Apple Watch Ultra Review

An in-depth review of the Apple Watch Ultra smartwatch.

By on September 16, 2023 | Comments

The Apple Watch Ultra ($800) is our favorite smartwatch in our Best GPS Running Watches guide.

In this video, iRunFar explores its features and limitations, and the pros and cons of opting for the Apple Watch Ultra over an alternative high-end GPS running watch for long distance running.

You may have heard that the Apple Watch Ultra 2 released in September, 2023. The bad news? This isn’t a review of the Ultra 2 — yet, we’ll review it in due time. The good news? The features and functionality of what is covered in this review are relevant to the Ultra 2. Mainly because most of the updates for the Ultra 2 are quality-of-life changes versus changes to running functions.

The Ultra 2 introduces a new processor, some new gestures, a slightly brighter screen at maximum capacity, and a dimmer screen for nighttime interaction. WatchOS was moved up to version 10, but we’ll receive that update for this model and provide additional commentary on any significant changes that come with the new software.

Now, onto the review of the Apple Watch Ultra.

Shop the Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch Ultra Review Transcript

Hey and welcome to Trail Trials, the video review section of iRunFar. My name is Travis Liles. In this video, we look at the Apple Watch Ultra. We ask the question, is it “ultra?” This question applies to iRunFar readers specifically, is this something you would wear for an ultramarathon and long distance run training? Let’s check it out.

Before we dig in, let’s talk about what this review is and isn’t. This device has been out for a while. Updates are coming to it. I’m recording this in roughly the middle of July, 2023. There have been some updates since I got it. I’ll be as accurate as I can about where we are today. I also plan on recording a supplemental video as time goes on, when features are added on that are applicable to either my critiques, or to our sport of ultrarunning in general.

That’s the difference between this and something like a shoe. A shoe is a shoe, until a new version comes out. This watch will get software updates, firmware updates, things can change, and be added over time.

Because of that, we have to think of this as a point-in-time review. Also, this isn’t an exhaustive technology review. There are a bunch of those out there already that talk about Apple watches, their health features, their smartwatch features.

I’m trying to condense this down into — if I am an ultrarunner, what do I think about this watch? How does it fit into my world? If I’m going to spend on a high-end device to track my runs, is this one that makes sense, given what I do? I hope to answer that by the end of this review.

Apple Watch Ultra - main menu

The Apple Watch Ultra. All photos: iRunFar/Travis Liles

Apple Watch Ultra Specifications and Operation

Let’s start by looking at the overall layout of the Apple Watch Ultra. First, this is an all-titanium case. It’s 49 millimeters in diameter, and for a reference point, that’s a pretty big sports watch.

I am a small person. I’m 5 foot, 5 inches. I’m 135 pounds. I’ve got fairly small wrists. These watches have presence, but they’re not crazy big. If you look at the two of these compared [shows two watches], this is the Garmin fēnix 7 — Sapphire Solar Edition — you can check out our Garmin fēnix 7 — Sapphire Solar Edition review, too. Lots of words there. And here is the Apple Watch Ultra.

The difference is, one’s square and one’s circular. For a reference point, these fall on the larger size of the sports-watch category. There’s a lot going on here in terms of sensors, and GPS, and a bigger battery. Especially if you’ve only used a regular Apple Watch. But the case is made out of all titanium and it’s a big, chunky case. Titanium is a fairly lightweight metal. It’s light for the size that it is. It has a very large and bright OLED screen, which just means blacks are really black. If you’ve got an iPhone Pro, this is the same type of screen, obviously much smaller. It’s really bright and vivid.

In terms of operating the watch, you have a couple of things to work with. One is the digital crown, and it does a couple things. One, as you can see, it gives you a red face, which is cool. If you don’t want something super bright, you can turn to that. If you’re camping or whatever, that’s a fun function to have. But the crown also works for scrolling through the apps. Again, this is a smartwatch, so you interact with it through applications. Of course, it has touchscreen, as well as the crown button.

