Apple Watch Ultra 2 Review: Reaching for the top

Two iterations later, the Apple Watch Ultra is finding its footing

The Pros

  • Great battery life
  • WatchOS 10 is incredible
  • Double tap is handy

The Cons

  • Fast charging is not fast at all
  • Very expensive
  • Maps are always dark mode

Are you the type to run for over 15 hours but under 36? Do you do a lot of diving around 40 meters in depth? How about multi-day hiking or mountain climbing trips? If you answered yes to even one of these questions, the answer is easy: get an Apple Watch Ultra 2.

If you answered no, don’t worry; you’re like the rest of us, but the Ultra still adds a ton to the Apple Watch experience. It has a bigger screen, better battery life and a more eye-catching design. It’s the best way to live out Apple’s dream of the smartwatch, even if it’s going to cost you.

I’ve been a casual Apple Watch user for many years, but last year’s Apple Watch Ultra finally stuck with me, and this year’s Ultra 2 resonated with me even more thanks to the addition of a cutting-edge processor and the ‘double tap’ gesture. The new feature may be a bit limited at launch, but it always seems to come in handy right when I need it, and I think it’s laying the groundwork for something more.

Double tapping my way into the future

The watch’s perfect use case presented itself a few weeks ago. I opened a joint bank account with my partner, but the first time we tried to use the debit card, it declined because we hadn’t verified it. On the way home, with my arms full of groceries, I got a call from the bank to confirm we tried to use the card, and being able to double tap to answer was incredibly convenient. Not to mention, taking the call from and using the watch’s speakers/microphone while walking home felt extremely cool — and a lot less awkward than trying to tap the accept call button with my nose.

That being said, I don’t get that many calls when both my arms are full, so the most common situation I use double tap is to accept automatic workouts while biking. It’s convenient since interacting with the fitness tracker with two hands is nearly impossible when riding, and it’s nice to easily log exercise points towards my rings when biking for fun or transportation.

It’s also great to be able to double tap to check how much time is left on my cooking timer. This is really useful since I’m often flying through my kitchen, holding a plate or stirring something with my other hand. With watchOS 10, the timer widget automatically inserts itself at the top of the new Smart Stack, making it effortless to reveal over any watch face by double tapping.

There are other helpful ways to take advantage of double tap, but I didn’t use them as much. Whenever there are play/pause controls on-screen, you can control whatever is playing on your watch, which is handy. But since it also works through Apple’s ‘Now Playing’ API, you can also control playback on your iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. There was something super futuristic about my watch proactively opening the Now Playing interface when I was watching Legally Blonde the other day, making it easy to pause so I could run to the back to the kitchen for more napkins.

Just imagine this, but on a bike.

You can also use the feature to activate the primary interaction for each notification. This is going to need some refinement, however. Generally, the primary action for messaging apps is to ‘reply,’ which may work for some, but I use my watch to look at my chats way more than to respond to them.

An example of this is my email app, Spark. The default notification action is a quick reply that automatically takes you to the dictation screen so you can respond right away. I’d rather ‘dismiss’ or ‘mark as read’ since that’s usually the type of action I’d take from my watch.

In the Gesture settings menu, you can change the selection for what the action does when playing music or interacting with the Smart Stack, but nothing else. In the future, I’d love to see more options or a way for each app’s Apple Watch Notifications to allow users to choose the primary action.

I’ll also mention that getting used to double tap has been a bit of a mental hurdle. It took a lot of timers being set on my watch for me even to get used to them appearing on the (also new) Smart Stack. Once I did, it felt natural, but all of this was a lot to get familiar with, and it took a few honest tries before I could remember what apps use the action. I think it was a good idea for Apple to start minimally, and I’m excited to see where it goes next year.

Hopefully, more gestures will be added to the mix, but it might be better to keep only this one next year. Instead of adding onto it, refine it, let people get used to the new gestures as more capable watches hit the masses, and then roll out more varied actions. On top of this, Apple is really going to need to make a big deal of it every year, or I worry many Apple Watch owners might forget it exists. It’s a sly feature, and people don’t update their watches nearly as often as phones.

