any activity tracking platform, all of this is synced to the companion app on your phone, called ‘Fitness’. This app is only available on iOS (that’s the phone platform, so it’s not available on iPad or any other device type). In turn, the app technically pulls data from Apple Health, which is the health/fitness repository that Apple has on iOS (and, since it’s not on iPad, it’s why the Fitness app isn’t on iPad and why the Apple Watch isn’t supported on iPads).

In any case, within the Fitness app, you can see your daily totals as well as longer-term trending bits.

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There’s also the ability to display trends over time. However, this takes 180 days of data before it starts (it used to take “just” 90 days). As I said in my Apple Watch Series 8 review, and for years prior, seems like an absurdly long time for basic trends like whether or not you’re standing/walking more this week compared to last week. Every other fitness platform on the planet (and my 4-year-old daughter with her activity tracker) can tell you that if you walked more steps this week than last week, your trend is upwards. I know I’ve harped on this before, but I’m hoping that with Apple’s new focus on sports/fitness, they’ll look at some of these legacy silliness items, and consider it as low-hanging fruit to address in hopes of pulling in other sportier users.

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Though, as you can see above for the running pace one, it’s actually interesting in that it’s pulling from Apple Health, and not Apple Watch specifically. At least, best I can tell. Thus, my average is skewed upwards (slower), likely because of non-GPS-based data sources contributing to my Apple Health data set that aren’t as accurate.

In any case, let’s look at some other data bits, one of those is sleep. Apple has increased its sleep focus on WatchOS 9, namely via adding sleep stage data. When sleeping, your watch goes into a sleep mode, where the display dims substantially and shows just the time. You can change the exact times this occurs, which Apple calls your ‘Sleep Schedule’. This doesn’t dictate when you can sleep or the tracking of it, but just when the display dims.

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Once you wake up the following morning, you’ll get your sleep data displayed in the sleep app on the watch:

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You can see its estimated sleep stages/phases, as well as the sleep times. I generally don’t rate/judge sleep stage accuracy for a few reasons, 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% 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.

Your sleep data is then sent to your iPhone, where you can view it within the Apple Health app. As noted earlier, this is Apple’s giant repository for health/fitness data. You can see details about not just that night’s sleep, but previous data at the week/monthly/6-month level.

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As with my Apple Watch Series 8 and SE 2nd gen reviews, I’m continuing to see quirks/inaccuracies with WatchOS 9 sleep tracking, specifically around waking times. For example this past Saturday I woke up at 8AM for less than 5 minutes as the kids awoke, and then went back to sleep for nearly 2.5 hours (till around 10:30AM). Yet, the Apple Watch ended my sleep tracking at 8AM. Whereas Garmin, Whoop, and Oura all properly nailed my actual waking time at 10:27AM. And again, this is hardly the first sleep-related accuracy issue I’ve seen on WatchOS 9.

You can also get some sleep-related trends in the Health app, such as respiratory rate (aka breathing rate), and sleep time. It even thinks I’m doing better this year than last year, clearly it hasn’t yet accounted for this week and next week in those calculations…

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A new feature for Apple WatchOS 9 is more detailed HRV values (heart rate variability). HRV is an area that has exploded in interest in the last couple of years, with various fitness/sports companies leaning heavily on it to try and estimate how your body is recovering. While that can be tricky (at best) to do from HRV values, Apple isn’t quite going into that realm (yet). Instead, it’s just (slightly) increased the data provided by the watch to Apple Health. Previously, it gave only one data point per night (which is useless). Now, it provides more data (about once every 5-15 mins it seems), though it only does so if you specify that you have an Afib condition as diagnosed by a doctor. Once that’s toggled to yes, then you get a bunch more HRV data. This appears to be a random side effect, and I suspect one that Apple should easily be able to solve by just tracking that HRV data more frequently no matter the Afib toggle.

