Apple watch

Apple Watch Ultra review: A chunky smartwatch with a few quirks

Image Credit: Cherlynn Low/Engadget

Hiking with the Watch Ultra

To get a better idea of ​​the Watch Ultra as a companion for outdoor adventurers, I hiked moderately through New Jersey’s South Mountain Preserve without a map. I was accompanied by our video producer Brian, who had a 3.2 mile trail uploaded on his phone on AllTrails, but that was for backup purposes only. I was walking blind.

I activated the Backtrack feature on the Watch Ultra and created a Waypoint in the parking lot just before we hit the trail. I also started a hiking workout to help track time and distance traveled.

Even with a map as failsafe, we got lost several times. On one such occasion, we only realized we were on the wrong track when I noticed the watch telling us we were going in a straight line. Brian heard me say this, remembered that we should have made a pretty sharp left turn a short time ago, and pulled out his map to confirm. Would we have been hopelessly lost if I hadn’t checked out the Watch Ultra? Probably not. We would have noticed that we weren’t where we were supposed to be at some point. But the device saved us time and kept us on track.

Halfway through the hike, we tested the new Siren feature that uses the Ultra’s dual built-in speakers which Apple says make it 40% louder than the Series 8. The company said the one of the speakers had been specially designed to also function as an emergency siren, playing a pattern of beeps and alarms to alert your companions or nearby emergency responders to your location.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I asked Brian to move away before going to hide behind a tree. Then I played the mermaid and did my best to stay out of sight. Brian found me in five minutes. True, I did not go very far, and there were no huge trees with thick trunks. Brian said the siren initially sounded like a bird, and indeed the first sounds the watch plays are a series of shrill chirps. But they give way to moaning patterns and morse code beeps for SOS, so people don’t ultimately mistake them for something natural.

The siren sounded very loud to me, but from Brian’s perspective, it got somewhat lost in the sound of rustling leaves and a gurgling stream nearby. Of course, the closer Brian got to me, the louder he heard the siren. But don’t rely on the Watch Ultra to lure rescuers to your exact location from a mile away.

During our hike we came across a nice little cove and wanted to mark it in case we decided to return. Since I had set the Watch Ultra’s action button to set a waypoint, I tapped it once to drop a pin, and the system prompted me to tag the spot. I didn’t have to start from scratch – the watch had already filled in a suggested name and I could use the on-screen keyboard to change it. By the way, with the Ultra’s spacious screen, typing is surprisingly less cumbersome than on smaller portable devices.

With increased brightness of up to 2,000 nits, the Watch Ultra’s screen is easy to see in direct sunlight. A lot of it also has to do with Apple’s interface, which mostly uses bold, colorful fonts against a dark background.

Off-angle view of Apple Watch Ultra with Alpine Loop on a person's wrist.  From this vantage point, the orange Action button and the speaker grill on the left edge are visible, while the screen content is dark.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

While I found it handy to quickly set a waypoint with the Action button, I often accidentally pressed it when trying to push the digital crown. My thumb naturally rested on the side of the case while my index finger reached for the dial, often causing both buttons to be pressed simultaneously. This meant that I kept having the screen to create a waypoint instead of going to the home page, for example.

It was more annoying after setting the action button to start a workout. The number of two-second hikes that now show up in my activity history is a testament to how easy it is to hit the action button. Over time I learned to place my thumb where the strap connects to the case. But if you’re really struggling, you can always set the action button to do nothing (though that would defeat its whole purpose).

As we approached the end of our route, Brian and I decided to use the waypoint we had created for the parking lot to find the exit. It was a bit confusing to find the page that would show us directions – we had to rotate the crown in the Compass app to zoom in and out on different views. The Orienteering view, which appears when you turn the dial all the way, shows the route you have taken and your waypoints. Tap any of these flags to display a list of your saved sites and you can choose one to browse. The Watch Ultra will indicate how far you are from the spot, as well as which general direction (left or right) you should be heading.

The Apple Watch Ultra with an Alpine Loop strap on a person's wrist.  The screen displays the so-called technical view of the Compass app, with a white dot in the middle.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I followed the onscreen instructions to the parking lot, which the watch said was only 400 feet away. I’ll admit: at this point, I could already tell where the car was, so it was hilarious when, hundreds of meters from the vehicle, the watch rang to tell me I had arrived.

The GPS wasn’t super accurate, but I didn’t expect it to get me within inches of the car. I also took this opportunity to check out the Backtrack feature to see if the Watch Ultra could reliably get me back on the course we had completed.

Again, I found the interface confusing. Tap the steps symbol at the bottom right of the Compass app to reveal options to retrace or delete the steps I had recorded. When I pressed the return steps, it took me a while to figure out which direction to turn and how to follow the orange line on the screen. I finally got it when I started walking in the direction I came from and saw progress on the watch. In general, I find the Waypoint feature more useful than Backtrack, as it creates a more direct path to where I want to go, instead of having me retrace my entire trip.

We didn’t hike at night, but if it was dark we could also have used the night mode version of the Wayfinder watch face. This changes the interface so that everything on the screen is red while the background is black, making it easier to see in the dark.