[VIDEO] Hands-On With The Entirely Unnecessary (But Entirely Awesome) Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch has always been a curious device to me, and one that I’ve ultimately never been able to commit to for a variety of reasons. Sure, I’ll pop it on for activities here and there, but I find it’s most useful when worn all day every day, and when push comes to shove, I’ll snag a more traditional (if less smart) watch from my watchbox every time. The Apple Watch is comfortable, practical, and easy to use. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s never been anything about it that caused the watch enthusiast in me to sit up and take notice. That changed last month when the Apple Watch Ultra was revealed. Here was a gnarly, purpose built device that hit some of the same sweet spots as many of the other over-engineered tool watches I enjoy wearing. It was the first smart device that appealed to the same sensibilities that I find so endearing about tool watches. 

I’ll start off with an admission: I am not an ultra caliber athlete. I don’t run ultra marathons in the desert, I don’t go spelunking, I don’t dive, and I’m not a mountaineer. I do run, and on occasion hike, climb (in a gym), and swim, but I do so in what you might call a casual manner. A perfect lifestyle for the regular Apple Watch, no doubt. However, I don’t feel the need to track my every activity and movement each day (unless I’m testing such things, of course). Seeing my pace each mile can take a bit of the fun out of it. I know there are many people who rely on these tools every day and use them for motivation and training purposes, and to them I tip my cap.

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This territory is a slippery slope for watch enthusiasts, for I also don’t dive, nor fly airplanes, nor race cars; yet I find myself wearing watches that have been built with these genres in mind. I imagine it’s the same story for many of us. I doubt Rolex would sell many Submariners were they exclusively marketed toward actual divers. Nor Porsche many GT3RSs if their sale were restricted to individuals capable of extracting the full potential from the car around a track. Certainly, my own abilities would more closely align with a base level Cayman (and even that’s a stretch), however I can’t help but be fascinated by the hardcore GT exclusive RS models, and how they engineer solutions to unique problems that present themselves at the limit. 

The Apple Watch Ultra offers unique solutions to users in edge case scenarios, as described by MKBHD in his initial review right here. The features themselves, which differentiate the Ultra from the regular models, boil down to things like precision dual-frequency GPS, a larger battery, apps for SCUBA and free diving (and 100M water resistance), a super bright display, and of course, a dramatic new case design that’s been rendered in titanium. Oh, and it has a customizable action button. 

Most of us probably aren’t in those edge case scenarios often, but the fact that they are pushing the watch into this territory at all brings the Ultra in line with watches like the Citizen Promaster Dive BN0227 ‘ashtray’, the Seiko ‘Arnie’ SNJ references, the Vero Workhorse, the Tudor FXD, et. al. A position I’d never consider with the regular Apple Watch. Each of those watches are the equivalent of driving an old Land Rover halfway across the country for the experience, rather than something like a more practical Honda CRV for the practicality. They are unwieldy and a touch on the extreme side, but they bring an intangible quality to the table that’s lost in more mundane options.

This is the crux of the appeal of the Apple Watch Ultra to a guy like me. As helpful as the regular Apple Watch is, it’s rarely inspired me to get out and go that extra mile or hit the trails on the weekend. The Ultra may very well do just that. When I hiked through southern Utah last year it never crossed my mind to bring the Apple Watch, I took my Explorer to enjoy the experience with, and I’m glad I did. Had the Ultra been an option, however, I very likely would have slipped that into my bag as well. 

The Apple Watch Ultra is a smart watch, full of all the bells and whistles offered in Apple’s watchOS9. It’s also a tool watch. It feels more like wearing a computer on your wrist than any smart watch I’ve spent time with, and it’s what I’ve always wanted the Apple Watch to be. This is because I generally wear a variety of watches throughout the week, and if I’m going to wear something like an Apple Watch, it will be for a specific purpose or experience. I’ll tell you right now, the Apple Watch Ultra is not a watch I’d wear everyday, and it is not as flexible as the regular Apple Watch when it comes to wardrobe pairing. It’s not trying to be everything for everyone, and that’s its greatest strength. 

This is not a small watch, but it’s also not as big as you might think. What watch enthusiasts mean when we say 49mm is very different from what Apple means when they say it. They measure these things like a computer monitor, or a TV, providing the measurement of the diagonal line between opposite edges. The Ultra, as measured in the same manner as we would any other watch, from 3 to 6 o’clock, is 38.5mm, and if you include the crown guard it comes to 43mm. The “lug to lug” distance is 49mm and the thickness clocks in at 14mm. This of course doesn’t account for the fact that it’s not quite shaped like a normal watch, however. There’s a lot of extra meat on this watch that’s not accounted for in those measurements, like the depth of the case at the very edges, but that should put you in the ballpark of what this watch is like on the wrist a bit better than their 49mm listing.

The footprint is unusual, but it’s not an uncomfortable watch by any stretch, and much of that is thanks to the case being titanium. The watch, with included alpine loop strap, weighs just 74 grams. For reference, the Tudor Black Bay 58 on its leather strap weighs 86 grams. The strap is a whopping 26mm wide through its entirety, but given its material and the shape of the watch it’s attached to, it doesn’t feel out of place. More on the strap in a minute. 