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Of course, the most notable Apple Watch Series 8 & Ultra watch’s data point is the new wrist temperature tracking. This metric won’t show your exact body/skin/wrist temperature, but rather change relative 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 your 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, and then also shows more female cycle tracking data once you get far deeper historical data. Here’s a shot I took of someone’s phone at Apple with much more historical data to exemplify this:

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Somewhat notably, if you have two capable temperature tracking devices (e.g. an Apple Watch Series 8 and Ultra), you reset your 5-day waiting period when you switch devices. I realize this is 100% a reviewer-only problem, but hey, I figured I’d mention it.

You can see the estimated ovulation dates on the calendar, again looking retrospectively, as well as on the watch:

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I’m going to take a guess that Apple is probably starting with the retrospective ovulation dates because honestly, nobody is going to get super upset if Apple mistakenly identifies historical data. However, forward-looking ovulation data is an entirely different matter. We see both Oura and Whoop doing work/features in this area today, and with reasonably good accuracy (even for irregular cycles, with enough data). I’m guessing by this time next year we’ll probably see Apple do the same, having leveraged a year’s worth of temperature data within their internal testing. For most women, having forward-looking estimates is really where the value is (especially for those with irregular cycles as well as ovulation estimates).

With that, let’s dive into the sports features in more depth.

Sports Usage:

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The vast majority of new sports features in the Apple Watch Ultra come from WatchOS 9, and are shared with not just the new Apple Watch Series 8, but also the Apple Watch SE. So that includes everything from heart rate zones, to backtrack functionality, to custom workouts, running power support, to triathlon support. It’s a massive leap forward for Apple in terms of sports functionality, enabling them to immediately be more competitive in the sports arena, especially in running.

First up, we’ll start by getting a workout setup. To do so you’ll crack open the watch’s Workout app, which is the app with the little runner person on it. From there you’ll see a slate of sport modes to choose from. If you look at the upper right corner of each one you’ll see three dots, this allows you to set a specific goal, or a custom workout.

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For example, in running the default would be just to track a run. But you can also now create structured workouts, or just simple workouts with a defined end goal (like distance or time).

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Here, for example, you can create an 6x800m structured workout (though obviously, creating Yasso 800’s at 8x would have been a ‘proper’ example). When you create these workouts you can add warm-up/work/recovery/cooldown segments, as well as repeat sections.

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You can give this workout a title, as well as specify unit views for the workout itself. And within these workout views, is where you’ll see the ability to toggle fields/pages, like the new heart rate zones, as well as running efficiency metrics, including running power.

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Heart rate zones can be set up on your phone, however oddly, at this time data pages/fields cannot be. Up through WatchOS 8/iOS15, you could actually modify workout data pages on your phone (Watch App > Workout > Workout View). However, with WatchOS 9/iOS 16, that feature/section is gone. All configuration must take place on the watch itself, which can be fairly tedious. It sounds like this will return, but didn’t quite make the cut for launch. You can still modify other things from the phone, like Auto Pause, and the new Workout Low Power Mode (more on that in a moment).

Assuming you’re ready to go, then you’ve got two choices with Apple Watch Ultra. You could go the ‘normal’ route for all Apple Watches up till now, and wait for the 3-second count-down. Once that countdown completes, it’s at that point that the watch goes off and gets GPS signal and HR acquisition – not before. However, the Ultra edition includes a new ‘Precision Start’ feature, that lets you first open the workout up, then see the signal status before you begin:

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This might sound like a trivial thing, but for Apple it’s a moderately big deal. Though, that said, it’s also something that *SHOULD ABSOLUTELY* be on all their watches, standard. You know, like every other GPS/sport watch since the beginning of time. Starting a run without GPS signal or HR signal makes no sense. So while I’ll give credit to Apple for adding it to Ultra, there’s no reason for it not to be on other watches.

There’s also another change that’s notable. For all the new 2022 year watches, including the Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch Series 8, and Apple Watch SE 2nd Gen, Apple has changed how it does GPS lock. Specifically, it no longer depends on the phone like it used to (if the phone was within range). Now, it’s entirely self-standing in all scenarios. That has its pros and cons, depending on how you look at things. If you didn’t want it to drain your phone’s battery, it’s great (that’s me). But if you wanted longer battery life on your watch instead, it’s less ideal. Perhaps the best solution would be a simple toggle. I know I use the term ‘simple’ when in reality very little is simple in real life, but, given Apple previously had the feature – I’ve gotta imagine the ability to choose the GPS source can’t be that difficult.

