The Apple Watch Ultra is the ultimate smartwatch for those willing to splurge | CNN Underscored

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I’ll cut to the chase: the Apple Watch Ultra is the best Apple Watch you can buy right now. In fact, it’s the best smartwatch for someone willing to splurge, despite being oversized, chunky and considerably more expensive ($799) than all the other Apple Watches, save for the luxury Hermes Edition.

Not only does it offer a significant battery life upgrade over the Apple Watch Series 7 and even the new $399 Series 8, but it also comes with more-precise GPS and features for outdoor enthusiasts like waypoints and an enhanced compass app. It even holds the tantalizing promise of replacing your dive computer later this fall.

While its lack of workout recovery data is not going to challenge Garmin for the extreme sports enthusiast market just yet, it should cause its competitors to take note. If you aren’t already on the bandwagon, and decide it’s time to get in better shape or finally want to tackle something like kayaking or scuba diving, the Ultra is here for you.

Here’s why I think this is the Apple Watch to buy for those with higher budgets, even if you’re not ready to paraglide off Mount Everest just yet.

If you’re a serious athlete or adventurer — or simply willing to pay up for the most advanced Apple Watch experience out there — the Apple Watch Ultra is worth the money. For everyone else, the Apple Watch Series 8 remains a great pick.

The Ultra is big. Yet despite its size — at 49mm and 61.3 grams, it’s larger than any other Apple Watch — it doesn’t feel like a huge, chunky watch. (The Apple Watch Series 8 is 45mm and 51.5 grams.) The silver titanium casing helps with the weight, and its graceful curves and flat face help offset the relative height (14.4mm).

The Apple Watch Ultra may target adventurers and hardcore athletes, but its real secret, and what I loved about it, is that this “extreme” watch doesn’t feel extreme. It’s big but doesn’t rest heavily on the wrist. Its bright, always-on screen is easy to glance at and then dismiss. It is the quiet professional of Apple Watches.

It’s handsome, with a muted silver finish that will go a long way in not making you look like a jerk with an expensive sports watch on your wrist. And Apple was smart in making sure you can use existing 44mm and 45mm Apple Watch bands instead of just offering the highly conspicuous bands designed for this watch. Combine a simple band with the Apple Watch Ultra’s ability to change its face from a USS Enterprise-like data-dense display to a simple, stylish California face, and you have a chunky high-end watch that won’t make you look like a sports bro.

apple watch ultra review face

Christopher Allbritton/CNN Underscored

Speaking of the face, it’s bright. I had no trouble reading its 2000-nit display in bright midday light, and my aging eyes appreciated its larger type. The blacks were deep and inky, and while I wouldn’t read a novel on the watch, looking at big, bold notifications was a pleasure.

In addition to the regular digital crown and side button (which have been raised and ruggedized so as to be better accessible when wearing gloves), there’s an international orange action button on the opposite side, which can be customized to start and stop workouts or the stopwatch, set a waypoint when hiking, help you retrace your steps if you find yourself lost, start a dive (more on that below), turn on the watch’s “flashlight,” or run a Shortcut that you’ve preprogrammed. I found it most useful for starting and stopping my usual outdoor walk workout. During a run, you can use it to mark your intervals or laps.

And, as expected, this thing is tough. It has water resistance to 330 feet (far deeper than any recreational diver should be), IP6X dust resistance, and it’s tested to MIL-STD 810H specifications. Its face is a flat sapphire crystal, which has yet to show any dings or scratches in a month of trekking across Cappadocia, Istanbul and Eastern Europe.

The Apple Watch Ultra has the usual assortment of Apple Watch features introduced on the Apple Watch Series 8, including the new body temperature sensor. All well and good. But more importantly, it has crazy-accurate GPS — dual-frequency L1 and L5 GPS (the other Apple Watches only use the L1 band.) The two bands of GPS mean it can keep a strong signal even in the depths of skyscraper canyons or amidst tall trees, an important consideration for marathon runners and hikers who need to send their exact coordinates. In my testing, it was able to plot my strolls accurately amidst the twisty streets of Turkey’s largest city when previous Apple Watches would have had a hard time locking in on a signal.

Which brings up the Wayfinder face, which is unique to the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s a hyper-complicated face that includes compass navigation, current weather conditions, sunrise and sunset, your activity rings, elevation, longitude and latitude and your bearing. It’s a lot, but I quickly got used to it. And I really appreciated the quick access to Waypoints and Backtracking straight from the home screen when out in Cappadocia. You can even scroll up on the Digital Crown to turn the whole face red, the better to see it at night.

apple watch ultra review wayfinder

Christopher Allbritton

Along my many miles of travels in October, I dropped a few waypoints: a cool bar here in Budapest, a nice stream here in Turkey, that kind of thing — and you can program the action button to do this quickly. Then, the new compass app on the watch will show you the direction and distance of all your waypoints so you can navigate back to them. While I was using it mainly to test the feature, it’s really designed for marking campsites, trailheads or other landmarks you’d like to not lose track of when you’re out in the wilderness.

Building on the waypoint feature is Backtrack, which uses GPS to create a visual path of your trail and allows you to retrace your steps in case you get lost. Apple is quick to note this is a feature for remote settings where there is little to no Wi-Fi or cellular service and that it will automatically turn on and run in the background if it detects you’re outside a densely covered area for Wi-Fi.