Over here on the right, there’s another button, and that pops you into your recently opened applications. Again, you can use that crown to scroll. Touch is still a fairly decent interaction point with this watch, and that is definitely something to keep in mind. As an example, if we go into the Weather app, you can scroll through some information. But if I want to go back to the list of locations, I have to touch on the screen, and hit that point to get back. So, touch is a requirement as you work with this, and we’ll talk more about that later.

Over here on the side, the thing that is different from the rest of the Apple line is this Action button. The Action button is, for all intents and purposes, a shortcut — a deep shortcut button into the Workout application, in my case. When I hit that button, it goes into the Workout app, and now it waits for a GPS signal. That is a function that you can turn on or turn off. It can just start automatically when you hit that, or you can wait for your signal to be fully intact. Once you’ve got that ready to go, you’re good. You hit that button again, and that will start your workout. Or you can edit this button to do different things, but it’s effectively going to here, and I have it mapped to the Workout app. Then Outdoor Run is the specific kind of workout that I have it go to when I start the device.

Apple Watch Ultra - running mode

The Apple Watch Ultra’s running mode.

Apple Watch Ultra Features

We have a couple other things to call out on the Apple Watch Ultra. You’ll notice these big holes here — this is a speaker. There are microphones on this as well. Those act in a couple of functions, but mainly for talking to your voice assistant on the Apple world.

It also acts as a siren. You can take a phone call on this device as well, and talk to your wrist, which is oddly satisfying.

The screen is made with sapphire glass, and that is, for the most part, not scratchable, or extremely hard to scratch. I’m sure there are scenarios, but I’ve had many sports watches and mechanical watches through the years with sapphire glass, and I don’t know of any of them that’s scratched.

Here are a few notes on the straps. These straps are all removable. This is the Trail Loop here. Probably the one that’s most viable, I’d say, for most people, especially with running. It’s stretchy. It conforms to the wrist. It’s got stretch to it, but it gets a nice, snug fit, which means that it locks down and get your heart rate readings fairly well. You want it to be as dark as can be underneath the watch to make sure that it’s doing what it needs to, to take those heart rate readings, those pulse readings, all that type of stuff.

They are easily changed out. You push these little buttons here at the bottom. This one is called an Alpine Loop. I like the aesthetic of this, that’s just personal preference here. But they are very simple to change in and out. There are lots of third-party options. Apple makes a whole bunch that you can go take a look at, to change the look and feel of the device as you see fit.

Using the Apple Watch Ultra to Work Out

Let’s look at what it’s like to work out with the Apple Watch Ultra. If you’re going out for your run, you hit your button. It opens the Workout app. You can map it to about whatever you want here, even third-party applications, which we’ll talk about in a bit. That arrow indicates that I’ve got my GPS signal.

What I will say about this is, I turned on cellular as an option, because I wanted to put this thing through the paces. So, this will use the GPS, cellular, and pedometer functions. It lays down really good GPS tracks.

When I compare it to other devices, I’ve never seen any big swings one way or the other in terms of the quality of the track, or losing signal. In fact, it’ll even do some really smart things. If you’re in crowded downtown areas — because Apple Maps has integration here, like the same one that’s on your phone — it can fill in gaps and figure things out.

Now, you can use your digital crown and work your way through your different screens here. Heart rate training, different types of splits, your pace, whatever it is, there are a lot of options here that you can customize to make it look the way that you want. This is one that’s specific to elevation, and it will show like a chart. Then you’ve got your music options also, because this is a smartwatch, and you can just plug your headphones in and take off from there.

What you’ll probably notice through all of this is it’s just base-function-type tracking. Again, heart rate, all that information, will be exactly like you expect it to be. It tracks. It gives you your pace. It does a great job of keeping all that information in. When you’re done, it uploads into Apple Health. You have a couple interaction points here while it’s taking that data. On the one side, let’s continue talking about after I’ve done a workout. That goes into Fitness.

