The New Apple Watch Ultra Is a Game Changer for Athletes & Outdoor Enthusiasts

The new Apple Watch Ultra delivers a dizzying array of fitness and adventure features—but it does have a few quirks.

apple watch ultra review
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
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Originally, I’d planned on testing out the brand-new Apple Watch Ultra while hiking through the surreal landscape of Cappadocia or trekking the jungles of Vietnam, both of which loomed on the horizon of my never-ending itinerary. The Ultra was specifically designed for outdoor fitness and adventure use, after all, representing Apple’s attempt to rival similar products from Garmin or Polar. Then I found out that I’d only have a few days to give it a whirl, and this test window would come while I happened to be in Amsterdam—which is about as far from backcountry hiking as one can get. So the Ultra ended up accompanying me along the city’s abundant alleys and canals, up and down the stairs of the Rijksmuseum, and through its sprawling Vondelpark.

Having thus tested the Ultra, I’ve concluded that it is—for all impractical purposes—a generally outstanding smartwatch. I say “impractical” because most of its potentially too-many features are completely useless for the average watch wearer. But if you happen to be a dedicated fitness or outdoor enthusiast with an ample budget (for it certainly isn’t cheap), the Apple Watch Ultra delivers an astounding assortment of functions. It could use a better battery, though.

What Is the Apple Watch Ultra?

The Watch Ultra is a major step forward for Apple’s watch design. In recent years, Garmin has gone unchallenged as the leader of the premium fitness watch segment, and the Ultra is Apple’s attempt to give them a run for their money. And for the most part, the Ultra succeeds at this goal—with just a couple of notable missteps that we’ll look at in a moment.

Speaking of running for the money, this fitness watch exacts no small toll from runners, hikers, and other fitness folk looking to maximize their tracking efforts. Priced at $799, the Ultra definitely isn’t cheap. For that price, however, you bring home a mind-boggling collection of features in a package that offers more durability, a better screen, and more accurate GPS tracking than any previous Apple Watch iteration.

The Outdoor Upgrades

Arguably the most noteworthy addition to the Ultra (among a plethora of noteworthy additions) is the inclusion of several functions geared toward outdoor adventure. These include a super-loud distress siren and a Backtrack program to help lead you back along your route if you accidentally lose your way. This can be lifesaving at the most and helpful at the least if you’re out hiking and take a wrong turn—or if you’re wandering the streets of Amsterdam without checking Google Maps and all the streets start to look the same after a while. The Ultra also has a Wayfinder watch face, which will constantly point back toward a pre-selected waypoint, such as your car or hotel.

These features are bolstered by improved GPS capabilities. Unlike previous Apple Watch releases, the Ultra includes two GPS bands rather than one. In the past, Watches only had an L1 band, which tend to glitch if you’re surrounded by tall buildings. The addition of an L5 band greatly improves its GPS capability. It’s strange that Apple hasn’t included onscreen GPS maps, however, which have become fairly standard among Garmin and a few other competitors.
Divers will appreciate the addition of a new Depth function, which switches on automatically when the Ultra is submerged. This shows data such as depth, time underwater, and water temperature. What’s more, the Ultra is water resistant down to an impressive 100 meters.

apple watch ultra review
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

So Many Fitness Functions

The Watch Ultra offers fitness and health functions that even the most die-hard of fitness fanatics could appreciate. You know what they are: calories burned vs. consumed, steps, heart rate, workout tracking, ECG, fall detection, blood oxygen monitoring, laps, etc. As far as I can tell, the fitness tracking is fairly accurate—which is a major improvement, as inaccuracies plagued previous Watch releases—and what’s more, it’s capable of tracking and changing between multiple workout activities on the fly. The Ultra was specifically designed for endurance athletes, who might need to jump between monitoring different activities when training for their next marathon or whatever. But you don’t have to be juggling several activities at once. The Ultra is perfectly suitable for tracking a straightforward gym session.

The Ultra also has crash detection, which means that in the event that you wipe out on your bike or wreck your car, it will automatically dial emergency services.

Sleek Looks, Solid Smarts

Generally speaking, the Watch Ultra is an all-around solid smartwatch. It looks great, with a bright display that is easy to read. It can hold songs, photos, and so forth, can be used to receive messages and other notifications, and makes and receives calls that sound just as crisp as a top-of-the-line phone speaker. Basically, it delivers all the key smartwatch features that you’d expect from an almost $800 watch. It also includes three band options (green, orange, and cream, though there seem to be more colors available at Best Buy), all of which are comfortable and attractive.

That Battery, Though…

Without a doubt, the largest drawback to the Watch Ultra is the battery life, which peaks at around 36 hours if you use minimal functions. That’s nothing compared to Garmin, Polar, or Coros, each of which makes watches with batteries that can last up to and even past a week. Most significantly cheaper Fitbits would also outlast the Ultra.

This wouldn’t be a big deal if it was a normal smartwatch that you could remove and charge regularly, but it’s not a normal smartwatch: It aims to be the ultimate fitness and outdoor watch. If you want to make the most of health and fitness tracking, you need to consistently wear it to continually collect data—you can’t do that if you have to plug it in every day. And if you’re lost and hoping that the Ultra will save the day, you’ve got at most a day to be found or find your way back—after that, you’re out of luck.

Final Verdict: A Great, If Flawed, Smartwatch and Fitness Tracker

In the end, it’s hard not to declare that the Ultra is an awesome smartwatch. It’s all-around impressive, boasting capabilities that are almost superior in every way. I say “almost” because of the battery and the price. For $799, I simply don’t understand how they couldn’t have worked in a higher-capacity battery. Sure, all those features working at once suck up a lot of juice, but Garmin makes watches that offer more or less comparable functionality and will last for days on end while going full blast. If the Ultra had a better battery, it would be darn near perfect.

But if you’re an Apple aficionado, outdoor/fitness enthusiast, and can afford the price tag, the Watch Ultra is definitely worth consideration.

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