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Apple Watch Ultra Review: Meet Apple's Best-Ever Running Watch

The Ultra is a beast of smartwatch, and while it excels at many tasks, its features make it the best watch for runners Apple has ever created.

apple watch ultra
Tucker Bowe

The Apple Watch Ultra is a new kind of smartwatch for Apple. It's bigger, brighter, more rugged, longer lasting and more capable than any other Apple Watch to date, including the also-new Series 8 ($399+). And at $799, it's also twice as expensive as the other new watch.

If you've seen the advertising or "hype" around the Ultra, you likely think it's a smartwatch for adventurers, extreme athletes and even scuba divers. And while it can definitely be a good fit for all those types of people...I am admittedly none of those things.

So after wearing and testing the Ultra for a whole week, I'm convinced that aside from the obvious — that it's going to be the Apple Watch of choice for anybody who wants a big-screen smartwatch —the Ultra is also going to be the go-to choice for runners. It's Apple's best-ever running smartwatch. Here's why.

The Apple Watch Ultra's Action button is a game-changer.

apple watch ultra
The Ultra is the first (and only) Apple Watch with a new button on the left side of its case. It’s called the "Action" button and it can be customized to quick-start workouts, start a stopwatch, turn on the flashlight and more.
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The Ultra feels like any other Apple Watch in a lot of ways. It runs the same operating system and works with the same combination of a digital crown (albeit it's larger here) and side button, and once you get over the size difference, it can be admittedly easy to forget that you're wearing the Ultra.

That said, the biggest and most meaningful improvement with the Ultra, in my opinion, is the new Action button on the left side of its case.

The Action button can be customized to work in a variety of different ways. You can program it to work as a stopwatch or to turn on a flashlight. You can also have it set waypoints, or help you retrace your steps if you get lost. Ultimately, it can be made to work as simply as you need it. For me, that meant quickly pressing it to quickly start an outdoor run workout — and then, if you're a serious runner, you can press the Action button during your run to mark your intervals and then compare them to your previous runs.

apple watch ultra
The Ultra works very similarly to other Apple Watch models, but it does have several runner-specific and workout-specific features that make it a superior choice for serious (or seriously ambitious) athletes.
Tucker Bowe

Another neat thing with the Action button is that if you simultaneously press it with the side button, it will pause your workout. If you do this again, it'll then unpause your workout. (Note: To do this on any other Apple Watch you need to simultaneously press the digital crown and side buttons, which, being on the same side, doesn't come quite as easy.) For somebody who runs in suburbia and who is constantly starting/stopping at lights and intersections, this is a godsend because — any Apple Watch wearer will know — it's really annoying trying to navigate your watch screen with sweaty fingers.

The Ultra has crazy-accurate GPS.

apple watch ultra
The Series 8 (left) and Ultra (right) can look quite similar. However, the Ultra has a display that’s bigger (45mm vs 49mm in the above photo) and has the ability to get twice as bright.
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The Ultra has the most advanced GPS-tracking ability of any Apple Watch out there. Specifically, it has a dual-frequency L1 and L5 GPS, while other non-Ultra Apple Watch models just have L1 GPS. The inclusion of L5 allows the Ultra to have better GPS tracking and navigate around things like buildings, tunnels and even tall trees and still get a signal. Most of the serious GPS smartwatches by the likes of Garmin and Suunto have L1 and L5 GPS — but this is the first time Apple is doing it as well.

Apple claims that the dual-frequency GPS will greatly benefit runners in cities and in more remote areas — places that have to deal with these taller obstacles and spottier satellite connectivity. But even if you do lose the GPS signal on your run or workout, the Apple Watch Ultra is smart enough, because it uses data like steps, cadence and pace to accurately fill in those gaps in your workout. This means even if you don't have a great signal, Apple claims that the Ultra is able to track your runs more accurately than most other GPS smartwatches.

