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Apple Watch Ultra Review: Better Battery Life, but Not Quite Extreme

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Gadgets are all about trade-offs, and the

Apple


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Watch is a perfect example.

To stay svelte, it has typically had a small battery that requires frequent charging. Many people don’t mind the daily charging ritual as a concession for a useful, fitness-sensor-laden wrist computer that can call, text and run apps. The Apple Watch is the bestselling smartwatch in the world, according to Counterpoint Research.

However, the Apple Watch isn’t popular among a certain subset: those who take themselves, and their gear, to their physical limits. The new souped-up $799 Apple Watch Ultra was designed for them. 

I’m no professional athlete, but I like going on overnight backpacking treks, long-distance open-water swims, all-day bike rides and backcountry ski runs. And I often wear an Apple Watch, despite its shortcomings. Since the first model hit the market in 2015, longer battery life has been my top feature request.

The Ultra, which hits shelves Friday, is the first Apple Watch with multiday battery life, and from my testing, it delivers on that promise. Nevertheless, this debut model leaves something to be desired for those accustomed to premium athlete-focused GPS watches. And several announced features, including an optimized battery-saving mode, won’t be available until later this year.

Apple designed new bands for the Ultra, including the securely closing Alpine Loop, left, and the flexible, tubular Ocean Band, middle, for water sports.



Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

The Quest for Better Battery Life

The Ultra has all the new features of this year’s middle-of-the-road Series 8 Apple Watch, including temperature sensors for fertility tracking and motion sensors for car crash detection. I won’t discuss these here—my colleague Joanna Stern and I plan to cover them in other reviews. This one is all about the battery.

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Apple says the Ultra’s battery life is 36 hours with normal use, up from the 18-hour Apple Watch standard. 

While recording a workout using constant GPS, the Ultra has enough juice to track the equivalent of an average Ironman triathlon in low power mode, about 13.5 hours, says the company. Apple is adding even more power savings with a setting due later this year, which it says reduces GPS and heart-rate readings to provide up to 15 hours of activity tracking and 60 hours of total battery life.

For an Apple Watch, that’s impressive. But other multisport watches are capable of tracking multiple Ironman races.

Garmin’s


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$899-and-up Epix, for example, can last up to six days when not tracking a GPS activity and up to 30 hours when it is.

To test the battery claims, I took a small army of smartwatches on a weekend trip to the mountains—no cell service, nowhere to charge overnight.

Day 1, 10:53 a.m., 100% battery on the Ultra

On Saturday morning, I lined up my fully charged test subjects: the Apple Watch Ultra and Series 8; a Garmin Epix, which matches the Ultra with titanium case and touch screen; and a Garmin Forerunner 945, with a battery-saving mode that records sensor data less frequently.

I put the Apple Watches into low power mode, which disables the always-on display and other features, but doesn’t affect heart-rate monitoring or GPS. I wore one on each wrist, while my husband, Will, wore the two Garmins.

Day 1, 1:08 p.m., 98% battery

At the trailhead, we started recording our hike on the four watches. The planned route was about 4 miles with around 2,100 feet of elevation gain. The destination was a mid-mountain refuge, where we’d have a hot meal and sleep for the night.

I spent my first few hours grappling with the Ultra’s size. It’s basically the full width of my wrist and almost as thick as two iPhones. I do have small wrists, but still.

The Garmin is a chunkster, too. In fact, the Epix is even a tad thicker than the Ultra. I guess that’s the deal with adventure watches. They need more space for bigger batteries and extra sensors.

On the Ultra, I switched from the bulky Alpine band to the thinner, more flexible Trail Loop band. I immediately stained the band’s light beige fabric, accidentally swiping a dirty branch, but that band made the watch feel more comfortable on my wrist.

The thin, lightweight Trail Loop is Nicole’s preferred band. Beware: It’s not stain-proof.



Photo:

Nicole Nguyen/The Wall Street Journal

Day 1, 4:10 p.m., 84% battery

Three hours later, we arrived at the refuge. 

