The new features and hardware improvements on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 aren’t huge upgrades, but it’s a better watch and undoubtedly the best fitness smartwatch available.
- Attractive design and improved screen
- Accurate GPS tracking
- Best app store available
- Not a huge upgrade on original
- Bulkier than Series 9
- Two-day battery life
- Only works with an iPhone
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The Apple Watch Ultra launched in 2022, so it was always likely that the 2023 updates to the Apple Watch Ultra 2 would be minimal. Apple has continued to improve the watch’s software and made useful upgrades to the hardware, including a brighter screen and the new double-tap feature.
While the updates don’t much change the day-to-day experience of using the watch, they help to establish the Apple Watch Ultra 2 as the best fitness smartwatch.
Apple Watch Ultra 2: Price And Availability
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 launched in September 2023 and costs $799 in the US and £799 in the UK. That’s a £50 price drop in the UK compared with the original Ultra, while the new watch is the same price as the old one in the US. The Apple Watch Series 9 is cheaper, costing from $399/£399.
How I Tested This Watch
I’ve been using the Apple Watch Ultra 2 for three weeks, tracking all my workouts, general activity and sleep. My main sport is running and I’ve been testing the GPS and HR accuracy extensively. I have also tested every generation of the Apple Watch and used the Apple Watch Ultra for long periods last year, including training for and running two marathons with it.
Design And Hardware
The only visible hardware upgrade on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a noticeable one: The brightness of the screen is now 3,000 nits, a 1,000-nit increase on the 2,000 of the original display. The screen brightness also drops to 1 nit instead of 2, which saves on battery life.
That saving is spent on powering the watch’s new, faster Apple Silicon S9 processor, which also has a speedier graphics processing unit and a 4-core neural engine, which is faster at doing what it does than the one in the original Ultra. This extra speed wasn’t noticeable in my initial testing, but will come into play over the lifespan of the watch.
The 49mm watch case is still made from titanium, but this is now 95% recycled titanium, whereas the original watch didn’t use recycled titanium. The case surrounds the sapphire crystal touchscreen to help protect it from impacts. The watch is waterproof to depths of 100m, and has features for diving, which now includes support for freediving.
Another upgrade is the Ultra Wideband Chip, which makes the Find My iPhone feature more precise and allows you to control playback on an Apple HomePod when you are near it. As always, it’s worth noting you need an iPhone to use any Apple Watch; it doesn’t play nice with Android.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 has the same three buttons as the Ultra, including the digital crown. The orange Action button can be used as a lap button, something still not available on the Apple Watch Series 9.
Perhaps the most interesting new feature is the double-tap gesture control. To use this you turn the watch to face you so the screen wakes, then tap your index finger and thumb together twice. On the main watch face this brings up the Smart Stack of apps, and within other apps double tap will do things like play/pause music, turn off timers and snooze alarms, answer/end calls, or enable reply to messages through dictation.
The feature was brought to the watch in October via a software update and works well, for me it was of limited use. During the week or so I had it available I found it useful only a couple of times, when turning off a timer while cooking and bringing up the weather forecast in my Smart Stack while pushing a buggy.
I’d love to see double tap used in the workout app to pause a workout or even take a lap during a run. Unfortunately, since the feature uses the accelerometer, gyroscope and optical heart sensors on the watch to recognise your taps, this is unlikely because those sensors are already in use during workouts.
As with the Apple Watch Ultra, the Ultra 2 has multi-band GPS tracking for increased accuracy during outdoor activities, an important upgrade on the Apple Watch Series 9. It has three microphones and two speakers, and includes a new Modular Ultra watch face that can show your depth or elevation around the bezel. Or just seconds, if you’re a land lubber living near sea-level like me.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is listed as lasting 36 hours on a charge and, as with its predecessor, it reliably lasted me two days of use. It’s nowhere close to the battery life of a sports watch, but it’s double what you get from the Apple Watch Series 9. Even if you do a long run on both days the watch will last through to the evening of the second day, and it charges quickly.
Apple lists the GPS battery life as 12 hours with normal use, but you can extend this to 17 hours in a low-power mode, which still has full heart rate and GPS tracking but turns off other features like the always-on display. There’s a less accurate low-power mode in which the watch lasts 35 hours during activities, with fewer heart rate and GPS readings.
Apple has been steadily improving the native sports tracking on its watches through software updates in recent years. The native app now delivers a good experience, with customisable data fields and specialist stats for running and cycling, like power, and you can pair two external sensors at once, including heart rate monitors and cycling power meters.
You can also create structured workouts to follow on the watch and, as of the watchOS 10 update, use third-party apps like TrainingPeaks to import workouts into the native Workout app. Even keen sportspeople will find all they need in the native app these days, but you can still improve the sports tracking experience on the watch using the App Store.
