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Apple Watch ultra review: It’s bigger, bulkier and, dare we say, better

While we didn’t take it to the extremes, there was plenty of active testing   (The Independent)
While we didn’t take it to the extremes, there was plenty of active testing (The Independent)

The latest Apple Watch went on sale last week and it’s hard to deny it’s impressive. Unlike the new series 8 and the second-generation Apple Watch SE, this one has a completely new design, a much bigger display and a series of new features. Not to mention battery life that is double that of other Apple Watches.

It’s been built to be rugged and durable, ideal for those who enjoy extreme sports, for example, and even the new straps for the Watch are designed to reflect that.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not of interest to everyone else – think of it as being a bit like buying a coat designed to keep you toasty in extremely cold temperatures in inhospitable climates but never wearing it anywhere colder than Croydon, perhaps.

This is the first Apple Watch to only come in one material finish – titanium, in this case – and the first to only be available with cellular connectivity.

This makes sense, given that titanium is light and tough, and sports may take you away from your iPhone and the network connection it provides.

How we tested

Although I didn’t take this watch to the extremes it promises to manage, there was a lot of active testing, including extended exercise to test its endurance (and, even more so, mine). Battery life was key to the testing, as was running apps, especially workout apps and new elements such as depth testing, to check for responsiveness and accuracy.

Apple Watch ultra

Design and display

This is unlike any Apple Watch that has come before it, including the Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch series 8, which were released earlier this month. They have a domed glass covering, a flush side button and a smaller digital crown. Here, everything is bigger and, dare I say it, louder.

The case, bigger than before, sweeps up in a curve before flattening out at the top. It’s a bit like the flat screens Apple now favours on the iPhone and is surrounded by a titanium frame. The glass itself is technically not glass at all but sapphire crystal, to add greater toughness.

Then there are the sides. To protect the digital crown from accidental presses, there’s a raised bar that protects it on both sides. This is a real departure from previous designs and adds a more macho feel to the look. The crown itself has bigger grooves, and the side button is no longer flush, standing slightly proud. The point of all these changes is to make the Watch easier to manipulate when you’re wearing gloves, for instance.

Read more: Apple’s iPhone 14 has improved cameras, crash detection and video action mode

On the opposite side, there’s a grille for a much bigger speaker, meant to make it easier to hear a phone call, say, in the great outdoors. It’s 40 per cent louder than the series 8, according to Apple, and it certainly has much beefier audio. The main speaker is backed up by a smaller one on the same side, which is also an emergency siren. This gets pretty loud.

In between the two speakers is the action button, configurable to launch the workout app or start backtrack. The latter is a clever system, common to all watches compatible with watchOS 9, that guides you back to where you’ve come from if you get lost. It uses GPS and, if the watch senses you’re out of wifi or network connectivity, and kicks into action automatically.

Read more: Apple’s iPhone 14 pro and pro max feature a 48MP camera, always-on display and more

About the action button: you can’t miss it because of its colour. It’s called international orange and is used, for instance, in the aerospace industry to make it stand out against its surroundings. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is painted international orange too, it turns out.

There are also three microphones on the watch, to make phone calls more effective in noisy environments.

There are straps to suit the new Watch, including connectors that are designed to be secure when you’re diving, skiing or performing other activities. However, if you have Apple Watch bands from any 42mm, 44mm and 45mm models, they will still fit.

The ocean band, which comes in three colours, is highly attractive, with a loop used to ensure the strap doesn’t stick out.

Read more: The new Apple Watch series 8 and SE are slick, easy to use and responsive

The display is a real standout: twice as bright as before, so easy to read in the brightest sunlight, and with enough space to make seeing your sports stats (or just who’s messaging you) easier than ever. The workout app can display an extra line of metrics compared with other designs. The flatness of the display also helps with clarity.

There’s no denying this is a very big watch and it will swamp some wrists. But it’s less heavy than you’d think (61.3g), although still heavier than other Apple Watches. This may be a consideration if you want to take advantage of the enhanced sleep tracking the latest series 8 and ultra offer.

Performance and battery life

The performance on the ultra is the same as the significantly cheaper SE. That’s because all three of this year’s watches use the same S8 processor. This is how Apple has always done it with its smartwatches. As a result, performance is sparklingly fast for all three Watch models.

That’s not to say they are the same: the sleep trends that the series 8 and ultra offer are down to a pair of body temperature sensors in the hardware. These sensors also deliver advanced cycle tracking and family-planning assistance in the form of using the data to calculate, retrospectively, the likelihood of ovulation. The ultra has features of its own, such as a depth gauge and water temperature sensor. These mean there are several apps to enhance the data for snorkelling or scuba diving to a depth of 40m. The ultra Watch also has water resistance to 100m.

Read more: Apple AirPods pro 2’s noise cancelling is so impressive, I couldn’t hear myself type this review

All this year’s Apple Watches offer crash detection, so if you’re ever in a car crash, the watch will know and can connect to emergency services (if you don’t respond after the accident), sending them your exact location. I hope you never have to test this.

Battery life is a real standout on the ultra, lasting twice the 18 hours of other Apple Watches. In practice, that would get you through the day with battery level to spare, and this performs the same trick over two days.

If you want more, Apple says the low-power mode will give you 60 hours of usage. This comes with some restrictions, most notably the display is no longer always on – you need to tap it or raise your wrist to see the time. For me, the always-on screen is key, but in low-power mode it certainly went on and on.

Pricing

The Apple Watch ultra is the most expensive Apple Watch. It’s £849 compared with £259 for the smaller Apple Watch SE or £299 for the larger. The Apple Watch series 8 costs £419 for the smaller case, and £449 for the larger.

These figures don’t reveal just how good value the ultra is, though. There’s only one size, so pricing is simple, and the ultra automatically has network connectivity capabilities, which costs an extra £60 on Apple Watch SE or £110 on the Apple Watch series 8. Bear in mind that your network provider will charge for this connection.

Note that if you choose a stainless steel series 8, the cost can be as high as £829, so almost exactly the same as the bigger ultra. Oh, and if you want the Hermes edition, you can pay as much as £1,739.

Buy now £849.00, Apple.com

The verdict: Apple Watch ultra

The new Apple Watch ultra is big and powerful, offering fast performance, though no faster than other 2022 Apple Watches. Its size is enough that I’d strongly recommend trying it on before you buy, to test how it looks and feels. It could swamp some wrists and weigh down others.

The display is fantastic, offering outstanding brightness and exceptional readability, thanks to the size and flatness of the screen. And it’s called the ultra because it does more than previous models – from crash detection to depth monitoring to having a design that works with thick gloves underwater, for instance.

Battery life is tremendous, though it’s worth noting that some other smartwatches manage longer. Even so, I found it to be more than enough for my needs, however active I was.

For sure, the more active you are, the greater the benefits, but it’s a handsome, highly capable smartwatch for anyone to use. This is the biggest step forward for any Apple Watch yet, and, if you like the size and striking design, it’s hard to resist.

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