When Apple first announced the Apple Watch back in 2014, the news divided many. There were those who couldn’t wait to see how the product would expand the ecosystem of Apple products to fit into their lifestyle, and there were those that couldn’t fathom why you would need a digital watch when you have your phone with you at pretty much every time of the day. However, in just a few years the Apple Watch became the most popular watch on earth and you would now be hard-pressed not to spot someone in any city wearing one. The iterations along the way saw new materials being used such as ceramic, 100% recycled aluminum and titanium while performance capabilities like cellular support, always-on displays and the numerous health functions helped pave the path in the Apple Watch becoming widely adopted. Collaborations with the likes of Nike and Hermès also helped attract new audiences within the fashion and fitness sectors. Even the most avid mechanical watch enthusiasts would now admit that there’s a space for an Apple Watch in their collections with the trend of wearing a regular watch on one wrist and the digital device on the other seeing increasing popularity.
Fans of Apple will tell you that each year brings thoughtful but subtle improvements to the products so when the Cupertino-based brand announced the Apple Watch Ultra (priced at $799 USD), it was a big surprise to everyone. The information released presented us with a major addition to the lineup and introduced a watch that targets the outdoor exploration market with its redesigned aerospace-grade titanium case featuring a new action button, 49mm size (a significant increase compared to the next largest Apple Watch Series 8 measuring 45mm) and 100m water resistance/40m dive capabilities (EN13119 certified). Additional features include an 86-decibel siren that can be heard up to 180m away, up to 60 hours of battery life and the ability to withstand temperatures from -20° C to 55° C. Aside from the rugged capabilities, Apple upgraded the GPS tracking system to improve the accuracy using a dual-signal link so you’ll have a precise location whether you’re in a city filled with tall buildings or a remote location. The crucial innovations in navigation, water resistance and endurance create a compelling package so when Apple invited us to test out the Ultra, we were interested to see how these new features held up in the conditions they were built for.
The testing location brought us to Hawaii’s Kona island, which was the perfect environment to test out what the new Apple Watch Ultra was engineered for, with its abundance of scenic hiking paths, diving locations and running trails. Our first test was centered around the exploration component of the device and after a quick set up to calibrate the watch face, input our destination coordinates and attaching the new alpine loop, we embarked on a hike through the Kohala Forest Reserve. One of the most crucial pieces of kit for anyone navigating is a compass and the completely redesigned watch compass allows users to mark waypoints for positions or points of interest while a backtracking feature allows for retracing of steps if lost. Apple representatives pointed out that the backtracking function is actually automatically turned on so that users wouldn’t have to worry about not remembering to activate the feature.
Like all Apple apps, the compass was intuitive to use with its hybrid nature to show different pieces of information and it accurately navigated us to the final destination. Once we arrived to our final point, Apple took the opportunity to launch the previously announced Emergency SOS via Satellite function on the new iPhone 14. With the latest iOS 16, users in the U.S and Canada can route emergency calls via satellite at no fee (free for two years from the activation date of a new iPhone) and describe the nature of their emergency through a series of simple steps. Emergency SOS can be activated by dialing an emergency number or through the safety features like crash detection and fall detection in the latest Apple products. After initiating the feature, users are then prompted to point their phone at the nearest satellite that is marked on an animation to show where it is and after a successful connection is made, the nearest public safety service will respond.
To round things out, we used the backtracking feature to retrace our steps back to the starting point by following the directions and path shown on the screen.
The next component of our testing revolved around water activities, specifically diving. It was also the unveiling of the Oceanic+ app developed in conjunction with Huish Outdoors and we had the pleasure of Mike Huish (CEO of Huish Outdoors) and Nadia Aly describe the process, as well as provide their personal experiences from a myriad of diving adventures. An Apple Watch Ultra utilizing the Oceanic+ app can effectively replace traditional dive computers for shorter dives due to its capabilities in depth tracking, notification of ascent rates that are too rapid, decompression measurements and dive entry/exit tracking via GPS. By pairing it with the new iPhone app, you can plan your adventure pre and post dive as it will additionally provide information such as how much time has elapsed since your last dive and how long you should wait until you get on a flight or ascend to higher altitudes.
We set off from Keauhou Bay to experience two diving locations and the first thing you will notice once you enter the water and reach a few feet is that the Oceanic+ app automatically turns on if you have it set up as a default when submerged. The display on the Apple Watch Ultra screen changes to show the key pieces of information like depth, dive time and temperature while pre-set alarms for target dive time or target depths give a noticeable haptic alert if reached. There was no issue in viewing any of these stats under water thanks to the largest and brightest screen that Apple has ever created for its watch range and the rubber ocean band attaches the device securely on your wrist whether you’re wearing a wetsuit or not.
For those that have not completed a scuba certificate, the Oceanic+ app also supports measurements for snorkeling in the same tactile manner.
Our final portion of the testing experience revolved around the endurance capabilities of the Ultra and how Apple’s watchOS 9 upgraded the Workouts app to provide much more granular information, as well as personalization options. These personalization options include the ability to create a custom workout or a multisport workout if you’re switching between activities like swimming, cycling or running. Led by Josh Crosby from the Apple Fitness+ team, we ventured north of the island to Kamuela to embark on a short trail run along the coast. As the watch features the new action button on the left flank of the case, users are able to customize what pressing the button does so for this particular activity it was set to open the Workouts app. A precision start option where you can press the action button again to initiate your workout was also enabled to allow for a much more accurate start to the activity compared to the traditional countdown that Apple Watch users are familiar with.
After a brief warmup, we set out on the trail and were told to take note of the information being generated from the device so that tracking heart rate zones, pacing and splits could be easily integrated into the workout. The customizable nature of the app allowed us to know when we needed to make any adjustments, for example, if our heart rate zone was too low then we could pick up the pace or if it was too high then we could ease off. Finishing this trail run, we were pointed to look through the statistics generated and newly introduced metrics such as vertical oscillation, stride lengths, ground contact time and more, helped illustrate our performances.
It’s not hard to understand why the Apple Watch has become so popular over the years in how it incorporates the most important communicative aspects of our phones with the fitness elements of our lives. Products in the competitive smartwatch market from the likes of Garmin and Fitbit have focused mainly on tracking the health and exercise aspects but do not include the all-rounded package found in Apple’s product, not to mention the more seamless integration to an iPhone. Throughout the years, we saw many key upgrades to the Apple Watch – cellular connectivity, the integration of your wallet to the device, increased battery capacity etc. – to the point where you could walk out your house without bringing your phone with you.
With the Apple Watch Ultra, the brand has made a giant step forward in carving a new section of the market and will no doubt also encourage more people to go out to adventure by testing out its capabilities. Future iterations of this line will also be eagerly anticipated and it will be interesting to see upcoming generations of the device, whether it’s by pushing the limitations to an even more extreme or allowing for new functions that would make exploration that much easier.