The RW Takeaway: With a 36-hour battery and more accurate tracking, the Apple Watch Ultra is a serious runner’s watch.

  • Rugged 49mm titanium case withstands tough trail runs.
  • The battery can go 36 hours between charges.
  • Cellular connectivity lets you take calls, send texts, and stream music while leaving your phone at home.

Price: $799
Connectivity: GPS, Cellular, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
Battery: 36 hours

Apple Apple Watch Ultra
Apple Watch Ultra
Apple Apple Watch Ultra
$810 at Amazon
  • Dual-frequency GPS improves accuracy
  • Largest battery in any Apple Watch
  • Improved performance running features
  • Battery life is shorter than other GPS running watches
  • More expensive than many GPS running watches

At long last, Apple is making a formidable GPS running watch that’s capable of keeping up with the likes of Garmin, Coros, and Polar. The Apple Watch Ultra is the company’s largest version yet, intended for outdoor adventurers who need accurate tracking and a battery that can last more than a day.

More From Runner's World
preview for HDM All Sections Playlist - Runners World US

I’ve had the Apple Watch Ultra for a week of round-the-clock testing and can report that it’s the best Apple Watch yet. I’ve tested every version since the original was released, and have logged thousands of miles running with the cellular models, introduced on Series 3. I’ve already run more than 50 miles with the Apple Watch Ultra, comparing it against the Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar and Coros Vertix 2. Here is my review of the Apple Watch Ultra and its features that make it a top pick for runners.

Dual-Frequency GPS Is an Improvement, but Still Isn’t Perfect

For years, I’ve said that GPS running watch measurements are like horseshoes and hand grenades—close is good enough. Then along came dual-frequency GPS, which eliminates the wild inaccuracies in tricky environments. Apple has joined Coros (Vertix 2) and Garmin (Fenix 7, Forerunners 255 and 955) by adding the ability to receive two radio signals from each satellite, allowing the watch to determine if a satellite signal bounced off a wall or building. It also greatly improves reception under dense tree cover and in cities with tall apartments and skyscrapers. In my testing of all these dual-frequency GPS running watches, I’ve noticed marginal improvements to the overall distance of a run. But, the actual track that the watch records me having traveled is much smoother and closer to my real route—gone are the big jumps off-course from errant data points.

So, how did the Ultra perform? If you’re expecting perfection, then these first few runs could be classified as a minor stumble. Almost immediately, the total distance would read 0.03 miles behind what the Fenix 7X reported. And by the end of a five- or six-mile run, the Ultra would say I ran one-tenth of a mile less than the Garmin. But, we runners can be a bit obsessive about our data and want full credit for the work we’re putting in, right?

jeff dengate running in easton pennsylvania
To compare the dual-frequency GPS accuracy, I wore an Apple Watch Ultra on my left wrist and a Garmin Fenix 7X on my right.
Trevor Raab

Was the Apple Watch Ultra recording my distance short? Or was the Fenix 7X measuring long? In a previous test, I found the Fenix was within a hundredth of a mile when I wheeled out a 5K course, so I felt confident the Fenix was close to true. To find out with more certainty, I took both watches to upstate New York and ran out-and-back over a four-mile stretch of the certified Adirondack Marathon course right after the runners on race day. Along the marked course, I ran the tangents as tightly as I could and made notes as I approached each mile marker.

Both watches rolled over to 1.00 mile exactly at the first mile marker. That was a somewhat surprising and pleasant start. It did not last, however. At the second mile mark, the Ultra alerted me of my two-mile split 15 strides before the marker on the course, but it was back on target by the time I got to the third mile.

At the end of the fourth mile, both watches beeped more than 40 strides shy of the mile mark, my turnaround point. Could that mile have been long? There’s always a possibility, though the course is USATF certified and the miles are marked permanently with a survey nail, which I saw embedded in the pavement below the painted mile number. Maybe the environment change played a role, as that mile was along a tree-covered road and climbed 175 feet, after three miles largely unobstructed. On a map after the run, I can see both watch tracks wobble a little, but the recorded path never left the actual roadway.

On the return leg, though, the Ultra increasingly took early splits, adding 15-20 strides to the distance with each mile—my stride length was recorded as a little longer than a meter, so that discrepancy is roughly a one percent error. The Garmin, too, was beeping my splits early, but only by about 8-10 strides per mile.

