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I've owned an Apple Watch Ultra since its release back in September 2022, and it's been on my wrist almost continually since then, excluding when it's charging, the few times its presence on my wrist has been annoying, and when I swing my kettlebells about a few times a week. (Because no matter how tough it is, it's not going to take repeated kettlebell smashes to the watch face.)
And it's been with me on many an adventure. Walking, hiking, or on photography or drone flying trips, the Apple Watch Ultra has been a constant companion. It's been out in rain, snow, ice, and heat waves. I've worn it while sweating up steep hills, and while relaxing in a hot tub.
Sure, I've not taken it up Everest, or on ultramarathons, but there have been times when it's been my only source of light, and even my only link with the world at large.
But it's sure had quite a tough life so far, and it's given me a really good idea of the device's strengths and weaknesses.
I've been testing other outdoor smartwatches alongside the Apple Watch Ultra. (Yes, I've been wearing two watches, so what? All the cool kids are wearing two smartwatches.) All that testing has given me a good understanding of what the competition has to offer.
OK, let's start with the Apple Watch Ultra. Over many months of close-to-continual wearing (I wear it on my left wrist, crown down, because this way the crown doesn't get bumped when putting hands into pockets or gloves) and the Ultra's condition remains much closer to immaculate than I'd expect it to be.
The sapphire crystal is perfect, while the titanium shell has a few very light scratches and abrasion marks.
It's one tough watch.
The battery life has also been good (for an Apple Watch). I can expect about three days of battery life out of it before I start getting worried, but heavy use of maps or fitness features can reduce that to a couple of days.
Not bad for an Apple Watch, but there are smartwatches on the market that blow this performance out of the water.
Take the Garmin Fenix 7X Solar Sapphire Edition that I've been wearing alongside the Apple Watch Ultra. This Garmin has been charged once and has run for almost two weeks without charge, and it still says it has six days of regular use left (or 90 days if I put it into battery saver mode).
It's lasted for so long now that I'm not sure where I've put the charging cable. (Yes, the Fenix 7 line needs a proprietary charging cable.) The solar cell embedded into the face collects sunlight, giving the battery a little boost while I'm exploring the outdoors.
On the toughness front, the Fenix 7X is holding up well. However, I'm already finding that the black DLC (diamond-like coating) finish is wearing off. It's a small cosmetic thing, but if you're into small cosmetic things, this could very well bother you.
The battery life and coating aside, there are a few other ways the Garmin smartwatch beats Apple's offering when outdoors.
First, the Apple Watch Ultra relies heavily on that touchscreen display. This is great for day-to-day use, but if you are wearing gloves, or your hands are cold, or the display gets wet, that touchscreen becomes a massive pain to use. Get water on it, and the touch input becomes super unreliable.
While the Fenix 7X has a touchscreen display, it also features buttons, and those buttons make operating the watch when wet or when wearing gloves a lot easier.
I'm also a big fan of that big display. Those big, chunky letters and numbers are easy on my aging eyes. And Garmin has crammed a lot of information onto that 1.4-inch display.
It's very easy on the eyes no matter what the conditions.
The Fenix 7X has an actual LED flashlight built into the side of the watch that can be switched from white to red. This is a great touch because it frees up the display to still be a display; the flashlight is perfect for small tasks like map reading and lighting the way in an emergency.
Finally, the Garmin comes with topographical maps loaded onto the smartwatch (and there are also third-party maps you can buy, such as those by the excellent Talkytoaster), removing the need for a cellular connection when exploring.
The Apple Watch Ultra has Apple Maps, and access to those relies on having an internet connection. I'm not aware of a third-party offering that fills the gap.
This feels like a huge oversight on a watch that's billed as being designed for explorers.
The Apple Watch Ultra suffers from some other weaknesses as well. For example, the coordinates on the main front screen can take ages to update -- minutes, tens of minutes, sometimes more -- making this feature feel more like a gimmick than a useful tool. Similarly, here in the UK, our maps use a coordinate system called the British National Grid. Apple doesn't support this (although there are apps that can convert the current position to the system), while the Garmin smartwatch has no problem with this.
All these little things add up.
One thing I am asked quite often is how different smartwatches compare regarding the accuracy of distance walked, and step count. All the units I've tried alongside the Apple Watch Ultra have agreed to within 5%. Which one is the more accurate? I can't say.
When it comes to the app ecosystem, however, Apple's got the competition beat. Pretty much any app you can think of already exists for the Apple Watch. By comparison, the offerings for Garmin smartwatches are a bit limited.
There's no doubt that the Apple Watch Ultra is a great smartwatch. But pitting it against a device like the Garmin Fenix 7X Solar Sapphire highlights not only some Apple Watch weaknesses but also demonstrates the difference between a company that makes a mass-market device versus one that truly understands what's important to people who spend a lot of time outdoors.