Saddled by still-mediocre battery life, the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t a true competitor to the reigning king of premium wearables. But it’s getting much closer.
Apple Watch has crushed its smartwatch competition. If there were a stronger word than “crushed,” I would use it, but Apple commands more than 36 percent of the smartwatch market.
Among the shrinking group of smartwatch-wearing customers that have eluded Apple, one of them is me. I can’t commit to an Apple Watch, especially with its 18-hour battery life. When you have hobbies like multiday backcountry camping, snowboarding, and climbing, it makes no sense to wear a relatively fragile device that’s going to die in less than a day—especially when there are more-rugged, longer-lasting options.
Garmin’s tough, expensive watches dominate the premium watch category, which includes devices costing $500 or more. Over the past few years, Apple has made several tentative moves in Garmin’s direction by adding features that the more extreme outdoorsy folks would need. The Series 7 was the most dustproof and durable Apple Watch, with algorithm updates for features like improved fall detection. Earlier this year, Apple announced new features in WatchOS 9—like being able to detect running mechanics—that make it more useful to endurance athletes.
But today’s announcement of the $799 Apple Watch Ultra marks the first Apple Watch made for serious divers, fighter pilots, runners, and adventurers. It has double the battery life, a dual-satellite system, a red-hued night mode that doesn’t ruin the wearer’s night vision, and a new action button painted international orange. The question remains: Would Maverick or Rooster wear an Apple Watch to Top Gun? The answer, I think, is still no.
The first feature that bears commenting on is its size. It has a 49-mm case. That’s almost two full inches! On your wrist! It’s made from aerospace-grade titanium, with a flat sapphire crystal display designed to withstand serious impacts. That new action button on the side is customizable to provide instant access to specific features you want to call up with a single press, like the compass. The button itself is also big and is designed to be used with gloves on.
Many, many other features are direct appeals to the dedicated Garmin user. For example, a new onboard precision dual-frequency GPS system is designed to help you pinpoint your satellite location, even in environments like cities full of skyscrapers or forests full of tall trees that normally block satellite signals—something that’s historically been a problem for, example, events like running a marathon through a big city.
This GPS system goes hand in hand with a host of navigational features. The compass app has been redesigned, with a new hybrid view that shows both the analog dial and a digital view, and turning the digital crown lets you see your latitude, longitude, and elevation. Features like Backtrack are a direct ripoff of Garmin’s breadcrumb feature, which lets you retrace your steps when you inevitably wander off the hiking trail to pee and get sadly lost in the backcountry.
There are other features that are all Apple’s own, like a beamforming algorithm that allows the mic to capture your voice and reduce background noise with special wind-reduction algorithms for when you have to take a work call from the top of the ski lift.
This being Apple, I also must mention the accessories. The Ultra comes with one of three new bands: a soft, thin, flexible Trail loop band; an Alpine band with high-strength yarn and a titanium G-hook fastener; and an Ocean band made from a flexible fluoroelastomer, again with a titanium buckle. And of course, the Ultra has been certified to the MIL-STD-810H standard for military equipment, with testing against factors like low and high temperatures, sand and dust, shock, and more.
The Ultra is also designed to become a full-on wrist-worn dive computer. It meets recreational dive standards for waterproofing and has a new depth gauge. When it debuts this fall, the Oceanic+ app (designed in partnership with Huish Outdoors) will let divers see a decompression timetable, dive planning, a logbook, and other features serious divers need. Apple’s foray into water sports might seem incongruous, unless you already knew that Garmin makes two of the most popular dive and sailing wearables, the Descent and the Quatix.
There are also some features that aren’t exclusive to the Ultra—they’ll be on the other new Apple Watches, and most existing watches when watchOS 9 rolls out on September 12—such as vertical oscillation and running power for runners, body temperature sensing, and car crash detection.
The Ultra’s $799 price seems expensive until you realize that a similar offering from Garmin, the Fenix 7, costs $1,000—and doesn’t even seamlessly transmit audio calls from your iPhone!
These features certainly make the Ultra an appealing alternative for the Garmin faithful, were it not for two big blockers. Those of us with smaller wrists are put off by the 49-mm case size, which is certainly big. While the comparable G-Shock comes in case sizes as large as 55 mm, Garmin has been moving toward smaller, slimmer watches for some time, like the Garmin Instinct 2S Solar.
The second blocker is of course the battery life: 36 hours per charge is exceptionally long—for an Apple Watch. The Ultra’s battery can last up to 60 hours in a low-power setting (that will debut this fall with a software update), but it reduces the frequency with which the watch checks your heart rate and pings the satellite systems. But 60 hours is a mere 2.5 days. That’s not even as long as a tame weekend backpacking trip, let alone an alpine expedition or a live-aboard boat dive.
While the Ultra’s battery life is a significant improvement for the Apple Watch line, it’s still not enough for lovers of off-grid living. The one feature that all rugged explorers want out of a mission-critical device is a guarantee that it won’t be compromised—or worse, turn off—when you’re out there, miles and miles away from help. As long as Apple can’t guarantee that won’t happen, the Ultra is exciting but most likely just something that appeals to weekend warriors. Solar charging would be one improvement, as many explorer-focused watches now offer it. Other battery improvements that could get the Ultra to stay alive for longer than just a few days would be welcome too.
Until those things are added to the Ultra, Apple cannot be a true Garmin competitor. But it’s getting closer.
All Rights Reserved for Adrienne So