In any case, once you’ve got Precision Start enabled, you’ll see the GPS status indicator at the top left, along with HR lock shown.

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After you’re ready, you can press the action button to actually start your workout. You’ll see your data pages as you’ve configured them. With the Apple Watch Ultra, you actually get an even more extended data page, with up to 7 data fields (albeit one is the clock):

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And you’ll get the new WatchOS 9 heart rate zone features. Note there’s only one set of zones though, so you can’t customize these per sport (which would be normal for most sport watches, as HR zones vary drastically between sports).

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We’ll also get the new running power and running efficiency metrics. For these, you’ll need to be actively running, as running power won’t display while walking or hiking. I know this sounds obvious, but in reality, most other running power competitors do actually display running power while walking/hiking. The reason is that energy is still expended, and should be accounted for. This is especially notable if you look at trail/ultra running, where competitors will often power walk steeper hills. In this case, their power output might be no different than ‘running’, but isn’t accounted for here.

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I suspect this is more of an algorithm accuracy issue, in part based on the possibility that the underlying wrist-based running efficiency metrics that drive the calculations for running power may lack the ability to gather this data accurately. It’ll be interesting to see if this changes over time. It wouldn’t surprise me, especially as they expand the footprint into the harder-core running crowd with the Ultra edition.

There’s also a new WatchOS 9 elevation page. This generally worked for me, but I stumbled into an odd bug where if the Auto End Workout reminder popped up (which doesn’t end the workout, but offers to), it stops tracking the elevation on this page in the background. The data is still good in the files afterwards. This triggered for me because I had set my hike to run, and in some steep near-summit sections, I was apparently going too slow on 15% gradient for the watch, so it offered to end the workout. You can see the gaps of green in this image – even though I never stopped hiking here. Also note the elevation field at the bottom is null, meaning it’s not showing live elevation anymore. This field caught-up about 15-20 seconds later, but the graph did not.

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If doing a structured workout, you’ll see whether you’re in a Work or Recovery interval in the upper left side, as well as distance/time remaining in that interval. The structured workout piece is good here, though there isn’t any API for 3rd parties to access it like there is on other platforms. Meaning, a company like TrainingPeaks or such can’t simply export a workout to the device like most other sports watches can. Of course, Apple Watch itself is a platform where apps can be built and someone can build an entire app dedicated to that (and they do). But, I think the one thing Apple knows is that if they want to be true competitors in the endurance sports realm, they have to have these seemingly niche things. It’s the combination of a boatload of niche things for why someone chooses a Garmin watch over an Apple watch when it comes to sports tracking.

Now, many of you have asked about sensor support. The Apple Watch Ultra can natively pair to Bluetooth Smart heart rate straps. You can do this via the Bluetooth menu on the watch:

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It cannot natively pair to any other sensor type, nor, can it natively broadcast HR to 3rd party apps natively. However, 3rd party apps can fill both of the sensor pairing/broadcasting gaps. Take for example power meters, there are a few apps (and I’m sure more than I know) that can pair to Bluetooth power meters, such as WorkOutDoors. It can also pair to other sensor types as well. The native Strava Apple Watch app cannot pair to power meters (a seemingly obvious subscriber-only opportunity going forward).

However, WorkOutDoors doesn’t support the triathlon/multisport workout type, so for triathletes, you’re kinda out of luck. Realistically, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it’s key that Apple dive into supporting cycling power meters and cycling cadence sensors natively. Given the promotion of the Apple Watch as being viable for an iron-distance triathlon, the majority of Ironman triathletes are using power meters these days (and have been for years).

The good news for Apple is that while the BLE power meter spec is a moderate dumpster fire, it’s a contained dumpster fire. There’s really only a handful of power meter companies out there, and if I can have one of every one of these devices in the DCR Cave, than so can Apple. And for the most part, each manufacturers individual quirks carry across their entire product line. So once you solve for the 6-10 companies, you’ve solved for all the products.