Built better

It’s really hard not to love last year’s Wayfinder face still.

The Ultra 2 is still packed with the best Apple Watch tech around, and it’s essentially the same as last year’s model except for two key differences: the new S9 SiP and a brighter screen.

The S9 SiP is the first new Apple Watch processor in three years, so if you want to take advantage of the latest in watchOS over the next three years, this chip is bound to be more future-proof than most. Right now, it unlocks double tap and on-device Siri, which makes interacting with the digital assistant quicker for basic questions. This includes setting timers, logging health data and starting workouts. Other tasks like controlling your smart lights or asking about the weather still require an internet connection.

Leaving my phone inside and starting a running workout with Siri is incredibly convenient. I also appreciate not relying on the internet to have Siri on my wrist. It feels more personal to have it always attached to me, and being able to trigger the voice-activated assistant quickly and accurately has been rewarding on the new Ultra.

I’m in love with orange bands. This one is only $35 on Amazon.

The extremely luminous 3,000 nit display is also an Ultra 2 exclusive feature. On paper, it’s a considerable jump over the 2,000 nit display of its predecessor and the Apple Watch Series 9. But unless you often use the watch’s Flashlight mode, it’s not that noticeable. In peak sunlight, it ever so slightly makes things like maps more visible, but I feel like the 2,000 nit display on other Apple Watches is still more than enough. That said, as an avid Apple Watch flashlight user, the new screen has made navigating my home in the middle of the night much easier. I even used the flashlight at max to check on some pork chops on the BBQ one night, and it was bright enough to be useful.

I’ve set the Action Button on the Ultra to trigger the flashlight on my watch since I use it so much. I was really hoping for more options to come to the Apple Watch Ultra Action Button with watchOS 10, but so far, it works the same as the first Ultraworks the same as the first Ultra.

Shoutout to my partner Alex for taking all the photos with me as a subject.

The new Ultra and Series 9 units also have 64GB of storage by default. Double the 32GB on the Ultra 1 and other older Apple Watches. If you want a ton of music on your watch to make it a tiny iPod, you finally can. That said, I’ve always found things download quite slowly on Apple Watches, so make sure you think ahead when downloading since it takes longer than it does on an iPhone. In my tests, sometimes the watch would download the same 25 tracks as my phone, only 20 seconds longer, but in others, it would be a few minutes longer. It doesn’t sound like much, but can be annoying when you’re just trying to download a quick playlist before you leave your house.

On a regular day, I do a little over one hour of workout tracking and then use the watch for Siri, to get notifications and track my sleep. I easily get two full days of use out of it. When pushing it with extra workout tracking, it drains faster, but it’s pretty much impossible to deplete it in a single day.

I’ve bought a lot of straps over the years. Usually, Apple’s are a bit softer or have better lugs, but you shouldn’t be afraid of third-party options.

Overall, it features the same fantastic 2-day battery life as its predecessor, but thanks to its new chip, it lasts 72 hours, 12 hours more than the Ultra 1, when you switch it to Low Power mode. As someone who spends a lot of time camping in the summer, this is a welcome upgrade. There are also a few new low-power workout modes for reduced GPS and heart rate monitoring to get users a full 36 hours of workout tracking. It might not be the days-long battery of a Garmin, but it does make it viable for more extreme sports events and ultramarathons.

This longer battery life also helps you use the watch for sleep tracking without having to worry about getting it on the charger the next morning. At first, I was apprehensive that the larger size would be uncomfortable to sleep with, but with a soft band, it’s easy to get used to. And, I’ve learned that I’m sleeping slightly less than I should (around 5-6 hours), and now I’m working to add another hour to my sleep to get closer to my seven-hour goal.

If you look closely, you’ll see I’m using the new Snoopy watch face from watchOS 10. These animations were done by WildBrain in Canada.

