(The Gear Loop) - The Apple Watch Ultra is a mightily clever little machine, and you’ll see from our full review that there’s almost too much to talk about in a single page.
With that in mind, we’ve broken out from the usual review format to go into a little more detail on its varying abilities as a fitness watch.
As a quick recap: the Apple Watch Ultra is the rough and ready version of the latest Series 8, packing a 49mm titanium case, more powerful built-in speakers, specially designed microphones for taking calls in the wild and a new Action Button, which makes it easier to access shortcuts with gloved hands.
We busily tested numerous features during our time with it, using the Apple Watch Ultra to record everything from nerve-jangling bouldering sessions to more typical HIIT activities in the gym.
Lights, camera, action (button)!
Out of the box, our test unit came as standard with the Action Button programmed to activate a workout. It seems arguably the most sensible use for most people, as it allows easy access to some of your favoured activity profiles.
From here, it’s possible to track everything from a quick tennis match to more epic open water swimming sessions. All the while the Apple Watch Ultra will harness its built-in depth gauge, water temp sensor, blood oxygen sensor, optical heart sensor, altimeter, compass, gyro and accelerometer to track said activity.
But as we mentioned in our full review, the level of detail offered by Apple is very much on the surface level. Admittedly, this is what most people want, but you’ll struggle with the kid of detailed performance analysis offered by Garmin, Wahoo and the like.
A GPS monster
Apple decided to move its GPS antenna directly to the surface of the titanium case, which has been made possible thanks to the more raised side profile of the Ultra.
This, coupled with the fact Apple uses both L1 and L5 frequency GPS, means it’s an incredibly accurate watch when tracking activities, and achieving a GPS lock is one of the fastest experiences we’ve had.
Even when used in built-up environments, the Apple Watch Ultra will lock on to a GPS signal in a matter of seconds, which drastically reduces the amount of waiting time before heading out on a ride, run or hike.
One standout change here is the fact Apple now offers the option of Precision Start, which negates the automatic three second countdown when starting an activity. Sensibly, users can now choose when said activity starts by depressing the Action Button. It sounds simple but it’s a big deal.
Apple has also introduced new metrics that are aimed solely at runners, all of these come in the form of new data screens both during the activity and afterwards in the Fitness iOS app.
Running form metrics are arguably the most pertinent, with the built-in sensors analysing things like stride length and vertical oscillation, allowing for a Running Power prediction to be produced.
Later in the year, Apple will release automatic Track Detection, which will detect when you arrive at a running track and ask to confirm the lane that you are in.
Initially, this will only apply to 400m tracks in the U.S, but Apple has plans to expand further, giving athletes a more detailed and accurate recording of pace and distance.
Workouts and more
As with many fitness watches that take a heart rate reading from the wrist, we found the Apple Watch Ultra to be a little hit and miss depending on the type of workout you’re participating in.
Anything requiring a strong grip, which includes strength training or CrossFit-inspired workouts, can be quite flaky and the readings drastically fluctuated during our test. This is neatly remedied by wearing a chest strap.
Alas, the chest strap must have a Bluetooth connection, otherwise the Apple Watch won’t be able to pick it up.
We also mentioned in our full review that it’s not particularly simple to broadcast a wrist-based heart rate reading to equipment, unless there is a compatible third party app involved.
Plenty of other fitness watches, some of which cost a fraction of the price, enable the user to broadcast a heart rate reading from the wrist to pretty much any machine with ANT+ or Bluetooth capabilities, but it is frustratingly difficult with the Apple Watch Ultra.
Similarly, many apps that you enjoy using on your phone will require a premium subscription to unlock the full potential of the Apple Watch experience, including something as basic as interval timers.
Although free to use on our phone, an interval timer app required an upgrade to use it solely on the Apple Watch, while we found with lots of other apps that the watch merely acted as a head unit, while the iOS app provided the richest user experience.
Rings and badges
Like any other Apple Watch, the overall fitness experience is centred around closing daily "Rings", which includes Move, Exercise and Stand - all of these can be pre-programmed to either suit your lifestyle or fitness goals.
There are also lots of beautifully animated awards and badges that a user can achieve throughout the weeks and months, from hitting a longest move streak to hitting a seven-workout week.
Get addicted to closing and collecting these things and its highly likely you’ll start to see some serious progression in your general fitness.
However, for those more experienced runners, cyclists and gym users might pine for more detailed performance metrics. The kind that Garmin has been experimenting with via its Garmin Lab and the acquisition of Firstbeat Analytics.
These unique algorithms delve into things like Training Load Balance, Lactate Thresholds and Heat and Altitude Acclimatisation. Granted, not the sort of thing your average Joe needs, but the kind of metrics those who compete often look towards when forming detailed training plans.
However, Apple constantly releases updates, so this is likely an area the company will start moving into to in time.