As we wrap-up this section, once your workout is complete you’ll get a basic summary displayed on the watch. However, it’s better to turn towards the Fitness app to see more data from your run, including all of that new running power/efficiency data. Apple’s actually done a pretty good job in expanding out this section a fair bit. Here’s another set for a different WatchOS 9 run I did with more complexity:

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And then when it comes to getting your workout up to various platforms, you’ve got a few options. Some platforms like Strava & TrainingPeaks have their own apps that can pull in your workout data easily through the settings menus. While other platforms lack integrated connectivity and require a 3rd party app. In my case, I primarily use HealthFit to do all my workout syncing. It supports all the new running power and efficiency metrics, and is generally my go-to for data export to 3rd party platforms (and also, for most reviewers).

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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.

Compass, Backtrack & Navigation:

Apple WatchOS 9 includes a revamped compass app, which also includes the ability to create/save waypoints, create tracking, and then backtrack along a breadcrumb trail. These waypoints persist across sessions (e.g. they stay forever until deleted). There’s also basic compass navigation towards these waypoints. But that’s kinda it. At it’s core using just the native apps, it’s entirely useless for any ultra-like navigation activity. Instead, it’s singular purpose today is mostly getting you back out of trouble.

Here, let me show you how it works. First, you crack open the compass. Sure, you’ll see a compass, but really it’s the other three buttons that the good stuff is within. At the lower left there’s a new button for saving waypoints.

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You can give your location a name, icon, and color. These persist across sessions, and thus are accessible months – or even years later.

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You can then see these waypoints in a list from the main compass menu or, on the little mini-radar-like-map instead (within the compass). When you select a given waypoint it’ll show a compass heading to that particular waypoint.

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Note that there is no ‘map’ per say, it’s just a breadcrumb trail and compass heading.

However, that gets to the next feature, which is Backtrack. That feature records a breadcrumb trail of where you’ve been, and displays nearby waypoints you’ve previously saved. This doesn’t actually start automatically when you start a workout. Instead, you can manually start it, or it’ll automatically start when it detects a lower density of nearby WiFi signals (not just yours) and loss of cellular signal. Meaning, it thinks you’re going somewhere you might need help getting out of later.

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Once started, it’ll plot data points approximately every 2 minutes, loosely connecting them with straight lines. This isn’t quite as high fidelity of data as their competitors, but in terms of getting yourself out of trouble, it’s likely good enough in most cases (crazy white-out snowstorms aside). You can then tap on a given historical waypoint to see the compass heading towards it, as well as navigate back to your start.

And this is where I ran into a pretty serious bug. Mid-way through my hike – when I was at the most remote location on my route with zero cell phone coverage and nobody for miles, the backtrack map/track went blank. It was as if nothing was recorded the entire time. Here’s (roughly) what it should look like:

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Yet here’s what it looked like this (taken again the next morning when I could reproduce the issue):

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However, a few hours later in the hike, it showed back up again (with my full route). In discussing this with Apple late last night, they were able to quickly validate this is a bug. Specifically, it’s an enumeration bug. In my case I could wait as long as 25 seconds before it enumerated. Of course, people like me certainly aren’t that patient, and I assumed it had died (a logical assumption). In reality, the data is/was always still there – it’s just the watch was taking it’s sweet time rendering it. The good news is that this bug will be fixed shortly in a firmware update. Still, I think there’s opportunity here for Apple to just have this feature enabled in the background anytime you start a run/hike/walk (or even any workout). There’s no downside to doing so, since you can’t always predict when you’re going to get lost (even if Apple thinks it can with an algorithm).

Finally, we get to the elephant in the room: Navigation.

Simply put, there is none. There is no built-in navigation/route loading on the Apple Watch (Ultra or otherwise). Thus, in the case of yesterday’s hike, I had to depend on a Garmin Epix watch for my route navigation. Obviously, for a watch focused on Ultra things, that’s not terribly ideal.

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Of course, there are 3rd party solutions here. The most popular one is an app called WorkOutDoors (same app I mentioned for sensors pairing in the workout section). Its been around forever, and has more features than a Toys R Us. In the context of this section, the main feature it has is the ability to import a route in, download map tiles, and then navigate across that route. And in that context, it works great.