You can also “fast charge” the device, but that really means it will charge from 0-100 in around an hour and a half. But since the Ultra line of watches fast charges at 5 watts instead of 2.5 watts like the Apple Watch Series 7 and newer. You need to use the included charger to get those speeds. If you use an older charger or one built into a docking station, you’re likely charging at 2.5 watts, which will take upwards of three hours to recharge the Ultra 2.

This can be frustrating when docks say they support ‘Apple Watch fast charging,’ but they only fast charge the smaller watches. In the future, it would be nice for the charging interface to denote when fast charging or not to let people know if they’re using a compatible charger to help this be more obvious. Or you could be like me, buy two docks, have neither of them work as a fast charger and then resort back to using the in-box charger anyway.

Strong design appeal

There’s something to be said about the river-stone-inspired look of the original Apple Watch, but since it hasn’t outwardly changed in nine years, people appreciate the bolder design elements on the Ultra line. Living with the 1st-Gen Apple Watch Ultra since July 2023, I’ve received more compliments on its style than any of my other Apple Watches. People are definitely interested in the more assertive look and larger screen.

To my eye, there’s a lot more grit in the design of the Ultra’s enlarged chassis. The earth tone in the titanium combined with the oversized button/digital crown gives it a technical aura. The soft chamfered edges that trim the screen and bulbous body still help it maintain the friendly feeling of the standard watches, and all of this adds to a premium aesthetic. Even the two exclusive Ultra Watch faces, ‘Modular Ultra’ and ‘Wayfinder,’ bring this feeling into the software, giving the whole package a focused, specialized feeling.

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Where the watch unfortunately fails is at formal events. You can make it work, but you likely want a leather or metal strap to take it up a notch. However, even that can’t block the orange buttons and accents. Something more subtle, like black or full natural titanium would have been less adventurous. Don’t get me wrong, day-to-day, I think the orange is super cool and gives the watch a futuristic NASA aesthetic, but it just doesn’t work as well with a suit or dress.

It’s lighter than it looks and doesn’t feel as large on my wrist as I expected. To further reinforce this, my partner Alex switched from her 41mm Apple Watch Series 7 to the 1st-Gen Ultra, and she’s in love with the larger watch for its better battery and big screen. That said, if you have a small wrist, we found the Apple Sport Loop or Trail Loop bands were the best options for slimming it down.

Out of all the apps to get revamped in watchOS 10, the Now Playing screen is my favourite.

While my favourite is still the Starlight Aluminium Apple Watches, if you’re going for style, you’re likely looking at a Stainless Steel variant. These start at an outrageously pricey $899-$969, depending on the size. Compared to that price, the $1,099 Ultra looks less out of place. Or even a good deal, considering it’s got a larger screen and double the battery life of the Series 9.

For comparison, the 45mm Aluminum Apple Watch Series 9 starts at $589, which is still the best Apple Watch deal for most people. However, if you want to step it up, the Ultra is a few levels nicer. That said, I have a feeling that the Apple Watch will get a redesign for the 10th anniversary in 2024, and that could help the mainline watches stand out again.

Fitness tracking at the forefront

I’ve been enjoying how well AirPods work with the Apple Watch neatly as well. Read my full thoughts on the USB-C AirPods Pro here.

I’ve been using the Apple Watch Ultra 2 for a month and just did my first 5km run in about ten years. The watch may excel when pushed to its limits, but day-to-day, it’s still an above-average fitness tracker. And I’ve found it to be a great motivator.

Throughout this review month, I ran 50km, biked for 70km and did around five hours of yoga and strength training on Apple Fitness+. These are goals that I’ve been wanting to accomplish for years, but having to justify the extra-expensive fitness tracker on my wrist definitely helped me push through more than one demotivational wall.

I’ll also mention that even small things like the awards for doing my first 5km put a smile on my face, and a few days later, when I ran faster and got an award for my fastest 5km, it lit a competitive streak in me that makes me want to push myself to beat my high score every time step outside.

