Apple Watch Ultra – Long(ish) term review

Back in September, Apple launched the new “pro” edition of their Watch, called the Watch Ultra. And a rare bit of fanboy-ing, I preordered it the next day. A few days after the release of it, I got mine in the mail. So what’s it like, about two months in? Let’s take a look.

I’ve had an Apple Watch before, but I ended up parting with it, mainly because it was just a bit too fragile for me (I guess I’m a clutz). Also, being a scuba diver, freediver, and occassional spearfisher, I wanted a sports watch that both go to the gym with me, out on the trails, and in the water. So so far, I’ve been going with Garmin, but to be honest, the smart watch functions always left me wanting. So I had long hoped that Apple would make a watch to rival the Garmin Descent.

And lo and behold, they did! The Apple Watch Ultra was designed with the aid of a number of outdoor sports enthusiasts, including a friend of mine, Nadia Ally, who is a leading scuba diver and dive media entrepreneur. So I pretty much knew I had to get one. This seems a rare strategy for Apple, who has a reputation for designing products more based on Henry Ford’s “faster horse” doctrine than the traditional “give the people what they want” of old-school capitalism.

The Ultra shared many features with the Apple Watch 8, which was announced at the same event. But the premium price does get you some additional features:

Brighter Screen. According to Apple, the screen is a whopping 30 % brighter than the standard Apple Watch, and I can confirm it is easier to read in sunlight, and that the colors really pop. Especially when compared to Garmen, whose screens have always tended towards the more dull parts of the spectrum.

Bigger Screen. The larger screen makes it easier to read, allows for more data to be shown in apps, and really makes the flashlight function make sense.

Dedicated, semi-customizable “Action” button. On the left side of the watch, there’s a large, orange button that is simply referred to as the “Action” button. You can assign a function to this button, such as start a activity, plot a waypoint, or turn on the dive mode. I’ve set it to turn on the flashlight function. I’d love it if you could add more functions to, ideally in key combinations, like what Garmin does with their physical buttons (Action button = Function 1, Action button + digital crown = Function 2, double press on Action button = Function 3, etc.).

Sapphire Screen. Like other outdoor sports watches, the Apple Watch Ultra has a sapphire screen, making it much more resistant to scratches, something I really welcome. It also has a raised bezel to help protect the screen, all in all making the watch really designed for heavier use. I’ve already scraped it against a brick wall and bumped it against a squat rack (did I mention I’m clumsy?) and have no scratches or dings to show for it.

Longer battery life. One challenge with the Apple Watch has always been the battery life, which is usually around a day or so. With the Ultra, I’m getting 3 days easy. Honestly, I’d have bought the watch just for that (and the sapphire screen).

Diving Capability. Better pressure protection means the watch is designed to go deeper than the average pool or open water swim. Now, I realize there are those who will say that it isn’t a dive watch, because it is only rated to 100 meters. However, the idea that dive watches need at least a 300 meter depth rating to survive even recreational diving is an old myth that has been disproven by several studies. However, Apple does state that the watch is intended for recreational diving up to 40 meters.

Beefier design and controls: Everything about the watch is bigger. The case, the screen, the straps, and yes, the digital crown and buttons. This works both for the visual presentation of the watch, and makes it easier to use with cold and/or glove-clad fingers.

Wifi and Cellular Standard. Unlike the regular Apple Watch, the Ultra only comes in the version wifi and cellular. Of course, you can choose not to set up a service with it, but adding cellular to the watch ads features like being able to make emergency calls from the watch if you injure yourself on a hike or trail run, as well as live-updated maps for navigation.

Now, the native dive option is limited to a depth gauge and water temperature gauge, but Apple and the dive equipment manufacturer Oceanic has collaborated on a dive app called Oceanic+, which just launched, and makes the watch a full-on dive computer, meaning it can calculate dive time and nitrogen loads, using a Bühlmann algorithm (I’ll be doing a review of this in a separate, dive-centric media outlet). Apple, it seems, decided not to try and make this feature themselves, but rather leave it to a partner that has expertese in this.

And that actually points to a key thing about the Apple Watch Ultra, when comparing it to other outdoor sports watches, such as Garmin: what you buy isn’t necessarily what you get. Yes, you get the form factor, the sensors, and a quite serious set of standard apps, but then you make it your own using the enormous app library that is the Apple App Store.

Don’t like the Workouts app because it’s too basic? Get Runtastic or Workoutside. Want to turn your Apple Watch into something akin to a Whoop band? Get Athlytics or (my favorite) Train Today. That’s also the reason why I’ve decided to hold off on review the watch until I had a chance to try a bunch of different apps. While Garmin does have an app store, it’s a pretty lackluster affair. Not only are the options limited (and often very crude-working versions of “real” smartwatch apps), but the key functions of the watch, i.e. the sports apps, cannot be replaced with a third-party app. Have a Garmin but don’t like their running app? Too bad, you can’t download another. Have an Apple Watch and don’t like the running function in Workouts? Well, see above. And, as most apps make versions for the largest watch OS’es, you can even switch smartwatch brands and likely not loose your workout history. Which is interesting, considering Apple’s reputation of keeping a walled garden.

The pricing model of the Oceanic+ app has caused some controversy. Unlike buying a Garmin dive computer/watch, you need to buy a subscription. That does irk me, as for the price tag of the Apple Watch Ultra, I’d expect the dive features to come standard. So I’m hoping for a third-party app that is either free or has a one-time payment option. I get that developing a dive computer app is no small feat, so I’m willing to pay for it, but the subscription part doesn’t sit well with me.

I do see the value of their subscription model, though. You can get either a full-year subscription, a montly subscription, and a daily subscription. Given that most divers in the world dive relatively infrequently, choosing a bit more of a pay-as-you-go model could make a lot of sense for them.

So what’s my verdict after two months of use? Pretty much all the claims made by Apple hold up. The batter life, the screen legibility, the more resilient screen. I haven’t had a chance to dive with it yet, but I did do a late-season freediving trip with it (limited to the basic dive functions), and it works well. It seems every bit as accurate as any other dive computer I’ve used, and the added smartphone features meant that I could leave my phone at home and not worry about it getting stolen from my bag on the beach while I was out diving. I could still text my wife to let her know I was safe, unlock my car using a Watch app, and even call emergency services, should it have been necessary.

Will the Ultra be the go-to watch for the most dedicated ultrarunners or divers? Probably not. But these are both niche markets. General athletes, who are still ambitious enough to feel the limitations of the ordinary Apple Watch, are a much bigger market. Just like recreational scuba divers are a much larger market than trimix divers. And for these groups, the Watch Ultra is pretty close to perfect.


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