November 3, 2022

11 days with the Apple Watch Ultra

It’s great, but I’m sticking with my Series 4 for now.

There’s nothing wrong with the Apple Watch Ultra. Not even the stuff I expected to take issue with ended up bothering me.

It’s a premium smartwatch that improves upon older models in almost every way, and introduces a new category for Apple’s wearables family. I’m excited to see them further differentiate it in future generations.

But for now, I didn’t end up keeping mine. As much as I enjoyed wearing it, it doesn’t provide $1,200 CAD of additional value over my old but reliable Series 4.

A friend asked: what would provide additional value? I had no good answer, which told me that I shouldn’t be spending $1,200 in the hopes of finding out.

But before I shrug and move on with my life, I did want to share a few quick notes about my experience.

Things I thought would bother me that actually didn’t

  1. The size & weight. The titanium case feels a lot lighter than it looks, and while the additional height of the case was certainly noticeable, it didn’t cause any issues. It doesn’t manoeuvre as effortlessly under a tight sleeve, sure, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. I think the absence of rounded edges makes more of a difference there than the height itself. Luckily, my wrists are also wide enough that it doesn’t look disproportionate on me.
  2. The price. This is an expensive toy, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t feeling too bad about spending the money given my history with this category. I owned the Series 0 from day one and held off on upgrading until the Series 4 rolled around. For something I use daily, wear on my body at all times, and don’t want to upgrade frequently, I don’t mind paying a little extra for quality. The Ultra’s fit and finish is impeccable, and since I also happen to be a diving enthusiast, I looked at it as a way to keep the features I want in a smartwatch while also giving me basic dive computer functionality that I don’t have to pay for in a separate device. Expensive? Yes. Overpriced? I don’t think so.
  3. The design. It’s still an ugly watch. I find the Ultra even uglier than the standard Apple Watch Series, but at this point I’ve resigned myself to this aesthetic indignity. The functional benefits continue to outweigh my attention to fashion.

Things I thought would excite me that actually didn’t

  1. The always-on screen. I understand why I’m supposed to love this feature—it’s what a watch is meant to do, you can look at it without moving your body, etc.—but for whatever reason I can’t bring myself to care about this at all. I left it on because it’s new to me, but I can’t say it improved my experience of the watch in any way. No habits changed, no improvements were felt, and now that I’m back on my Series 4 I don’t miss it at all.
  2. The battery life. This turned out to be more of a double-edged sword than I expected. After all, more battery life = better, right? Well…yes, except that the extra battery life comes with a huge caveat: charging takes forever. I thought my charger was broken at first because it took so long. With my Series 4, I have to charge the watch about once a day (for all-day wear + sleep tracking). With the Ultra, I had no trouble getting through 2 days, but I had to plan my charging time and be prepared to go without my watch for hours at a time. At least with the Series 4 I can drop it on the charger when I hop into the shower and get a healthy amount of charge back. Not so with the Ultra. And it still doesn’t feel like a life-changing battery difference the way going from an Apple Watch to, say, a Garmin might.
  3. The speed. You’d think that going from a Series 4 to a Watch that’s several years newer would offer meaningful performance improvements. Going from the Series 0 to the Series 4 was transformative, after all. But Series 4 to Ultra felt…minimal. All the things I do with my Watch—controlling media, opening Hello Weather, setting tasks and timers with Siri, controlling workouts, etc.—felt about the same. Maybe a little faster to execute commands but not to a degree that changed the way I could use the device. I didn’t expect to be wowed the way I was from 0 to 4, but the difference was even smaller than I thought it would be.
  4. The Alpine Loop. I was certain I’d be buying the distinctive orange Alpine Loop with my Ultra. But having tried all three, I walked out with the Trail Loop instead—and it wasn’t even a contest. The Alpine Loop looks cool and feels very sturdy once you get it on, plus the comfort is good. But the fiddly hook system and lack of adjustability made it a no-go for me. The Ocean Band was by far my least favourite, but I never expected to like it. It’s clearly a specialty item designed for diving and aquatic sports and I can’t imagine wanting to wear it in other contexts. It’s long, not particularly comfortable, and significantly cheapens the look of the ensemble to my eyes. The Trail Loop, on the other hand, is unbelievably light, dries quickly if you get it wet, is infinitely adjustable, and it’s the most comfortable Apple Watch band I’ve ever tried.

Now what?

I expected this to be my upgrade year, but I guess I’m back to waiting.

My Series 4 is holding up very well and until an upgrade offers meaningful improvements to the way I use the watch, I’m happy to save the money.

Again, I don’t write this to disparage the Apple Watch Ultra. I truly enjoyed my time with it and was a little sad to return it, but I felt silly keeping it when it really didn’t do anything better than my Series 4 for the way I use the watch.

Maybe I’ll regret it the next time I’m diving, but for now it feels like the right choice.

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