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Apple Watch upgrade time? How to choose between Series 8, Ultra, or waiting for Series 9

If you're traveling, swimming, hiking, or having other summer adventures, which of the top two Apple Watch models should you buy? Here's how to decide.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

The Apple Watch Ultra (top) and Apple Watch Series 8 (bottom) are both big upgrades if you have an Apple Watch that's at least 2-3 years old.

Jason Hiner/ZDNET

Whether you're traveling across the planet or having adventures closer to home this summer, one of the ways to make your travels safer, healthier, and more fun is to take advantage of the latest features in the Apple Watch. 

Also: The best Apple Watches right now

Each year, the Apple Watch adds new capabilities, so if you dig your Apple Watch and your model is at least two or three years old then you may be ready for an upgrade. If you're ready for a summer adventure and want to take the latest tech with you, then the big question is whether to upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 8 or to the Apple Watch Ultra. Both models come with a lot of the same features, including:

  • Emergency SOS
  • Heart health notifications
  • Blood oxygen (breathing) detection
  • Fall detection
  • Temperature sensing
  • Sleep tracking
  • Compass Waypoints with Backtrack (to keep you from getting lost)
  • Car Crash Detection
Apple Watch blood oxygen and heart rate

Both Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra have health metrics such as blood oxygen (left) for your lungs and ECG (right) for your heart.


Also: The best smartwatches: Find out which models fitness experts recommend

There are also some well-defined differences between the Series 8 and the Ultra, and good reasons why you might want to opt for one or the other.

Reasons to buy Apple Watch Series 8

  • Is smaller and more gender-neutral with options for 41mm or 45mm to fit different wrist sizes.
  • Offers more stylish options, including two finishes -- aluminum and stainless steel -- with each finish having its own color options (starlight, midnight, silver, and red for aluminum and silver, graphite, and gold for stainless steel); the Ultra has only one finish and one color.
  • Looks great with formal attire or fitness gear, and has a lot more band options (the Series 8 bands also technically work with the Ultra but aren't a perfect fit).
  • Has about 80% of the functions of Ultra, especially the core health features.
  • The lowest price model starts at half the price ($399) of the Ultra ($799).

Reasons to buy Apple Watch Ultra

  • Larger, flatter, brighter screen is for better viewing, which is especially helpful outdoors; but as a result, it only comes in one large size (49mm).
  • With almost 50% longer battery life, it will always last a single day on a charge and sometimes up to 1.5 to 2 days; it also charges faster.
  • Action Button enables fast access to key features, which allows you to quickly start a workout, a stopwatch, turn on a flashlight, set a Compass Waypoint, segment your workouts, and perform other custom actions.
  • An emergency siren can be heard 600 feet away with a special 86-decibel unique sound pattern.
  • More accurate GPS uses dual frequencies (L1 and L5) to work in remote deserts, mountains, and forests, as well as challenging environments like urban areas with lots of skyscrapers.
  • More durable with a titanium case that encloses the sapphire crystal face to make it rugged enough to handle intense, high-impact activities.
  • Additional water resistance up to 100 meters (increased from 50 meters on the Series 9).
  • Upgraded microphone and speakers for making phone calls directly from the watch.
  • Better handles extreme temperatures, -4 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 to 55 degrees Celsius).
  • Actually costs less ($799) than the most expensive model of the Series 8 ($1,249), so it packs in a lot of advanced technologies for the price.

To be clear, you don't have to be an extreme athlete to appreciate the Apple Watch Ultra. The extra battery life, bigger display for better viewing of images and text, more durable design, and upgraded GPS will appeal to many of you who rely on your Apple Watch for valuable functions every day. And for the summer, the ability to leave your phone and only have a larger Apple Watch that can go into the pool or the ocean, answer quick texts and phone calls, and pay for lunch and snacks with Apple Pay directly from the watch will be a welcome upgrade.

Also: Apple Watch Ultra review: Tougher than a Tough Mudder

Should you wait for September?

If it follows its typical schedule, Apple will release the next version of the Apple Watch, the Series 9, in September. There are reports that the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is also on the way. That said, there are not many reports about big upgrades coming to the next generation of Apple Watch hardware. The most anticipated feature we're still waiting for is blood glucose monitoring -- for diabetics and those who want to closely track their nutrition. However, that feature is likely at least a year or two away. 

Also: The Apple products you shouldn't buy this month: July 2023 edition

The Series 8 and especially the Ultra were big leaps ahead; the next upgrades should be pretty incremental. So unless you're a serious techie who always wants to live on the cutting edge, you're pretty safe jumping to the Series 8 or the Ultra and enjoying their best new features this summer. Plus, both will get a big software upgrade this fall with the arrival of the new WatchOS 10.

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