Apple Watch Ultra: A Leap Forward or Not Quite There Yet?

My short experience with the latest smart-sport hybrid watch from Apple

From the moment Apple announced last year that there will be an Apple Watch Ultra, with enhanced sport capabilities, I was very interested in trying it, since Apple Watches were praised for their oHR accuracy and a lot of people said that this particular device is a great step forward towards the ideal device – sport and smart at the same time. I was always put away from purchasing an Apple Watch by the short battery life – I just couldn’t accept another device to be charged every day (like the phone) – and I was very convinced by this, often supporting this idea in front of friends or family. I was actually reminded of that by my son, when he saw the AWU on my left hand, replacing the Garmin Fenix 7X.

So I had to have it .. to try it .. and eventually decide if I will keep it.

The first impression was a very good one .. I selected the trail loop band which I found to be very comfortable and close to my nylon/velcro band experience with Fenix 7X. Apple’s trail loop is better in my view because it’s smoother to wear, but also is more expensive even than the official Garmin UltraFit nylon band. In real life, I don’t think this is much of a difference, both being not very friendly with long sleeve shirts after shower or swim – they are both breathable but they don’t dry completely that fast.

This is not meant to be a full review of Apple Watch Ultra or a comparison with other sport watches I use(d), but a short analysis of my reasons for why I’m tempted to return the AWU and continue the use of my current watches – Fenix 7X or Vantage V2.

AWU has the most comfortable sensor shape, not digging into your arm

In terms of GPS accuracy, I didn’t see any issue, the distance measurement and 1km splits were exactly the same as with my Fenix 7X – the look of the GPS tracks were accurate. The GPS signal acquisition was very fast, similar with Fenix 7x (after the new FW update to 13.08, before that, the 11.28 was awful at fixing the GPS initially).

Different monsters

The Apple Watch Ultra is visible in any situation, inside its OLED shines clearly, but I didn’t have any issues in plain sun. Fenix 7X solar has a MiP (Memory in Pixel) screen which is very power efficient and visible in sun outdoors, inside the backlight helps but is not matching the brightness of the AWU.

The level of customisation for the built-in workout app is nice but doesn’t match the display of data Fenix 7X can provide or the intuitiveness of the Vantage V2 user interface – this is where the WorkOutDoors app steps in providing a great deal of flexibility and the maps everyone was expecting onboard of Apple Watch.

The battery life for my usage is 2-2.5 days, with one GPS workout of 45-60 min/day and always on display. I’d say is decent, but compared with my regular 3 weeks with Fenix and 4-5 days with Vantage V2, it’s just not yet there. I knew that and I was ok to deal with that by using the fast charging during shower. It worked ok, no reasons to complain, but it’s not that practical on the long run.

The oHR readings are ok, comparable with the Polar Verity Sense, but they are not bulletproof, I’ve seen AWU struggling today during a long steady run – for no good reason, the HR jumped suddenly from 135bpm to 151bpm and stayed there for some tens of seconds before going back down to 134bpm – it could have been the sweat, I don’t know, because the strap was well tightened on my wrist.

The freedom of definition for structured running workouts is great, you can select various targets/intervals for HR/pace/power, the only downside being that you need to define those workouts on your watch and not even on your phone and that may become complicated and time consuming. You need to keep an external calendar and something to guide your training outside of the Fitness app and the watch itself – maybe that will come, because it’s only Apple focusing on developing this side – they are more than capable of doing that, we just don’t know if they will invest effort in this (maybe WatchOS 10 will tell us more).

For pool swim, it’s difficult to judge .. I’m a beginner, so I spend much time learning and the detection of movement is decent but not perfect – I mean, for what I do, the drills setup of the Fenix 7X are better even if they require some extra input (to start, stop and confirm the number of pool lengths you performed) but at least they count everything I can count. My feeling is that, if you know to swim well, the detection of style and distance work very well with AWU.

For cycling, there is not that much of a story – you’re limited to bluetooth sensors, but that’s not that much of a problem for me, cause I use a Garmin Edge 530 anyway outside and a Tacx smart trainer inside ..

So, basically I will repeat what other already said .. Apple Watch Ultra is a great smart watch with very good sports capabilities, but in order to exploit those you need some 3rd party apps and platforms. Obviously, this is a piece of kit only for the iPhone users, compared to the other sport watches. In terms of durability, it’s definitely better equipped than the other Apple Watches, but I don’t “feel” it matches the robustness of the Fenix or Enduro watches, even with the sapphire and titanium body – which is very nicely shaped.

I didn’t have issues with pressing accidentally any side buttons during arm movement or also starting/stoping something by touching the screen, but I only used it for several days – it might happen, it has this potential.