Apple Watch Ultra - workout menu

The workout menu on the Apple Watch Ultra.

The way Fitness works is just like Garmin Connect. It’s just like the Coros app, or the Suunto app, whatever you’re using. This syncs that data here, and then from here, it makes a decision on what to do with it.

Here’s an example of an Outdoor Run activity. I can see my workout time, distance, average pace, heart rate, and it’s broken up into splits. All that data that you would expect to see. Even really interesting things like vertical oscillations, are you off the ground too much or not, what’s your average cadence, ground contact, stride length. There’s a lot of stuff in here to really dig into and get information about what it is that you’re doing.

The other side though, is what about sharing this data? On the social side of things, you can sync all this information to Strava. It really goes through this setting here, which is your device settings. You just connect Apple Health. Once you do that, all of the workouts upload into Strava in the background. You can tell it to do its thing. Because the watch has Wi-Fi and cellular, it’s a very quick process.

There’s a little bit of the app interface. Basically, you’ve got all that rich data, just like you have on all your other apps that are out there, again, like Garmin Connect or the Coros app. For getting that info and then for sharing that externally, it can go to those other applications. I’m using Strava like I think the majority of people are, but there are other platforms, and you just need to see if Apple Health is a sync target.

Apple Watch Ultra Safety and Navigation

Let’s talk about safety. The Apple Watch Ultra is a smartwatch, so it has cellular connectivity. Because of that, it has interesting concepts not in other sport watches on the market.

You know, the Apple commercials you’ve seen where a guy runs into the back of a car and his watch says, “I detect a crash.” Same thing applies here. It has crash and fall detection. Also, with this big speaker on here, it actually has a siren built in and I’ll hit that in 3, 2, 1. [Beeping siren sound] What that does is, if you fall or get hurt, you’ve got this siren, versus constantly screaming, you can set that, turn it on, and it beeps continuously. The siren, and the frequency, and the loudness, and how it cascades and goes up and goes down — that is supposed to be attention grabbing. It’s not as loud as a whistle, but it does constantly go, it takes the “you” out of having to constantly blow into something. You can actually turn that siren on and it does that for you. It’s got cellular, and because of that, if by chance I crashed into a tree — I actually had a coworker do this on his bike. His Apple Watch called for an emergency, and he got pulled out because of that.

The other thing I’ll call out here is the Compass app. If you look at any Apple marketing, you’ll see where you can use the Compass app’s Backtrack feature. I can hit that and basically start laying down a footpath. Or I can go into the all app screen, and find my way to Compass. You can see why that action button is really helpful in there.

Jumping to the screen, and this has a couple of functions that are that are built into it. One is that Backtrack function. As a note, this watch does not lay down a track for you automatically. When you start a run, you are running inside of the Workout app. It’s tracking your pace, it’s tracking your distance, it is laying down a map in the background, but it is not laying down a map that you can, if by chance you take a wrong turn, go back and follow. There are triggers in the Compass app that will look for connection. When’s the last time it was able to talk to cellular, and other things, or talk to your phone over cellular, and then will supposedly lay down a pin. But the most surefire way to make sure you have a Backtrack is literally to come into this app that is Compass. Start that, and lay down this Backtrack.

You can do interesting things inside of this app. It allows for scrolling right in and out. I don’t get a lot of information here necessarily. Think of it more as a, as the crow flies, as the way the data is presented on here. And in fact, I can lay down, you know, various points of interest and such to go back to a spot. If I parked my car, it usually leaves a parked car spot by default. But in case you start at a trailhead that’s farther away, you could lay that down and go back to it.

But it lacks in the details of information. You don’t get much in way of contour. It is mainly just a line. It doesn’t give you intersecting data that you’ve gone through, trails that you’ve passed, or anything like that. It’s very much just laying down a track as you go.

This is one of those things that I think from a safety standpoint, is too complicated. I would have liked to have seen this Compass app and the Backtrack function like an option to turn on automatically inside of a workout. Because if you don’t turn it on in advance, it doesn’t do it.

