Wearing the Apple Watch Ultra Convinced Me It's Not Just for Athletes
Commentary: You'll appreciate the Apple Watch Ultra's long battery life and Action button whether you're an athlete or not.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
I wouldn't blame you for writing off the $799 Apple Watch Ultra as being too expensive and niche for your taste. The Ultra costs roughly double the price of the $399 Series 8 and includes special features that seem specifically aimed at hikers, scuba divers and athletes. Those include a titanium build that's meant to provide additional durability, a depth gauge and an 86-decibel siren for emergencies. But wearing it over the past several weeks has started to change my mind.
The Apple Watch Ultra represents the most significant change to Apple's smartwatch in years. However, the biggest benefits from wearing it in everyday circumstances are useful for any Apple Watch owner, not just outdoor enthusiasts.
The Ultra's longer battery life and handy Action button prove that there's room to improve Apple's regular smartwatch beyond just new health sensors. It raises the bar for future Apple Watch generations.
The Apple Watch Ultra's battery life is a big improvement
I've worn and tested several Apple Watch models over the years, and my biggest criticism has always been the minimally adequate battery life. The Apple Watch Ultra addresses that concern with its 36-hour battery life according to Apple's claims.
That's significantly longer than the Series 8's estimated 18-hour battery life. Low-power mode, which is available on the Series 4 and later, extends battery life even further. In her full review, my colleague Lexy Savvides said she was able to get 50 hours out of the Apple Watch Ultra by using that setting, which shuts off features like the always-on display and background blood oxygen measurements to preserve battery life.
In my experience, the Ultra generally lives up to the company's promises. Even without low-power mode, I get roughly two to three days of battery life from the Ultra when I'm just checking notifications, logging outdoor walks and recording 30- to 40-minute indoor workouts. I usually only get a day and half from the Apple Watch Series 8 and SE by comparison.
Keep in mind that frequently tracking outdoor activity with GPS, making phone calls and using LTE will drain the battery faster. The Apple Watch Ultra I've been wearing wasn't using a standalone cellular connection.
The standard Apple Watch's battery life is adequate if you don't care about sleep tracking and charge your watch overnight. But if you want to monitor activity and sleep, finding the right time to charge your watch can be a challenge. I often find myself choosing between logging sleep or my workouts.
The Apple Watch Ultra is a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing that dilemma. I can typically track sleep for one or two nights without having to worry about finding time to power up my watch during the day. I didn't even pack a charger when I took a one-night trip to visit family recently. If I had been wearing the Series 8 or SE, I would have needed a charger to get through the full second day.
That said, the Apple Watch Ultra still lags behind competitors in the battery life department. Fitbit claims its Sense 2 and Versa 4 smartwatches can last for up to six days on a single charge, for example. The original Fitbit Sense from 2020 lasted for about 4.5 days between charges with the always-on display turned off, according to CNET's review.
It's important to remember that watches like the Apple Watch (and competitors like the Pixel Watch and Galaxy Watch 5, which also offer 1- to 2-day battery life) offer perks you can't get on Fitbit's watches. Those include app store compatibility and the ability to connect to cellular networks independently, which are likely to drain the battery more quickly.
Still, I hope companies like Apple and Samsung get to the point where we don't have to choose between features like LTE and long battery life in a smartwatch. Apple should pave the way toward that goal considering it's the global leader when it comes to worldwide smartwatch shipments.
The Action button makes starting a workout easier
Seven years after the first Apple Watch launched, there's finally a new way to interact with it. The Apple Watch Ultra has an Action button, which is located on the opposite side of the watch's casing from the digital crown and side button. It can be programmed to perform a specific task. You can, for example, begin a workout, run a stopwatch, trigger the Apple Watch's Waypoint or Backtrack navigation features, initiate a diving session, use the watch's screen as a flashlight or start a shortcut.
I've been using the Action button to quickly record my outdoor walks as workouts. Without the Action button, I usually ask Siri to start an outdoor walk or tap the workout complication on my home screen. The Action button makes this process speedier since I can press the button twice to jump right into an outdoor walk without having to scroll through exercise options. Pressing the Action button once opens the workout app, which is a nice option but it takes about the same amount of time as tapping my watch face complication.
The Action button isn't a game changer by any means, but it makes navigation easier. I'd like to see Apple add even more customization options in the future, like the ability to call or text a specific contact or start a timer. These small conveniences would make the Apple Watch more efficient, and they shouldn't be reserved for those who can afford Apple's top-of-the-line watch. It's also an example of how Apple has improved the Apple Watch's usability through hardware, which has become an increasingly rare occurrence now that so many new features arrive through software updates.
What it means for the Apple Watch
When I started wearing the Apple Watch Ultra, I didn't expect to like it as much as I do. Features like the Ultra's dual-frequency GPS, larger screen, tougher design and depth gauge didn't feel very exciting for someone like me who primarily records short walks, indoor cycling and HIIT workouts. But the extra day of battery life alone is enough to make the Ultra stand out. The Action button is also a great addition that seems to have a lot of potential to become even more helpful down the line.
But these characteristics don't feel like "pro" or "ultra" features to me. They should be baked into the Apple Watch experience by default on the Series 8 and other upcoming flagship watches. The Ultra proves that there's plenty of runway for Apple's smartwatch to advance at a time when annual releases are starting to feel less significant. But it also puts more pressure on Apple to improve the core Apple Watch experience, meaning I'll be expecting more from the Series 9 and beyond.