Adding to this is the emergency siren, which is also unique to the Ultra. By holding the action button, you can cause an 86db siren to sound that should be able to draw attention to your location if you need assistance. I tested it in my apartment, and while it didn’t sound overly loud to me, I could see how it would cut through the relatively quiet backwoods to any first responders.

I didn’t get to try the depth gauge, but this new app lets you set it to turn on automatically if you submerge the Apple Watch Ultra beyond about 3 feet. The display changes to show the current time, depth, your maximum depth, the time you spent underwater and the water temperature.

What I’m really  interested in, however, is the upcoming Dive Computer functionality. Later this year, Huish Outdoors says it will release the Oceanic+ app that will let the Apple Watch Ultra work like a full-fledged dive computer. The watch is already certified up to 130 feet deep and comes with EN13319 certification, an internationally recognized standard for recreational dive accessories. We’ll have to see how the software stacks up for this new functionality.

Finally, rounding out the unique hardware features, the Ultra has three built-in mics that use an adaptive beamforming algorithm for improved voice quality and background noise suppression. In my testing, the people I called on the watch generally didn’t realize I was speaking to them on a Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio; one said he thought I was using earphones. The voice quality was that good.

Battery life has been very good for me. Even when hiking up and down hills and streets for hours at a time, tracking my sleep and doing it all over again, I never ran below 20% battery life. By the end of the month, I was routinely exceeding the 36 hours Apple rates the battery for. There’s also a new low-power mode which Apple claims will provide up to 60 hours of battery life, but suffice to say, the battery is dramatically improved over the Apple Watch 8 and earlier models.

That said, it still won’t measure up to offerings by Fitbit or Garmin, which measure batteries in days or weeks, not hours. While the Apple Watch Ultra will serve you well on an all-day hike, you will need some way to charge it on a multi-day hike in the backcountry.

This is an effusive review because Apple has put a lot of thought into this watch and it shows. But nothing is perfect and the Apple Watch Ultra still has room for improvement.

One, it’s big. While that doesn’t personally bother me, it might be a dealbreaker for those with smaller wrists. Smaller wrists have less area for the watch’s sensors to work with, so you’re apt to get less accurate measurements. The lower limit seems to be a 130mm diameter wrist, as that’s the smallest wrist Apple’s Ultra bands are designed for.

Two, as good as I believe this watch to be, it still won’t replace a dedicated fitness watch like the Garmin Fenix 7 or Epix 2. For folks who use these fitness watches to measure more activities in greater detail, they also offer recovery metrics, which the Ultra simply can’t match. In fact, the built-in workout app on the Ultra measures barely any recovery at all. The folks at Cupertino apparently don’t take rest days in their fitness regimen, but real athletes do.

Dimensions and weight

49mm x 44mm x 14.4mm, 61.3 g

47mm x 47mm x 14.5mm, 56 g

47mm x 47mm x 14.5 mm, 53 g


Flat sapphire front crystal
Ceramic and sapphire crystal back

Corning Gorilla Glass
Stainless steel
Fiber-reinforced polymer with metal rear cover

Corning Gorilla Glass
Passivated stainless steel
Fiber-reinforced polymer with steel rear cover


Wi-Fi – 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz and 5GHz
Bluetooth 5.3
iPhone only




IP6X dust resistance
Water resistance to 330 feet
Tested to MIL-STD 810H

Water resistant to 10 atmospheres
Tested to MIL-STD-810

Water resistant to 10 atmospheres
Tested to MIL-STD-810


L1 and L5 GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, QZSS, and BeiDou

GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Satiq Technology

GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Satiq Technology


410 by 502 pixels – 1185 sq mm display area
Always-on OLED
2000-nit brightness

260 x 260 pixels – 33.02mm diameter
Sunlight-visible, transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP)

416 x 416 pixels – 33mm diameter
AMOLED (always-on)


Built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery
Up to 36 hours
Up to 60 hours in low-power mode

Up to 18 days in smartwatch mode
Up to 57 days in battery saver mode

Up to 15 days in smartwatch mode
Up to 21 days in battery saver mode





If you can afford the higher price, this is the best Apple Watch you can buy. It looks great, it’s durable and the extra battery life and “extreme” features are worth it.

If you’re an intermediate athlete — or you aspire to be better than what you’ve been accomplishing — the Apple Watch Ultra will give you what you need, along with more convenient smartwatch features, such as cellular connectivity. It lasts far longer than before and might just encourage you to finally get scuba certified or take that hiking trip.

However, if you’re a top-performing athlete, its built-in workout app doesn’t offer all the deep-dive data that more dedicated fitness watches do. Third-party workout apps can go a long way in filling that gap, but at its heart, the Apple Watch Ultra is still an Apple Watch. It’s a rugged, sporty, smartwatch, not a fitness watch with some “smart” functionality added on. And on the flip side, if all you want is a good smartwatch for staying on top of notifications and tracking basic fitness metrics, the Apple Watch Series 8 is the best option for the vast majority of people.

But the Ultra is also the first departure from the Apple Watch design since the Series 4, when Apple settled into the current paradigm for this product line. There’s already a lot of thought put into this device, and for a first attempt, it’s a winner. What comes next might be even more interesting.

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