The Apple Watch Ultra is one of the most exciting new smartwatches to release this year. While this is an extremely nice smartwatch, it still lacks much of the utility included in most high-end sports watches.
For the first time ever, Apple seems to have started taking fitness more seriously.
The new OS9 update has added many more fitness and sports features: the ability to create your own custom workouts, new metrics such as heart rate zones and power output, Customizable workouts and of course the very cool updated compass app for an upgrade. navigation.
On top of all that, the new Apple Watch Ultra is the only device to take all these new fitness features and provide the necessary hardware for fitness enthusiasts and athletes to use them.
This includes upgrades found on Apple Watch Ultra such as:
- Additional button for precision starts
- Dual GPS for better accuracy
- Larger, brighter display makes it easier to see metrics during training
- Improved mic and louder speakers for easier calls and better sound on the go or in bad weather
- Siren to help call and attract attention in an emergency
- Battery life that’s at least double that of the regular Apple Watch – by far the biggest upgrade.
And while all this is great, and makes it from afar my favorite Apple Watch is still, at its core, a smartwatch. That means it’s not really designed as a sports watch and lacks many essential components that, even for recreational athletes, make it a far inferior alternative to more dedicated sports GPS watches, like Garmin.
Is the Apple Watch Ultra really Ultra?
Honestly, I’m a big fan of Apple products. I have an iPhone, do all my work on an iMac, use an iPad, and wear AirPods. I am strongly in their ecosystem. But I was never a big fan of the Apple Watch because it was never well designed for sports use.
So with the Apple Watch Ultra marketed for the outdoor athlete, I was very excited to try it out. Having tested it, I like it, but I think it’s misleading to say it’s for the outdoor athlete – especially given the current state of its sport-specific (or more precisely, of his absence).
If you love having an Apple Watch and want the biggest and best version, and don’t care so much about fitness features, then you should definitely get the Apple Watch Ultra. If this is you, what I have to say below may not really apply to your decision.
But, if you’re someone who only sees the Apple Watch Ultra as your primary outdoor sports GPS watch, I’ve listed six aspects of the Apple Watch Ultra that you need to consider.
Apple Watch Ultra Browsing
One of the big new updates with Watch OS9 is the new compass app. It offers the ability to add waypoints and even backtrack so you can retrace your route, which is invaluable if you’re having trouble finding your way back.
While these features are a big improvement, they aren’t very convenient and don’t have real offline maps and navigation. The compass is not integrated with the fitness app, so you need to start both the fitness app and the backtrack separately. Then you need to switch between the two apps as per your requirement. Basically, not being able to see your metrics while backtracking isn’t very convenient.
This is a far inferior and pretty much obsolete approach for most sporting purposes. If you are trail running or mountain biking, using this compass tool is too cumbersome. In fact, it looks pretty much outdated compared to more modern road navigation.
Most sports GPS watches, at a minimum, give you a breadcrumb to follow on a map and alert you when you stray off course. And at best, like on Garmin, you get upcoming fork alerts that tell you where you should go at all times.
For example, I took a trail this weekend with the Garmin and the Apple Watch Ultra, and everything else aside, that’s the one shortfall that made me think, “Yeah, I couldn’t not even consider using the Apple Watch Ultra until it has navigation. It’s a huge dealbreaker and one of the main reasons it’s hard to take the Apple Watch Ultra seriously as a sports watch at this point.
Apple Watch Ultra Workout Screen Interface
Another issue is the training screen interface. It’s been improved, and it’s definitely bigger and easier to see. And, the addition of the action button with precision start is a nice bonus.
But, the interface is still poorly designed, at least in my opinion. It doesn’t give you the ability to see what you want to know quickly and easily on the go. With all the stats lined up on top of each other, it’s hard to take a quick look and tell which number is which. That’s why hardly any other sports watch shows metrics like this. Other watches usually divide them into more customizable sections where there are more obvious differences in size and placement.
You can finally customize some of the workout screens on the Apple Watch Ultra, but that customization is pretty limited when it comes to the type of metrics you can see on any given page. And, many layouts are not customizable at all.
Apple Watch Workout Metrics
Workout metrics are another area where Apple has made some improvements with the new OS9, such as adding vertical oscillation, ground contact time, and power output to running metrics.
These are all awesome, and I love seeing them, especially the power output. For those of you who deal with any type of incline, you know that your pace alone isn’t the most useful metric for those situations.
But, a strange decision for the power metric is that it goes to zero when you start walking. It’s not a big deal, but when going up a steep hill, it makes sense to have a power value as you go.
Despite the new features, there’s still a lot that isn’t there when it comes to the various workout tracking metrics. This includes one of my favorites, the adjusted rhythm. Watches from Garmin, Coros and others offer this, and it’s useful for gauging my efforts on runs that involve elevation.
Customizing Apple Watch Workouts and Training Plans
Another area improved by Apple is personalized workouts. Users can finally create their own workouts. But, Workout Creation is very basic and offers an extremely limited set of tools.
With no way to upload routes, little to no strength training options, and no planning or sharing of workout routines, the Apple Watch Ultra still doesn’t feel like a sports watch.
Apple Watch Ultra Recovery Tracker
Another aspect of fitness tracking that I find very important is the ability to analyze and update recovery. That means looking at things like resting heart rate, HRV, and sleep and training analytics to help you figure out what behaviors are helping you, what training state you’re in, or what effect a certain workout or series of workouts has had. on you.
All of this data can be used to better evaluate and adjust your training. However, while the Apple Watch Ultra has the potential to do all of this, it simply isn’t. I know you can get apps that do some of these things – and even routing and other features I mentioned earlier – but they’re not integrated into one system. Integration is what makes metrics valuable, because then they are so much easier to use, understand, and implement.
Apple Watch Ultra battery life
And finally, we come to the battery life. Yes, the battery life of the Apple Watch Ultra is a huge improvement. In fact, that’s probably the biggest reason most people actually want the Apple Watch Ultra.
But with a two-to-three day battery life (outside of low power mode which can prolong that), it’s still a lot shorter than almost any actual ‘sports’ watch.
Yes, the Apple Watch Ultra can last the duration of an ultra marathon, but in reality, you’ll probably end up worrying about the battery. If you’re going for the weekend, most hikers will probably opt for a watch with a longer battery life.
If you have a Garmin or a Coros, or any sort of high-end sports watch, you wouldn’t think of charging it, except maybe once every few weeks or once a month. This is a much rarer occasion that the battery is low enough for the load to be critical.
Bonus Apple Watch issue!
I promised six, but here’s a seventh bonus issue.
As someone who likes to train on connected fitness devices, like Peloton, Hydrow and others, it really bothers me that, unlike all sports watches, Apple has no Bluetooth streaming support.
This means you can’t send your heart rate to most fitness equipment unless they have the Apple Gym Kit, which very few do. In some cases, like Peloton, they offer a workaround through their app so that you log into the Peloton app and the app sends your information to the machine.
So outdoor workouts aside, even for indoor workouts, Apple Watch Ultra is still a bit bulkier than most.
Again, I like the Apple Watch Ultra as a smartwatch. It has all the great things I could want in a smartwatch. But, with so many essential components missing from a useful, modern sports watch, I really can’t recommend it to fitness enthusiasts.
Apple is getting closer, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring the Apple Watch Ultra on par with the best sports watches.
I’ll keep tossing my Apple Watch Ultra into my watch rotation, testing it, and hoping some updates will change my mind, but for now, if you want a sports watch, this won’t doesn’t quite do the trick.