By John Gruber
Sky Guide brings the beauty of the stars down to Earth.
If Apple Watch Ultra were the first (and thus only) Apple Watch, people would lose their minds. It’s big and very unsubtle. It makes a statement on the wrist.
But the Ultra is not the first Apple Watch. We’re eight generations in with the Series lineup. If anything, arguably Apple is overdue to offer something like the Ultra: an entirely different expression of what an Apple Watch can be. Ultra is definitely not for everyone. But it is also definitely for a lot of people.
I’ve neither dived nor climbed nor gotten lost nor really done anything a damn bit dangerous or exciting, but I’ve had a lot of fun wearing it for the last week.
Here’s a thing I’ve learned over the years as a somewhat serious watch enthusiast. A lot of people are very self conscious about wearing a large or even large-ish watch. “I’ve got small wrists, I don’t know if I can pull it off” is a sentiment expressed dozens of times per day, every day, on watch forums the world over. But it’s almost never the case that you, the wearer, look bad wearing a too-big watch. It’s that the watch itself looks too big. It’s the watch, not the wearer. But we humans are self-conscious beings, and a first-person perspective of your own wrist is not at all like the perspective of others looking at your wrist.
What I’m saying here is that if you go to a store and try on an Apple Watch Ultra, there is a very good chance your reaction is going to be “This is way too big for me.” If you’re thinking that because you don’t like the way it looks, well, then Ultra is not for you. Your watch should make you happy every time you look at it. But if you’re thinking “this is too big for me” because you’re worried about how others will think it looks on your wrist, you’re overthinking it. If you like it, wear it. People — men and women alike — with even small wrists can get away with surprisingly large watches. Buy the watch that makes you happy. That’s my advice for any watch.
If you’ve got large wrists, on the other hand, you might try on Apple Watch Ultra and react, “Finally.”
With the Series, uh, series of Apple Watch models, we’ve always and only had two sizes. Over the model generations, those sizes have been described by Apple in ever-increasing sizes:
From a subjective perspective though, these watches have been the same sizes: smaller and larger. Side-by-side, a new Series 8 41mm watch looks the same size as an original Series 0 38mm one, and a new Series 8 45mm looks the same size as an original 42mm model. This is most evident in the fact that the straps and bands made for the original Apple Watch still fit the Series 8 models, and vice-versa.
Even though there have been two sizes of Apple Watch cases from the get-go, the WatchOS experience on-screen has been unified. If you wear the smaller Apple Watch, you get the same on-screen experience as on the larger models, just scaled to fit the smaller display.
Apple Watch Ultra feels like a different size class entirely. For the most part, though, you get the same on-screen content from WatchOS as on the regular Series models. You just see more at a time, like when reading a text message or email. There is one watch face unique to Ultra, the Wayfinder face that Apple is using in most promotional and marketing photos. But all the other WatchOS watch faces are more or less the same on Ultra, just scaled bigger.
The Ultra is thus not akin to the iPhone X — a dramatically new design that heralded the future of the entire platform. The rest of the Apple Watch lineup is not going to evolve in an Ultra-like direction in the coming years. But the larger and (for the first time on Apple Watch) perfectly flat display crystal gives it a different feel while using it. It’s unabashedly a computer on your wrist. The Calculator app, for the first time, feels perfectly usable without pecking at the buttons with particular care. The on-screen QWERTY keyboard that Apple added last year to WatchOS 8 is surprisingly usable. Switching between, say a 41mm and 45mm Series 8 feels like the same experience, just scaled differently. Switching between a 45mm Series 8 and the Apple Watch Ultra feels different, not just bigger.
Titanium is a remarkable material. I’ve been wearing the Ultra full-time for just short of a week, and every time I put it on, I expect it to be a lot heavier than it is. There’s no getting around the fact that the Ultra looks big. But it does not feel heavy on the wrist. The case surface has a different finish than the Series 5–7 models that were offered in titanium. On those Series models, the titanium surface had a brushed finish. On the Ultra, it has a sort of textured finish. Micro-pebbled perhaps describes it. It’s definitely not perfectly smooth, let alone polished, but it’s also just as definitely not brushed. However the texture is best described, it very much befits a rugged sports watch. It feels good and in my opinion looks good.
The lip surrounding the display crystal is raised, but not by much. Perhaps by the thickness of an index card.
The orange accent color of the Action button and Digital Crown are a delightfully opinionated touch. (You can get your Action button in whatever color you want, so long as it’s international orange.) The larger Digital Crown with far more pronounced knurling is a delight to twist. Good resistance, great haptic feedback.