One of my favorite apps to use for running is WorkOutDoors, which basically turns the Apple Watch into a full sports watch owing to the range of customization available, and it even has maps so you can follow routes within your workout. Another good app for navigation is Footpath, which provides turn-by-turn directions for routes while recording your workout.
GPS And HR Accuracy
The multi-band GPS on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 delivers accurate tracking for outdoor runs and bike rides. When comparing the watch with the Garmin Epix Pro in multi-band mode the tracks from both watches lined up closely throughout all my runs, with just a little more wobble in the Apple Watch Ultra 2’s track and the occasional cut corner.
With the Apple Watch, GPS is just a part of the story with distance tracking. Apple also uses the pedometer to estimate distance in an attempt to provide more accurate results when GPS struggles. The pedometer is calibrated when you run outdoors in clear spaces, but I found that when I was running, it read shorter than when using just GPS on the watch (with the WorkOutDoors app you can choose whether to use GPS or the Apple-calibrated reading for your distance). It’s undoubtedly an accurate tracker, just bear in mind you may need to calibrate the pedometer with a few runs in open conditions.
During my testing, I compared the Ultra 2’s heart rate readings with those of the Polar H10 chest strap during workouts. It mostly matched up well. There were many occasions where the reading would drop out for sections of a run, though, and sometimes the reading was wrong. If using the watch long-term and planning to judge workouts by heart rate, I think it would be worth pairing an external heart rate monitor for improved accuracy.
Health, Activity And Sleep Tracking
Last year Apple introduced skin temperature tracking to its watches, which measures your wrist temperature at night and plots it against a baseline in the Health app. This added to the other health measurements you can take with the watch, including ECGs and blood oxygen saturation.
The activity tracking on the watch remains as engaging as ever, with Apple’s three rings representing active calories burned, active minutes and hours active. These have remained largely unchanged from the original Apple Watch, but are still a great way to help you keep moving throughout the day. You can also see floors climbed in the Activity app, which is tracked using the barometric altimeter on the watch.
The Ultra 2 doesn’t go into great depth with its sleep tracking, just showing your sleep stages in the morning and logging total time asleep. I have a five-month-old baby and am frequently up at night, and during testing, the Ultra 2 did a better job of spotting these awake periods than the Garmin Vivoactive 5 and Epix Pro watches, which logged them as light sleep.
You get greater depth of sleep tracking from devices made by Fitbit, Polar and Huawei in particular, but if you want a quick look at your night’s sleep, the Ultra 2 provides it. You may have to charge it at night occasionally though, since it’s not always easy to find time to charge it in the day.
Smart Features And Navigation
The Apple Watch has the best app store and the most useful smart features of any watch I’ve tested. Apple Pay is easy to use and works everywhere, plus you can store travel tickets and supermarket loyalty cards on the watch, and you can get music and podcasts onto it easily from a range of sources.
Siri has got smarter with the new watch because the faster processing allows Siri to deal with queries directly on the watch in many cases, rather than having to involve your phone. You can now ask Siri health-related queries, such as “how did I sleep?”, and get answers from the watch without needing your phone nearby.
The navigation features have also been improved with watchOS 10. Topographical maps are now on the watch, though these require your phone to be nearby and are only for certain regions in the US for now.
You can create waypoints and use the BackTrack feature to trace a route you can follow back to your start point in the Compass app. However, these features and the maps can’t be used within the Workout app, which limits their usefulness. You can get maps within third-party workout apps like WorkOutDoors and Footpath, though overall the navigation features on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 still need work to rival what you get from a brand like Garmin.
Is The Apple Watch Ultra 2 Worth It?
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the best sporty smartwatch you can buy and a small but useful upgrade over the Apple Watch Ultra, though if you find the original watch available at a major discount that would be the smart way to spend your money.
Whether it’s worth the extra outlay over the Apple Watch Series 9 depends on your use. If you’re particularly sporty, you’ll feel the benefit of the Ultra 2’s extra battery life, more accurate GPS and lap button daily. The Series 9 is smaller and lighter, though, and still a great activity tracker and sports watch.
The main competition from sports watches comes from Garmin, which has the Forerunner 965 and Epix 2 watches, which have vibrant AMOLED displays and the best sports tracking, training analysis and navigation features you can get. They also provide longer battery life than the Apple Watch Ultra. The Garmin Forerunner 965 is a great-looking watch too, and significantly cheaper than the Apple Watch Ultra 2 at $599.99/£599.99.
Garmin’s top sports watches have useful smart features like music and NFC payments too, though they don’t have anything like the range of apps available for the Apple Watch, or LTE connectivity. If you want a great smartwatch that’s a good sports watch, get the Apple Watch Ultra 2; if you want a great sports watch with some smarts, get the Garmin Forerunner 965—or the Garmin Epix Pro if you want a more rugged, metal watch.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.