Apple Watch Ultra is a big, bulky, beautiful beast


The age of Ultra. Apple Watch Ultra.
The age of Ultra. Apple Watch Ultra.
Photo: Apple

Apple took the wraps off Apple Watch Ultra — describing the sports-oriented smartwatch as the most rugged and capable Apple Watch yet — during Wednesday’s Far Out event. Big, bulky and beautiful, it delivered on everything the rumor mill predicted and more.

Apple Watch Ultra is huge, with a bulky exterior, chunky buttons and a massive display. It boasts a tougher case, designed to withstand knocks from extreme sports, and a battery that can last the distance for endurance races. It features a new Depth Gauge app for scuba and free divers, improved GPS for running and cycling, a redesigned compass app for exploring, and even an 86-decibel siren to let people know if you get lost. Like the new Apple Watch Series 8 models, the Ultra comes with a temperature sensor.

Retailing at $799, Apple Watch Ultra is the Apple Watch that hardcore fitness fans have long been craving. But will its quirky, uncompromising looks catch on with mainstream audiences? Or is the Ultra destined to occupy a niche in the lineup?

Apple Watch Ultra: The screen is big. Really big.

Measuring 49mm in height, the Ultra is a whopping 4mm taller than the largest Series 7. It boasts the largest watch screen Apple has ever made. And thanks to its flat surface and narrow bezels, it looks even bigger still. It’s also brighter, at up to 2,000 nits, compared to 1,000 nits in the Series 7, so viewing it in direct sunlight shouldn’t be a problem. That makes it ideal for outdoor sports like triathlon, where you’re constantly in motion and can’t see the screen clearly.

Improved GPS route mapping

The Ultra feature I’m most excited about is the improved GPS accuracy. This is an issue I’ve written about extensively before. While it’s improved over the years, the route maps I get from Apple Watch still look less accurate than those I get from specialist sports watches. One possible issue is “concrete canyon syndrome.” When running through a city center, skyscrapers can attenuate GPS signals. The Ultra addresses this with new dual-frequency L1+L5 GPS.

Bristling with buttons

The new Action Button is bright orange
The new Action Button is bright orange.
Photo: Apple

Apple Watch Pro boasts an extra button — the bright orange Action button. The button layout has never changed on Apple Watch before. So this addition came as a surprise to many, but not Cult of Mac. I predicted it in a story way back in June.

The advantage of more buttons is that you can operate the watch without using the touchscreen. This means you don’t need to raise your wrist or look down while you’re running, which can be dangerous.

The customizable Action button performs different functions in different apps. In the Workout app, you can use it to start workouts or mark segments. In the Compass app, you can mark waypoints.

On the right side of the watch, the Digital Crown and side button now come with a hump to provide extra protection from unwanted input and damage while you’re exercising. All the controls are bigger and chunkier, so they’re easy to use with gloves.

More rugged aerospace gray titanium case

Unlike other Apple Watch models, the Pro only comes in one finish: aerospace gray titanium. But this is not the same as the Series 7 titanium model. This is a specially developed titanium alloy designed for enhanced durability.

Better battery life

Apple is making good use of the extra space inside Apple Watch Ultra by jamming in the largest battery ever, with an impressive 60-hour life on low power setting, and 36 hours during normal use.

Logging workouts drains the battery much faster because it involves continuous heart rate monitoring and GPS. As I explained last week, the extra battery life will be a boon to fans of endurance sports. A marathon can take up to six hours to complete. Ironman Triathlons take even longer.

The battery in previous Apple Watches just wasn’t big enough for a serious fitness watch. Apple claims the Ultra has enough juice to complete a marathon, but didn’t specify exactly how long the battery will last while logging a workout with GPS and heart rate monitoring enabled.

Strapping new band designs

Apple Watch Ultra comes with one of three unique bands, designed specifically for extreme sports.

  • Alpine loop: for explorers, with a titanium hook.
  • Ocean band: for divers, made from waterproof, high-performance elastomer.
  • Trail loop: for endurance athletes, lightweight textile with increased elasticity. It’s the thinnest band yet.
The Ultra features specially designed watch faces
The Ultra features specially designed watch faces
Photo: Apple

Will the flat-siders finally admit they were wrong?

Rumors of a larger “Apple Watch Explorer” model have been doing the rounds for more than a year now. So the Ultra came as no surprise. But most pundits assumed it would break with Apple Watch’s iconic rounded shape in favor of a new, boxy design.

The mythical flat-sided Apple Watch rumor dates back to supposed leaks prior to the Series 7 launch last year with accompanying mockups. Many pundits were so convinced it was coming that when the real Series 7 design was actually unveiled, they figured it had to be some kind of mistake.

Flat-siders then moved their attention to this year’s watch models instead. But here we are again, with a brand new model that still has no flat edges. Maybe it’s finally time the flat-siders learned to love curves.

How big is the market for sports smartwatches?

Apple Watch has always targeted fitness users. When it first launched, the aluminum models were dubbed “Apple Watch Sport.” But with its limited battery life, crude Fitness app and lack of physical buttons, Apple never targeted prosumer fitness users. Until now.

The Ultra should open up a a new market segment for Apple: $1,000-plus sports watches. This sector is currently dominated by models such as Garmin’s Enduro 2. These watches offer advanced features such as support for multisport workouts and Running Power. This is presumably why Cupertino added these features to the Workout app in watchOS 9.

At first glance, high-end sports watches might seem a bit niche for Apple. They certainly don’t have the mainstream appeal of Apple’s other wearables. Last quarter, Cupertino reported sales of around $8 billion for its wearable division, which includes AirPods. By comparison, Garmin, the largest player in this sector, reported sales of less $3 billion for its fitness and outdoor business for the whole of 2021. Smaller, for sure, but not insignificant. A chunk of Garmin’s business could be a meaningful addition to Apple’s bottom line.

The Apple Watch Ultra can be ordered today and will be available on September 23.


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