Not Plus, Ultra

As we get into Apple product launch season, I should share my thoughts on the Apple Watch Ultra, now that it is no longer new.

I have never liked wearing watches. But I also like data and convenience, and so wear an Apple watch. Before the Ultra, I wore the Apple Watch Series 5 (44mm) for everyday use, but mainly the a Garmin Forerunner 935 for sporting activities (running, hiking, skiing, and sometimes biking). The Ultra is a more capable watch than the Series 5, but certainly not a perfect device.

Apple Watch is a very impressive platform. If nothing else, a quick glance to notifications and quick access to data is often useful. The quality of taps from the Taptic Engine quality is elegant but effective. The notifications on the Apple Watch are subtler, more polite, and just more elegant – but no less effective – than the vibrations on my Garmin watch. Fitness tracking is effective. But the killer app for Apple Watch is authentication. Using Apple Watch to unlock my Mac is faster than entering a password. It feels like at least half of my work is just authenticating into applications and responding to two-factor authentication requests.

However, Apple Watch Ultra is a chonky chonkster. The Ultra dwarfs the 44-45 mm Apple Watch Series. But, compared with the Aluminum or Stainless steel Series, the Titanium Ultra is surprisingly light. When first wearing it, I was very pleasantly surprised that the Ultra doesn’t feel as heavy as its looks would suggest. But compared with the 36.5g of the aluminum Series 5, the 61g of the Ultra is significantly heavier. This is not very noticeable during normal wear. The trail loop band is a significant improvement on the sport loop, which has been my preferred Apple watch band. But the weight of the Ultra is noticeable enough that I can’t wear it comfortably to sleep every day. With the Series 5, I used the watch for sleep tracking more often for comfort. But battery life was a significant challenge with the Series 5, making it difficult to use for sleep tracking. The Ultra has the battery life for it, but it’s just too big to wear comfortably to sleep.

The size of the Ultra is also noticeable with shirt and jacket sleeves. Where the rounded edges and thin profile of the Apple Watch Series allows it to sit comfortably under any sleeve, the bulk and straight edges of the Ultra gets caught up far more often. The design of the buttons, with the crown guard supposedly protecting the digital crown and menu button on one side and then the action button on the left, results in random button pushes from unintentional interaction with sleeves and gloves far more often than the sleeker and thinner Apple Watch Series.

But, the reason why the Ultra is so much larger than the other Apple watches is it’s best feature – battery life. The Apple Watch is a highly power-constrained product. Under normal usage, the Apple Watch Series lasts a full day, with little margin to spare. As it closed in on its third service anniversary, my Series 5 was barely lasting through a full day. Doing any exercise activity that used the GPS would run through enough battery that it required multiple charges per day. The battery life, more than any other factor, was my main reason for upgrading last year.

The Garmin 935, in contrast, is a battery champ. Under similar use, it could run for days without a charge. For GPS fitness tracking, it comfortably lasts long enough that I can go for a weekend full of activities without worrying about recharging.

For sports usage, the Ultra has some advantages, but still lags behind Garmin. The Ultra is much faster at acquiring GPS signal (which, to be fair, may also be improved on newer Garmin watches). It may be that the Apple Watch is no faster at acquiring the signal, but it just starts recording a workout immediately and uses motion data to work backwards from signal acquisition. The Ultra supports running power natively. My no-longer new 935 only supports running power with a Connect IQ app and external hardware. More recent Garmin watches (including the 255/265, 955/965, epix 2, and Fenix 7) now offer native running power with or without external hardware. App Store apps are generally much better than Connect IQ apps.

Otherwise, the Ultra is fine on its own, but a significant step back from Garmin’s state of the art of 2017.

And while the breadth and quality of the third-party software for the Apple watch vastly outstrips what is available in Connect IQ apps, the Garmin ecosystem integrates the ridiculous number of battery-powered connected devices that cyclists may use. Garmin watches can send heart rate data to an Edge cycling computer or the Edge can act as an external display for watch data, such as during the bike leg of a triathlon. In addition, a power meter is a highly useful data sensor. Real-time power and heart rate data is very useful for more effective training and racing. This year, I’ve been cycling more than anything else. And, like every hobby of mine, there are more and more gadgets A typical ride involves connecting heart rate, power meter, radar, and electronic shifting to a Garmin GPS computer. While a Garmin watches or a dedicated Bluetooth or ANT+ heart rate monitor can send heart rate data to the head unit, the Apple Watch can’t broadcast heart rate data.

Not connecting this specialized device ecosystem makes the Apple watch feel like it is stuck in a silo (not like the Apple TV+ show, Silo) instead of part of a community of sensors. Fortunately, this is set to start changing in watchOS 10, where the Apple watch will be able to connect to bluetooth power meters, including for Fitness+ workouts.

The most annoying omission is gloves. The Garmin Forerunner 935 has no touchscreen. That’s a huge advantage for the Garmin. While I have some touch-screen compatible gloves, I do enough outdoor activities in cold weather and have various gloves and mittens that are not touchscreen compatible. While the Garmin watch can do everything with its buttons and doesn’t require touch, the Ultra can’t even select and start a workout without touching the screen. That’s absolutely ridiculous. After all, the Ultra has the same number of physical controls. Garmin watches generally have 5 buttons (on the 935, Light, Up Down, Start-Stop, Back). The Ultra also has 5 physical controls (Action button, side button, Digital Crown press, Digital Crown scroll up, Digital Crown scroll down). Yet, without turning on optional accessibility settings, there is no way to select a workout to start without taking a glove off, letting a hand get cold, and touching the watch screen.

However, Apple has demonstrated meaningful commitment to accessibility. After running through the Settings menu, there is a feature called Assistive Touch that allows for a number of watch controls to be done by using gestures on the watch-wearing hand that are recognized. It does work even with bulky gloves on. So it is possible to use Apple watch without touching the screen. It is not as intuitive as touching the screen, which is why Garmin is also adding touch screens to its newer, fancier GPS watches.

Thinking about the various things that I use Apple Watch to do: Respond to 2FA codes, see notifications, control smart home devices, track general activity, track sleep, track workouts and activities, most of these are done equally well or better on the Apple Watch Series as on the Ultra. And for tracking workouts and outdoor activities, the Ultra’s battery life makes it viable. I have confidence that the Ultra will last throughout a multi-hour day of biking or skiing without thinking about it. I wouldn’t try running an ultra-marathon with the Ultra, though. While the battery life is a factor it’s mainly because I wouldn’t try running an ultra-marathon for any reason. That’s far more hardcore than I am.

So what I would like to see in future watchOS software updates is support for broadcasting heart rate over Bluetooth and continued improvement non-touchscreen navigation. For hardware, a titanium-cased watch in a size between the svelte 45 mm Watch Series and the chonky 49 mm Ultra would be ideal. The Ultra doesn’t look too large on my wrist, but I would love a battery/size compromise somewhere between these two – especially if the rumored process improvement for the Watch SOC makes it more power efficient.

Ultimately, the largest limitation on these tiny computers is power. Apple tries to balance responsiveness, computing power, features, sensors, and size and weight against battery capacity. And Apple has tried to offer just enough battery capacity to power an Apple watch through an average day of use for most users. Expanding that power envelope is the best feature of the Ultra, even if the rest of its capabilities have yet to catch up.

Victoria Song, The Verge: Who is the Apple Watch Ultra really for? “While I’ve loved using the Ultra this past year, I don’t think this is as much a smartwatch for adventurers as it is for… Actually, I’m still trying to figure that out.”

Ray Maker, DC Rainmaker Apple Watch Power Meter Support: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Andrew Raff @andrewraff