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And it has a gazillion more features beyond that. Customizable data pages, uploading to 3rd party platforms, connecting to 3rd party sensors, and on, and on and on. Which, is also it’s downfall. Look, let me be super clear: WorkOutDoors is an awesome app, and a geek’s paradise. It’s amazing, especially given it’s just by a small independent developer.

However, being the product reviewer I am, it’s also overwhelmingly complicated (especially to configure), with a user interface that never said “no” to any user suggestion or new option. And while evaluating user features is key to any company/app, it’s such a heavy ship that it just turns off a lot of people. I think a ‘simple’ mode could go a long way here towards attracting new users.

But that gets to the core of it, and perhaps, to the core of the Ultra watch. Apple has laid the ground-work for an impressive watch down the road, but right now the navigational aspects on the Apple Watch are non-existent. Apple needs to heavily prioritize adding in basic routing/navigation, and basic Apple Maps offline tile downloads with map data for said routes. They should have an easy to use API that 3rd parties can latch into (akin to Garmin’s Connect Routes API), yet also support simple .GPX style imports.

I know someone at Apple is probably rolling their eyes, concerned that this is too geeky or what-not. And that’s fine, but the simple reality is that doing endurance sports and long treks *IS GEEKY*. The navigation of those routes is a fundamental part of this sport, and today, those are done via very standardized file types that really need to be supported, before any trail/etc adventurer considered this watch for navigation purposes.

As I’ll say a lot: The foundation is laid, but it’s still just a foundation. The house isn’t there yet.

Ultra Features & Battery:

AppleWatchUltra

Within the Ultra-specific features realm, there’s a few core areas to look at that aren’t on the Apple Watch Series 8, they are:

– Action Button Features/Nuances
– Emergency Siren
– Battery Life

There’s also of course the dual-frequency/multiband GNSS, but I cover that in the next section. Further, there’s the bands itself, but those too I cover in other sections.

First up, let’s look at the Action Button. In reality, it’s more like a shortcut button. Specifically, it opens up a given app of your choosing when pressed. And then within that, it can be configured for a certain action. For example, you can configure it to open up not just the Workout app, but to do a specific workout type within it.

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And then once inside the workout app, that role of the button is more specific, which as starting/stopping a workout. And when used in conjunction with the lower right button, it becomes a lap button. Note, that for some reason I get a lot of these Action button failures. I’m not really sure what it’s trying to tell me, or what I’ve done wrong.

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Finally, you can long-hold it to access the siren and other emergency functions.

In this respect, it works as intended. However, it feels like it’s not quite baked yet. For example, yes, it stops a workout. But that can also accidentally happen via your wet coat touching the screen (as happened yesterday to me, four hours into my hike). So as useful as dedicated button is, it’s not stopping the touchscreen from doing bad things (like when I caught it almost clearing my entire backtrack history, also yesterday).

In short, having the button is a good first step, but Apple really needs to dig a bit deeper into the use cases for it. Saving me one extra tap to open up the workout app isn’t really high on my priority list. But ensuring solid and reliable operation out in the elements is.

Next, there’s the emergency siren. This feature is an added speaker on the left side of the watch that screams at 86dB in a specific siren pattern, for upwards of 8 hours at a time. The pattern has specific portions in it (seen in my video), including an SOS in Morse Code.

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It’s one of those features that if you see a demo of it indoors or outside just standing next to it, you’re like ‘Shrug, that’s not that loud’. But those 86dB have a specific tone and pitch an unusualness about them that really carry the distance. I went out this morning, placed it on a log, and then walked some 300 meters away – where I could very clearly still hear it. And this was in an area with tons of background noise.

I suspect in the right calm night scenario, the sound would easily travel 1KM, perhaps even 1 mile. One only need to spend the night in the wilderness to now just how well sound sometimes travels, and this unique tone/pitch works exceptionally well in that regard.

