What I Love and Hate About the Apple Watch Ultra After Six Weeks Together

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When Apple announced the new Apple Watch Ultra in September, I wrote a story with a headline that said that the watch “might replace your Garmin.” When the story posted on Instagram, readers went berserk claiming that we were dead wrong. Garmin, Coros, and Suunto loyalists said the Ultra would never measure up to adventure watches like those in the Fenix or Vertix series.

After six weeks of testing the Ultra, I have to say: they’re absolutely right. The Apple Watch Ultra is not as robust as my Garmin Fenix 7X Solar in several ways, but most importantly when it comes to battery life. The Ultra, while significantly better than the normal Apple Watch, falls short of top-end Garmin, Coros, and Suunto watches when it comes to longevity, which eliminates it from bigger adventures in the woods or mountains, whether you’re backpacking, hunting, backcountry skiing, or using it on some other multi-day journey.

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The purpose of this review, however, is not just to point out where the Ultra falls short, but to note where it plays best, and where it has room to grow. The Apple Watch Ultra is clearly a great addition to the Apple lineup. It’s also a solid platform that will likely evolve in clever ways down the road.

Why a Garmin/Coros/Suunto vs. Ultra Comparison Is Misleading

After a few weeks of testing the Ultra I set up an interview with several top Apple executives who were involved with the development of the watch. All three had their talking points down pat, but it was useful to be able to get a little more behind-the-scenes information. One point they hammered home was that the Ultra is not just an adventure watch but an Apple product with adventure features, which I’ve come to agree with.

As with all of their products, Apple designers first made the Ultra a joy to use every single day, easy to figure out, and beautiful to look at. They then found a way to add in features that those of us in the adventure world would appreciate and use regularly.

“Honestly, the thing I love the most about Ultra is that while it really pushes the limits of Apple Watch for that endurance athlete, it’s still quintessentially at its core an Apple Watch,” says Jay Blahnik, vice president of fitness technologies. “And so the same watch that might get you through an ultramarathon is the one you can wear all day long to get you to your meetings on time and to not miss a message, to listen to music on a dog walk, and even to take an ECG.”

From this perspective, comparing the Ultra to a Garmin, Coros, or Suunto might actually be a misleading way of looking at the watch, like trying to compare offroad vehicles that are built for different uses. You could say the Ultra is a Subaru Outback that’s great for everyday driving, and pretty good in the snow and off road. The Garmin, Coros, and Suunto watches are like overland Toyota Tacomas designed to go farther and tackle more difficult terrain, but which lack some of the everyday features and comforts.

I’m not an adventure athlete, but I do spend a lot of time hiking, hunting, and skiing, and after more than a month of testing the Ultra up in the mountains and at home, I see the advantages of having a really robust Apple Watch. During the week, it stores my music, delivers my alerts on a big and bright screen, and works seamlessly with my iPhone and AirPods. And during the weekend and on adventures it can help me find my car if I get lost on a hike via the new GPS-enabled Backtrack feature, send out a siren alert if I get hurt, and function as an intro dive watch when I need one. Testers on the Outside team who are adventure athletes agree that the Ultra moves Apple into a whole new territory of functionality.

Apple Ultra Watch
(Photo: Courtesy Apple/Getty)

The Ultra Is Still an Exceptionally Well-Designed Watch

I also asked the Apple team about how athletes like ultramarathoner Scott Jurek were involved in the development of the Ultra. Jurek was featured in the hero video that Apple used to announce the watch and he was also seen chatting with Tim Cook at the official launch at Apple Headquarters.

Blahnik said Apple does not sponsor athletes like other companies, but said the company worked closely with people like Jurek, as well as distance runner Ray Zahab and wildlife photographer Nadia Aly, to develop a watch that went beyond the regular Apple Watch and could realistically and consistently put up with the conditions they regularly experience.

“Of course Scott does certain kinds of events that our regular Apple Watch, our Series or SE, just simply wouldn’t be able to accommodate because of how long he’s actually out there,” Blahnik says. “Over the years we’ve had lots of great conversations with him and other athletes that we admire that love Apple products—and we are constantly listening for what they like, what they’d love to see, and those are the kinds of things we take into account for all our products.”

Stan Ng, vice president of Apple watch product marketing, emphasized that the Ultra was absolutely tortured before its release. For Apple to claim that the watch was “Tested to MIL-STD 810H3,” they had to put it through a series of tests that meet standards set out for military gear. Ng said the Ultra was evaluated for metrics including drops, pressure, humidity, high and low temps, shock, and vibration.

“We realized that this was a product that would go with individuals beyond the places that Apple Watch had been before,” Ng says, so it was designed to not fail when put in more extreme conditions.” I’ve beaten my Ultra up plenty in the weeks I’ve been testing and never once worried it would crack or fail. We’ve seen complaints about the Ultra only handling to -4 and up to 131 degrees Fahrenheit, but for most average-use adventurers, including myself, that range should be plenty.

