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REVIEW: Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch Ultra boasts new, unique running and endurance-athlete-focused features


The Apple Watch runners have been waiting for has arrived: Apple Watch Ultra has all the options Apple Watch users know and love, along with some enhanced endurance-specific upgrades and new features. The Ultra has an new resilient design that includes a larger, brightest-ever screen, a new Action Button and a greatly-improved battery. The watch starts at $1,099, and is available for preorder now and in stores this Friday, Sept. 23.

Bigger, brighter and tougher

With a screen that’s twice as bright as the Series 8 display, you’ll never squint to read your watch again. The Ultra is designed to be tough enough to withstand outdoor adventures, and you can tell immediately upon holding it–it feels sturdy and resilient. The 49 mm case is made from aerospace-grade titanium, aiming to offer the perfect balance between weight, durability, and corrosion resistance.

Apple Watch Ultra
Apple Watch Ultra with Ocean Band Photo: Keeley Milne

The Digital Crown is 30 per cent bigger than in Series 8, and has deeper grooves and a titanium guard to prevent accidental rotations. This seemingly small feature eradicated one of my greatest irritants when using a digital crown–bumping it with my sleeve or wrist during a race and then looking down to see I’d changed my screen entirely.

To complement the strong hardware of the watch, the Ultra exclusively touts Apple’s most technical watch face yet—Wayfinder. I enjoyed how easily I could toggle between a live compass or the time by simply tapping the dial. The watch has by far the best night mode I’ve ever seen, activated by a quick turn to the digital crown.

The Ultra offers three unique band choices (reviewer’s photos feature the yellow Ocean Band option), Trail Loop, Alpine Loop, and Ocean Band — offering unique design features that aim to provide a comfortable fit no matter what your day holds.

An all-important major battery boost

Battery life is a huge factor for runners, from athletes logging a few daily kilometres to those tackling ultra events. Anyone who has ever had their watch die mid-workout knows the longing runners have for improved battery life. In Ultra, the physical size of the battery is 76 per cent larger than the battery in Series 8, in a case that’s only 36 per cent larger in volume. Ultra has the longest battery life of any Apple Watch yet, with up to 36 hours on a single charge for everyday use. Apple has finally added a low-power mode, which means you should be able to fit in a full day of activity (up to 18 hours), using both GPS and HR, and make it home safely before needing to recharge.

Photo: Apple Canada

Updates in the fall will add a battery optimization option that provides fewer heart rate and GPS readings, and enable the watch to last up to 60 hours, perfect for endurance athletes tackling multi-day adventures.

Top-notch safety features

Apple Watch has always been on the forefront of safety features, and Ultra has the ability to detect a severe car crash. When Apple Watch detects a severe car crash, the device will check in with the user and dial emergency services if they are unresponsive after a 10-second countdown. Emergency responders will receive the device location, and it’s also shared with any emergency contacts you’ve set up within your Apple devices. As a runner who often does things solo (both running adventures and driving-related ones) I’ve always appreciated any safety features my watch offers, and this is a superior additional bonus.

Apple Watch Ultra’s night option is unparalleled Photo: Apple Canada

As a safety geek, the new easy access to help on the Apple Watch Ultra is a great selling feature. You can get help by simply pressing and holding the side button. Emergency SOS calls local emergency services, notifies your emergency contacts, sends your current location, and displays your Medical ID badge on the screen for emergency personnel. The watch will also let you play a siren if you want to alert others to your location with sound–or even frighten off an attacker.

I enjoy running in the early mornings, and I like that the ability to play a surprisingly loud sound is readily available on my watch. Ultra supports international emergency calling, meaning you can contact emergency services in more than 120 countries, even if your phone isn’t set up for that (or within reach).

Running-specific options and metrics

Apple Watch Ultra is powered by watchOS 9, and includes new advanced running metrics to measure performance, such as stride length, ground contact time and running power. You can now view six workout metrics at once, including segments, splits and elevation, providing crucial metrics at a glance, thanks to the larger display. I found the metrics easy to personalize and loved viewing six different sets of data with a quick scan of my wrist during my run, instead of having to pause and swipe screens to hone in on specifics.

Apple Watch Ultra features a brand-new third button—the action button. It’s easily customizable (even for the least tech-savvy of us) and gives you quick control for a wide range of functions, including starting a workout, setting a compass waypoint, starting a backtrack path, turning on a flashlight and starting a stopwatch. You can choose the action during setup or at any time by going into settings. I appreciated that I could eliminate the three-second countdown that occurred when I selected a workout option simply by changing my action button function.

Compass and GPS improvements

The Ultra has a redesigned compass app that offers three different views, including a nifty orienteering option. These are handy, and fun tools to have on a trail adventure. Even better, though, is the GPS update in the Ultra. Probably the most appealing feature for runners and endurance athletes, the Ultra features a new, precision dual-frequency GPS system that is designed to give amazing accuracy in challenging environments.

The Ultra goes above and beyond the traditional L1 GPS frequency band by integrating L1 and L5 frequency GPS. Satellite signal use is optimized, and this info is combined with onboard sensors and Apple Maps data including road, bike and trail routes to better measure your actual workout route and distance. The result–you can count on your Ultra watch to provide fast, accurate GPS data even in dense forests or surrounded by tall buildings. While I’m not a GPS expert, I love how quickly and accurately the watch acquires a signal and how it combines so many applications to provide the best data possible.

The verdict

Apple Watch Ultra has everything I love about my other Apple products in one compact, sturdy design. While the new, slightly heavier size took a couple of runs to adjust to, it’s well worth it for the longer battery life and fantastic running-based features. I was nervous about how durable the higher-priced watch would be, since, as an ultrarunner, I am often trekking through mud and running up mountains, and my gear tends to take a beating. I lost all hesitancy once I put the watch on, as it feels like it was designed for a trek through the jungle or to the North Pole.

The new safety features, along with the endurance-focused options (like the action button and more accessible metrics) are fantastic upgrades to an already user-friendly and easily personalized watch. You’ll still have to charge your watch every day or two, but taking the short recharge time is a small price to pay for the unique training options and peace of mind the watch offers, even in the wildest of outdoor settings.

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