Finally, what about battery life. Well, in this case there’s a slate of different levels. First, the official claims:

Daily Smartwatch Mode: 36 hours
GPS Workout Mode (dual-frequency/multiband): 12 hours
Low Power Smartwatch Mode: 60 hours
Low Power Workout Mode: No specific claim, but implied 15 hours

So, looking at each of these. First, is the daily smartwatch mode. In my case, I got an easy 48 hours, which had the watch charged to 92%, and then went down to 1% at exactly 48 hours (it ended up around 48hrs 20mins when it died). This is inclusive of two 1hr GPS workouts, and one 45ish minute indoor workout, plus sleep tracking, etc… So, in this case, it overachieved, though, it as not leveraging LTE.

Next, I went and tested the low power workout mode, to see how many hours I’d get there. As noted, Apple is a bit thin on the exact number here, but their official claim is that the average iron-distance triathlete can complete a race in it. Thus, if you look to Ironman for what that stat is, it’s 12.5 hours for men, and 13.5 hours for women. Therefor, I’m going to assume 14-15 hours.

Yesterday I went out for a long trail run/hike, starting with the battery at exactly 100% – hot off the charger and right into pressing start. In this scenario, I enabled low-power mode. That mode turns off the always-on display, so it becomes gesture-based only (which I was fine with). It doesn’t reduce any GPS or HR sampling, which remains at 1-second intervals (the same as everyone else).

For the first 8 hours or so, I was averaging a very consistent 5-6%/hour. However, around the 8 hour marker, it suddenly dropped 13%/hour for no apparent reason. Thankfully, after that it resumed it’s 4-6%/hour. I have no idea why the random drop occurred. At the end of 14 hours of trekking, I had 15% battery remaining.

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So, that’d put me on target for about 17 hours of time, or, a bit more if I didn’t have that random-giant battery drop. In other words, all within spec.

Finally, later this year Apple will be adding a secondary low-power mode for workouts specifically. In this mode it *will* reduce the GPS & heart rate sampling rates (the number isn’t quite finalized, but sounded like once per 2 minutes). They haven’t announced what that battery life will be, but I suspect it’ll be quite significant. Of course, that’s a pretty massive gap between 1-second recordings and 2-minute recordings. It’d be hard to see use in trail running/hiking/cycling adventures at 2-minute gaps. Though, other types of scenarios make a bit more sense I suppose.

Still, for the vast majority of people, having the 17-20 hours of today’s low-power workout mode is likely enough.

GPS & Heart Rate Accuracy:

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In this section I’ll compare the Apple Watch Ultra’s GPS (GNSS) capabilities to other units on the market, both multiband and non-multiband. Additionally, I’ll compare the HR sensor to a slate of other sensors, including chest straps, optical HR armbands, and other watches.

Note that in my case, my Apple Watch Ultra has LTE (of course, like all units), but that LTE is not activated. As such, it has no opportunity to ‘correct’ itself against known maps data. It must figure it out by itself. Further, I didn’t break my phone with me on these runs. The only exception is the hike, except, in that case the phone was in airplane mode the entire time (no access to LTE data).

We’re just gonna dive right into the deep end here, with a combo dish involving a challenging GPS run into the tall buildings, as well as an interval workout. Why not do a twofer? First up, for this route I start off in relatively easy conditions with light tree cover. Then it gets more complex as I pass under some massive highway/train overpasses, which last over 100m in length of coverage.  A bit later I then do sweeps up and down the streets of the business district, with tall buildings (20-30 stories) separated only by either a single or two-lane road. In this case it’s comparing the Apple Watch Ultra (multiband) on one wrist, to the Apple Watch SE (2nd gen) on the other, and then also with each hand I’ve got a Garmin Forerunner 955 (multiband) and the other a COROS Vertix 2 (multiband). Here’s the data set, and the overview:

City-GPS1

First, starting off with the ‘easy’ section, this is a tree lined path, in general most modern GPS units almost seem to snap to the track. Here we see it does that – all is well.

City-GPS2

And going around a sharp 90* turn I didn’t see any Apple Watch Mario Karting, instead, a nice crispy track.

City-GPS3

So, let’s kick it up a notch and head to the downtown building district. This has three sweeps that I do, or rather, three streets worth.

