Whether something is worth it or not will always depend on your point of view. In this case, if you aren’t an Apple fan, you might not think any Apple product is worth it. That being said, if you are an Apple fan, then it is worth considering what the Apple Watch Ultra offers at its $799 price point. There are some distinct differences between it and the regular Apple Watch Series 8 — priced at $499 for a roughly equivalent GPS + Cellular 45mm model. Both models are powered by Apple’s S8 system-in-package (SiP), and offer similar basic features like a bright OLED display and health tracking. However, the Watch Ultra is targeting a different market, currently dominated by Garmin, that is designed for more serious athletes with a different set of expectations around ruggedness, durability, and battery life. So what are you getting exactly if you choose to pay a $300 premium for the Watch Ultra?
Build and design
The Apple Watch Ultra sets itself apart from the Series 8 with Apple’s first fundamentally different Watch design since launching in 2015. Sure, Apple has tweaked its Watch design over the years, but the new Ultra design has been focused around refinements to the original design, including increasing the display and body size (for the larger models). The Watch Ultra introduces an all-new look that is a more dramatic evolution of the original Apple Watch design.
Although the Apple Watch Series 7 was available in a titanium edition, Apple has now limited titanium construction to its Watch Ultra. With a larger 49mm case, the Ultra benefits from the combination of extra strength and reduced weight over a steel Watch Series 8 model. In keeping with its theme of ruggedness and durability, the Ultra case also rises up and around the display, giving it extra protection from the sides. The Digital Crown is larger, making it easier to use with gloves on. The Crown also gets some protection with an extrusion emerging from the right side of the case, which also helps keep the side button raised for easier access as well.
As with the steel Series 8 models, the Watch Ultra also features strong sapphire crystal protection (via Apple). Both models also feature an always-on display mode, but that is where the similarities begin and end. The Watch Ultra offers a 7% larger display with 410×502 pixels versus the Watch Series 8, which has a smaller 396×484 display. Where the Series 8 maxes out at up to 1,000 nits of brightness, the Watch Ultra ramps this up to 2,000 nits, making it readable in direct sunlight. At the other end of the light spectrum, the Watch Ultra also offers a new Night Mode linked with the new Wayfinder face for low-visibility situations — including at night (obviously), but also in heavy snow, for example. The larger display also makes it easier to read and interact with the UI elements on a more general level, which even non-outdoors types will appreciate as well.
Not only does the Apple Watch Ultra up the ante on the display front, it also brings notably longer battery life than the regular Watch Series 8. The reason for this boils down strictly to the size of their respective batteries, as both run the same silicon. The slimmer Series 8 is fitted with a 308 mAh battery, while the thicker Watch Ultra packs in a 542 mAh battery (via GSM Arena). Apple claims the Series 8 can achieve up to 18 hours on a charge, which can be extended up to 36 hours in low-power mode. This contrasts with the Watch Ultra, which can reach up to 36 hours in its regular mode, and can be extended up to a whopping 60 hours in a pending low-power mode update as well. This is the kind of battery life that Apple fans have been hoping for in a Watch for some time.
System in package (SiP)
The custom Apple S8 SiP, as previously mentioned, is common across both the Watch Series 8 and the Watch Ultra. As you might have noticed, the SiP nomenclature aligns with the series number of the Watch — you’d be forgiven for thinking this meant that it is the latest generation of Apple Watch processor. It is in fact exactly the same processor that debuted in the Series 6, was rebadged as the S7 for Series 7, and now rebadged again as the S8 for the Series 8 and the new Watch Ultra (via MacRumors).
Interestingly, choosing to reuse the A15 SoC for the iPhone 14 has proven to be more controversial than Apple pretending it has updated the processor for its recent Watches. On the whole, the S8 (or is that the S6?) performs very well. However, there is a level of lag when launching apps that few would tolerate on the iPhone line that, for some reason, seems acceptable on its Watches given the apparent lack of complaints. Suffice to say, it would have been nice for Apple to introduce a truly new SiP for the Watch Ultra. That would certainly help in the case for the Apple Watch Ultra being worth the extra dollars. As it is, it does leave a small question mark over its value proposition.
Sports and extreme sports
Ostensibly, the Apple Watch Ultra is for the hardcore athlete, adventurers, or divers, given Apple’s associated marketing. To push its case: The Watch Ultra is made from stronger materials than a regular Watch, is water resistant all the way down to 100 meters (instead of just 50 meters), includes a depth gauge that provides real-time measurement of underwater depth down to 40 meters, EN13319 certification as a diving accessory, a dive computer app called Oceanic+, dual frequency GPS for extra precision, and has also passed the military’s MIL-STD 810H for ruggedness (via Apple).
The new features show that Apple is quite serious about entering what has been a market dominated largely by Garmin to date. While Garmin has seen off most would-be challengers to its activity-focused smartwatches, Apple entering the market changes the equation. Its flagship Garmin fēnix 7 series, which is priced about $100 less at $699, has a hardcore fanbase who appreciate its key features, which include up to 18 days of battery life in smartwatch mode. However, there will also be quite a few Apple Watch Ultra buyers who simply want the best Watch Apple offers, or prefer its more rugged looks.
If the Apple Watch Ultra appeals to you for any of these reasons, then the answer to the value equation will inevitably be “yes,” it’s worth it — even if we would have preferred that it was powered by newer silicon.