Will the new Apple Watch Ultra make you ditch your Garmin?

Apple Watch Ultra
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple has revealed a new watch designed for harsh outdoor environments. The Apple Watch Ultra is tougher than any of the company's previous watches, with much longer battery life – but is it enough to make you trade in your Garmin?

First, let's take a look at the design. The Apple Watch Ultra has a 49mm case made from aerospace-grade titanium, topped with a flat sapphire crystal lens. On the side of the watch you'll find a redesigned Digital Crown that's easier to grip while wearing gloves, plus a physical button (in fetching International Orange for visibility), which can be programmed to perform different functions.

Underneath the sapphire crystal, there's an AMOLED display with always-on, which can be switched to a red-only night mode that's easier on your eyes after dark and won't affect your night vision as much as white or blue light.

For activities on the trail, water, or crag, it's a big improvement on the standard Apple Watch design, which has remained virtually unchanged for many years. The physical button means you're not reliant on a touchscreen, and the flat lens should be more resistant to knocks and drops.

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

However, I'd argue that for adventurers, one button simply isn't enough, even paired with an improved Digital Crown. Most of the best GPS watches – including those with touchscreens – offer multiple buttons dedicated to specific tasks. If you're using a Garmin Forerunner, Fenix, or Epix for example, you know that the top right button will always start or pause your activity, the bottom right will always log a new lap, and the top left will always activate the backlight. There's no need to look down at your wrist, or even think about it.

It's the same with watches from Polar, Amazfit or Coros; once you're familiar with the setup, you can do anything you need to without even glancing down. The Apple Watch Ultra is a step in the right direction, but the multi-function controls just aren't as practical.

The Apple Watch Ultra's display looks stunning though, and its high resolution will make it excellent for maps and navigation. That gives it a big advantage over some of its rivals, which rely on lower-res memory in pixel displays that just can't give the same level of detail.

Finding your way

That leads us to GPS. The Apple Watch Ultra features dual-band GPS, which should allow it to pinpoint your location more accurately in locations where the radio signal from satellites is blocked or reflected by tall buildings, trees, or cliffs.

Many of the best Garmin watches, including the Garmin Forerunner 955 and Enduro 2, also offer dual-band GPS, so it will be interesting to see how the two compare.

It's not yet clear whether the Apple Watch Ultra will have a feature quite like Garmin's SatIQ, which switches GPS modes automatically to balance accuracy and battery life. It does, however, have a battery optimization mode, which is due to arrive with a firmware update later this fall.

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

When it comes to serious outdoor sports, battery life has always been one of the Apple Watch's biggest problems. The standard Apple Watch needs charging every day, which makes it impractical for off-grid adventures and multi-day events. The Apple Watch Ultra shakes things up... a bit.

According to Apple, the new rugged watch lasts 36 hours on a single charge in regular use. That's double the battery life of the Apple Watch 8, but it's still far, far shorter than a typical GPS watch and means you'll need to plug it in every other day. Most GPS sports watches can run for two weeks in smartwatch mode, and 30-40 hours with continuous GPS tracking. Solar watches like the Garmin Enduro and Instinct 2 Solar extend that even further.

The Apple Watch Ultra's relatively brief battery life is no doubt party down to that lovely always-on display, but it's possible that Apple's engineers also opted for a smaller power cell to keep the device's dimensions modest. Watches like the Garmin Enduro 2 and Coros Vertix 2 keep running for days and days between charges, but are also unashamedly huge. If Apple is going to compete on battery life, it might need to go bigger – and start working on solar charging, too.

Get connected

One thing that sets the Apple Watch Ultra apart from other rugged GPS watches is cellular connectivity. There's currently only one cellular Garmin watch available (the Forerunner 945 LTE), so this is definitely a point to Apple.

Cellular connectivity means you can use your watch to make calls download apps, stream music, and sync data without a Bluetooth connection to your handset. That can come in very handy for all kinds of emergencies, as Tim Cook explained in his introductory speech, where he shared some letters from Apple Watch users who believe that the device helped save their lives.

The letter writers included a man who was trapped in a garbage truck, a young woman who was in a plane crash, and a student who found a bear in his home. The student was unable to find his phone to call for emergency services, but was able to summon help using his Apple Watch (for advice on what else you can do, see our guide what to do if you meet a bear).

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

The Apple Watch Ultra also comes with an app that effectively turns it into a dive computer for scuba and free diving. It's certainly not as feature-rich as a dedicated dive watch like the Garmin Descent Mk2, but it'll be a welcome addition for recreational divers. 

Unlike a typical GPS multi-sports watch, which will likely be rated to a depth of 50-100m for general swimming and slow-speed water sports, the Apple Watch Ultra is certified to EN 11319, which is the international standard for dive computers.

As you'd expect, all of this commands a premium price tag. The Apple Watch Ultra costs $799, and is available to pre-order now for delivery on September 23. That's a high-end price, and substantially more than most GPS watches, but still less than the Garmin Epix or Enduro 2.

Ultimately, it comes down to which features are most important to you. If chunky practicality and outright battery life are key for you, then you'll be better served by a device from the likes of Garmin or Coros. However, if you're looking for a watch that can also replace your phone in many situations, the Apple Watch Ultra is well worth your consideration.

Cat Ellis

Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 15 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better), usually wearing at least two sports watches.