Reasons to pick (and keep) Apple Watch Ultra:

  • very comfortable to wear (better than Fenix 7X or Vantage V2)
  • cellular on the run, no need to carry your phone
  • very good sleep and phase detection (the qualitative analysis is missing yet, you need additional apps)
  • very smooth integration with the Apple Health/Fitness
  • fast charging – 15-20 minutes could help you charge enough to finish the day
  • very smart (too smart?!) watch with a lot of options/apps to pick from

Reasons not to keep Apple Watch Ultra:

  • cumbersome operations using touch screen gestures during workouts [maybe that will be better addressed with the existing/new buttons somehow in the future]
  • battery life not comparable with any of my previous sport watches (2.5 days is great if you come from AppleWatch or other smart watch .. not from the Fenix 7X or even Vantage V2
  • no maps in default workout application – that can be addressed with other 3rd party apps – actually for me, only the “back to start” – even in the Vantage V2 implementation would have been a good thing, not to mention the navigation on Fenix 7X.
  • you need additional apps/subscriptions to add the training analysis and planning capabilities & recovery

I need to confess the fact that I haven’t used all the smart capabilities, no music/audiobooks streaming, only 1-2 calls for testing (the microphones and speakers are very good) so maybe that’s why the Apple Watch Ultra didn’t grow on me.

I spend too much time planning and reviewing my training data and that’s difficult to be done on the watch or even the phone, unless you have a great app for that. I think the observations here are still valid today – the device is capable of doing a lot of great things, it only needs the support of some apps and platforms to performs – as long as you can live with the fact that the battery life is not so generous like with some Garmin or even other sport watch brands – Polar, Coros or Suunto.

For now, I don’t think a lot of Garmin (or Polar/Suunto/Coros) users who are pretty happy with their devices will migrate (permanently) to AWU – this might change if the battery live increases and the software will add some of the functionality of the training platforms – directly or though easy integration apps. Take for example, the Stryd users .. they might be very happy with the combo (AWU + Stryd) as long as they like and use the Stryd App – all the planning and analysis is done on Stryd Power Center web and mobile app, the execution is done seamlessly with the Apple Watch.

Apple Watch Ultra represents a serious step Apple made into the sports arena, with all the improvements added in WatchOS 9, and for some it might be the perfect device, able to support the training and also the connectivity aims of that person. But, for the moment, for me (and my sport habits) that’s not yet good enough .. I like the guidance and feedback a platform like Garmin Connect or Polar Flow offers and I’m not that independent to have the plan on a piece of paper or keep it in a worksheet. And yes, the battery life counts more for me than the convenience of not having to take the phone with me when going outdoors.

I still have some weeks to decide, but after almost one week, AWU didn’t convince me to keep it.

Stay healthy and enjoy your run!

Author: Liviu Nastasa

Passionate about software development, sociology, running...definitely a geek.

4 thoughts

  1. I’ve an AWU. I’ve been using Watchletic app to sync structured power based workouts from Final Surge and Training Peaks. It’s an inexpensive subscription. I use HealthFit to sync my workouts to and Runalyze. I have Rungap auto sync workouts to Garmin with fake device so as to trigger load calculations and apply towards badges. It’s a RunGap feature. I also have Fenix 7x, Suunto 9 Peak Pro, and various Polar.

    1. You’re my “twin”, in terms of interest for new devices 🙂

      There are certainly ways of moving data around (FinalSurge or TrainingsPeaks are just fine), I suppose that every gap will be filled in by some app at some point (if that’s not yet done). I used RunGap for moving data to Garmin Connect with “the fake” FR945 sticker and I feel that I could live with the AWU, there are ways to setup your ecosystem properly, but for now I don’t feel that the advantages outweigh the stress of dealing with the limitations. You can’t (yet) eliminate the need to work with the touchscreen during sessions or extend the battery life, but overall it’s a very good experience for a smart watch.

      1. Hi, I’ve been primarily using the Fenix 7X. I find that when I’m focused on training or any specific activity, the Fenix 7X has what I need and is more than capable. There is less preparation or work required to be able to effectively execute and record a training session. That’s an end to end experience that I value quite a lot. Often in some cycling contexts, we talk about the ‘time crunched’ athlete. Garmin provides you with a pervasive set of features and capabilities that allow you to effectively use your time that you have set aside to train. Where I struggle sometimes with Garmin is their training goals and interpretation of the data. I work for a SW/HW semiconductor company that is at the heart of most of the world’s AI products. What Garmin is doing today with their training recommendations and targets is as we say ‘on rails’. It’s simplistic and heuristic driven. But so is the rest of the market as well. My irritation is that that it is always front and center on the device and in the apps (web/mobile). I don’t want it to train me. I want to use it to train. I’m less interested in its interpretations of strain, effect, etc. Beyond that, I’ve never been happy with Garmin’s Connect UI (web/mobile).

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