In the past, I’ve always opted for the smallest size option with the Apple Watch, preferring comfort during use over ease of use when it comes to interacting with the screen. I’ve since reconsidered that position, and the expansive screen on the Ultra is a big reason why. The screen is flat and bright, up to 2,000 nits as a matter of fact. I don’t know what a nit is, but this screen is very legible, and its size makes it all the easier to manipulate with the finger. 

The screen itself is lofted within a pronounced lip at the top of the case, with a single piece of sapphire sitting flush across the top. I love a flat crystal so this is a welcome move in my book, and the larger surface area feels more usable than any other Apple Watch I’ve experienced. In reality, there aren’t all that many more pixels involved over the regular, larger Apple Watch, but they all feel more accessible here.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the Ultra is the crown guard, which not only incorporates the crown, but also one of the buttons. It’s not exactly like a traditional crown guard, but its purpose is clear nonetheless. The crown within is a bit larger and more aggressive than what you’d find on the regular Apple Watch, with deeper teeth milled at the edges and a bright orange ring at its cap, which signifies cellular connectivity. Opposite the guard, you’ll find massive speaker holes and that new blaze orange action button. This button can be programmed to a variety of functions, from setting way points on a hike, to starting a workout at home. 

I am not a tech reviewer so I won’t speak too deeply on the features of this OS, but I will point out a few things I’ve found particularly compelling during my time with the watch. First, the new face (dial) design called Wayfinder is a lot of fun to play with. There are loads of “complications” that can be placed at the corners or within the dial itself and put things like a compass, the stage of the moon, elevation, temperature, and other timezones at your fingertips. But I mostly enjoy the implementation of longitude and latitude in the bezel, which swaps with a tap to show your heading in detail. This has made my walks home or through the park a bit more interesting, or at the very least, entertaining. And at night, a turn of the crown will pop the screen into an all red night mode. 

You can hear more of my thoughts on the workout features of the Apple watch in this review alongside the Garmin Forerunner and G-Shock MOVE. I will note that for running in particular, I’d opt for the trail loop over the alpine loop for a less intrusive fit. 

There are three straps offered for the Apple Watch Ultra and each are new designs for this watch. I love heavy duty fabric strap so I was thrilled to see Apple go the extra mile here for a new trio of strap specific to the needs of this watch. I’d like to see more brands embracing new and original strap designs to take advantage of the trick strap exchange systems being implemented. The hook and loop (velcro) strap on the Tudor FXD is the closest such example I can think of, and that’s a simple single pass. Really, I’d just like to see more premium velcro options in the market.

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The alpine loop on this Ultra is a layered design with a titanium hook that fits through any of the loops along the strap. Each loop section is about 5 mm allowing some level of fine tuning, but if you find yourself between two loops, you may need to try other straps. The overall quality of the strap is a question mark here. For everyday bumming around this one will likely hold up fine, but I can see fraying starting to happen with exposure to more rigorous use, such as rock climbing. 

Overall this is indeed a robust bit of kit when held next to previous Apple Watches. However, next to the likes of the Seiko, the Citizen, or the Tudor, it still feels like a small computer, ie. fragile. I know movements can be fragile things as well, but mentally this is a different size hurdle. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to get it out in the wild and put some scratches on it, and unless you’re rocking a Breitling Emergency, it’ll be able to get you out of a potential jam far more effectively than any of the above options. 

That makes the Apple Watch Ultra a great experience companion, kinda like an old Land Rover, but way more digital than analog. This isn’t a watch that will have you selling off your collection, nor will it likely win over many mechanical stalwarts out there, but I do see this as a watch that crosses the bridge to watch enthusiasts more effectively than any before it. It’s a tool, and if used selectively for the experiences that you’re looking for, I see the Apple Watch Ultra as a great companion to a collection of more traditional watches.

If you opt for niche tool watches built for specific, sometimes odd purposes over a great single do-it-all type watch, I think you might find a lot to enjoy about the Ultra. Ironically, it feels a bit old school in its approach and while I won’t be stretching its legs in the desert or atop a mountain, it’s still a tool I’ll look for excuses to use. Just like some of my favorite watches. 

The Apple Watch Ultra is priced at $799. Given its feature set it’s a little tricky to compare to classic tool watches, but that’s a bit north of the Citizen ‘ashtray’ diver and the Seiko SNJ, but obviously far south of watches like the FXD. The biggest difference between the Apple Watch and those watches is the tech inside, which, in the case of the former, will likely be obsolete in 10 years, whereas the latter will sail through the decades with ease and look none the worse for wear (usually). So when you think of it in terms of cost per use over the years, the value proposition shifts heavily in favor of the classics. 

Apple.

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Blake is a Wisconsin native who’s spent the past decade covering the people, products, and brands that make the watch world a little more interesting. Blake enjoys the practical elements that watches bring to everyday life, from modern Seikos to vintage Rolex. He is an avid writer and photographer with a penchant for classic cars, non-fiction literature, and home-built mechanical keyboards.
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