By the time I got back to my starting point and had run 8.00 miles on the certified course, the Apple Watch Ultra said 8.09 miles and the Garmin Fenix 7X reported 8.06 miles. Anybody who has run a race using GPS knows that your watch will almost always measure longer than the true distance. In fact, if the course has USATF certification, you almost certainly do run more as there’s a “short course prevention factor” of 0.1 percent added to the course. But, over 8 miles, that extra mileage adds up to just 14 yards, so it’s unlikely that’s what caused both watches to measure long.

Taking a closer look at the recorded tracks, you’ll see that both are remarkably close to the actual roads I’ve run along. The Garmin’s breadcrumb trail is consistently a bit tighter and better aligned with where I actually ran. In the screenshot below from my certified course test, the Garmin accurately followed me hugging the inside of a wide-radius curve in the road. To be clear, the Ultra’s track is not bad—there are no jumps or wobbles—but it was consistently outside the curve which, as any track runner knows, means a longer distance. But, this is zooming way in and nitpicking. In any case, the Ultra is tracking better than I’ve seen on any of the previous versions of Apple Watch.

apple watch ultra map tracking
The Apple Watch Ultra (red) has improved tracking, but the Garmin Fenix 7X showed more accurately how I ran the inside of this curve.
Jeff Dengate via Google Maps

In fact, the tracking is so good that it literally showed me turning into the door of my garage. Don’t bother looking for that on Strava because I promptly changed my privacy settings and now share less info about my running routes. So, maybe we don’t really need GPS running watches to be any more accurate after all?

A Massive Case Holds a Bigger Battery

Take a look at any of the longest-lasting GPS running watches and you’ll find they’re all enormous. The Fenix 7X and Vertix 2 can both go weeks between charges in normal use, jogging an hour or so every day, but they both weigh 89 grams, too. The Apple Watch Ultra is similarly oversized—just 74 grams—if slightly smaller and thinner. Have a tiny wrist? You’re outta luck. As a smartwatch with an exceptionally bright, always-on display, the battery doesn’t last nearly as long as that of dedicated GPS running watches. While I have not run an ultramarathon to confirm the 12-hours runtime when using full GPS, I have lived with the watch to see how long it can go between charges.

I’ve found the battery easily gets me through two days of normal life and daily jogs. Taking the Ultra off the magnetic charger at 8AM last Wednesday, I didn’t have to put it back on the cradle until I went to bed Thursday night. In that time, I had gone on two one-hour runs and commuted to work by bike (10 minutes) with GPS active. I still had 32 percent battery remaining.

garmin fenix 7x vs apple watch ultra
The Apple Watch Ultra is just slightly smaller and lighter than the Garmin Fenix 7X Sapphire Solar.
Trevor Raab

It’s worth noting here that I turn off the always-on display to extend the battery life. That’s an old habit from previous versions, when it would chew through the battery in less than a day. I much prefer to avoid the charging cable as long as I can.

That extra run time extends your training runs and races, too. Previously, if you used the Apple Watch to track a marathon with GPS and cellular enabled, plus streaming music from the watch to Bluetooth headphones, you’d run dry before the course closed in six hours. Sure, that’s long enough if you’re a speedy marathoner. But for any runners who are on a road longer, it was an added stress and inconvenience. Now you get double the run time, plus Apple gives you even more flexibility to manage battery life: Low-power mode still affords full GPS tracking and heart rate monitoring, though turns off the always-on display, reduces cellular connectivity, and limits things like auto-workout detection and irregular heart rate notifications so the watch can last longer. (Note: There’s a 60-hour low-power mode on the way later this year, but Apple has not released that functionality yet.)

Hooray for Buttons!

I’ll confess, I love buttons. I love buttons so much that, even on a watch like the Garmin Fenix 7X which has a touchscreen, I disable the touchscreen when I’m running. On the move, I find it easier to blindly change settings using a combination of button presses. Need a lap? Just tap that bottom-right button. Change to a different data view? The bottom-left does that.

Until now, Apple has mostly relied on the touchscreen, though you could employ the dial and side button for some functions—I set up Apple Watch 7 to pause or start a workout by pressing both at the same time. With the Apple Watch Ultra, you get another button on the left side that Apple calls the Action button. Bonus: all of the physical controls are large enough so you can easily press them with gloves on.

