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I spent a week with the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and here's what stood out the most

A few hardware improvements to the Ultra 2 and several changes to the software mean it's still the best smartwatch available.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer
Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Around this time last year, it had just been a day since I received my new Apple Watch Ultra, and it was already strapped onto my wrist, ready to tackle a 15K Tough Mudder obstacle course event. 12 months of living with the Watch Ultra later, it has proven to be the most complete smartwatch Apple has ever made, and one of the best smartwatches in general for me.

Also: Best Apple Watches of 2023: Expert tested and reviewed

Over the past week, I've been exercising, traveling, and sleeping with the new Apple Watch Ultra 2 to find out exactly where the company has pushed the envelope this time around. 

I'll cut right to the chase: If you already own an Apple Watch Ultra, there is no compelling reason to upgrade to the Ultra 2. But if you're one of the many who are planning to buy an Ultra wearable for the first time, this is as good as it gets. Here's why.

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Given today's economic environment with rising consumer prices, I am a bit surprised that Apple was able to hold the price of the new Watch Ultra 2 at the same level as last year. When you consider the titanium construction, integrated LTE radio, and sapphire glass display, $799 is very reasonable for a high-performance sports watch. That's more true when you compare the Apple Watch Ultra 2 to other flagship GPS sports watches. 

As far as what's new with the model, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 incorporates a faster S9 processor, a brighter display, twice the internal storage, and a series of recycled materials that, somehow, don't make the wearable feel any bit worse. 

Also: Apple issues security fixes for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch to fight Predator spyware

WatchOS 10 was released when the Watch Ultra 2 was announced and it's made the Apple Watch experience an absolute joy to use, with new functions for the side button and digital crown (Smart Stack), along with spacious and info-rich watch faces that are optimized for the Watch Ultra models.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Naturally, I placed the Watch Ultra 2 next to my first-gen Watch Ultra, and they were virtually indistinguishable from each other. After cranking up the brightness of both, I could barely tell the difference in standard lighting conditions due to Apple's implementation of the same ambient light sensor. But in the outdoors, which is where you'll be leveraging the Watch Ultra's technologies the most, it was apparent that the Ultra 2 was significantly brighter (3,000 nits compared to 2,000 nits).

Also: Apple pro tips: The best new features in iPhone 15, iOS 17, and Apple Watch unlocked

Prior to the Watch Ultra 2 launch, I listed three features that I wanted to see in order to warrant an upgrade, and while Apple did not provide them, it did address one of my desires in a unique manner. The LED flashlight on Garmin watches is a tool that I use daily. On the Watch Ultra 2, once you turn on the flashlight, spinning the digital crown now ups the maximum brightness, making use of the extra nits. 

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

It still doesn't beat out the Garmin LED, but it is much more practical than last year's for finding things in the garage or under the bed, illuminating rooms at night, and finding your way in the dark outside.

Mapping, unfortunately, is still limited on the Apple Watch Ultra 2, with the most notable change being offline maps support, provided you have an iPhone on iOS 17. However, the Compass app has also received a subtle yet significant upgrade thanks to watchOS 10. On the Watch Ultra 2, it now shows a waypoint for the last-detected cellular and emergency SOS locations, so you know exactly where to return to if you find yourself in a dead zone. The Compass app also lets you mark your camping spot, parking spot, and other useful waypoints.

Also: How Apple weaved AI into the iPhone 15 and Apple Watch 9

Alongside Watch Ultra 2, Apple released new carbon-neutral watch bands, with three colors being offered across the Alpine Loop and Trail Loop bands. I had a chance to test the gray/green Trail Loop with the Watch Ultra 2, and all I can say is that it's extremely comfortable. I bought my Watch Ultra with an Ocean band last year but will likely pick up the Trail Loop this time around due to its easy Velcro secure support. For more casual outings, it's the ideal watch band.

Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Finally, as much as I enjoy the Apple Watch Ultra 2 for its long battery life, brighter display, expanded connectivity, and new watch bands, I've also been enjoying the improved mental health functionality via the Mindfulness app. It has now earned a prominent spot in my app list, and I've been entering my state of mind on a daily basis. 

Also: My favorite WatchOS 10 feature is overlooked, underrated, and life-changing

I now frequently use the Reflect and Breathe utilities, which have slowly but surely reduced my stress, proving to be a welcome addition to my Apple Watch use. (Of course, you only need an Apple Watch running on watchOS 10 to use the Mindfulness app. I just like using it on the larger display of the Ultra!)

ZDNET's buying advice

With my primary SIM now living as an eSIM in the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 will be staying on my wrist for an extended period of time -- likely until the next Ultra version comes out. Apple's improvements this year don't push the envelope in any particular way, but they're well-rounded enough to make the Watch Ultra still the best flagship sports watch that enthusiasts should buy.

Also: The best smartwatches of 2023: Expert tested and reviewed

If you don't have an Apple Watch Ultra but are interested in buying one, the Ultra 2 is the best option. If you can live with a dimmer display and technically slower performance, picking up last year's Watch Ultra at a discount is not the worst idea either. 

For me, the Boost Flashlight is a welcome addition, as well as the faster processor supporting Siri on board. Apple's move to carbon-free products is also a nice move for the environment and is something we can all support.

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