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Apple Watch Ultra Hands-On: A Huge, Pricey Smartwatch With a New Look

I got to try out the brand-new, giant Apple Watch Ultra. Here's how I liked it.

This story is part of Focal Point iPhone 2022, CNET's collection of news, tips and advice around Apple's most popular product.

The Apple Watch Ultra, announced alongside the Apple Watch Series 8 at Apple's "Far Out" product event, may be the biggest change we've seen to Apple's watch line-up in years. It arrives Sept. 23, a week after the Watch Series 8. And it's most definitely not a look -- or a price -- for everyone.

Apple's watch lineup has been slowly expanding, much like the iPhone line did. Apple used to only launch one watch a year, but the Apple Watch SE introduced a more affordable model to the mix. The Apple Watch Ultra goes in the opposite direction: It's more expensive, but unlike previous fashion-driven Edition watches, the Ultra is aiming for function... and endurance. Also, it's by far the biggest Apple Watch of the lineup.

Apple Watch Ultra

The Apple Watch Ultra has a whole new design, with familiar echoes.

James Martin

Next to the Apple Watch SE and Watch Series 8, the Ultra is like the Apple version of a Casio G-Shock. The new design pushes its crown and side button into an extended side part that, alongside the new watch's bigger case and curved-with-flat-display contours, make it seem more James Cameron than any previous Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Ultra next to Apple Watch 8 and SE

The Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch 8 and Apple Watch SE (left to right).

Scott Stein/CNET

But, as you can see from a side-by-side comparison, it's not a drastic departure. The distinctive look might even appeal to some people who would prefer a bulkier or bolder watch design. In its own way, it's a more eye-catching move than Apple's previous, more subtle Edition case finishes.

Apple/Dawnthea Price Lisco/CNET

Preorder your Apple Watch Ultra from Apple with prices starting at $799. Devices start shipping on Sept. 23.

The new watch has a titanium case, sapphire flat front crystal, and 49mm case size with a brighter display (2,000 nits). There's a new dedicated second button, an improved speaker and a clear, ruggedized design. Cellular is also the only model it comes in. It's a lot of new features. 

The Ultra's biggest new feature, a significantly larger battery, is something the Apple Watch hasn't had since it debuted. The typical Apple Watch battery life is about a day and a half; the Ultra promises more: 36 hours of full-power use, ramping up to 60-plus hours in reduced-function low power mode.

There's also a new watch face called Wayfinder with extra readings for outdoor activities.

Wearing it on my big wrist, the Ultra still looks big. It's not as heavy as I expected, though. The look, especially with its bold and function-oriented straps, is definitely bolder than I'm used to.

Last year, an expected watch redesign never materialized, although Apple did increase the watch screen size. The Watch Ultra does have a new look, including a flatter front and a bump-out side where the crown and side button are, plus a new programmable second button on the other side.

Apple Watch Ultra on-wrist

The Ultra on my hairy wrist.

Scott Stein/CNET

The buttons are easy enough to reach, although I'm not sure how I feel about the bumped-out digital crown. I can see why it was done, though: It looks like it'll be easier to access when wearing gloves or gear underwater.

New straps include a wavy rubberized Ocean Band designed for fitting over wetsuits, a lightweight and slightly elastic Trail Loop that's like a refined version of the existing Sport Loop, and an Alpine Loop nylon band with a titanium clasp that can ratchet into different fittings. All seem designed for specialized sports use. (The Ocean Band is wild-looking in yellow.)

Apple Watch Ultra with Alpine Loop strap

The Alpine Loop on the Ultra.

Scott Stein/CNET

The redesigned Compass app looks extremely fun, especially since it zooms out to different scales and allows waypoints and walk-back directions. The Ultra's GPS has been enhanced with dual-frequency GPS (L1 and L5), which could make this a lot more accurate than competing GPS smartwatches.

The new Apple Watch Series 8, also announced Wednesday, adds temperature sensing, more advanced motion tracking with car crash detection and a low-power mode that could extend battery life up to 36 hours on standard models. The Ultra will have all these features too.

Who is the Ultra for? It seems like it's going for the Garmin watch-wearer market -- someone who wants a dedicated running watch or a smartwatch that can last (maybe) a whole weekend without a charge. 

The new Compass app's unique Ultra ability to save waypoints and show walk-back directions without a cellular signal, using only GPS, could be one of the Ultra's biggest draws. So, too, could the watch's unique ability to work better underwater. The secondary button's ability to jump to favorite activities without needing the touchscreen could also end up feeling essential for serious runners who would have otherwise considered button-heavy watch alternatives.

The extra cost, however, means it won't be a watch most people opt for. Still, like the iPhone Pro and iPad Pro, the Watch Ultra's features could end up being innovations that trickle down to the other Watch models over time.

Apple Watch Ultra speakers and new orange button

The speakers are louder, and surround a new second programmable button on the other side.

Scott Stein/CNET

The Ultra has some extra safety features, including a loud emergency siren that could be set to alert people if you're down (which I didn't test in Apple's demo room). The water resistance is higher: WR100 and EN13319-certified for scuba diving.

There are some new apps for the Ultra: A new Oceanic Plus diving app is specifically made for the Watch Ultra that looks at tides and water temperature; it also records dive depths and metrics. Apple has its own depth-sensing app. The side button can work underwater to set waypoints, and it's designed for use while diving too.

I'm not a diver or a hiker, but the battery life of the Ultra is what I'm most envious of. I don't know how that performs yet, either, but multiday battery life on an Apple Watch is something I've wanted for years.

The Apple Watch Ultra isn't the only device announced at the "Far Out" event. For more, read about everything else Apple unveiled, including the iPhone 14 and AirPods Pro 2.