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I'll cut to the chase and answer the question all of my friends are probably texting me right now. No, you don't need the new Apple Watch Ultra. (Full disclosure: I don't hang out with tons of endurance athletes!) But if you were already thinking of splurging on a Series 8, the Ultra ($799, available starting September 23) might be a better purchase.
Last week, in my road test of the Apple Watch Series 8, I shared the fertility and safety upgrades, such as new temperature sensors and crash detection, you can look forward to in the 8. You get all of that in the Ultra. And a good deal more.
Let's talk about Ultra's size.
Second question that I guarantee my Instagram followers are DM'ing me at this moment: Is Ultra huge?
I mean, yes, if your idea of huge is anything bigger than an Apple Watch model pre-Series 8. But if you've ever worn a Garmin or the like, then, no, the 49mm size of Ultra won't slow your roll.
Of note: Ultra is made of titanium, which is not only insanely durable and able to withstand the iciest and hottest of conditions, but is also very, very lightweight.
Personally, I've been known to rock my old 41mm Apple Watch at black-tie events (with a sport band)...the nature of my job kind of makes this fashion choice acceptable? But if that gives you pause, then Ultra's size may bug you. In which case the size of the Series 8 will probably also be too much for you.
Moving on to the, takes a deep breath, intense extras that come with the bigger size...
The new Action Button is a let's-do-this shortcut allowing you to bypass your home screen.
You know that Apple did not take the addition of a whole new hardware element anything less than extremely seriously.
The new Action button, which is a high-contrast, international orange for maximum visibility, the shape of an oblong pill, and situated to the left of the face, is not to be confused with the side button, which sits to the right of the face.
You can customize Action in a myriad of ways, including leveraging it to note when you're transitioning from one leg of the race to the next in a triathlon, or to mark a new segment in a DIY HIIT workout you're doing at home.
In day-to-day practice, I used it to turn on the stop watch in a flash, which was great for cooking, and to instantly begin a workout. TBH, it made me want a metaphorical Action button for moving about the world. The most important way users may use Action is holding it to activate the siren…
An 86-decibel siren is designed for emergencies, should you become lost or injured.
I got a demo at Apple Park a couple weeks back, and here's how it works: A siren emits a high-intensity sound pattern from Ultra's speaker using a range of frequencies up to 600 feet, helping draw attention to your location. This could help save the lives of hikers, alpinists, and ultra-marathoners, full-stop. But it's also going to give peace of mind to everyday, recreational adventurers like you and me.
Less shivers, but also in the phew realm is the improved GPS. Series 8 already leveled this up, but Ultra takes it into a whole new level with precision dual frequency GPS for very accurate location, distance/pace tracking, and map routing.
Related: With the updated Compass app, you can quickly and easily mark your location with Compass Waypoints. And to help you return to where you came from, or simply get back on route, Backtrack uses GPS data to create a path of where you’ve been—and becomes available automatically if you’re off the grid—so you can find the way back to camp or the trailhead.
And as long as we're talking about pace and distance...
That bigger face means you can now display six metrics during your workouts. There's a new Ultra-only watch face, Wayfinder, which can easily be configured for ocean, adventure, and endurance activities. For example, an Adventure configuration could include elevation, incline, location, waypoints, UV index and temperature. Yup, you see a lot at a glance.
But whooshing back to real life? The larger face makes it easier to read and reply to texts and emails, and to execute other productivity tasks. I also found the touch screen incredibly responsive. The ironic thing about the watch getting faster and zippier is that it helps you unplug from your iPhone, because you can do so much without being tethered to that device.
The larger knob, aka digital crown, is another important hardware enhancement.
You'll have no trouble navigating the dial in frigid temps, in gloves/mittens, while submerged in water, or with sweaty hands. Basically, whatever the condition, you've got this.
A new raised guard protects it, along with your side button, from impact. (I could've benefitted from this design upgrade while rock climbing in Telluride last month, and I have the dings to prove it!)
File under very cool: wowza water capabilities.
If you're into scuba diving, snorkeling, and swimming, you will love this. First of all, the watch is dive-certified, which is a very big deal. For those who have not yet had their personal My Octopus Teacher moment in the ocean, suffice to say that you need a high-tech computer on your wrist to track depth, time underwater, all the things, in real time. FYI: The altimeter also tracks your elevation and incline as you scrape the clouds on your mountain adventures...or power up your hill repeats in the park.
In my decidedly different testing environment—diving for rings with my 7-year-old son George at our neighborhood YMCA—all seemed to be in order. (We made it 8 feet underwater in the deep end!) George and I mostly geeked out that within seconds of entering the water, Ultra was able to detect the temperature. I always KNEW in my heart of hearts that the little pool was warmer than the lap pool, and yup, 84 versus 79 degrees.
The Ultra wrist bands are as high tech as the watch itself.
While you can use Ultra with 44mm and 45mm Apple Watch bands, there are three hardcore, enthusiast options to choose from: Trail Loop, Alpine Loop, and Ocean Band. Each was engineered with the challenges of that specific environment in mind. For example, the trail loop looks a lot like the sport band, but it's lighter and thinner...it's perfect for jogging, cycling, life-ing.
The Ocean Band is made of high-performance elastomer, which can fit comfortably over a wetsuit, and has a stay-put titanium buckle—truly only necessary for water sports and scuba. The Alpine Loop is a very aesthetically-rad, two-layer, no-stitching creation. But there's functional strategy behind the design: continuous weaving allows you to adjust the top loop while wearing gloves or mittens with a super-secure G-hook fastener.
Your Ultra comes with one of these bands, or you can purchase extras a la carte for $99 each. Now that I've tried all three, I'd order an Ultra with the trail band because (a) the tug loop is super convenient for ripping it off, (b) it's featherlight, but also (c) it's really, really cute.
Which takes me back to where we started. Y/N invest?
Unless you are a scuba diver or a very serious hiker, this is a splurge with way more bells and whistles than you need. But if you're already committed to investing in a new watch, I would find it hard to say no to Ultra's awesomeness. Because...maybe you'll climb Denali someday? This watch will make you want to.
The bottom line: Do you need the Apple Watch Ultra? Probably not. Will you still want it? Yes.
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