Apple Watch Ultra review: Actually, the best Apple Watch for most people this year

The Apple Watch Ultra isn't for everyone but is for more people than you might expect.

Apple Watch Ultra
(Image: © Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

iMore Verdict

Amazingly, it's the best choice for most people in 2022/23.

Pros

  • +

    Cool factor

  • +

    Battery life

  • +

    A long list of unique features

  • +

    Titanium, lightweight

  • +

    Action button

Cons

  • -

    Pricey for some

  • -

    49mm is too big for some wrists

  • -

    Supply issues are a major concern for now.

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Cupertino revealed the first Apple Watch in 2014, which ushered in a new era of smartwatches. Before this, smartwatches were clunky, think Dick Tracy, and challenging to use. By contrast, those Apple Watch "Series 0" offerings were best described as beautiful. Because of their deep integration with iPhone and featuring familiar software design, they just worked for those early adopters. 

Though future versions of watchOS added a mix of new features and the displays got a tad bigger, those first Apple Watches look like the ones offered today. 

That is until Apple Watch Ultra was revealed. 

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

Long rumored to be called the "Apple Watch Pro," the Apple Watch Ultra is unlike any wearable device Apple has ever released. Thanks to its rugged design and extra features, the Apple Ultra is intended to compete with endurance-based watches from companies like Garmin, Polar, Coros, and Suunto, among others. 

And yet, having tested my Apple Watch Ultra for a few weeks, I"ve noticed something shocking – it doesn't feel nearly as exclusive as Apple's initial video presentation might have you believe. It's correct to say the Apple Watch Ultra isn't for everyone. And yet, I'm more than comfortable recommending it to the 99% of the people in the world who don't ocean dive, climb mountains, or whatever else hardcore athletes and other adventurers do regularly. 

In this review, you won't find Joe and me testing our Apple Watch Ultras by deep diving or climbing a famous mountain range. We're also not opening up a Watch to see what's inside and how it's put together. And if you're looking for a video showing whether an Apple Watch Ultra can survive being destroyed with a hammer (it does), you've come to the wrong place. What you'll find in this review instead is a discussion on whether this Watch works for average, everyday Apple Watch users. The answer might come as a surprise. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Price and availability

Weeks before the Apple Watch Ultra was revealed, the rumor mill suggested Apple would price the model at $1,000 or slightly more. It's $799, regardless of the band you choose. So although Apple Watch Ultra isn't a budget device, it's much cheaper than most of us covering tech expected it to be.

At that price, the Apple Watch Ultra is less expensive than any of the Apple Watch Hermès models and slightly more expensive than most of the stainless steel Apple Watch Series 8 models. And the Apple Watch Ultra is significantly less costly than previous Apple Watch Edition models that also featured a titanium body. 

At launch, Apple Watch Ultra is in short supply;  you can order one through Apple or at third-party retailers worldwide. Every Apple Watch Ultra model on the market is the same and features a 49mm display. However, you get to choose the band (and, in some cases, the band size) that comes with your purchase. This choice determines when you'll receive your purchase, with some bands much more popular than others. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Hardware and design

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

The Apple Watch Ultra has an exclusive aerospace-grade titanium case design that's both rugged and extremely light. In addition, it's the first Apple Watch with raised edges that protects its flat sapphire front crystal from edge impacts. Those edges take some getting used to, but not nearly as long as the Watch's rectangular shape and larger size. This combination means the Watch doesn't sit flat on your wrist, which makes it even more critical that you properly fit the band to match your wrist size. 

The 49mm Watch face measures 410 by 502 pixels, or 1164 sq mm, which provides almost 27% more screen area than the Apple Watch SE. The bezels around the Apple Watch Ultra's display are slightly wider than the Apple Watch Series 8. 

The display itself offers some impressive specs. It provides 2000 nits of brightness versus the Apple Watch Series 8's 1000 nits. This brightness level makes the display (finally) easier to read in direct sunlight. The Always-On technology is also impressive, making the display easy to read, regardless of the conditions. 

The Apple Watch Ultra includes certified IP6X dust resistance and has been successfully tested against subsections for Altitude, High Temperature, Low Temperature, Temperature Shock, Immersion, Freeze/Thaw, Shock, and Vibration.

The Apple Watch Ultra includes certified IP6X dust resistance and has been successfully tested against subsections for Altitude, High Temperature, Low Temperature, Temperature Shock, Immersion, Freeze/Thaw, Shock, and Vibration.

The Watch measures 49mm by 44mm by 14.4mm and weighs 61.3 grams. This is less than 10 grams more than the stainless steel 45mm Apple Watch Series 8, which has a smaller body. 