Or you have to rely on a bunch of other factors. You have to hope that it starts the Backtrack feature for you. That’s one part. The second part is because it is an app, the way that you interface between this, if you are lost on a trail run, and you want to get back to where you started, you’re bouncing in and out of these two. Okay, I’m back here. I see how long I’ve ran. I think it was about a mile back, right, as an example. I go back into the Compass app. As a reference point, if your hands are wet, or sweaty, or you’re wearing gloves, all this becomes harder to navigate through. But it does serve a base functionality for the Backtrack. Again, you just want to make sure that you remember to turn it on.

Apple Watch Ultra - side view

A side view of the Apple Watch Ultra.

Speaking of maps and Backtrack, let’s talk about what I would say is probably the largest glaring hole in this device, as it stands. That is the fact that you do not have maps built in. You do not lay down a track as I mentioned in the Compass part. There’s nowhere in these screens where you’re getting the route that you just did, or are running. That doesn’t appear anywhere where that line is laying down a breadcrumb behind you. Again, unless you use that Compass function that I just talked about.

When you are running a route, let’s use an example here of, let’s say I want to do this outdoor run. Maybe I want to run a route that I’ve done before. There is no function of uploading a GPX file to this. If you get a race route or something along those lines, or buddies going out on a run together, and you guys are all running the same route and put that on your watch. Or you’re going somewhere you don’t know. That is not a base function of the watch.

What it does have is this ability to trace a route that you’ve already run. You can see here, scrolling through, there are a couple of routes that from my house will be a part of this that I’ve done in the past. The trigger is really simple. You’ve had to have done the route multiple times, I believe twice, and then you have to be close to that start spot. Once you do, it presents itself.

This menu only consists of these couple of routes here, when I’m close to the starting point. Then once you’re in it, it only tells you if you’re off course. It doesn’t tell you how to get back on to it. That’s one of the major misses, I think, as it relates to trail running, is there is no functionality out of box for this device to give you that mapping that you want.

Then there’s a big part of my day-to-day training that it records well. You’ve got the Compass app. It’s just all kind of clunky, bouncing in and out of a couple of different places.

Apple Watch Ultra Smartwatch Features

What I didn’t expect with the Apple Watch Ultra was that the smartwatch features would play quite as big a role as they did. I didn’t expect the level of “wow” that I, for lack of a better term, experienced from using this watch daily. I think that’s the real power of this is, you know, what it lacks in those other areas for, it makes up for in the smartwatch side of things. You know, I have everything I need with me. If I want to check into my flight, it’s on my watch. If I want to, find out where my car is parked, this thing remembers where it was. It is a smartwatch, right, and that’s what you’re getting. You’re getting all of this really great — let’s call it consumer, or quality of life — stuff that’s built in, like messaging, and mindfulness. There’s just so much here — Spotify, the news, I can use my email from work. There’s just all these really great things that are here for me to take advantage of, that I can look through really easily, and see all my stuff. I can download those on the fly. I can take and make phone calls through it. I can pay for food.

Again, what this watch lacks in the other part, I was mesmerized, if you will, with the other functions that came in with it that I wasn’t expecting. When you compare that to something like the Garmin equivalent, you realize just how binary these types of devices are as it relates to the smartwatch function. These two are not even in the same ballpark, right? This can accept a call or deny a call. This can give me a notification that someone sent me a text. I can even read that text, but I can’t really reply in a full fidelity way. I’m stuck with a yes or a no, or pre-canned-type of information.

This, to me, was really an unexpected benefit, I think, of what came out of using a smartwatch. That is that I didn’t have to have my phone with me all the time. There was a level of freedom there that was just unexpected. When you pair this with headphones as an example, it’s right there on your wrist. Going out for my run, I can quickly swipe over, grab my music, and connect it to whatever headphones that I might have. Again, anything with Bluetooth connects right up. I can start listening to that, and if someone calls, I get the call.

