The first Apple Watch Ultra was a bold device, in more ways than one. Chief among them may well be the company’s decision to approach a relatively niche market. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of outdoorsy types, but the people seeking a product specifically for use cases like hiking, ultramarathon running and diving are a fairly small subset of the broader smartwatch market.
One also can’t make the argument that it’s an un- or even under-addressed demographic. I mean, that’s pretty much Garmin’s whole vibe these days. And you know what? Kudos to the company for making a successful pivot away from standalone GPS devices as smartphones have rendered much of that category functionally obsolete.
For its part, Apple could have been perfectly content simply dipping its toes in the category, through continued app partnerships on the standard Watch line. But one thing you can say for sure about the Apple Watch Ultra is that it’s not a device of half measures. It’s big and it’s brash and it’s capable of performing its job in the sorts of environments much of society goes out of its way to avoid at all costs.
Last year’s reveal was met with a somewhay bit of a mixed reaction. I suspect that’s due in part to the fact that many people (and I include myself in this) who review gadgets for a living generally aren’t out there running Ultramarathons. Many questioned how large of a market Apple was actually going after with this one. As such, the broad question of whether any of this is necessary had a tendency to pop up. That said, I’ve certainly met a number of extreme athletes who — broadly speaking — love their gadgets.
But devices built for this stuff are often clunky and convoluted. The Apple Watch Ultra’s main strength is that it’s an Apple Watch at heart. It’s built atop several generations of smartwatch construction and refinement, so users don’t run into the same sorts of issues with purpose-built devices.
The other thing the original Ultra had going for it was design. Much like the device itself, the big, clunky metal body isn’t for everyone. But the people who like it tend to love it. I personally know several non-ultramarathon runners who opted for the Ultra over the standard watch solely based on industry design. Heck, I might even work with a few.
It probably goes without saying the Apple Watch Ultra 2 isn’t some huge revamp. Like the saying goes, “you have your whole life to write your first album and eight months to write your second.” So much time and money was dumped into the first Ultra, there was no way the second would be transformative. And besides, Apple has spent a decade working out the underlying kinks of the platform this product was built atop of.
Before we go any further, I would like to point out that if you want a deeper dive (figuratively speaking) on what’s new with the whole of the Apple Watch line this year, check out my also just-published Series 9 review. That will give you more depth on features like Double Tap, Precision Phone Finding, on-device Siri and the new S9 chip. In fact, that’s a point worth noting. Most of the advances on the Ultra 2 can also be found on the Series 9.
Rather than creating an iPhone/iPhone Pro bifurcation where one side of the line gets all the updates that eventually trickle down to the other (generally the following year), we get something closer to an iOS/iPadOS-style product cycle. That is to say that both products receive functionally the same upgrades, with the higher-end unit getting a few exclusives to suit users’ specific needs.
The biggest standalone feature here is probably the brighter display. At a peak 3,000 nits, it’s brighter than any other always-on screen the company has produced. It also features an extremely broad range, dimming all the way down to a single nit when the settings require it. The default storage has also been doubled to 64GB.
Neither new watch ultimately presents a big upgrade over their predecessor, and in both cases, it’s difficult to recommend an upgrade if you currently have the prior generation. That’s even more so the case with the Ultra, particularly given the product’s $799 starting price. With the new model arriving imminently, you can now get the original for a couple hundred bucks off its original asking price. Distinguishing features such as its rugged case, long battery life (36 hours of standard use and 72 in low power mode) are already on board.
Of course, by doing so, you’ll be missing out on some welcome upgrades. Double Tap is at the top of that. Certainly there’s something to be said for the ability to interact with the device using a single hand when you’re out on a long run. The new S9 chip also offers increased speed and efficiency, due in part to the 4-core Neural Engine, which speeds up machine learning processing.
If those sorts of things are worth a couple hundred extra bucks to you, by all means, pull the trigger on the Ultra 2.