Apple Watch Ultra Review: Is It a Garmin Killer?

After a few weeks of testing, I’m finally willing to weigh in on the Apple Watch Ultra. The latest addition to the Apple Watch range is squarely aimed at chiseling away market share from Garmin’s user base of elite athletes. While Apple sells exponentially more watches (Apple owns 56% of the smartwatch market globally) each year than Garmin, Garmin has a fiercely loyal fan base of people who want exceptional battery life and training-specific metrics above all else. 

Does the Apple Watch shed its reputation as a great smartwatch but a lackluster sports watch? 

Read on. 

Apple Watch Ultra Specs

First, some numbers. The Apple Watch Ultra comes in one size, 49mm, and is made of super light and durable titanium. It has an IP6X dust resistance rating and is waterproof up to 100 meters. It features an always-on Retina display that gets insanely bright – 2,000 nits at peak brightness. I haven’t tested it in sunny weather (because I live in northern Michigan and we haven’t seen the sun in about 6 weeks) but I have no qualms saying that you’ll have zero issues seeing this in direct sunlight. 

You’ll notice the digital crown knob is bigger than the Series 8 watch (and all previous editions of the Apple Watch) to make scrolling easier with gloves or on the move. The knob does touch my arm a bit more than previous models, but I got used to that very quickly. Apple has also added guards around the knob to reduce accidental turning of the knob and/or button pushes. Smart.

Another change from “regular” Apple Watch models is the Action Button. Leave it to Apple to make the addition of a button to be viewed by the company as a revolution in sports watch technology. (Garmins usually have five buttons, used to navigate the OS.) The Action Button is all hype. It can be programmed to launch any app you’d like, but I’ve kept it to launching the Workout App. It saves me about 3 seconds. It does, however, make it far easier to track laps or intervals on your runs, which is a big step forward over past Apple Watches. If you’re a runner who does intervals, this is a pretty great hardware addition. 

Apple Watch Ultra Battery 

The biggest difference between Garmins and Apple Watches of yore, above all else, has always been battery life. I ran a Garmin Fenix 6 Pro for a short while this fall and the battery life was sensational. I could easily get 12 days out of it, which included GPS-tracked bike rides and strength workouts.

The Ultra brings battery life forward in a huge way for Apple. While Apple says users can get up to 36 hours of normal use from the Ultra, I’m routinely getting 52-55 hours of battery life. This includes GPS-tracked workouts, as well as Apple Fitness+ workouts. On low power settings, Apple says you can get up to 60 hours between charges. While I haven’t tested this out yet, I would make a $5 bet users can extend the battery to last at least 65 hours between charging using this setting. 

If battery life is super important to you, a Garmin Fenix is probably the choice for you. However, the screen on the Fenix line-ups (and all Garmin watches, save for the Epix and Venu) is terribly dull. To deliver multi-week battery life, Garmin uses transflective display technology on their screens. The result is an exceptionally dull screen with lackluster color, and perhaps more annoyingly, a screen you have to use a backlight button in order to see the screen at night. If you go from an Apple Watch to a Garmin Fenox, the screen looks like it comes from the stone age. The screen quality was a huge reason why I returned the Garmin this fall. 

For me, the increase in battery life on the Garmin doesn’t make up for the bright, detailed, and vivid display on the Apple Watch Ultra. Plus, when you factor in that you can go from 0% to 100% charge on your Ultra in just an hour, the Ultra’s battery is plenty sufficient – at least for me. 

Where the Apple Watch Falls Short Versus Garmin

The main area where the Apple Watch just can’t compete with Garmin is in recovery metrics. Garmin’s Training Readiness Score, Stress Tracking, Battery Battery, etc., are nowhere to be found on the Ultra. When I was using my Fenix, I really loved these features – at first. After a week, the numbers seemed superfluous to my training needs. For example, I don’t need a Garmin metric to tell me “you’re tired” the day after doing an hour and forty-five-minute Zwift race where I was at threshold for over an hour. I know I’m tired. I can feel it everywhere in my body, thank you very much. 

Apple Watch Ultra Health Metrics

The Apple Watch Ultra offers, frankly, an insane amount of health metrics. The same, or more, than the Garmins do. I found the HRV and heart rate tracking more accurate on the Ultra than the Fenix, but I think that’s likely due to the Garmin’s sensors being 3-year-old hardware at the time I used it. I imagine the new sensors on the Epix and the Fenix 7 are just as good as the Ultra. I also noticed the Apple Watch is far better at sleep tracking than Garmin. The Ultra was accurate down to the minute on when I fell asleep when I woke up, and when I actually got out of bed. 

The Garmin routinely thought I was asleep in the evening while reading or watching TV. This occurred even when I programmed by normal bedtime and awake time. I wasn’t the only user who had this issue with Garmins. DC Rainmaker and DesFit also have noted this issue on multiple Garmin watches.

Apple Watch Ultra Activity Tracking

I’ve always had excellent luck with heart rate and GPS tracking on Apple Watches, and the Ultra continues that trend. I took the Ultra on a few hikes (one at Glacial Hills and the other at Pelizarri Natural Area) and the GPS was spot on. A run through the “tall” buildings of downtown Traverse City caused zero issues for the GPS. For the first time, Apple is using dual-frequency GPS in the Ultra for even more accurate tracking. I never have had issues with Apple’s GPS before, but I imagine it’ll be even more accurate in dense forests when on mountain bike rides. That’s cool with me. 

Keep in mind that the addition of dual-frequency GPS bands isn’t an industry first. Companies like Garmin and SUUNTO have used this tech for a few years now. 

One area where the Ultra falls down is route mapping. While there’s a back-track feature to get you back to your start point on your journey, there’s no ability to download routes and have turn-by-turn directions. If you’re like me, this isn’t a dealbreaker for the Ultra. I use my Garmin bike computer for navigation in the woods and on the roads of northern Michigan. However, if you frequently travel to new places and use maps on your runs, this could be an important feature for you. Do a little research, but route mapping is standard on just about every Garmin watch. 

Apple Watch Ultra: The Final Verdict

At $800, this is Apple’s most expensive watch its ever made. Fortunately, it’s also far-and-away its best watch. I was lucky to time my purchase of the Ultra with a sale offered up by Verizon and trading in my Series 7, which brought the total price down to just under $500. That’s a lot of money for a smartwatch, I know. But Apple’s WatchOS updates ensure this watch will be supported for at least 5 years, so it should be a safe investment. 

The drastic increase in battery life, the more durable design, and the addition of dual-band GPS make the Ultra every bit as good as any sports watch out there. Its talents as a smartwatch (texting, Siri, email, etc.) make this the best of both worlds (smartwatch and sports watch) in a way that no other watch manufacturer can match. 

If you’d prefer a Garmin for its longer battery life (or you can’t buy an Ultra because you have an Android) the Garmin Epix 2 is the closest competitor to the Ultra. It offers 16 days of battery life and an AMOLED display that comes close to the Ultra in terms of brightness can detail. It also has a touchscreen, which, to me, is miles better than navigating by buttons like you do on older Garmins. The only issue with the Epix is the price – it starts at $899, $100 more than the Ultra. 

If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem and looking for an Apple Watch on steroids, then this is the watch to get. You’ll love the big increase in battery life and the new, rugged looks. If you want a watch that can go weeks without charging, and you’re prepared to lose out on most of the smartwatch features, Garmin has an extensive line-up to choose from.

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