The Apple Watch Ultra also includes or supports an 86-decibel Siren function, precision dual-frequency (L1 and L5) GPS, depth gauge and water temperature sensor, dive computer app, dual speakers, and a three-mic array with beamforming, Each of these features is exclusive to the Apple Watch Ultra.

Like the Apple Watch Series 8, the Apple Watch Ultra includes other new features, such as cycle tracking with temperature sensing, emergency SOS, and international emergency calling.

Apple Watch Ultra: New Watch bands

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Bryan M. Wolfe / iMore)

Three all-new Watch bands are available for the Apple Watch Ultra: Ocean, Trail, and Alpine, which come in various colors and, in some cases, sizes. When deciding which Apple Watch Ultra to purchase, I chose the Yellow Ocean Band, a high-performance elastomer with what Apple calls "tubular geometry" with a titanium buckle. Soon after, I bought a Starlight Trail Loop. 

Both bands in my possession are beautifully designed, although the Trail Loop was somewhat tricky to size because I failed to read the directions. Each provides excellent comfort and looks fantastic with the Apple Watch Ultra. 

Are the new bands worth $99? Almost certainly not, but we've come to expect high prices for official Apple Watch bands, so there you go. I can say this: they are designed for the elements and should last a very long time, even in rough environments, which Apple promised. Knockoff bands are already showing up on Amazon for those who want the look at a discount. 

There are two additional points about Apple Watch Ultra bands worth noting. First, Apple deserves major kudos for not designing the new Watch so it won't work with earlier bands, as was rumored before the wearable device's launch. We're on the ninth round of Watches, and many have gathered a relatively large collection of bands, and it would have been a shame if they were suddenly useless. 

Are the new bands worth $99? Almost certainly not, but we've come to expect high prices for official Apple Watch bands, so there you go.

Similarly, the no-size change means Apple Watch Ultra owners can purchase most of the other Watch bands so that you can pick up a less expensive Solo Loop or Sport Band, for example, as your second band. 

Secondly, as anyone who has attempted to purchase an Apple Watch Ultra knows, supply issues are leading to long delays for some models. It shouldn't be like this, and only it is because Apple continues to insist on boxing Apple Watches with a band. 

As I previously mentioned, Apple would serve its customers better by shipping Apple Watches without a band, which could eliminate many of the supply issues. Apple could still require a band purchase, but one that would go out separately, depending on the circumstances. 

For example, some Apple Watch Ultra models are shipping before the end of October at the time of this writing. Others, however, won't reach customers until mid-December. This dilemma means waiting for the band you want or going with one you rather not have to get the Watch earlier. Not good, Apple. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Action button and Digital Crown

Apple Watch Ultra Action button and Digital Crown

(Image credit: iMore)

This brings us to the all-new Action button. The physical control, which sits on the left side of the Watch, is colored in International Orange and is fully customizable to match your needs. For example, with the Apple Watch app, you can assign the Action button to mark a Compass Waypoint, control a workout, begin a dive, or even turn the Watch face into a light, among other options. You can even use the button with the Shortcuts app. 

The Action button is a terrific add-on, although it would be great if you could assign multiple functions to it rather than only one. This would probably only be possible if you could assign functions based on the number of button pushes. Apple probably felt some users would find it excessive or dangerous depending on the activity or situation. 

When it comes to the Apple Watch Ultra's Digital Crown, one significant change has been made. The iconic Apple Watch control has a larger diameter and coarser grooves, making it easier to use. Well done, Apple. 

Swipe to scroll horizontally
CategoryApple Watch Ultra
Operating SystemwatchOS 9 and later
Display49mm
ProcessorS8 SiP with 64-bit dual-core processor
Storage32GB
Batteryup to 36 hours between charges; Up to 18 hours when using LTE
ChargingUSB-C magnetic fast charging cable; later this fall a software update adds up to 60 hours of battery life in low-power mode.
Water Resistance100m
Dimensions44mm by 14.4mm and weighs 61.3 grams
ColorsOne, natural titanium

Apple Watch Ultra: Software and performance

In 2022, Apple introduced watchOS 9. Though positively reviewed last month, the software update lacks a broad list of new features. The features that have been added, however, are beneficial and all work well on the Apple Watch Ultra. 

For example, the all-new heart rate zone feature offers more information on display during exercise. It's enhanced even further with the new custom workout feature. WatchOS 9 also includes a few new Watch faces that are also useful, including one designed to keep track of the lunar calendar. 

On Apple Watch Ultra exclusively is the amazingly designed Wayfinder Watch face. Developed with runners, hikers, and underwater users in mind, the design has room for eight complications and comes in various color combinations. In addition, you can activate Night Mode on the Wayfinder Watch face with a simple turn of the Digital Crown. Hopefully, this feature will get extended to other Watch faces. 

Beyond this, you'll find the same software features on Apple Watch Ultra as you would on Apple Watch Series 8. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Battery life & water resistance

The biggest reason to buy an Apple Watch Ultra? Battery life. 

