Discover more from McGST
Apple Watch Ultra Review
I spent some time with the Ultra this week in the Apple Store and the experience was a little strange. It turned into a 25 minute debate with the Apple employee about why the Ultra is not ‘the most innovative watch ever made’. His words, not mine.
My wife and I were in the shopping centre looking for a suit for a funeral and once that sombre task was complete, the Apple Store was a worthy visit, if only to ensure that I still do not fit in with the rest of the Apple crowd.
The assistant, I don’t believe he was a mega genius magician type employee, asked if I would like to try the Ultra on as I was lurking near the table holding the adventurer’s apparent choice of wrist wear. I put it on my wrist and was somewhat horrified by the shape, the size and the way it looked on my wrist. My wife said it looked quite good on me, but I was far from convinced. We both agreed that it looked ridiculous on her.
He explained to me that ‘Apple had pulled a blinder by using titanium’. I asked how and he advised me that real watches were never made from titanium. I lifted my wrist and showed him my mechanical watch to which he said ‘but that’s not a real watch’. After some debate it transpired that to him a smart watch is real and a traditional (real!) watch is not. He admitted that it may be an age thing, but I was still surprised at this point of view. After digging a little deeper with younger people I know, it appears that this perception is not as rare as I had thought.
A square computer with zero charm, no history and which can be bought anywhere is more real than a mechanical watch that has been built by hand and which oozes charm and history from every millimetre. That at least was his point of view. He also suggested that it did ‘SO MUCH MORE’ than any Garmin which caused another discussion where I tried to explain that it is just as important how something is done compared to what, something every Apple employee should be aware of. And ultimately I am a Garmin guy because the sheer practicality is immense.
Don’t get me wrong, he was a really nice guy and very helpful, and even better he knew of McGST which was a genuine surprise. I just could not, however, envisage any point where the Ultra made sense to me.
The next day I bought one.
I hadn’t lost my mind. After an email discussion it transpired that the Ultra would be a money maker due to promised freelance work and so I smacked my money down and waited for it to arrive.
24 hours later the Ultra had made its way to my house and it was time to unpack it.
The materials are impressive in terms of their spec. Titanium, ceramic back and a sapphire crystal are decent and comparable to traditional watches at a similar price point. The use of titanium makes sense to bring the weight down, but don’t expect it to be impervious to damage. My experience of titanium is that it does not wear that much better than stainless steel. Well, technically it does wear better, but it looks worse with damage if that makes sense. Steel looks aged in a pleasing way, titanium looks damaged.
The box is nicely made and wastes no materials, the braided charging cable makes sense if you are taking it to a harsh environment or even going camping and the separation of the strap in a different box is a nice touch. There is nothing surprising here, but it does feel right.
I chose the orange Alpine Loop strap which is not very nice at all and to think that it is £99 on its own makes me squirm. The colour works, this is specifically my favourite colour, but I personally do not like the locking mechanism or the way it wears. It feels too wide and at times is uncomfortable. There is a sense that it is designed to look like it specialises in tough activities, but it does not fulfil the promise of the aesthetics.
It is somewhat representative of the Apple Watch Ultra itself. Very few people who buy it will be going on tough adventures over the weekend, that’s what a Garmin is for. No, they will be going to the gym, maybe doing a quick run or even merely walking. You ‘could’ go on an adventure with the Ultra just as you ‘could’ drive off-road in your Range Rover and that is why they sell so well. It’s about creating an image of doing something rather than actually doing it and in my view after a few days with the Ultra I would not take it on an adventure in a harsh environment. As I said, that’s what my Garmin is for.
The tougher Garmins (fenix, epix, Instinct, Enduro and tactix) are designed specifically to be sports watches whereas the Ultra is designed to be all things to as many people as possible and this lack of specificity is where it falls down a little when you look at Apple’s marketing.
“To build the ultimate sports watch, we crafted every element with painstaking attention to detail for unparalleled performance. Titanium strikes the perfect balance between weight, ruggedness and corrosion resistance. The new case design rises up to surround the flat sapphire crystal and protect it from edge impacts. The Digital Crown is larger and the side button is raised from the case, making them easier to use while you’re wearing gloves.”
The ultimate sports watch? That’s just not true. A 36 hour battery, there are Garmin’s that do 36 days. And the toughness, water resistance etc are not unusual in other sports watches from the likes of Garmin and many other brands.
I guess at least the Ultra has ‘L1 and L5 GPS for incredible accuracy and precise metrics’ whereas the Garmin epix 2, for example, only has GPS, Glonass, Galileo, multi-frequency positioning and SatIQ. Oh, that’s interesting.
But, and it is a big BUT, the Ultra offers cellular, seamless Apple Music and podcasts, a much cleaner and easier to use interface, the apps you are already familiar with alongside lots of decent third party offerings and all of the benefits that come with those features; phone calls, messaging, Siri etc etc.
The Apple Watch is a multi-functional smart watch that really can help you to get through the day and it should be applauded for that. I just don’t appreciate Apple’s marketing which suggests it competes easily with the competition for tough sports and environments. It does much more than the competition, but it does not do the tough stuff better which means it is not the ‘ultimate sports watch’.
Is it a daily wear watch?