This content is imported from poll. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

A lot is being made of the Action button because you can change how it behaves. In fairness, Garmin has had “hot keys” for generations of its running watches, allowing you to set the functionality of a button to your most frequently used commands. On the Ultra, you’re limited to seven options for the Action button—workout, stopwatch, waypoint, backtrack, dive, flashlight, shortcut (or “none,” which technically is an eighth option). After you’ve launched that initial app, the button can take on more app-specific actions.

For example, I have my test watch set up to launch the Workout app. After the watch has acquired a satellite fix, I can press the Action button a second time to start my run.

This brings up two huge improvements for the Workouts app—satellite confirmation and no countdown. Previously, you just had to trust that the Apple Watch was going to find satellites, unlike other watches that give you a status bar and beep when you have a lock. (Remember the days of standing outside with your hand in the air?) Now, the Ultra displays a little spinning icon in the top-left corner of the Workouts app, and it turns blue when you’re all set. This typically takes only a few seconds.

The other big change is that, once you have your satellite lock, you can start your run with just a button push. For example, when you cross the start line of a race with chip timing, you don’t have to wait through the 3, 2, 1 countdown or do a double-tap to make that go away. Just press the Action button and it starts your clock instantly. It behaves just like a dedicated running watch. Small things like this excite me.

Lap Splits and Custom Workouts

What good is a running watch if it can’t record your interval session cleanly for review later—or even let you set up a complex workout with different length reps and recoveries? The Apple Watch Ultra now joins the ranks of just about every other performance running timekeeper.

apple watch ultra mark segment
A new button on the left side of Apple Watch Ultra can be used to take lap splits.
Trevor Raab

When the Ultra is tracking your run, you can hit the Action button and it’ll record a segment (a lap split). This functions a little differently than, say, a Garmin that’s set up to auto-lap every mile. As an example, let’s use the scenario where you run out 1.5 miles and turn around to return home. The Garmin will beep at 1 mile and record the split. If you hit the lap button as you turn around at 1.5 miles, the Garmin will record that half-mile split, then it will continue to record you for another full mile—it’ll beep with your third split at 2.5 miles.

By comparison, the Apple Watch Ultra will track your splits every mile, but it records “segments” separately. In the case of that out-and-back run, you could review all three mile splits in the Fitness app on your iPhone afterward. And, if you hit the lap button only at the turnaround, you’d also see two 1.5-mile segments listed right below your splits, complete with time and pace for each of those.

Previous versions of the Apple Watch also could record splits, but it required you to raise your watch and double-tap the face, which I found didn’t always work well and certainly wasn’t as instantaneous as the button press. That distinction is important because it’s much more precise for taking splits, like when you start or stop an interval on the track.

In the Workouts app, you can select from a number of preset “Custom” workouts like 8x400m or 1-minute hill repeats—or you can create your own. In the example below, I was setting up a ladder workout, where my first four steps are to run hard for 400 meters, jog for 200 meters, run hard for 800 meters, and recover again with a 400-meter jog. You can set this all from the watch face, though it is a little tedious to create complex workouts with various distances and times.

apple watch ultra custom workout screenshots
Screenshots from the Apple Watch Ultra when I set up a custom workout
Jeff Dengate

Setting all these options gives you the extra benefit of doing your workout on the road—it’s becoming increasingly hard to find tracks with public access these days. Instead, just run or jog until the Watch notifies you of your next interval. As you progress through your workout, the screen will change to display what your next effort is: “Work 400M” means you’re running a hard interval for 400 meters. Plus it will let you know what step you’re on—1 of 8, for example.

Typically, I don’t use the custom workouts feature on a watch. Instead, I head to the track and just hit the lap button every time I come around to the end of an interval (and recovery jog). The Action button makes it easy to do this, too, by simply using the “Open Goal” type of run.

Advanced Stride Metrics

Earlier this year, Apple announced a suite of new running metrics that were going to be included in WatchOS 9, the operating system that currently powers the Apple Watch Ultra. What’s impressive about some of these is that they’re being calculated at the wrist, rather than requiring you to wear a separate pod strapped to your chest or mounted on your waistband. The Fenix 7X, too, can track metrics like vertical oscillation, ground contact time, and running power, but with the use of an HRM-Pro strap or Running Dynamics Pod. Coros and Polar have introduced wrist-based metrics, as well.

