The Apple Watch Ultra: a review after 9 months

I’ve owned an Apple Watch since day one.

I started with the Apple Watch stainless steel model, now known as “Series 0” because it was before they started referring to the models with this convention.

I have loved my Apple Watch ever since, with a borderline obsession for my activity rings, and admiration for the quality of the overall ecosystem, from iPhone and Mac interconnectivity, to beautifully crafted bands, to an elegant charger.

Over time, my desire to work out with Apple Watch has grown, to the point where I purchased an Apple Watch Sport to help me with training for long distance running. I always felt conflicted with the Sport — compared to my original Apple Watch it was far less of a fashion item, eschewing polished stainless steel for aluminium. Yet the Sport was great for running and workouts. I used it until the battery started to struggle to get through a full day.

I held off buying a new Apple Watch until last year, when Apple unveiled its new round of devices. Last year was undeniably a very minor upgrade in the history of incremental upgrades across all models. For the Ultra, aside from the new double-tap gesture (supposedly enabled by the new chip inside), and a new watch face, the 2023 model was identical in terms of functionality to the original model released the year prior.

Ultra or not?

I knew it was time for a new Apple Watch, but which one? I missed the stainless steel beauty of my original, but I had no intention of cutting down on my exercise. If anything, I wanted to be increasing my physical fitness with new, tougher workouts.

Apple Watch Studio at Apple Battersea

I went to one of the many local Apple Stores in London — the Battersea store, and was thrilled to find they have an Apple Watch Studio. It’s an area of the store dedicated to trying on different models and bands, with staff available to help walk through the different options. It’s more like going into a high end jewellery store than a gadget shop.

I had looked online at the different options for hours on end. But it was only when I got to the store that it hit me — the stainless steel Watch was no match for the Ultra. The steel model looked more like a piece of jewellery, especially the smaller model that I had been accustom to. The Ultra, on the other hand, felt like a tool. A beautifully crafted tool of course, but it had a tactility that reinforced my intentions for the device — to help me get things done and push myself. Just looking at it made me want to go climb up a mountain!

What made the Ultra even easier to decide on was the surrounding body of the watch. It had a glint in the light, a slight shine, around the bezel of the display, which I hadn’t noticed before. It struck me as beautiful, and just the right level of “shine” to make me forget about the stainless steel model.

Size: isn't the Ultra huge?

Apple Watch setup screen

I had previously always had the smaller of the two sizes for Apple Watch, so going to the Ultra which made both the “standard” models look small felt like a leap.

I had previously read that often the size of a watch is bigger in the mind of the wearer than it seems to onlookers, but it still felt like a dramatic change to me.

After just a few days, though, the size felt natural. The strap wrapped around my wrist more naturally than I expected, and it never felt like I had a loose large toy watch on my arm.

Bands: will my existing bands fit the Ultra?

Neat details in the packaging make the Ultra experience altogether more special

Another fear I had, switching from the 38mm Apple Watch to the Ultra was that my bands — all my beautiful bands! — would not fit. It turns out I was wrong. Somehow I missed the memo, but all Apple Watch bands technically fit the Ultra. The mechanism is the same, and the smaller bands still slot in, they just don’t flow to the shape of the Ultra as seamlessly as one designed specifically for the Ultra.

In the store, I deliberated for ages about which band to get for the Ultra — you have to choose one, even though they now come in separate boxes.

I chose the Alpine Loop in dark blue. It felt rugged, fit comfortably, and matched with the tones and colours I tend to wear. No bright orange dive band for me… yet.

9+ months on and I have absolutely no regrets about my choice of band. I still use it every day, and occasionally I will switch it for one of my older Sport bands for when I’m going swimming.

I’m sad I haven’t used my Milanese Loop for a long time. That band is just sunning, and takes me back to the introduction of the Apple Watch. I can practically hear Jony Ive describing the manufacturing process of it every time I look at it. But it just isn’t suitable for a watch with the heft of the Ultra.

Screen size: is it worth it?

Of course, one significant benefit of the larger size of the Ultra is the increased screen real-estate. I mentioned that one of the few new features of the Ultra II is a watch face, and I have kept this face as my default ever since I first unboxed it.

The new watch face, “Modular Ultra”, is what I have on screen perhaps 90% of the time. I am rarely inside an app, and everything else is accessed via the face. I can have 6 complications, along with the time and my calendar events on screen at once. And even beyond that I can have something on the dial around the circumference. It’s a huge win in terms of information density, without being committing an aesthetic crime.

Another magical feature of the Ultra and several generations of the Watch since I last upgraded, is the always-on display. It’s a proper watch! I don’t believe this requires much celebration — it’s how the Apple Watch always should have worked — but it’s a hugely welcome update to take advantage after all this time.

Battery life: how long can it last?

Hands down my favourite “feature” of the Apple Watch Ultra is the battery life. It’s a completely different proposition compared to every Apple Watch I have previously owned.

Charging is no longer something I think about. In all my usage, I’m struggling to remember a time where I saw a low battery notification despite countless weekends and trips away from my normal routine and house.

I hate to run out of batter on my watch. Not only does it remove my timepiece, it means I may miss my fitness goals and recording my fitness progress. I did say I’m obsessed.

Even when doing a number of workouts, like HIIT and running, I’m often still above 90% battery. I know other smart watches like those from Garmin can fetch a ridiculously long battery life, sometimes measured in weeks! But I am yet to find myself in a situation where I will go more than a few days without a chance to charge.

“Fast charging” is no gimmick, either — I can pop the Ultra on its charger and see the battery life shoot up 40% in less than an hour, meaning I’m good to go for another day or more.

It’s incredible how far the Apple Watch has come in terms of battery life overall. To me, as the user of the product, it’s something I almost never have to worry about any more.

Other points

  • The Action button — I use it to start workouts and to track splits within workouts. It’s handy.
  • I have never once used “double-tap” other than to demo the feature after it came out.
  • The automatic depth gauge when you get in water is pretty cool. I am no diver bit it sure looks neat to see your depth instantly when you get in a hot tub.
  • I enjoy knowing I have more metrics about my health with the addition of the wrist temperature sensor and more accurate heart rate tracking.
  • The new compass is neat but I haven’t had a need to use it yet.
  • Apple markets the Ultra II as “carbon neutral”. This is a term that has a lot of implications. I don’t for one minute believe buying a brand new Apple Watch every few years is a great thing for the planet, but it’s good to know Apple is trying to set an example for tech companies to consider the full life cycle of their products from creation to usage to end of life.
  • The packaging for the Ultra is some of my favourite yet. It includes a booklet about how you can use it in extreme conditions. It builds on so many details I wrote about when I unboxed my Apple Watch Series 4 back in 2019.

Should you buy the Apple Watch Ultra?

The Apple Watch Ultra II on my wrist

If you want the best Apple Watch, with every feature, the best battery life, and the biggest screen, and you can overcome the stylistic hurdle of wearing a larger watch, then I can’t recommend it enough.

9 months in , it feels great to have gone all-in on the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s the ultimate realisation of the Apple Watch form factor and concept.

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