Like the workflow, or lack thereof, is pretty enticing. I would say even as someone that’s in technology, that didn’t traditionally use this, I was very much impressed with the integration. You’ve got to be in the Apple ecosystem to really take advantage of it. But a lot of people in the United States and beyond are. That’s something to keep in mind.

Apple Watch Ultra - back view

A back view of the Apple Watch Ultra.

Apple Watch Ultra Use with External Apps

The last thing that I want to talk about is filling the gap with the Apple Watch Ultra. What do I mean by that? Well, I mentioned the lack of maps issue, and what a big miss for me. But I found apps online that fill that gap. There are a couple of apps that work really well, and the one I’ll talk about here is WorkOutDoors.

WorkOutDoors is basically a full-blown sport watch application. And you get to choose what it is that you’re doing. But where this fills the gap is in this map. This map area lets you go on your phone, select a location, add that map. It sends over the tiles, and then you are able to add a route from underneath. We can go to settings. I can hit one of my routes. I have one of them on here. The Nasty Junior is the name of my route. I can drop that route on there. Now it’s selected. If I head back here to my map. Alright, we can see this route is on the watch. Now I can literally go here. I can park. It’ll give me turn-by-turn directions, the maps there, all the stuff that was missing before, is here.

There are a couple of different apps that use this, and there’s different ways that you can do this. I’ve talked a whole lot about core functionality. This is the difference here, between [the Garmin fēnix 7 — Sapphire Solar Edition] and [the Apple Watch Ultra.] If [the Garmin] doesn’t have what you want, you’re stuck, right? On the Apple watch, you can change screens. You can do this, you can do that. This thing literally has thousands of apps that you can use to make the device work in a way that fits for you. The WorkOutDoors app is a prime example of how that happens.

What I’ll point out though, is that it is a third-party application. What that means is that you’re reliant on updates from this app. You’re reliant on, you know, it maintaining the same battery standards as the Apple Workout app does, and those types of things. I found that to be the case, but it’s something to think about, because it’s not the native function of the device to do the types of things. At least the mapping in the way that this is, but if you really want lots of screens and different options on your watch, I’d recommend this to check out. I have no financial interest or anything like that.

There’s a couple of other apps that allow for drawing of routes, and those types of things. But this one let me get the screens I wanted. It let me do the mapping that I wanted, and allowed me to get closer, if you will, to the Garmin, which I’ve got very comfortable with, because of having that map data always available. When you’re off the grid, or at least out of cellular range, this, to me, was a game changer in terms of using the device.

Apple Watch Ultra - clockface

The clock face on the Apple Watch Ultra.

Apple Watch Ultra Overall Impressions

In closing, what’s my final impression of the Apple Watch Ultra? If the question is, should you buy this watch versus a high-end Garmin, Coros, Polar, or Suunto — it’s not an easy answer. That’s not generally the answer that people want to hear.

But it really depends on what it is that you need. This device has been really great for Monday through Friday. When I know what I’m doing, when I know what I’m getting into, when I need to be able to potentially take a phone call because my oldest daughter needs to get a hold of me while she’s watching my youngest daughter, or the school has to call me, or something happens. I’m out and about because I’ve got a free afternoon to go for a run. I can still be connected to work. I can download a podcast. I can listen to music. I have access to do what I need to do, and still be connected without having to carry a phone in my back pocket, or put on a waistbelt, to have that storage.

That’s a very freeing feeling that you just don’t get with regular GPS watches. Yes, other watches on the market allow for notifications and light interactions. But I can literally take a phone call on this watch by putting my wrist up to my mouth. I can have earbuds on, and I can send out a text message. That is a feeling of freedom and engagement that, on one hand, is maybe too connected. But on the other hand is like, Wow, I see how this is great.

Where it misses is all the maps. I don’t trust what it has on it for maps, the lack of the ability to put a GPX file on there and follow a route natively, I just don’t have the comfort in that third-party ecosystem. I want that to be a core function of the watch. As of right now, it isn’t.

