The Apple Watch Ultra 2 has arrived, it’s here and we’ve been putting it through its paces. Although it’s very early days, we’ve got some thoughts after 24 hours of use to give a strong first impression. As you might expect, we’ve not had a chance to use it exhaustively, but there are definitely some new features that stick out.
Being my first Apple Watch Ultra, I’ve been most curious about making the leap from Series 8 and the difference versus the new Series 9, which I’m also testing as we speak. So what’s the Apple Watch Ultra like?
If you already own or have experience with the original Apple Watch Ultra, then you can skip on to our first impressions of some of the new features including the S9 chip, brighter display, and the Ultra Wideband Upgrades.
Out of the box
Having owned the Apple Watch Series 3, and having extensively tested the Series 7 and Series 8, I was pleasantly surprised by the more premium packaging and the unboxing experience of the Ultra, especially compared to the new Series 9. You get a larger, textured box embossed with the ‘Watch’ logo, and inside you get a specially-designed pamphlet revealing the unique features of the Ultra line. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s definitely nice to get a more premium experience when you’re paying for a more premium product.
Setup is the same process it has been for a number of years now, with a very quick pairing process and a few setup steps. Even though I’ve never owned an Ultra I was able to restore a backup from my other Watch for a sense of familiarity. I will note, that the process seemed to be noticeably quicker than previous years, the first signs of the legwork that the new S9 SiP is doing.
Materials, design, and strap
There’s only one color of Apple Watch Ultra, the Titanium Orange, and mine came with the newly colored orange and beige Trail Loop, which has two distinctive colored strips as part of the new design this year. The Nylon Trail Loop band feels identical in terms of weight and texture to the nylon Sport Loop, but it boasts a much more robust Titanium end-piece to fasten it to the watch.
Upon initial inspection, this is a very secure band, which is designed to ensure that your watch stays pinned to your wrist no matter what daring activity you’re carrying out. Be it running, climbing, mountain biking, or anything in between. That’s not to say that the Series 8 or beyond ever felt insecure, but there’s an added level of protection and reassurance with the Trail Loop that I absolutely love.
Overall, the Titanium chassis screams robust and is a carbon copy of the successful formula from last year, complete with a chunkier Digital Crown and Side Button that can be activated while wearing gloves. My Apple Watch Series 8 always felt a bit fragile, and I would wince whenever it got caught on just about anything. It scratched very easily, but I feel far less precious about the Apple Watch Ultra 2, the design really inspires confidence in its durability.
While the Apple Watch Ultra 2 isn’t uncomfortable to wear, it is noticeably less comfortable than my Series 9 and previous models. This is to be expected given the housing of the latter is decidedly more rounded and subtle, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind. I wouldn’t consider my wrists to be small, but the larger casing and the protruding strap fixtures mean the watch doesn’t quite sit flush to my wrist. Again, it’s not uncomfortable, but I could see it causing fatigue if I were to wear it all day, every day. Given how much users of the original touted it as a great everyday watch, I was definitely surprised by this, but again this is a by-product of how capable the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is at the limits of use other Apple Watch models simply aren’t designed for.
Moving on to what’s new, the Ultra 2 and Series 9 have both received the first major chip update to an Apple Watch in a couple of years, and it really shows. Both the Ultra 2 and my Series 9 are noticeably snappier, and every animation is more fluid thanks to the new SiP. The S9 SiP will also power the upcoming double tap feature, which lets you take execute certain actions on the watch using your thumb and finger. Shamefully, in a spate of Wednesday afternoon stupor, I spent five minutes trying to activate it and another couple trying to troubleshoot why it wouldn’t work before I remembered that it doesn’t come out until October.
The S9 chip also powers on-device Siri. I’ve avoided using Siri on the Watch in the past because it’s quite cumbersome, but it has really come into its own on Ultra 2. Asking Siri for a two-minute timer now yields the countdown before the words you’ve spoken on the screen have finished transcribing, which is really very impressive. My biggest frustration with Siri previously has been its struggle with mundane tasks, and on-device Siri is a game-changer on the Apple Watch Ultra 2.
Another game-changer on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 (and Series 9) is the second generation of the Ultra Wideband chip. UWB powers close-range interactions like AirDrop and Find My, and it’s even better thanks to the new chip, which is also featured in the iPhone 15.
I spend 90% of every day listening to something through a HomePod, be it music, home cinema, or podcasts. The new UWB 2 chip can now automatically detect what’s playing on the nearest HomePod, and then lets you control it directly from your wrist with no iPhone intervention required. You can pause, skip forward and back, and even control AirPlay, selecting other HomePods in your setup. As someone who has bemoaned Apple’s AirPlay/HomePod interface in the past, this is another massive leap forward and one I’ll be using every day.
Display and faces
The new 3,000 nits display is particularly potent. Admittedly, I live in Scotland, and it is late September, so there is unfortunately no bright light for me to test it in. However, I’ve been really impressed not only with the brightness but also with how responsive the watch is to changing atmospheres and different lighting. Walking into a dark room immediately calls up the all-red Night Mode, for example. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a new one-nit brightness setting which is perfect for use in bed or in a movie theater.
One of the first things I did on my new Apple Watch Ultra 2 was fire up the new Modular Ultra watch face, which is fantastic for showing a slew of information on the larger display. I’ve got the time, temperature, two compasses, my activity rings, UV index (redundant in Scotland), the time of the next sunset, and seconds displayed in a fantastic ring around the edge. It’s truly awesome to see so much information on one screen, and wherever Apple has optimized apps and data for the larger display they really shine. Unfortunately, not every app is optimized. For instance, I did a strength workout, and while the display bright and clear, more than half of the screen was blank. I’d love to see Apple do even more to flesh out the interfaces for the larger display.
There is of course plenty more I could talk about with Apple Watch Ultra 2, and these musings will form the basis of our in-depth review, coming very soon. Don’t be surprised, however, if it winds up being the best Apple Watch for 2023 and beyond.