Explaining more about the Ultra’s GPS features, Ron Huang, the vice president of sensing and connectivity, said that by using the L1 and L5 GPS frequencies (with the L5 being the more updated and robust frequency), the Ultra gets the same connectivity as high-end Garmin and Coros watches (that typically use language like “dual frequency” or “multi-band” to describe those two different methods for connecting with a satellite). I found it interesting, and comforting, to learn that the Ultra will also automatically connect to satellite systems run by other countries—including GLONASS, BeiDou, Galileo, QZSS—in order to ensure the best connectivity possible when traveling. In my testing, the Ultra connected to GPS almost immediately, faster than my Garmin, leaving me confident that GPS will be a tool I can count on for runs in the city or while playing in the backcountry.

Of Course, the Ultra Has Lots of Room for Improvement

The biggest failing for outdoor adventurer is obviously the Ultra’s battery life. Because the Ultra functions as an Apple watch—with a large, bright display, cellular connectivity, and an always-on screen—the energy draw is big and the watch’s battery is just a fraction of what you get with a Garmin or Coros watch. Apple is offering some workarounds to extend the battery life, but in my testing those workarounds cause major compromises.

First, here’s what Apple says about the battery life in the Ultra’s various power modes: On regular power mode the Ultra Watch will last somewhere around 36 hours. This is not 36 hours of GPS use, but instead, 36 hours of normal use where you will get notifications, make calls, go for a couple of runs with GPS, and get some sleep data. In this mode, Apple says that you can get “up to 12 hours outdoor workout with GPS.”

If you want to extend the battery life, you can turn the watch to low power mode, which turns off functions like the always-on display, reduces cellular connectivity to only update hourly, and limits certain background features such as auto-workout detection and irregular heart rate notifications. It does, however, maintain the normal heart rate and GPS features and provides enough power for someone to get through an Ironman race, which can take up to 16 hours for a normal participant.

Finally, Apple has something called “Low Power Mode Workout” with fewer GPS and heart rate readings. This is a new feature they just launched in October and it’s what you can use to extend the battery to 60 hours. In this setting, you not only have the same cutbacks as in regular low power mode, but the heart rate readings are also reduced to one time per minute, and the GPS readings are reduced to one time every two minutes. To try and maintain an accurate GPS record, the Ultra pulls Apple Maps data to fill in the gaps of where you’ve been when the GPS is not reading. (Apple says they factored in about 15 hours of GPS use when coming up with the 60-hour metric.) If Apple doesn’t have the map data for your area, Apple says “Ultra combines data from the accelerometer and gyroscope with Apple Maps’ knowledge of terrain steepness and GPS measurements to estimate how straight or windy the trail is to provide an accurate distance traveled.”

I tested the low power mode with fewer GPS and heart rate readings and came away hating the Ultra with this feature engaged. It’s impossible to go for a run with this on because you can’t get accurate heart rate or GPS readings while you’re on the move. And all the features that make the Ultra so nice to use disappear. This mode would be helpful if I were in the wilderness for three or four days and got lost and needed to get back to my car using the GPS-guided Backtrack feature, but that’s about all.

Setting up this power mode is also a pain because you have to go into the watch menu and click through several features to make it work, and then unclick those features to get your regular watch back. With that in mind, it was an easy decision a couple of weeks back to leave my Ultra at home during a five-day hunt and instead take my Garmin Fenix 7X Solar. During the hunt I tracked my entire route with the GPS by clicking one simple button. And never once did I worry about the battery running out, which gave me a lot of peace of mind, because we spent days off trail, tracking animals and might have needed Garmin’s TracBack or Route feature that would have helped me retrace my steps back to the car. Additionally, Garmin’s TracBack comes with built-in maps that would have made navigation easier, as opposed to the Ultra’s Backtrack feature, which just points me in the direction of where I started.

Where Does Apple Go from Here?

We all know that Apple is really good at two things: iteration and finding clever ways to make their hardware and software work together. The iPhone, for example, has improved in enormous ways just in the past five years. And the iPhone camera has also become a truly robust tool thanks to Apple constantly improving its hardware and then designing tailor-made software to boost that hardware.

With that in mind, we have to know that the Apple Watch Ultra versions to come will be better adventure watches than the first. They will all still be great Apple Watches, but Apple will have the chance to improve the battery life, add in a mapping feature for the backcountry, and come up with any other number of clever features that those of us who play outside will love to use.

But how long will it take Apple to land on a watch that’s as robust as the offerings from Garmin, Coros, and Suunto? When will the battery technology allow for this? Another way to ask that question might be: will the Ultra now force competitors to build their adventure watches to be more user-friendly, with brighter screens and more everyday functionality?

Either way, consumers win. Apple entering the adventure watch space pushes everything forward. Think of the Ultra as just another option, instead of the one and only option. I will continue to use the Ultra as an everyday watch that’s great for workouts and shorter adventures, and go to my Garmin for bigger days. Most people are not gear testers, however, so they’ll likely pick one, and my guess is that the choice will be pretty easy. If you value battery life and love to hammer for days, you’ll stick with the adventure watches you already love. If you want an Apple watch that has a better battery life than other versions and plays outside pretty damn well, you’ll go with the Ultra.