Again, you can do it. I’m sure folks will say, “You can do that like this.” I’ve used this app, and I did it. I just have apprehension about it, because it feels like it should be there, and it feels like it should be a bigger part of the package.

So, where to go with that? If you’re an Apple user, obviously that’s a step in. If you’ve been using an Apple Watch for training and you think, I could really just use better battery life, or maybe you want something more rugged, also an option. Or if you’re coming from that entry level watch space, and now you’re trying to think, Do I want this Apple Watch that’s a smartwatch, that does all this stuff, that can track my runs? Or do I want this Garmin or Coros that can track all my runs?

It comes down to this. Do you want a sports watch that has some smartwatch functionality, or do you want a smartwatch that has some sport watch functionality?

This is a smartwatch first. You can tell that by the way that you interact with it, by the touch-first design, by bouncing in and out of apps, by the way that the Compass app is disconnected from the run program in the Workout app, and you have to bounce back and forth if you want to use those two independently. If it’s wet or you’re sweaty, use issues may come with that. How often does that happen? Those are questions to keep in mind as you’re thinking about buying this.

Whereas those other watches are built sport first. My location is already there, the map is getting laid down as I run, and I don’t have to worry about sweating. They have touch, but my main interaction is through buttons that I can just navigate up and down. But then I can’t just walk away from the house and not take my phone. I have to be connected. I can’t download music as I’m going.

So that’s your decision point. Because you can get through a really long-distance race using this Apple Watch Ultra. You can even use the old battery trick, where you plug it in while you’re going, and it keeps recording. That all is there to do and have. But how much fuss do you want?

For me, at this point, I’m more of a set it and forget it. I want to start my watch. I want to know that it’s working. I want to be able to look down. I want to be able to see that my map is available to me. I don’t want to have to think about, like, Did I start this? Did I start that? Will my battery last for 24, 30 hours, whatever that number might be. That’s the decision point for me.

But if you’re only doing that once or twice a year, then this is a pretty awesome setup. This is the question: where do you want your functionality to go?

I’ll close with this. This is version one of this watch. Apple is a gigantic company. They have a market cap of close to three trillion dollars. They’ve got lots of research and development, and lots of things that they can do. In a traditional Apple sense, they work their way into things slowly, and then become the standard. Will that happen here? That’s hard to say. But foundationally you can see where this is going, and know that that is a company that has deep enough pockets that if they are so interested in really going all in, they have that ability to do so.

[Editor’s Note: Again, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 releases in September, 2023, and we’ll be testing it just as soon as we can get our hands on it. It appears that the most significant changes to the Apple Watch Ultra 2 are a new chip, new sensors, and a brighter screen. According to Apple, we’ll see the same battery life and lack of native mapping abilities in the second version.]

You can also check our guide to the Best GPS Running Watches to see how we compared the Apple Watch Ultra with other market leaders.

Shop the Apple Watch Ultra

Call for Comments

So, with that said, questions? Comments? Are you using a smartwatch for your training? Do you have these splits that you think about? What’s your device of choice right now and why? Leave those in the comments below. Thanks for watching. We’ll catch you next time.

[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with a brand, please share your relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]

Our Favorite GPS Running Watches

Check out our Best GPS Running Watches article to learn about our current favorite GPS running watches for running!

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Travis Liles

Travis Liles is a gear reviewer at iRunFar. He’s been reviewing trail running and ultrarunning gear (and occasionally penning an article) for over 15 years. He is married to his Junior High sweetheart, has two amazing daughters, and works as a solution architect for a large software company. Originally from the Midwest but now based in Portland, Oregon, Travis is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner. Over the past 18 years, he has competed in many ultra-distance races and has completed 15 100-mile races, including Ozark Trail, Leadville, Big Horn, and HURT 100. He is a recovering RD and enjoys pacing friends, trail work, and volunteering at local events.