This tough new smartwatch has awesome safety and workout features. It’s also a great way to stay connected in the wilderness—for better and for worse.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room—the Ultra is enormous. It has a 49-mm case made from aerospace-grade titanium (as opposed to the 41- and 45-mm aluminum cases on the Series 8). The Ultra's case rises up to protect the edges of the flat sapphire crystal display. There’s a guard around the digital crown and side button on the right side and an orange Action button on the left. It’s designed to be easily manipulable with gloves, and it was.
I was worried about the size. I find some classic watches, like the G-Shock, to be unwearably big. But I did not find this 49-mm case to be a problem. I merrily swung my arms around and bashed it while climbing—I didn’t damage it, and I had no issues sliding it in and out of jacket sleeves. A contributing factor is probably how well the new bands fit. I tried the new Alpine loop, which has a titanium G-hook fastener on a double-layered textile band, and the Ocean loop, which is made from a tubular elastomer. The Ocean loop looks cooler, is stretchy if your arms tend to swell and shrink with your activities, and shows less dirt, but it’s harder to take on and off.
The Ultra boasts 36 hours of battery life with normal use, and 60 hours on WatchOS 9’s new Low Power mode. On my first day of wearing it, I got about 24 hours. That’s because the Apple Watch—not just the Ultra—suffers from a chronic case of mission creep. You just keep finding more and more ways to use it.
I recently set up last year’s Series 7 for my 7-year-old. After climbing that day, I toggled on Walkie Talkie for the two of us on an evening outing. After several hours of “Mama, I'm going to the soccer field,” and “Mama, I'm going to the playground,” we wore out the battery completely that night. With normal use, the 36-hour claim held up, but I did end up topping it off every morning. The great news is that my daughter and I were able to hear each other just fine, thanks to the Ultra's three-microphone array and a dual speaker system.
Into the Woods
Forest Park is one of my favorite places to go trail running in Portland, Oregon, but historically, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to track runs there with GPS. It’s heavily wooded, and all sorts of power lines crisscross above the trees. I was very eager to try the new dual-band precision GPS tracking on the Ultra.
At the trailhead, I turned on my music. Then I toggled to the new compass face to start Backtrack, a new feature that lets me retrace my steps in the park’s branching web of confusing trails. I used the new Action button on the left-hand side (in international orange!) to start a customized running workout. (To set one up for yourself, go to the Apple Watch app, tap Action button, then First Press.) Mine is set to trigger an outdoor run with an alert to turn me around after 45 minutes, and another to ping me when my heart rate goes too high. (I’m currently doing 80/20 training and keeping the majority of my runs at a low intensity.)
The Ultra was able to track my distance traveled very precisely—and I was able to double back and squeeze in another quarter mile when I realized I wasn’t going to hit my distance. On the screen, Backtrack didn’t look quite as detailed as it did in Apple’s promo pics, but it did work! I also really liked the new Wayfinder face. I live on a peninsula that juts out between two rivers; if you travel by bike, you’d be surprised how often you need to know which way north is, and what time the sun is setting.
In addition to these new upgrades, and dive computer features that will be debuting later this year, the Ultra also has the same temperature sensing and Crash Detection perks as the Series 8. Again, I drew the line at getting into a car crash to test it. But I did try the new 86-decibel siren when I heard a suspicious scrabbling behind me on the trail. This level of noise is not startle-an-attacker loud, but it is surprisingly shrill and carries a long way. My dog also hated it.
If you want a great smartwatch that’s also a great backcountry tracker, your options are somewhat limited. The closest competitor that I can think of is the Garmin Epix, which has an equally large and beautiful screen but suffers from similar battery life issues, costs several hundred dollars more, is less fun to accessorize, and in general, is less easy to use if you have an iPhone.
If your hobbies include going backpacking for a week, I would still probably suggest getting a different Garmin, even though longer battery life still comes with trade-offs. But if you’re a weekend warrior who wants to wear an Apple Watch during the week and not get hopelessly lost on a trail system on the weekends, then the Ultra’s functionality is unmatched.
I do have a caveat, however, that being able to take your Apple Watch everywhere you go might not always be a good thing. I’ve always treasured going outside as a time to clear my head. All problems seem smaller and more manageable once you’ve spent an hour or two in the woods.
But as I ran with the Ultra, I was never really alone. A coworker pinged me something funny on Slack. A song came up on my Apple Music playlist that I had to love immediately. Going up hills made my heart work too hard. Ping, ping, ping. Then my kids’ school nurse called, and my heart sank, but she just wanted to know the date of my kids’ positive Covid test. Then a friend. The mics on the Ultra were good enough to pick up the wind rustling through the trees, because she immediately said, “Where are you?”
I stared around me. “Uh … God knows where, actually,” I said. I hung up and checked Backtrack. I was miles away from civilization yet still tethered to it. As I rounded the corner to loop back to my car, my brain was still buzzing. Wearing the Ultra, I had never gotten to the point where I could turn my brain off. I’ll have to see over the course of long-term testing, but maybe getting my missing peace back is worth getting lost or missing a phone call or two.