The amount of data you get from a running workout is fantastic, with the ability to set pretty much any metric on your watch face when exercising. While running, I’m happy that my music controls are built into the Apple Workouts app and that Siri reads my split time every KM. I do wish double tap would be more useful since, right now, it does nothing until you swipe over to the Now Playing controls. Then it will play/pause your music, but since I’ve already had to swipe over, it’s a bit redundant.

After the run, the Fitness app is great at tracking my routes, showing my power zones, where I slowed down and tons of other running-specific metrics like ground contact and stride length. These are amazing, and you can easily import your data to work with other popular running apps like Strava. If you live in a city and really care about tracking your routes, the dual GPS on the Ultra 2 will be ever so slightly more accurate than traditional Apple Watches. I don’t think it’s enough to warrant the upgrade for most people, but it is good to know if you suffer from GPS glitches.

On the biking side of things, my favourite part of the new Apple Watch Ultra is that when I’m biking somewhere for fun, I can accept the watch’s automatic workout notification with double tap super seamlessly. Beyond that, the new watchOS and iOS updates, allow you to lock your iPhone to your handlebars and see your biking workout metrics on the screen like a traditional bike computer. It works well and offers an easier way to see your power, speed, time, or other metrics. You can even use modern Bluetooth power meters to get the most data from your bicycle. However, having some way to incorporate Apple Maps into this would go the extra mile towards making it the ultimate bike computer.

Since 2022, Apple has been rounding out one workout per year. Running got a ton of updates originally, and biking got the extended focus this year. It will be interesting to see what gets that spotlight next year. I’d love to see GPS route tracking, pace, and distance come to the paddling workout for canoeing, but I’d expect another workout inside Apple Fitness+, such as yoga or strength training will get boosted instead.

As someone who wants to be in shape, but doesn’t like going to the gym, I’m a big fan of the Fitness+ subscription program, so I’m not entirely against this. I get to learn how to do workouts and stretches properly without getting a real trainer, and the freedom it gives me to try lots of different activities is always fun. From the Time to Run/Walk programs to in-home yoga workouts, it’s all done with a high level of production and class that makes the $12.99/month (or $99 per year) subscription feel worth it.

Should I get an Ultra 2?

The first question you need to ask yourself when you're looking into buying the Watch Ultra 2 is, will it be worth it for me? At $1,099, it’s not nearly as easy to swallow compared to the Series 9’s $589 starting cost. If you’re a diver, marathon runner or extreme hiker, it’s easy to justify the Ultra’s high price tag. That said, if you’re a nerd like me, there’s still lots to love with it if you want to upgrade from the traditional Apple Watch line.

When I wear the Ultra, I feel like I should be living a more active lifestyle. I would feel strange wearing a Garmin running watch if I didn’t run, and having a specialized Apple Watch felt the same in some regards. After a while, I got over this and started to see it as just a more stylish Apple Watch rather than a sporty Apple Watch. That mental hurdle was there at the start, but I’m glad I got over it, and I think anyone else worried about wearing the Ultra and not being an adventurer should be reassured that it fits into everyday life perfectly.

At the end of it all, the features I love about the Apple Watch Ultra 2, also exist on the Series 9, except for the extra battery life. And as much as I love it, I have a hard time justifying the price tag just for that. If you also love the design, I think that helps a lot more since spending money on fashion is more easily justifiable. Still, this larger look isn’t for everyone and is especially tough on smaller wrists.

Overall, I’m a big fan of the Ultra, and as a nerd, its top-of-the-line specs satisfy my need for cool tech, while its unique design gets me excited to try out more bands and accessorize it. That said, as someone with a budget, I would have to be in a perfect mood to consider spending an extra $500 just so I could wait longer between charges and have a cooler-looking watch.

"Overall, I’m a big fan of the Ultra, and as a nerd, its top-of-the-line specs satisfy my need for cool tech, while its unique design gets me excited to try out more bands and accessorize it."