The Apple Watch Ultra Is More Smartwatch Than You Need: First Look

For once, there's an Apple Watch that doesn't feel designed for my wrist. Not because the Apple Watch Ultra is considerably larger than any previous Apple Watch — though with its bigger, ultra-bright screen and bulkier casing it is — but because the target audience here just doesn't line up with my lifestyle. In fact, I get the feeling the Apple Watch Ultra would quite like to encourage me to get out more.

That wouldn't be unusual for Apple Watch, mind. After all, the current model — and the new Apple Watch Series 8 — already tells me to stand up more, to walk more, to exercise more. It suggests when I should turn the volume down, and when I should sit and be mindful for a while.

It can, if I'm being blunt, get a little overwhelming. Like the Apple Watch is as much a nanny as a way to keep track of my messages and calendar; I've turned off the more annoying alerts and reminders, but the smartwatch can still be needy throughout the day. Apple Watch Ultra, though, sheds that gentle handholding in favor of a constant nudging to get outside and do something more exciting.

Only bigger wrists should apply

It's definitely much bigger than a standard Apple Watch, in all directions. At 49 mm, it's the largest of the series we've seen so far, though I think the screen actually looks even bigger as it doesn't wrap around the bezels of the watch like is the case with the others. Apple says that flat cover glass is an intentional nod to practicality and resilience, being less likely to smash with an inadvertent swipe.

The way the titanium case rises up around the edges of that glass helps there, too, and the result is something that feels thick and significant. You can forget you're wearing an Apple Watch until it pulses with an announcement. I suspect you'd find it a lot harder to forget the Apple Watch Ultra is strapped to your wrist.

That said, it's not heavy as you might think. In fact, it's surprisingly lightweight, a side-effect of the titanium which Apple has used with good results before on its more expensive models of smartwatch. Here, on the $799 Apple Watch Ultra, it's the default case material.

More buttons, bigger straps

On the side, the bigger, more knobbly Digital Crown is easier to strum with your fingertip. The side button is bigger and easier to press, too, but it's the new Action button on the opposite side — finished in charmingly-named "International Orange" and a welcome splash of color as a result — which is likely to find your fingertip most often. It's a programable shortcut: if you run, you could use it to demarcate laps, for example.

Apple's new straps for the Apple Watch Ultra are a little more fiddly to put on than the existing straps, for the most part. That is, of course, by design too. The last thing you want is your eight-hundred-dollar smartwatch falling off while you're coasting past a reef or halfway up a mountainside. You can use existing Apple Watch bands too, though I suspect they'll look a little weedy given the scale of the case itself. Still, this needn't be the accessories dealbreaker some of the early rumors suggested it might be.

More precision, more battery

The display is larger, and brighter — at 2,000 nits, now — even under the bold lighting of Apple's demo area today. However it's the other extreme that I'm most interested in: twirling the Digital Crown dims the screen into its red, low-light mode. That promises to be easier on the eyes when it's nighttime or you're in a dark area.

Some of the features, Apple wasn't keen on me trying. The Apple Watch Ultra's 86-decibel siren, for example, is one of those things you hope you won't need; I wasn't allowed to roam far enough with it on my wrist to test out the automatic waypoints, which leave a digital breadcrumb trail of where you've been to make it to more easily backtrack. That taps the new, more precise GPS as well, which combines L1 and new L5 frequencies.

That'll be a welcome improvement to anyone who has struggled with directions in urban environments, where tall buildings can limit just how precise the current Apple Watch can be. The same could be said for the battery: Apple says 36 hours of regular use is possible, or a hefty 60 hours in the extended power mode. Usually, I have to charge my Apple Watch Series 7 every night, so the thought of being able to roam further from the charger is definitely appealing.

A bolder choice

Frankly, I thought it was going to look ridiculous on my wrist, which is just regular in scale. The final result, though, was definitely a bolder choice, but not an exceptionally outlandish one (unless you're of the opinion that big watches look silly generally). Those with smaller wrists, such as people who might ordinarily wear the more compact of Apple's regular Apple Watch line-up, may find this just too much for their arm, however.

Of course, you may not live the Ultra lifestyle, and you might be wondering whether the Apple Watch Ultra is right for you. If I'm being honest with myself, most of the improvements here just aren't relevant to me. I don't do extreme sports, don't climb tall mountains, don't go on wickedly deep scuba dives, and I'm hardly a marathon runner or triathlete.

So, the truth is that this particular smartwatch is far in excess of anything I need, but that isn't stopping me from wanting it. I think that's partly down to the fact that it just looks different, a clear evolution from the Apple Watch which has been a familiar resident on my arm for years now. If the Apple Watch Series 8 is the equivalent of a dress watch, then the Apple Watch Ultra is more like an outsized Breitling or Speedmaster.

Who is Apple Watch Ultra really for?

I suspect I'm not going to be alone in liking the idea of a different aesthetic smartwatch for different situations — even if they're not outdoor sports addicts either. And there's definitely something reassuring about a toughened Apple Watch, for anybody who has accidentally smacked their wrist against a table edge and winced at the thought of the cover glass crack that could result.

Is that worth $799? It's expensive, compared to the new Series 8, but then again it's not like Apple Watch hasn't been expensive before. Who can forget the original solid gold versions of the first Apple Watch and their five-figure price tags? With cellular built in as standard, I suspect Apple will have no problems finding new wrists and existing ones that are onboard.

All the same, what stands out most here is that this doesn't feel like another Apple product intended for the mass market. I'm an early adopter, usually on the target list for most of Apple's new products, but the Apple Watch Ultra would definitely be overkill for me. The big question is, just how many other Apple Watch wearers will feel the same way?