Yes and no. If you consider what I wrote earlier about people using it for everyday activities, it is a bit of a pickup truck that is used to drop the kids off at school. The size of the watch is a big price to pay for the extra battery life, but the Apple Watch does seriously need extra battery life. I would view the Ultra battery performance as acceptable (just) and the series 8 and below as not acceptable. The fact that it has a toy-like appearance and literally no charm makes it potentially less suitable in specific situations. The standard Apple Watch, especially the stainless steel models, can disappear in even formal situations, but the Ultra stands out maybe a little too much. From the shape to the size to the orange touches, it is obvious that you are wearing an Ultra and the utilitarian design only enhances the lack of aesthetic flexibility. Imagine wearing it with a suit or with any clothes that are not casual. It could look out of place very easily and even for someone like me who does not spend much time on how I look (no point with my face), it feels a little jarring and showy.
It is the equivalent of Hublot in the traditional watch world.
Actually, that isn’t fair. It is the Hublot in terms of how it stands out on the wrist, but it is arguably the best smartwatch in the world. A Hublot is not the best mechanical watch in the world. Some may argue that it is, but they are likely hanging out with anti-vaxers and brexiteers so can be safely ignored.
The Ultra has turned out to be more wearable than I expected provided you do one thing. It needs to be firmly secured to the wrist to sit comfortably and too light a strap will cause some top-heaviness when you move your arm around. The Ultra is top heavy because of its form and the weight of the sapphire crystal, and for most watches this is considered a design failure. I would like to argue that this is unavoidable for a smartwatch, but most smartwatches are bottom heavy so I guess it is just a design thing.
I was aware that this is a big watch as I played with watchOS more. It feels exactly like a normal Apple Watch, the like of which I have dabbled with for years, but when doing this the watch itself appears bigger than ever. The mismatch between what I am seeing on the screen and what is on my wrist is a difficult change to get used to.
Overall I will give the Ultra a pass on being wearable for most activities, but you do need at least a 7.25” wrist to not have it hang over the edges of your wrist and you need to be aware that it will catch under a sleeve quite often. The sharp edge on the bezel is a bizarre design choice for a watch, especially one that is supposed to be used for rigorous activities. It catches on sleeves all of the time for me and if you run the back of your fingernail over it the top layer of your nail actually scrapes off. That’s ridiculous.
The better(?) battery
My initial experience of the battery in the Ultra is that it is not twice as good as the standard Apple Watch. It is most certainly better, but after the first day I had 40% charge left following 2 workouts with podcasts playing and cellular on. The second day brought a return of 55% so I am hopeful that some bedding in time is needed to get the most out of it. Strangely, the third day gave me 64% so things are looking OK. If it eventually runs to 2 days consistently I could live with that. Any less and it is the same old worst in class smartwatch battery from Apple that we are so sadly used to.
My suspicion is that I will get used to the extra battery life between charges and that hopefully the Ultra and I can meet in the middle, at a point where it feels acceptable. If I can forget the Garmin battery life and ignore the lack of charging that my mechanical watches need I may be able to view the Ultra power performance in a much more positive light.
I can see clearly
The display is superb and it benefits a lot from being flat. I did not expect the bezel to be visually so impressive, but it houses the screen perfectly and certainly has something special about it that feels stark in a positive way. It would appear that the feature that can scratch the top of my fingernail off is at least visually close to perfect.
As great as the display is, I personally would accept a little visual downgrade to upgrade my thoughts in the previous paragraph about the battery. This, however, will never be the Apple way and a part of me is not convinced that it should be. Only a tiny part though.
The new features
A lot of the new features are designed to fit the marketing narrative about the Ultra being a tough adventure watch and the reality is that 98% of people will not use them 99% of the time. I have not had need to use the siren, the depth gauge or the dual-frequency GPS so far, but maybe they will come in handy at some point. I am sure the GPS will be useful, but for the vast majority the new features will just sit there in the background and on the product page at Apple.
Yes, actually. The materials alone are comparable to traditional watches at this price point and most certainly compared to the titanium Apple Watch from last year.
When I took it out of the box I was surprised at how solid it felt in the hand, and even more so at the sense of quality. Titanium is an unusual material- it can look like plastic from a distance, but up close it has a warmth that is hard to replicate. It is typically Apple with regards to the finishing and I must say that it feels more like a ‘real’ watch than previous models.
I, as usual, have been somewhat critical of many features in the Apple Watch Ultra and especially so regarding how it is marketed. It is easy to feel irked at the way Apple ‘suggests’ that it is the ultimate sports watch and to feel that emotion magnify when reading some of the Apple fan’s opinions. It magnifies further if you have a lot of experience with the competition and understand that in terms of sports Garmin is likely a better fit for most activities. A Garmin will do less, but it will do what it does while offering a sense that it is indestructible.
The fact that the Ultra can do cellular (calls, podcasts etc), that is has access to an impressive App Store and so much more gives it a unique advantage, but there is one feature of the Ultra that leaves me feeling positive about it.
It is square, ungainly, too big and looks like a computer on the wrist, but it does feel like a watch. That may sound like nothing, but somehow the Ultra feels like a watch and I suspect that is because of the tightness of the components and the overall quality of the materials.
The Apple Watch Ultra is not for everyone. Indeed, it is suited only to the minority, but it does represent a departure from the traditional Apple Watch design that is becoming incredibly dull and invisible. It is not a positive design in any way, but the Ultra is an impressive smart watch overall.