During my testing of the Ultra, I consistently saw numbers that closely correlate to what I was getting on the Fenix 7X. On a hilly 5.6-mile run around Easton, Pennsylvania, both watches were spot on for heart rate average (124 bpm) and stride length (1.10 meters), while vertical oscillation (8.8cm for Apple Watch Ultra vs 8.6cm on Garmin Fenix 7X) and ground contact time (228ms vs 271ms) were small variances, though I’m not certain if either is right.

The one place that the two watches disagree somewhat is running power. That’s mostly because there is no real standard for running power currently. It’s implemented differently and we’ve seen different measurements when using different devices. What’s important is that it corresponds to the work you’re doing, consistently. In the end, the Fenix said I averaged 336 watts, but the Apple Watch Ultra said 259 watts. I looked at the metric a few times during the run, and the numbers seemed to rise and fall in relatively the same manner as I went from flat ground to a short but steep hill. Looking at charts of the data afterward, you can see the same general shape to the power graph, though the Y-scale is different. (I imported the Apple FIT data into Garmin Connect to more easily compare the data in charts with the same styling.)

apple watch ultra and garmin fenix 7x power measurements
The power measurements from Apple Watch Ultra (bottom) largely follow the same graph shape as the Garmin Fenix 7X, though the watts displayed are consistently lower.
Jeff Dengate via Garmin Connect

Navigation, but Not Turn-by-Turn Courses

Navigating with an Apple Watch is quite easy, thanks to Maps being built-in standard. But, if you’re running with the Workouts app, there’s no real way to create a looped course and get turn-by-turn directions. That’s a nifty feature I use quite a bit on a Garmin Fenix and the Coros Vertix 2. When traveling to a new city, it keeps me from getting lost and I can run along popular routes easily. For Apple Watch, there are some third-party apps you can download, like RunGo, which offer this functionality, but then you’re not leveraging all of the runner-friendly features that have been rolled into the native Workouts app.

Instead, you have to make use of the Maps app to navigate, while the new Backtrack function within the Compass app will help keep you from getting lost. Backtrack is a feature that you have to turn on—open Compass and click on the icon that looks like two shoes. If Apple finds you’ve gone off the grid—a likely remote location—the Watch will automatically activate Backtrack. In my tests, I found the display is zoomed in tightly on the breadcrumb trail; there’s no base map to see streets or geographic features. But, that’s all good because if you’re leveraging this feature, your biggest concern is that you’re literally able to retrace your footsteps to get back toward your starting point. For that, it works well.

Give Me All the Music

Since Apple Watch 3 was released, I’ve said the cellular model is the only way to go. Sure, it’ll set you back $10/month on your phone bill, but it gives you connectivity to make calls, send texts, and, most important, stream any song you want—all while leaving your bulky phone behind. Other watches will let you store a few hundred MP3s or pre-download Spotify tracks; however, you’re stuck with what you have on the device and you need to manage that music.

With a cellular version of the Apple Watch, I can just ask Siri to play whatever strikes my mood. In a rut during a long run? Maybe a jazz playlist. Need something more upbeat mid-track workout? Not a problem. I’ve even discovered lots of new artists thanks to suggestions Apple Music makes while I’m out on the road.

Cellular isn’t unique to the Ultra—an Apple Watch 8 with cellular costs $100 more than the non-cell version. All versions of the Apple Watch Ultra come with cellular capability.

The Homestretch

With the new GPS accuracy, longer battery life, and performance metrics for runners in the Workouts app, the Apple Watch Ultra will do everything that about 95 percent of runners will ever really need. It’s the one do-it-all watch that runners can confidently strap to their wrists.

In generations past, that decision between an Apple Watch and another GPS running watch wasn’t as clear cut, because there were always a few compromises to be made. And, to be fair, given the Ultra’s price, it’s still not an easy decision. For half the cost of an Ultra, you can have a Garmin Forerunner 255, which has far more running features—though far fewer iPhone-like functions.

But, you buy this watch because of all the other things it does beyond just running. You buy it because it’s an Apple Watch. It’s an Apple Watch that finally keeps up with your running life.

This content is imported from poll. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.