City-GPS4

Zooming in, if we see the two lower passes, the lowest pass below all units do OK-enough. Some issues, but nothing crazy. However, the middle pass (upper pass on below image), you can see the Apple Watch Ultra easily outperforms the others. Not to say it’s perfect (it isn’t), but it’s the best of the bunch in this situation.

City-GPS6

Then we’ve got the last – and most difficult – pass. This section threw everyone for a loop. You can see the road in between the two sets of tracks. In this case the two Apple Watch units (Ultra and SE) plotted surprisingly similar tracks (despite being on opposite wrists). While the Garmin and COROS units plotted entirely different tracks. None of the watches were correct.

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The rest of the run was pretty uneventful. So, let’s quickly look at the heart rate from it. In this case, I did intervals the entire run…just for fun:

City-Run-HR1

It’s spot-on. Super happy there.

Now, let’s look at an openwater swim instead – note the color of the Ultra has changed here to purple (it was green in the previous one). Here you can see the Apple Watch Ultra on one wrist, and the Garmin Epix on another. I’ve also got a GPS unit on the swim-buoy as reference. You’ll immediately notice the Apple Watch has some serious issues here. The Garmin Epix throws down a scary-accurate track.

Swim-GPS1

However, what’s notable is that the Apple Watch isn’t failing 100% of the time, rather, only at certain points it goes crazy. Those points? The exact same points I’d pause to fix my leaky goggles. Meaning, I was briefly treading water. When I’d so so, the Apple Watch doesn’t correctly reconcile its GPS location before it begins, resulting in ‘things gone bad’.

Swim-GPS2

Mind you, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen to companies. In fact, it seems to almost always happen when companies switch GPS chipsets. It happened to Suunto a few years ago when they went to Sony, then it happened to Garmin for a summer, and then it happened to COROS when they first launched the Vertix 2. All were fixed within a few months. Given Apple has historically had industry-leading openwater swim accuracy, I’m going to take a guess this will get resolved soon.

Next, let’s dip inside quickly for a look at an interval indoor cycling ride:

UltraAccuracy-IndoorBikeHR1

As you can see above, it’s very accurate. Spot-on with the chest strap. Well, except for that moment when it crashes and you see the blue line. This was when I had taken a second screenshot (first was fine), and it immediately crashed the unit. In doing some digging, I think it’s actually a bug in their manual restart option. Specifically you should be able to take a screenshot with a couple double-press of the right buttons. But, it didn’t take, so I held it down for a few seconds. Normally, it takes 10 seconds (per Apple Support documentation) to restart the watch, but in this case it actually reboots at 5 seconds. Thus, my ‘crash’.

In any case, the optical HR sensor here nails the peaks of this sprint in this workout, perfectly matching the chest strap.

UltraAccuracy-IndoorBikeHR2

So, let’s look at a few tidbits from my hike. Having skimmed through the entire track, frankly, it’s virtually identical. All the units are – the Garmin Epix, the Apple Watch Ultra, and then the Fenix 7 base & COROS Vertix 2 that I had strapped to my backpack. This section towards one of the summits is right up against some rock cliffs. Super close between all of them.

Hike1-GPS

And then this section, which looks like a barren landscape (it kinda is), but it’s in the shadow of a huge bowl/cliff/whatever, so it’s got somewhat limited GPS signal opportunities. Also solid.  But again, so was everything from this near-70KM journey in the mountains.

Hike2-GPS

Here’s the elevation chart, in meters. Skimming across it, the widest gap I could find between the four units was 10 meters. Most of the time they were a mere 2-4 meters apart. I don’t know what’s up with the COROS Vertix 2’s recorded altitude data and all the dropouts. That’s the data in the file.

Hike-Elevatio

Next, I’ve talked a lot about running power in various posts. First, was my complete Apple Watch running power deep-dive and comparison post this past summer, where I compared numerous runs to a slate of devices from all the major running power companies (Stryd, Polar, Garmin, and COROS). Then again last week with the Apple Watch Series 8 in-depth review, as well as the Apple Watch SE in-depth review. And the TLDR version is that as a reminder, there is no standard for running power, and how it’s calculated.