In the Apple Watch’s Compass map, I set a waypoint with my current coordinates. Another feature, called Backtrack, allows you to retrace your steps if you get lost. (Both are available on the SE and Series 6 and newer Apple Watch models, too.) 

However, finding my way forward is always more of a challenge, and Garmin won here. 

Before heading out on the hike, I downloaded the planned route to the Garmin watches. When we hit an intersection, instead of pulling out a phone to check our position, I consulted the Epix on Will’s wrist. A purple line on the map told us to go right, while a blue arrow showed which direction we were facing.

The Apple Watch doesn’t have a native mapping experience. After the trip, I researched apps that work with it, and Wikiloc has potential. You can import map files and download them for offline use. Its Apple Watch app has a great map view, though it doesn’t provide turn-by-turn directions.

On the Apple Watch, apps can fill in for missing features, but you have to hunt.

Garmin watches, such as the Epix, can display planned routes on topographical maps. The Apple Watch can show similar maps if you download third-party apps.



Photo:

Nicole Nguyen/The Wall Street Journal

Day 2, 8:26 a.m., 69% battery

After a night of sleep (and watch sleep tracking), we set off on a longer hike, over 11 miles with a 3,200-foot ascent. 

As we climbed, it got chillier. Not as cold as the -4 degrees Fahrenheit the Ultra is rated to withstand, but I did need gloves. The Ultra’s raised dial and side buttons were glove-friendly, as billed.

Day 2, 9:41 a.m., 64% battery

I didn’t need saving, but I briefly turned on the Ultra’s onboard emergency siren. Instead of a single blaring noise, it changes pitch, from quick chirps to an undulating ambulance-style wail to help people find you. It’s a safety feature, along with emergency calling and car crash detection, that I hope I never have to use.

You can program the Ultra’s new Action button, top, to start an activity or do other actions. The Ultra’s other controls are bigger so you can use them while wearing gloves.



Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

Day 2, 6:54 p.m., 19% battery

The finish! After a total of 13 hours and 20 minutes of GPS tracking across two days, the Ultra still had some battery to spare. 

The Series 8 ran out of battery earlier that day, at 4:23 p.m. The Epix’s battery went from “6 days” to “22 hours,” while the Forerunner 945 had 65% left.

The Forerunner’s super battery saver did its job well, but with a significant accuracy compromise: The Garmin’s tracking was way off. Garmin is clear about the feature’s downside. Here’s hoping the Ultra’s coming power saver, which similarly reduces GPS readings, will fare better.

While the Ultra can survive underwater submersion down to 100 meters for short periods, it’s rated to withstand recreational scuba diving to 40 meters deep.



Photo:

F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal

The Ultra: Fighting Its Way Into the Big Leagues

Besides the Ultra’s optimized-battery mode, the Oceanic+ app for scuba divers, optimized for the Ultra by third-party developer Huish, also won’t arrive until later this year. And while I didn’t swim with the Ultra, I did dunk it in a filled kitchen sink to test its water-temperature reading. (64 degrees Fahrenheit, right out of the tap.)

So, should you get an Ultra? It’s an exciting update for current Apple Watch wearers who need more—especially battery life. But it’s no Garmin killer. Besides navigation, Garmin watches support other features important to serious athletes that are missing in the Apple Watch, such as recovery metrics and the ability to broadcast heart rate to workout equipment via Bluetooth. 

The Apple Watch interface is still far more user-friendly. And Apple plans to let third-party developers tap into the Ultra’s sensors, so Ultra-optimized apps could be on the horizon.

The marketing suggests the Apple Watch Ultra is for people who compete in desert marathons, summit mountain peaks and regularly scuba dive. I think it’s great for the active—but not the most extreme—athletes. Sure, it’s nice on a long hike, but it can also unlock your Mac. The Ultra is for the person who wants a smartwatch to do both. Large wrists a plus.

For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Nicole Nguyen at [email protected]

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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