The Ultra has a secret feature for runners.

apple watch ultra
The Ultra is the only Apple Watch that supports Precision Start, a feature that starts your workout right when you press the Action button.  
Tucker Bowe
apple watch ultra
A quick press of the Action button and — boom — your workout begins.
Tucker Bowe

The Ultra has an extra feature that no other Apple Watch is able to take advantage of, and it's really convenient for runners. It's called "Precision Start" and it's really quite simple. When turned on, it'll start your workout right when you press the Action button (or initiate the workout through the app). It eliminates the countdown — 3...2...1...Start — that continues to be on every other Apple Watch.

For anybody who has worked out with an Apple Watch and been frustrated by this delayed start, Precision Start really is nice. You just press and go. It feels like a feature that should be on every other Apple Watch, but it's not — because it's designed to work hand-in-hand with the Ultra's Action button.

(To turn on Precision Start, you can open the Settings app in the Apple Watch app on your iPhone or the Settings app on Apple Watch itself: Settings > Workout app > Precision Start.)

The Ultra feels big, but it won't slow you down.

apple watch ultra
The Ultra is the biggest and heaviest smartwatch that Apple has ever made. But, maybe a bit surprisingly, it doesn't actually feel too big.
Tucker Bowe

One of the biggest things (pun intended) that I was worried about with the Ultra was that it was not only going to look big, but also feel big. On paper, it kind of is. The Ultra has the biggest display (49mm) of any Apple Watch. At 61.3 grams, it's also the heaviest Apple Watch. By comparison, the larger size of the Series 8 is 45mm and weighs 51.5 grams.

But thankfully, the Ultra doesn't feel like a drastic jump up from the Series 8. At least, it wasn't for me. I wore it on several runs and beach walks over the last week, and it didn't feel overly cumbersome or like it was weighing me down. The Ultra does feel a little bigger on the wrist, but it doesn't feel much heavier. Basically, it didn't feel like it was slowing me down.

The added size of the Ultra does come with a few advantages for runners, too. The extra screen size allows for you to see just a little bit more. Only a few apps are optimized at launch for the Ultra's larger screen size, but one of those is the Workout app. When you're finished with a workout, the Ultra is able to see an extra line of metrics compared to the Series 8. (The keyboard also appears bigger on the Ultra, so that it's just a bit easier to type. And the buttons on the calculator app also are bigger.)

How else is the Apple Watch Ultra different from the Series 8?

apple watch ultra
The Series 8 (45mm model, left) and Ultra (right) can display the exact same information from the Workout app. 
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apple watch ultra
However....in some situations you can see that the Ultra (right) can display just a little more information at one time than the Series 8 (left).
Tucker Bowe

The Ultra is more than Apple's best-ever running smartwatch, admittedly, as it has features and capabilities that go above and beyond any other Apple Watch — including the Series 8. Its display can get twice as bright (2,000 nits versus the Series 8's 1,000), which helps make it easier to see in direct sunlight. It has the biggest and longest-lasting battery of an Apple Watch; Apple says that it gets up to 36 hours on a single charge (versus the Series 8's 18), and that can extend up to 60 hours when using watchOS 9's new low power mode.

The Ultra is the most rugged and water-resistant Apple Watch to date, too. It has a flatter display to better protect it from dings and scratches. It has an IP6X rating, just like the Series 8, but it's also certified to be a diving watch; it has a new Depth Gauge sensor and will be compatible with a new scuba diving app, called Oceanic+, that will launch later this year.

apple watch ultra with orange strap
At launch, the Ultra only has one exclusive watch face — and it’s this compass dial that can can customize with easy access to different apps and complications. It also has a night mode that, when you turn the digital crown, it goes entirely red so you can see it better in the dark.
Tucker Bowe

As far as other hardware is concerned, the Ultra and the Series 8 have a lot in common. They have many of the same sensors, including the same bloody oxygen sensor, optical heart and electrical heart rate sensors, and the new body temperature sensor. They run on the same S8 processor, too. The Ultra does have a superior set of speakers and microphones, so that taking phone calls on your watch is a little better experience. There's a built-in siren on the Ultra, too, which you can blast in the case of emergencies or you just want someone (or something) to know where you are.

Apple Watch Ultra

  • The biggest and brightest display of any Apple Watch
  • Action button is a key addition
  • Most capable and feature-packed Apple Watch ever

  • Significantly more expensive than the Series 8
  • Will be too big for some people

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