For years, Apple has seemingly been unable to increase daily battery life on its wearable device beyond 18 hours, which is where the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE 2 stand. The Apple Watch Ultra, with its bigger body, doubles that to 36 hours, however. Better still, a software update coming later this year will increase this number to 60 hours when the Watch is in low power mode.

Before switching to the Apple Watch Ultra, my daily routine involved charging my Watch while taking a shower early in the afternoon, then again after closing my three exercise rings. This schedule allowed me to wear the Watch at night.

With the new Watch, I'm still following the same charging routine, but only doing it every other day. While the Apple Watch Ultra's 36 hours is a vast improvement, it still compares poorly with other smartwatches. However, I would argue those devices aren't tasked with performing as many tasks as Apple Watch. Regardless, it will be interesting to see whether Apple can raise this number in upcoming Watch versions.

Both the Apple Watch Ultra and Apple Watch Series 8 support Fast Charging.

Water resistance is another area where the Apple Watch Ultra has leapfrogged regular Watch models. Like their predecessors, the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE 2 offer watch resistance up to 50m. This compares to 100m for the Apple Watch Ultra. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Off road

Here's Joe discussing all the fun things he has already done outside with his Apple Watch Ultra: 

As a Subaru-owning, Patagonia-wearing, REI-loving "weekend warrior," the Apple Watch Ultra was apparently made for people like me. But, of course, the alpinists, ultra runners, and divers also stand to benefit from the new Watch. For most of us, it's here for two things: to be the best everyday Watch Apple has ever created and to power our weekend and (sometimes) extended adventures.

Bryan has already covered the Ultra as an everyday wearable device, so I'll focus on those weekend excursions that many of us were excited to see how the Apple Watch Ultra handled. Apple has pushed the Apple Watch Ultra as a watch that can do almost anything. Still, the company has undoubtedly focused its marketing around three different areas: running, hiking, and water sports. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to dive into my local river, but over the last weekend, I did take the Apple Watch Ultra on a run and a hike. So, let's dive (pun intended) in!

Apple Watch Ultra: Running

Apple Watch Ultra in a running workout

(Image credit: Joe Wituschek)

Let's talk about running first. I run almost every day for at least a few miles and have trained for a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon. I also enjoy trail running despite my fear of tripping on a root and eating dirt. I'm not a professional runner, but the activity is a huge part of my fitness routine. 

I've loved using the Apple Watch for running, and the Apple Watch Ultra improves things for me in several notable ways. First, the Action button makes starting and tagging workouts, like marking a segment or moving to a new workout in the session, a breeze. No longer did I need to battle with the screen while sweating! 

The bigger and brighter display also made it noticeably easier to check in on how the run was going or any messages coming in while I was in the middle of my run. I was also pleasantly surprised that, despite its larger size, I didn't notice much difference in the weight. I was worried the watch would feel huge and heavy when running, but that concern was quickly put at ease after the 5K I ran. 

The Apple Watch Ultra can go even further, like having the battery life to track a full marathon, Iron Man, or other extreme runs, but the benefits show up for your everyday and training runs.

Apple Watch Ultra: Hiking

Apple Watch Ultra hiking workout

(Image credit: Joe Wituschek)

Now, let's talk hiking. I've always loved hiking and camping and, over the pandemic, have also moved into the world of backpacking. I've loved taking my Apple Watch on all these excursions, but, in my life, I've never been able to get the Watch to survive a full day when hiking. It's always died on my three-quarters of the way through the day when tracking a hiking workout. 

So, when Apple announced the Apple Watch Ultra, I was excited to see the drastic increase in battery life. Finally, finally, an Apple Watch that could survive a whole day! I took the Watch on a very rainy hike last weekend, and, to my surprise, the battery life was even better than I had hoped for. Not only did it handle the hike easily, but I used the Watch for three days after that before needing to charge it. It's a battery monster compared to the Apple Watches that came before it. 

In addition to the battery life, the new design, with its flat display and titanium housing, made me more confident I could beat this thing up without worry. I've scratched the crap out of my other Apple Watches when hiking, but with the Ultra, I don't feel like I need to be as careful with my Watch when I'm doing a rock scramble or anything else that could potentially damage it. 

I also got to play around with the new Wayfinder watch face. Having the compass, elevation, and level complications together with so much other information on the watch face is handy, and the new Backtrack feature was fun to play with. 

It won't replace a Garmin inReach just yet, but between that and the features coming to the iPhone, I wouldn't be surprised if I'm only a couple of years away from taking just my phone and watch into the backcountry.

