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The Ultra is the Apple Watch I've always wanted, or so I thought

After a week with the Apple Watch Ultra, my feelings about it are mixed. Here's why.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
Apple Watch Ultra -- getting a bit of rain on its display

Apple Watch Ultra -- getting a bit of rain on its display

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

I unboxed the Apple Watch Ultra a week ago, and I've been wearing it pretty much ever since.

So, what's my verdict on the $799 Apple Watch Ultra?

It's complicated, and the easiest way to distill my thoughts is to look at the good, the bad, and what's missing.

Before I continue, here are a few points I want to make.

Firstly, over the past week, I've not run an ultra-marathon, jumped off cliffs, swam with sharks, or climbed Everest. While I do venture into the outdoors for more mundane hiking and cycling and photo/video adventures, I have to be honest and say that I've mostly been using Apple Pay in coffee shops, rather than using the siren to summon help after losing a fight with a grizzly.

Review: I put the Apple Watch Ultra through a Tough Mudder: How it held up

Outdoor escapades do await my Apple Watch Ultra, though.

I'm also not going to talk about the visual aesthetics of the Apple Watch Ultra. Whether you like the look of it or not is a uniquely personal thing, and there's little point in me wasting pixels (or your time) on this.

Finally, before someone comments that I'm wearing it wrong, I know. This has been my preferred way of wearing the Apple Watch from the start because it protects the digital crown and button from accidental activation and damage. 

The good

There's a lot to like about the Apple Watch Ultra.

The display

The size, the brightness, and the sapphire crystal alone make this a huge upgrade from my 45mm aluminum Apple Watch Series 7. The display is the primary part of the Apple Watch, and all the changes that Apple has made here improve the user experience. 

I now can't imagine going back to that smaller, dimmer display.

Also: I made a huge Apple Watch mistake

Those extra 4mm of display and a doubling of the brightness makes a night-and-day difference to the experience.

Oh, and for night work -- I do a fair bit of photography at night -- being able to switch the display to a night-vision-preserving red is invaluable!

The night-vision-preserving red look is something I've wanted for since the Apple Watch was released

The night-vision-preserving red look is something I've wanted since the Apple Watch was released.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Battery life

Going from less than a day for the Apple Watch Series 7 to close to a day and a half for the Apple Watch Ultra changes everything. I liked to use the Apple Watch for exercise and hike tracking, but I was always conscious of the impact this had on the battery and I worried that the watch wouldn't make it through the day.

These battery worries are now gone.

The battery life is now something I don't worry about

The battery life is now something I don't worry about.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

The doubling of the rated battery life, combined with fast charge means that the Apple Watch Ultra spends more time on my wrist, and I'm not worried about using it when I'm wearing it.

Improved durability

While my Apple Watch 7 survived a year of quite hard use, it had picked up a bit of cosmetic damage in that time. Even after a week of using the Apple Watch Ultra, I can tell that this model is a lot more durable than the Apple Watches I've worn in the past.

After a week of wear, the Ultra is currently flawless, despite a few heart-stopping impacts and scrapes.

New Action Button 

This is something that I didn't expect to like, but I do.

Apple is better known for taking buttons away, but adding an extra button was a smart move.

I use my Apple Watch as a flashlight on a regular basis, and being able to set this feature to a button is just magnificent. I can now access this my flashlight without having to fumble with the display, and this is a game-changer.

That Action Button has seen a lot of action!

That Action Button has seen a lot of action!

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

The bad

That price

$799 is a lot to pay for a watch that will likely be superseded in a year and obsolete in a few years.

It's also a lot to pay for a watch that's going to depreciate at an alarming rate compared to other premium watches.

It's a lot to pay for something that's not going to earn its money back and something that's ultimately disposable.

It's a lot of money.

The band 

OK, I have to admit that I fell in love with that emergency orange Alpine Loop band. And it's as comfortable and easy to use as Apple claimed it would be. But after a week of rather reserved use, it's already looking a bit grotty.

I suppose that I can give it a wash, but I had expected that at a replacement price of $99 that Apple would have given it a dirt-repellent coating to keep it looking good for longer.

The orange Alpine Loop band is already looking a bit discolored and grotty

The orange Alpine Loop band is already looking a bit discolored and grotty.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

A water-repellant coating on the Alpine Loop band would also be useful, because the band takes a long time to dry, and leaks water everywhere while wet.

I suppose this is how Apple plans to sell more bands.

Also: Are third-party Apple Watch Ultra bands any good?

I've got an Ocean Band on the way for testing, and I wonder if this might not be better for day-to-day use. I guess I'll find out.

What's missing

The only thing that the Apple Watch Ultra offers above and beyond the Apple Watch Series editions is user experience. Let's think about that Apple Watch user experience a little bit more.

Apple has built an Apple Watch with a bigger, brighter display, added an extra button, given it better microphones and speakers, and given the whole package a much-improved battery life.

But fundamentally, the Apple Watch Ultra doesn't give me anything that the Apple Watch Series edition didn't offer.

I'm hoping that this is where developers are going to rise to the challenge of developing apps specifically for the Apple Watch Ultra, but I doubt it. The Ultra is going to be a tiny drop in the Apple Watch ocean, and I don't see developers putting too much effort into creating bespoke apps for it.

So, it's up to Apple to build on this experience.

I've already got a massive wish list of changes I'd like to see Apple make. For example, here in the UK, we don't use latitude and longitude, but instead, we use a coordinate system called the Ordinance Survey Grid Reference. It would be super useful to be able to get that Adventurer watch face to show this instead of the raw latitude and longitude data.

I'm not holding my breath.

The bottom line

This is the Apple Watch that I've always wanted. A rugged smartwatch with a big, bright display that's not limited by battery life.

And this is, without doubt, what the Apple Watch Ultra offers.

The Apple Watch I've always wanted... but

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

But the Ultra comes with a hefty price tag – much heftier compared to the cheaper Apple Watch models which start at $399 – and it's born into an established ecosystem where the Ultra is not going to have much of an impact in terms of attracting interest from developers to make use of the improved features.

No matter what Apple's hype implied, the Ultra is essentially an Apple Watch with a slightly improved user experience.

It's a bunch of tweaks and improvements wrapped in titanium, sapphire, and ceramic. And the very finite lifespan of the Ultra compared to other premium watches (note I said watches, as opposed to smartwatches) means you need to squeeze all the fun and adventure out of it in a few years.

Maybe it can serve to remind me that time is indeed short.

The deciding question for buyers is going to come down to a simple one -- is the Ultra worth the extra money?

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