Apple Watch Ultra review: Hiking with Apple’s very large, very expensive new wearable

We went on a (moderate) hike to test the Apple Watch Ultra, especially features like Wayfinder, Backtrack and Siren. Along the way, we also learn about how its battery holds up, its screen’s brightness in sunlight and more. The Apple Watch Ultra is as impressive in specialized use cases as it is in daily wear, as long as you can put up with the somewhat frustrating placement of its controls.

Video Transcript


CHERLYNN LOW: The Apple Watch Ultra was designed, Apple says, for the great outdoors. It's got some specialized features for explorers, outdoor sports enthusiasts. And some of these features are meant to be there to help people get some peace of mind in case they get lost while exploring. What better way to test the Apple Watch Ultra out than here on the trail in the great State of New Jersey.

So first up, the Apple Watch Ultra is only available in one size, the 49 millimeter case. This is made from what Apple says is aerospace grade titanium, which makes it both lightweight and hearty. So unlike the series 8 and the watch SE, the screen here looks a lot more flat, specifically because the case kind of extends up to surround the sapphire front crystal screen. This is meant to protect the screen better if you accidentally smash the corner of your watch against a boulder, for example.

So this right here is the Watch Ultra 49 millimeter case. I've got one of the more standard yellow loops on. It looks big for my wrist, but it honestly doesn't feel like it's overwhelming. On the side here there's a new action button that's specific to this model. And I've set it so that when I press it I drop a Waypoint. Where we are, at South Mountain Reservation, I want to change it to parking lot, so we can come back.

So we might go off-roading, we might get away from the trail. So just in case, I'm going to start the Backtrack feature. This usually can come on automatically if the watch detects that you're away from Wi-Fi and cell, but because I'm not convinced we're far away from 5G or whatever, I'm just going to start it anyway, so allow. And so now it's going to help us just keep tabs on where we go. Now we can go veer off the path.

We're pausing to take in the beauty of the creek but also kind of just to check in on the watch. And right now, we've got a few Waypoints lined up. We've also-- like, we're right under a direct sun, and at off angles it's a little harder to read. But when you've got it facing you this screen is just bright. This now goes up to 2,000 nits of brightness, compared to 1,000 nits on the series 8 or the SE 2022. It's so easy to read under the sunlight.

So we have been hiking now for about 23 minutes. This is the little route that the compass-- or the Trackback features, as we've been doing. I'm sure it's more than just this. I think this is just like the most recent part. We're at a little creek now that's very cute. If we want to come back here, I'll just set a little Waypoint. And then there's also another view, which is the more metric-based view. Again, I feel like quite safe if I ever want to go back.

So one of the faces that's unique to the Apple Watch Ultra is the Wayfinder face. So you can customize what color options you want as per usual, but the other options you have are to choose the style, the minute or can go by hour only. I prefer minutes. You can go by the bezel, what's on the bezel. Oh, this is nice. Let's do Adventurer Black. It feels like it could save some battery life, too.

So we're at the 43-minute mark of our hike, about 2 and close to 1/2 miles in. So we're doing a quick battery check-in with the Watch Ultra. And it is 74%. The last time we checked was about 20 minutes ago, and that was at 79%. So right now the drain-- given I haven't been using the GPS screen or the Wayfinder screen the entire time-- I've been going back and forth between workouts and other features-- this battery drain seems a little heavy.

But we're not going to be here all day. And in my previous use of the Watch Ultra, so far, which, since I received it on Thursday, has only been about two days, it's lasted me more than one day without the full GPS use. So for someone that's looking to use this predominantly on a trail, just know that it won't last you more than overnight.

To me the watch's physical control's easier to use. Apple also tweaked the designs here. The crown, for one, has a diameter that's almost 30% bigger than the series 8. It's also got coarser grooves. The side button, according to Apple, is raised up so that it can be easily used, even when you're wearing gloves. There's also a guard here to prevent accidental presses. I do wish it was maybe just a little more of a depression, for me to press the button into the crown. But it works with a glove.

I thought I loved the Action button until I realized that I kept accidentally pushing it when I want to go back to the Home page. And I'm using my thumb to brace the watch while I am pressing the knob. So I keep accidentally almost creating Waypoints. So you had to be very precise with the way you hold the watch.

I've asked Brian to go away because we need some time apart. But really, we're trying to test the siren feature on the Apple Watch Ultra. I'm going to go hide behind a tree and see if he can hear me. OK. [SIREN SOUNDS]

- OK.

CHERLYNN LOW: So we're nearing the end of our trail. And I'm doing very fine, and Brian is huffing and puffing. He has equipment to carry, though, so that's very understandable. So we're going to retrace our steps, continue Backtrack. So you can see that beam of light is showing where we're pointed, and you can see our path is sort in that direction as well, the orange path of where we've been so far.

So it is making the right progress. I am looking at the screen now, and it's showing me I've walked that path. And then we're going to make the left that we came. And so if we keep going, I'm sure we'll see our entire path again.

So far Brian and I have been using this sort of mixed view on our journey, where we can see our route so far. But we also see the cardinals, and the directions, and the elevation and incline, all of the information, really, on one screen. But if you rotate the dial, we could have actually gone out to the more what they call a hybrid screen, where really the focus is the Compass. And then if we zoomed in, so-called, a little further, we would get to the orienteering screen. And this is the screen we really need to get to to find how to get back to our Waypoints.

So we relabeled the parking spot as a yellow dot. And you see if you zoom-- or if you twist the dial further in, it actually zooms out, so you can see all of your Waypoints. I don't see the creek showing up anywhere. I think we might be a little too far. Oh, the creek just showed up. So that right there is the creek, I believe.

But we want to get back to our parking spot right now, so I'm going to tap this, then Selected. And now we're going to figure out-- we are actually just 400 feet away from our parking, and we're going to go look for our car now.

Much of the other features of the Watch Ultra are very similar to the series 8. For example, Workout Tracking has the new running form metrics, the heart rate zone pages, as well as custom workouts.

So it's now the end of our day. We've finished our hike. We've done some additional testing and shooting. And we're doing one final battery check-in before we wrap this video up. Right now we're at 57%. And if you recall, the last time we checked in we were at 74%. So that's quite a significant dip. We haven't done much. Really, we've just been keeping the screen on to make sure we can get some footage of different faces. And we've been checking out some features, setting up Action button to do different things.

What I'm trying to say is, the hike that we just took is not necessarily the most representative. It's not the most extreme. It was a very moderate test of what the Watch Ultra has to offer. But if you're someone who's into extreme sports or you work in a harsh environment, there could be features in here that are tailored more specifically to your needs.

For example, you might be a scuba diver. The Diving feature is something that we-- or I haven't really tested. This is not something we did today. I'm also terrified of fish, so I'm not about to go scuba diving. But the features are there, and Apple does have a band and app that will make that easier to do, too.

For those of you who are into multi-day camping, for example, the watch's battery life might be concerning. Low power mode does seem to be able to squeeze some extra hours of use, but for now, I'm not sure if it's necessary. So, well, you might want to bring a power generator with you.

For $800, the Apple Watch Ultra is way too expensive for someone that's looking to casually dip their toe into the smartwatch experience. If that's you, maybe consider the Watch SE 2022 or even the Watch Series 8.

I obviously had a blast making this video, and I hope you've enjoyed watching it, too. If you did, please leave a comment letting us know if you want to see more videos like this. And for more in-depth coverage of laptops, smartphones, smartwatches, and more, make sure you subscribe to Engadget. And as always, thank you for watching.