KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 28 — My reaction to Apple first announcing that it was adding heart zone tracking to watchOS 9 was: “God I have to start running again.”
It was what I did for my very first Apple Watch review that had me running almost every day, even in the rain, and getting a foot infection in the process but that is another (slightly gross) story.
My reaction to the Apple Watch Ultra announcement was slightly different, but very similar. “Oh God I have to run an actual race.”
This was Apple’s most exciting announcement in years where the Apple Watch was concerned, a watch that had even couch potatoes declaring that they were willing to scale Everest to justify getting the rugged extreme sports-ready device.
Start the fitness montage reel
The very next day after I returned from the Apple Event I was already on my exercise bike to start conditioning my body after a long period of forced inactivity after getting Covid.
Here is the simple reality: you cannot really be “testing” a health and fitness-geared smartwatch without some base level of regular exercise.
If I have to get fit to test a fitness watch, so be it.
This was, however, a challenge as my post-Covid workout routine has consisted of rolling out of bed and hunting down a cup of coffee.
By the time the review units of the Apple Watch Ultra were rolling out to testers, I was already running three to four times a week, doing yoga almost daily and cross-training on my recumbent exercise bicycle one to two times a week.
Is this where I send a Dear Tim email about how the Apple Watch saved my fitness?
It was also a useful period to collect data for comparison with the Apple Watch Series 7 I had been testing.
Disclaimer here: any comparisons with other fitness watches in the Apple Watch Ultra league from the likes of Garmin and such will have to be by specs, and not by personal experience.
Straps three for you, for me
The Apple Watch Ultra comes with three new watch band styles — the Alpine Loop, Trail Loop and the Ocean Band.
What’s behind the fancy names? Each band is geared for specific activities; for instance the Alpine Loop is made for the outdoors, offering comfort, hardiness as well as a very secure fastening with a specially-designed G-hook.
The Trail Loop looks like the existing Sports Loop — a nylon, velcro-fastened strap that is easy to wear but Apple says that its latest iteration is its thinnest band yet.
What differentiates it from the other, similar-looking band, is that it fastens differently from the Sports Loop. Same velcro, different placement.
I find the Ocean Band the oddest looking. From a distance it looks like corrugated cardboard but it’s made from a resistant elastomer that makes it stretchable, with an attached titanium loop that ensures your watch band won’t float away with the fishes.
On Twitter, someone mentioned that the bands are hard to put on one-handed. So in the interest of research I attempted it and I have to agree. To add to the embarrassment factor, I attempted to use just one hand to change the bands and while I did manage it was with great difficulty, wriggling and weighing down the watch case to facilitate my hapless efforts.
For the Ocean Band it is pretty much impossible to one-handedly tack on the titanium clasp that comes with an additional catch you must first release and then affix, so the only way to somewhat manage it is to not put the clasp on while wearing the watch.
Why would one-handed band replacement matter since I do have two working hands?
It does mean that people with mobility issues or are, well, missing a hand would find it difficult to replace those bands. I think the assumption that anyone with a disability should rely on a helper to do things as arguably simple as changing a watch band is a little too common.
I also have a very old and very inconvenient repetitive stress injury (RSI) that has somewhat reduced my mobility and overly fiddly straps are, quite literally, a pain. The Trail Loop is probably the easiest to use and put on, take off or tighten though without the use of another hand the (unhygienic) option would be to use my teeth.
In practical use, the thing about the Ocean Band is that the real test would be how long it can hold up under sea water, whether it would corrode the elastomeric material and I will see if I get any answers about that next week. How many dives would it handle? Would say, a divemaster, have to look at replacing it at intervals?
For the Alipine Loop, it does have fairly tough canvas of the type you would see in adventurer gear and the G-hook is aesthetically pleasing, which must be said.
But as with the Ocean Band, the real test is how long it would last over time and its resistance to elements.
For most people who aren’t trekking across the Himalayas or scuba diving, the Trail Loop is a good choice as it is easier to put on, comfortable to wear even to sleep and is moisture-wicking.
Being so thin, it’s easy to rinse off and it dries in a very short time so for hygiene purposes keeping it clean will not be a problem. Now, how long that Velcro fastening will last is another matter but if it lasts as long as the Sports Loop it shouldn’t be an issue. Sports Loop bands were for a while my favourite bands as they are really convenient and do not irritate my skin the way elastomeric bands tend to do, allowing a snug fit without chafing — which also goes for the Trail Loop
The sheer size of the Apple Watch Ultra case is probably going to be the biggest selling point for people with larger wrists or hands who will like the larger size of the regular Apple Watch.
How large is it? It is 1.92-inches and a depressing confirmation that my hands are fairly large as the watch fits squarely on my wrist but on smaller hands or wrists, it’s likely the watch’s width would look comically huge.
Yet that is one of the draws of “serious” sports watches if you look at the likes of Garmin watches though the brand does now have smaller models meant for more casual wear.
That larger screen also means that it’s easy to glance at it to see all the details and complications without squinting and the extra 2,000 nits brightness — twice the brightness of the latest Apple Watch Series 8 — means that the screen is perfectly visible on a sunny day.
My experience using it in the outdoors, whether out on runs or on climbing Bukit Gasing, was that the display was perfectly viewable and a big bonus was not having to bring it close to my face, just taking a quick glance at it to either check the compass or my current heart BPM.
It also stands up to a lot more abuse so if you worry about cracking the display or scratching the case, the titanium case is both more durable but it also has a slightly raised lip to protect the sapphire glass display from scratches so you will have to work fairly hard to damage it.
On a trail, it was also convenient to have that larger screen when creating and navigating waypoints, as well as the new Backtrack feature that is present on all of this year’s watches.
So far I’m appreciating the larger size of the Apple Watch Ultra and not being too afraid that I’ll rough it up but tune in next week for more real-life battery tests, what it’s like to wear every night before sleeping and how the GPS fares both between tall buildings, and against a real compass in higher altitudes.