The Action button is, functionally, the biggest difference between the Ultra and the Series models. As I wrote last week, an extra button is a big addition to a device that heretofore only had two, and even moreso given that the Action button is the first hardware button on Apple Watch that’s user-configurable at the system level and can be assigned app-specific functions by third-party developers. The Digital Crown and side button are controlled by the system.1 The Action button is controlled by the user, via a new top-level section in Settings. Options for what happens when you press the button:
On the watch itself, you just get to change which of these actions the button performs. To configure them — say, to choose which Workout to start, or which Shortcut to run — you need to use the Watch app on your paired iPhone. Unadventurous me has, thus far, assigned the Action button to the stopwatch, flashlight, and Shortcuts. I’ve found the flashlight and Shortcuts options the most useful (mainly because, if I want quick access to the stopwatch, I’ve always been able to add a stopwatch complication to a watch face). Assigning a shortcut to the button has infinite potential, but it sure seems to take Shortcuts a long time to launch them on WatchOS. The flashlight is surprisingly useful, which speaks to how bright the Ultra’s 2,000-nit-max display can be. (The Series 8 and SE displays have a maximum brightness of 1,000 nits.)
There’s also a toggle (on by default) to press-and-hold the Action button to activate the (surprisingly loud) siren.
One learning-curve issue with the Action button is that at first, you can inadvertently press both the Action and side buttons when you only intend to press one or the other. If you squeeze them at the same time, the Action button wins out. It’s a muscle-memory thing though, and I quickly adapted my grip on the watch when trying to press either button, so as not to press both.
A week wearing an Apple Watch Ultra makes me wish the Series models had an Action button too. Why not? Three total buttons is not a lot of buttons for a digital watch.
Apple continues to excel with original watch strap design and engineering. My review unit kit included two of the three new straps designed specifically for Apple Watch Ultra: the nylon Alpine Loop, in both orange and green, and the “high performance elastomer” (read: very nice rubber) Ocean Band, in yellow.
The Alpine Loop comes in three lengths; Apple sent me both large (orange) and medium (green). The large strap fits me, but the medium fits me better. What you want with a strap like the Alpine Loop is for the G-shaped buckle — which, of course, is made of titanium with the same finish as the Ultra watch case — to fall on the underside of your wrist, opposite the watch. If it’s too long — as the size large is on my wrist — you can still fasten the strap, but you wind up with a double layer of strap almost all the way around your wrist.
The Ocean Band is nice, and is one size fits all. (There’s an optional extra-long bottom piece meant for fitting over a diving wetsuit.) It also sports titanium hardware for the buckle and cleverly adjustable keeper. I find it to be very comfortable, particularly because the rubber has a nice stretch to it. The shade of yellow on the one Apple provided me is a little Big Bird-y to my eyes. I’d like to see the Ocean Band in orange.
Given how much larger the Ultra case is, it’s a very nice touch that it still shares the same-size strap connector slot as the 42/44/45mm Series watches. I’ve tried a few of the bands from my 45mm collection on the Ultra, and I’ve tried the new designed-for-Ultra bands on my Series 7 and the Series 8 review unit Apple sent me. They all fit each other, but to my eyes, “regular” 45mm straps look better on the Ultra than the designed-for-Ultra 49mm straps look on a Series watch. A regular 45mm strap on the Ultra just looks a bit narrow and tapered. It looks like you’re dressing the Ultra up by slimming the strap down. The 49mm straps look too wide on a 45mm watch. There’s no accounting for taste in watch straps, though.
There’s a long tradition in dive watches of metal bracelets. The Rolex Submariner — the most iconic of dive watches — comes exclusively on bracelets that match the material of the case (stainless steel or gold). Apple’s stainless steel Link Bracelets are among the few original Apple Watch bands the company still makes, but they don’t get much attention. I own the space black Link Bracelet — it’s the one that came with my Series 0 watch, and thanks to the DLC coating, it still looks almost as good as new. I kind of dig the way it looks attached to the Ultra — the space black bracelet and untinted titanium case make for a nice contrast. It plays.
I don’t own the silver link bracelet to try it, but I suspect it doesn’t play paired with the Ultra. Brushed stainless steel and titanium are too different to be considered a match, but too similar to have deliberate contrast. I wish Apple were committed enough to the Link Bracelet to make a new one in titanium to match the case of the Ultra. (I also hope that future generations of Apple Watch Ultra are available with a space gray or black coating.)
According to Apple, the Ultra case is 34 percent bigger by volume than the 45mm Series 8, but the battery inside the Ultra is 76 percent bigger. I think this is mostly because titanium’s high strength allows the Ultra case to have more room inside than if it were made from aluminum or steel. Regardless of the reasons, battery life on the Ultra is, as promised, seemingly double that of a Series model. 24 hours after a full charge, it has still had between 45–50 percent remaining. And — see below — I’ve been wearing it to sleep.
The Ultra-exclusive Wayfinder watch face uses distinctive typographic features of the San Francisco font family. Numerals have alternative glyphs (crossed 0, 1 with bottom bars, open-topped 4, and alternative designs for the 6 and 9), and the uppercase I has bars. It’s a neat look that befits the Ultra’s rugged, sporty brand image.