So, what each company includes or doesn’t include in their algorithm, which in turn will make the values higher or lower. While all these companies tend to trend pretty much the same, they do so at different ‘levels’. And the same is true of the Apple Watch Ultra edition, since that’s sharing the same algorithm as all other WatchOS 9 watches. You can see that below from my interval run against both Garmin and COROS (Polar, while not on this run, tends to sit in the middle usually).

CityRun-RunningPower

While I think it’d be ideal for the running power industry to go shack up in a mansion Eye’s Wide Shut style and come together with regards to their powers, the main challenge for Apple today is simply that it doesn’t calculate running power while “walking”. The challenge with that is that walking still exerts energy, and the entire point of running power is stabilization of output (energy). This is even more important in trail/Ultra running, where many competitors will power-walk the steeper inclines, because it’s most efficient. However, Apple won’t calculate that, which negates the benefit of Apple’s power metric.

In any event, running power aside, I’m seeing strong results from Apple’s multiband capabilities in the new Apple Watch Ultra, at least aside from swimming. On dry land activities, it seems to be performing about the same as other multiband watches, and slightly better than the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE. For optical HR, that too seems to be solid, also performing at the upper end of optical HR sensors in the market today (the same place Apple has historically been).

(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.)

Going Forward:

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Whether or not the Apple Watch Ultra is for you, depends largely on what you plan to use it for. If you had or wanted an Apple Watch, but were held back by battery life, and perhaps button usability – then the Ultra largely solves that. Similarly, if you wanted more advanced running/workout metrics, then WatchOS 9 on the Apple Watch Ultra also solves that too. And, if you never knew you wanted an emergency siren on your wrist for when you fall off an embankment, then the Ultra is for you too (but seriously, that feature is surprisingly well executed).

However, as good as Ultra is for most existing Apple Watch users (or more mainstream prospective users), it fall short when it comes to features that you would need to complete an actual ‘ultra’ – that is, a long distance running race, or trek, or really any adventure in backcountry. These gaps fall into a couple different camps. Sure, there’s the bugs like the openwater swim one, or the disappearing compass backtrack one. I’m less concerned about those at the moment. Instead, it’s the navigational feature gaps, and sensor pairing/broadcasting gaps that are more key for Apple.

Despite taking the Apple Watch Ultra on this grand 14-hour Alps adventure yesterday, it didn’t actually serve much of a purpose. Meaning, it wasn’t the one navigating me to the finish line, pacing me up 3-hour climbs, or helping me find my way in the pitch-black dark. My Garmin Epix watch was. The Apple Watch was (mostly) dutifully recording that trek, but it wasn’t providing much actionable information. Apple needs to find a way to have the Ultra be the *key* to successfully completing these sorts of adventures, and primary path to that is a robust navigation component.

The last bucket is usability. When it comes to a daily smartwatch for 24×7 usage, I’d argue Apple easily wins that competition – and has for years. No watch is as polished, app-deep, or well thought through as the Apple Watch for daily usage. And in theory, the new Action button on the Ultra aims to close that gap for the sports scene. The challenge is, it just doesn’t. Too many scenarios on the watch still require touch inputs – something that’s often impossible in rain, snow, cold weather conditions, and more. I shouldn’t ever have a situation on the Ultra where my run/hike/adventure gets ended simply due to a wet jacket briefly touching the display for a second. That should be a button, and a confirmation via another button.

At this point, it’d be easy for endurance athletes to dismiss the Apple Watch Ultra. And for the moment, yes, that probably makes sense. However, I sure as hell wouldn’t bet against Apple closing these gaps – and likely closing them quickly. They are keenly aware of these gaps, and also keenly aware that this is their first foray into this segment. And they seem more committed than I’ve ever seen them to vastly expanding their capabilities. If I was their competitors, I wouldn’t be concerned about this fall, I’d be concerned about next fall. I’d be concerned about what happens when Apple takes all of the feedback they’re getting today from the endurance sports reviewers, along with what will soon be months worth of feedback from regular consumers – and putting that to work.

And the good news is, that Apple tends to make such feature/software update available to watches made years in the past. And every single shortcoming I’ve found is fixable in software, not hardware.

With that, thanks for reading!

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