The Apple Watch Ultra is missing these two key features

Apple Watch Ultra hiking workout
Apple Watch Ultra hiking workout (Image credit: Joe Wituschek)

The Apple Watch Ultra is a beast of a watch. Unlike my previous Apple Watches, which I've been relatively nervous would explode on some of my backpacking trips, I don't feel the need to baby this thing at all.

I've scratched up a good few Apple Watches, especially during day hikes and backpacking trips. If you get yourself into a rock crawl situation or any tight space, you're bound to scrape that watch along something that doesn't care about that screen. While I've never fully shattered my watch, by the time I trade it in, the screen and body are usually nicked up pretty well.

So far with the Apple Watch Ultra, however, I haven't managed to see a single imperfection in the display or the housing. Between the titanium material, improved glass design, and raised edges around the display, Apple has created a watch that even I might not be able to beat up.

That said, I still can't take the Apple Watch alone when I head into the unknown. I still need to bring along my iPhone for two key reasons, and those are the two things I hope eventually make their way to the Apple Watch.

Emergency SOS via satellite

The obvious feature that iPhone owners now enjoy that Apple Watch users can't is Emergency SOS via satellite. With the launch of the iPhone 14, Apple has built in the ability to use your phone to contact emergency services outside of a cellular signal.

The company has accomplished this by ensuring the radios inside the iPhone 14 are compatible with the same bands that certain satellites use so if you find yourself in the backcountry (or anywhere without cell service) and in need of emergency assistance, you can point your iPhone to the sky and communicate your position and the situation. As Apple explains:

"Satellites are moving targets with low bandwidth, and it can take minutes for messages to get through. Since every second counts, with Emergency SOS via satellite, iPhone front-loads a few vital questions to assess the user’s situation, and shows them where to point their phone to connect to a satellite. The initial questionnaire and follow-up messages are then relayed to centers staffed by Apple‑trained specialists who can call for help on the user’s behalf."

It got even better when Apple revealed that "users [can] manually share their location over satellite with Find My when there is no cellular or Wi-Fi connection, providing a sense of security when hiking or camping off the grid." So, you don't necessarily need to be in an emergency situation to let the people you care about know your location in the backcountry.

iPhone 14 emergency SOS via satellite

iPhone 14 emergency SOS via satellite (Image credit: Apple)

While Apple released the feature across the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro lineup, it was missing from the Apple Watch Ultra, despite both the Ultra and certain Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch SE 2 models offering a cellular configuration.

Now, this isn't necessarily surprising. As someone who brings a Garmin inReach Mini when I'm hiking or backpacking, it's truly an engineering marvel that Apple has been able to pack in emergency SOS features into the iPhone. So, miniaturizing that even more to fit into the Apple Watch will likely take some time.

A built-in camera

Let's face it. Any of us who want to take our Apple Watch, and only our Apple Watch, into the backcountry, are forced to go without photos or videos of the experience. While there are some companies building cameras into a band that works with the Apple Watch like Wristcam, those accessories can get expensive pretty fast.

The solution here would be to build a camera into the Apple Watch Ultra itself. For me, I'd love to be able to go on a run or a hike and, if I come across something I want to capture, be able to do so with just my watch.

Space Black iPhone 14 Pro

Space Black iPhone 14 Pro (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

I'm honestly not concerned about quality here. The camera doesn't need to compete with the lenses on the iPhone. It's more about functionality than anything. The ability to use one device on your wrist to track your workout, call emergency services, and capture the experience would be incredible.

However, I know there are plenty of privacy concerns about putting a camera on your wrist. I also know that it might not be a feature high on everyone's list, and can certainly see Apple shying away from the idea if they don't see a wide use case for it.

While I'd love to see them give it a go with a built-in camera on the Apple Watch Ultra, I'm not holding my breath for this one.

There's not much else to do here

Other than those two things, I can't think of anything else my iPhone does that I'd want my watch to do. My Garmin is still needed in order to text people when I'm in the backcountry but, since my iPhone can't do it yet, I wouldn't expect my Apple Watch Ultra to. That is likely the next generation of satellite connectivity with the iPhone that will hopefully, eventually, make its way to the watch.

As I said before, the Apple Watch Ultra is a beast. Apple really nailed it when they designed this watch for those who wanted something more extreme and rugged that could handle the adventures that people wanted to take it on. I've personally been really happy with the watch so far and can't wait to take it on more hikes, camping trips, backpacking trips, and general exploration.

Apple Watch Ultra in a running workout

Apple Watch Ultra in a running workout (Image credit: Joe Wituschek)

The only features that are left to bring to the Apple Watch Ultra, from my experience, are the things that we want but are stuck with needing an iPhone for, like contacting emergency services or capturing a moment.

We'll have to wait and see what the company has in store for the second generation of its ultimate watch to understand if breaking away from the iPhone is something they'd actually entertain. That's doubtful, as Apple's business is still largely dependent on iPhone sales. However, is someone really going to buy an Apple Watch Ultra and not an iPhone? Come on, we all know that's not happening.

Joe Wituschek

Joe Wituschek is a Contributor at iMore. With over ten years in the technology industry, one of them being at Apple, Joe now covers the company for the website. In addition to covering breaking news, Joe also writes editorials and reviews for a range of products. He fell in love with Apple products when he got an iPod nano for Christmas almost twenty years ago. Despite being considered a "heavy" user, he has always preferred the consumer-focused products like the MacBook Air, iPad mini, and iPhone 13 mini. He will fight to the death to keep a mini iPhone in the lineup. In his free time, Joe enjoys video games, movies, photography, running, and basically everything outdoors.