Apple Watch Ultra: Competition

Garmin Fenix 7

(Image credit: Garmin)

Apple Watch Ultra's most significant competition could come from companies like Garmin, which offers an extensive lineup of smartwatches across multiple categories, including multi-sport, adventure, and swimming. Among these are the Fenix 7 (opens in new tab) and Forerunner 955 (opens in new tab).  

Depending on your needs, you'll need to decide whether these are a better choice. For adventurers not yet committed to the watchOS ecosystem, the first-generation Apple Watch Ultra might not cut, if only because it might lack some features unique to your specialty. 

If you're already familiar with Apple Watch and are dedicated to the iOS + watchOS combination, your choice might come down to the Apple Watch Ultra and a stainless steel version of the Apple Watch Series 8. The devices are nearly identical in price, so you can't base your choice on that. Instead, it probably comes down to size. If you don't believe a 49mm watch will look good on your wrist, you'll probably be better off getting a 41mm or 45mm Apple Watch Series 8. And yet, I strongly suggest you see an Apple Watch Ultra in person before making your decision. This wearable is lightweight and might not feel as big as expected. 

Apple Watch Ultra: Should you buy it?

You should buy this if:

You want the newest Apple Watch
The Apple Watch Series 8 is essentially the Apple Watch Series 7, so there's not much new here. By contrast, the Apple Watch Ultra is the one that will turn the most heads in 2022/23. So if that's your goal, go with it. 

You're even remotely into endurance or performance tasks
I'll never find myself scaling a mountain or diving beyond 12 feet. And yet, Apple Watch Ultra will probably convince me to swim and hike more than before, and that's a big deal, and it can be for you too. 

You want longer battery life
Honestly, 36 hours vs. 18 hours is reason enough to switch. 

You shouldn't buy this if:

You're on a budget
It turned out Apple Watch Ultra wasn't priced at $1,000. And yet, $799 is still a lot of money. When budget is the underlying factor, consider the Apple Watch SE 2 or the regular Apple Watch (in aluminum). 

You worry about your wrist
Some wrists are smaller than others, and, at least for now, Cupertino isn't offering a 41mm Apple Watch Ultra. If you're even remotely worried about the size of this Watch, I strongly recommend seeing the beast in person before making a decision, as it might surprise you. 

Apple Watch Ultra: The Verdict

The Apple Watch Ultra is a terrific wearable device that I recommend for most people this time around, even for those who aren't planning on climbing Mt. Everest anytime soon. It offers the best and largest display, unique features,  and the most awesome battery life found on an Apple Watch. And, thanks to its titanium construction, Apple Watch Ultra is lightweight. And did I mention the Action button, which is also a terrific addition?

Size and price are the only factors that make this the wrong choice for some. The regular Apple Watch Series 8 or Apple Watch SE 2 might be more suitable if this describes you.  

An update

It's been nearly a month since Cupertino released the Apple Watch Ultra. For almost as long, I've been wearing my Apple Watch Ultra daily for virtually every waking hour. There are a few new points worth mentioning about the Watch that I've decided to add to this article. None of these points change the overall 4-star-rating I initially assigned to the review. However, any one of the points might be enough for you to rethink whether to make a purchase. 

Let's start with the Watch's battery life. One of the most significant selling points of the Apple Watch Ultra is the ability to have up to 36 hours of battery life between charges. Under normal conditions, I've occasionally exceeded this number with my Watch. And yet, this number drops when using the built-in compass app or the real-time latitude/longitude or elevation/incline setting on the Watch's exclusive Wayfinder face. It's not a significant battery drop, but it could become at least a modest concern for anyone who plans to use those tools for long periods. As a rule of thumb, keep your Apple Watch charging accessories with you whenever you plan on being away from home for more than a day. Otherwise, you might run into problems. 

Apple Watch bands. Since publishing my review, I have been asked two questions more than any other: whether the $99 Apple Watch Ultra bands are "worth it" and whether older bands look good on the redesigned wearable device. 

As I noted above, Apple has always sold "official" Watch bands at premium prices. These bands are always beautifully designed and are of higher quality than most third-party (and less expensive) options. By looking elsewhere for bands, you'll need to decide whether the quality drop-off is worth the savings you can receive. 

The Apple Watch Ultra comes with three all-new bands for which there are currently few copycats, although that's likely to change over time. If you've gone so far as to spend $800 on an Apple Watch, I would say it's worth buying a few extra if you can afford them. 

Surprisingly, the existing (44mm and 45mm) bands look lovely on the Apple Watch Ultra. In particular, I love how my Watch looks with Apple's leather link options. 

Finally, a brief word about Apple Watch Ultra quality: the Apple Watch Ultra's titanium case looks terrific, and its near weightlessness makes it a pleasure to wear for long periods. As someone who came from wearing stainless steel Apple Watches, I was concerned the weight change would be disruptive. It was not, and now I can't imagine wearing a heavier Apple Watch again.