By default, Wayfinder starts with 8 complications — 4 in the display corners, and 4 inside the analog dial. Like the Infograph face, that’s a lot of information, if you want it. Personally, I find the in-dial complications distracting, so I removed all the in-dial complications other than the date. It’s my favorite face for the Ultra, and might be my second-favorite Apple Watch face overall. (Utility remains my favorite for the Series models.)
Wayfinder has a Night Mode feature that isn’t available on any other watch face. Twist the Digital Crown and the dial changes from full color to red-on-black, a retina-friendly color scheme in dark lighting. Night Mode looks cool, and I wish other watch faces (for all Apple Watch models) had this ability.2
I’ve been fortunate so far not to have any experience with crash detection. Glad it’s there, though. (I asked Apple, and if you’re in a car crash while wearing a new Apple Watch and carrying an iPhone 14, if both devices detect the crash, they’ll communicate with each other and place just one emergency call.)
The flagship feature for the thermometer is retroactive ovulation prediction, which is a fantastic feature for women. When HealthKit debuted in 2014, it was controversial that it didn’t include menstruation tracking as a feature. Now we have an entire generation of Apple Watch hardware with temperature sensors whose primary purpose is ovulation prediction.
The temperature sensors do work for everyone, though. But not in the sense of a normal “What’s my body temperature right now?” thermometer. If you wear your Apple Watch Series 8 or Ultra to sleep, and use the explicit Sleep Focus mode, after five nights you should see data appear in the Health app under “Wrist Temperature”. Apple’s documentation explains this in detail, and has a screenshot showing what the data should look like in Health. I do like wearing an Apple Watch to sleep, because I can see it in the dark, and I’m vaguely interested in the basic gist of my sleep patterns. But I do not like or want to explicitly put it into Sleep Mode when I go to bed. For one thing, Sleep Mode turns the entire watch face off; to check the time in the middle of the night, you need to twist the digital crown or tap the display for an extended moment. I just want to blearily glance at the watch. For another thing, I find it fiddly to need to “do something” before I nod off, like putting the watch into a specific mode.3 It would be a significant improvement for future generations of Apple Watch if the wrist thermometer were like the other health sensors and just worked all the time. This initial thermometer is better than nothing, but seems like a stopgap.
I’m tempted to make the following analogy: Apple Watch Ultra is to the Series watch models as the first iPad was to the iPhone. That analogy is an exaggeration, though — the Ultra is bigger, but it’s not that much bigger.
As I wrote at the outset, it’s good that the Ultra isn’t the first and only Apple Watch. It’s too big (and too expensive) for most people’s tastes and needs. But it’s not that big. It’ll look big and chunky on smaller wrists, but I saw several women trying it out in the hands-on area after its introduction, and it totally works as a big and chunky women’s watch. It’s also not that expensive for a titanium watch packing a lot of technology inside — GPS, cellular networking, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, compass, a rich library of third-party apps, and all the various health sensors. But I can’t shake the feeling that if Apple Watch Ultra were the one and only Apple Watch, WatchOS would allow it to do more. In the way that iPad, to this day, has seemed hamstrung by the fact that iOS is designed first and foremost for iPhones, the Ultra seems limited by the fact that WatchOS is designed first and foremost for the Series models.
If WatchOS allowed it, I think one could credibly use Apple Watch Ultra as their only cellular device. It’s not going to happen, but that’s because I can’t imagine ever seeing Apple launch a “Who needs an iPhone?” marketing campaign. But if some other company could make a watch with Ultra’s feature set, cellular capabilities, and battery life, I think they would pitch it as an alternative to carrying a smartphone. You want to cut down on your screen time? Cut down your cell phone to the size of a large watch. The biggest missing feature would be a camera. Very few people have any desire not to carry a modern smartphone with them, of course, but the Ultra seems that capable as a standalone device. The display is that big, the speakers that loud, the battery life that long.
I’ll emphasize again that my analogy to the iPad is exaggerated. But I can’t shake the feeling that I ought to be able to do more with the Ultra. Something about the flat display makes it feel meant to be touched, not just viewed. It almost feels more like having an adorable little iPhone Nano strapped to my wrist than a huge Apple Watch. If WatchOS were more capable and independent, it really could be more of an iPhone Nano.
One arguable exception to this is the side button, which can be configured in Settings to pause a workout in the Workout app — e.g. if you want to pause a running workout while waiting at a traffic light. But while that’s a setting in the user’s control, I’d still argue the side button is wholly a system button. Only Workouts — a first-party app from Apple — has the ability to offer this setting. ↩︎
I was chatting with Austin Mann after the keynote event two weeks ago, and he suggested that the Ultra’s red-on-black night mode would be a useful feature for the Camera app on iPhone. That seems like such a clever idea that I couldn’t bring myself to steal it without giving him credit. ↩︎︎
If you just wear an Apple Watch to bed without putting it in Sleep Focus mode, the watch will still collect sleep-related data. I’ve been using David Smith’s excellent Sleep++ app to collect and view this data for years. Sleep++ is even more useful if you do use the explicit Sleep Focus mode. ↩︎︎
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