“Another kind of traveler requires to know in terms of maps exactly where he is pin-pointed every moment, as though there were some kind of safety in black and red lines, in dotted indications and the squirming blue of lakes and the shadings that indicate mountains. It is not so with me. I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found…” – John Steinbeck, 1962
When the first Apple Watch hit the market in 2015, it showed no signs of ever becoming a serious tool watch. Apple had never served the outdoor community, and, for some of us outdoorsy types, Apple’s highly connected products contradicted our urge to disconnect, get lost, and leave modern life behind.
I have long been allergic to modern technology in the great outdoors. I’m more likely to scuba dive with a mechanical watch, even valuable vintage Rolex Submariners and sundry other old-school divers. Get me off the grid, and I’d more likely turn to a paper map, magnetic compass and an eye on the setting sun to find my way. Even hitting the gym I’m prone to sweat it out in analog.
So until recently, I was having a hard time seeing how an Apple product of any kind, let alone one strapped to my wrist, could find its way into my outdoor life. When I do require a high-tech tool watch, I typically turn to Garmin, Suunto and sometimes Casio. Or I use a dedicated dive computer for scuba, preferably my now antiquated, discontinued, boring-but-reliable Scubapro. But an Apple Watch? No, that wasn’t going to happen.
Then this past fall, Apple gave us outdoorsy types the Apple Watch Ultra. It’s a big tool watch, light and tough in titanium, that we could beat on, bang around, get wet, perhaps even trust our survival to when things go sideways in the great outdoors. Last week, Apple launched the Oceanic+ app, which turned the Ultra into a fully featured dive computer. And yes, now we can take it scuba diving.
Suddenly Apple, a company heavily invested in our fascination with screens of all sizes, was claiming to serve our urge to disconnect and get lost in nature. As you might imagine, I was deeply skeptical. Surely no single tool watch, however sophisticated, could do it all — let alone a smartwatch. But Apple wanted to prove that the Ultra could be that one tool for people like me, so the company invited a group of journalists to Kona, Hawaii to trek, hike, trail run, scuba dive and more with the Ultra. Gear Patrol reached out, thinking I might cast a particularly critical eye.
GP’s tech editor had already spent a week with the watch in September — and came away impressed by the Ultra’s capabilities as a running watch. But this new testing proposition was, literally and figuratively, a much deeper one. And so I was dispatched to our 50th state to check it out.
Kona is a rugged place, part rainforest, part desert, part lava field. Its mountains run some six miles under the ocean, providing gorgeous dives along its coast, including one in which I swam into a lava tube formed during an eruption in 1957. During our trip, the Pacific swells tossed me against those rock walls and I felt the Apple Watch Ultra scrape. I fell in red clay mud, sludging the Ultra and myself. I ran an SOS call to a remote satellite from a black sand beach surrounded by thousand-foot cliffs. I even found myself off-road in a beat-up old 4×4 with firefighters running a medical kit to a fallen hiker (long story).
Indeed, Kona turned out to be a good place to put Apple’s claims about the Ultra to the test. In short, after three rather exhausting days of beating on the thing, I saw that the Apple Watch Ultra can do everything I do, do it excellently, and perhaps even do it better than the other tools I’ve used over the years.
Frankly, I was inclined to dismiss the Apple Watch Ultra, but instead I find myself now welcoming Apple to do even more to serve us eccentric outdoorsy folks. Here’s why.
The Ultra Is Tougher than It Looks
The Ultra is 49mm across and its screen sits under a sapphire crystal recessed just below a thin titanium bezel — the same stuff found in the best dive watches from Rolex, Tudor and Omega. It’s a tough construction, ready for abuse above and below sea level. Even so, I found the watch to be surprisingly light and comfortable for its size.
The Ultra’s depth rating is 100 meters, which is more than enough for most recreational divers. I’ve taken dive watches rated to 100m down as deep as 145 feet (44m) and had no problem. I took the Ultra down to 92 feet (28m), and it remained bone dry. (If you’re going deeper than 130 feet, you’ll need a bevy of specialized tech-diving equipment anyways.)
The screen of the Ultra is dazzlingly bright, clear and perhaps even beautiful as it outputs 2,000 nits, twice that of any other Apple Watch to date. Unless you’re underwater, the Ultra’s screen responds to gestures with Apple’s signature organic feel. If you are underwater, you’re going to want to lean more on the digital crown and Action button — something no other Apple Watch has — on the left side to perform various functions.
Apple designed three unique straps for the Ultra. The Alpine Loop is reminiscent of trekking gear, comfortable and stylish in a crunchy, outdoorsy way. The Ocean Band is the one designed for divers; it’s a chunkier option, made from a very flexible, durable rubber called fluroelastomer. And finally there’s my favorite, the Trail Loop, which is a light, comfortable and simple elasticized fabric affair with velcro closure.
All told, the Ultra is an elegant and tough tool watch. Wearing it, however, doesn’t feel like wearing traditional tool watches, which tend to be heavy in stainless steel as well as able to broadcast a rugged vibe. Predictably, the Ultra feels high tech, futuristic and even a little geeky on the wrist. For this reason, it took me a minute to trust that I could beat it up, but I was eventually able to accept that one need not baby this tiny supercomputer that calls itself a watch.
Trekking with the Ultra
If you enjoy going off the grid, as I do, definitely consider the Ultra. It has the most precise compass and the most sophisticated GPS of any Apple Watch.
The Ultra uses a dual GPS system that correlates standard L1 and the more precise L5 signals. This makes the Ultra’s GPS precise to within inches in all three dimensions, which was especially impressive in regard to small changes in altitude as I hiked or, intriguingly, rode an elevator. The GPS system can collate fine-grained data points into detailed information reports — the merits of which can range from overkill to life-saving, depending what you’re up to.
Trekking down a trail (more like a ladder) to the Kohala Coast where the rainforests of the Pololu Valley drain into the ocean, I’d set a Waypoint on the beach far below using the Ultra’s compass app. Then I set the Retrace Steps function in motion. The precision with which the Ultra’s compass led me to my Waypoint, and with which it sent me back up the steep trail was impressive. Had I not known where I was headed, or had it grown dark and moonless, I’m confident that the Ultra would have seen me back to basecamp safely.
As for safety features, the watch includes a bonafide 86dB SOS siren that Apple claims is audible from over 660 feet (200 meters) away, which would be useful should one fall into a glacial crevasse or off a boat well after sunset. The Ultra can call 911 (or a similar emergency network) as long as you have an LTE connection. and it will share your location with the authorities. The Ultra will then send the same info to your emergency contacts.
Those emergency SOS calls happen when you activate the service with the right-hand button (below the digital crown) on the Ultra, or when either Crash Detection or Fall Detection have been triggered via the device’s gyroscope. As a motorcyclist, I especially appreciate the Crash Detection feature.
But if you’re so far off-grid that you’re outside cellular service, then bring your iPhone 14.
The iPhone 14 can independently contact emergency satellites when cellular networks aren’t available. Apple will relay that distress call to 911 (or similar), whose operators will then relay the information to a relevant rescue crew. The Ultra’s antennas aren’t yet powerful enough to reach the satellites, which are over 800 miles away and travel at over 15,000mph (24,140kph), but the iPhone 14 can do it.
We tried linking the iPhone to the emergency satellite from that remote beach I’d hiked down to, and it worked. The app shows you where to point it, which can make the difference between life and death in certain situations.
Sweating with the Ultra
As most Apple Watch adherents would suspect, the Ultra has fitness and health trackers galore. However, the Ultra is a more accurate tracker than any of Apple’s other smartwatches, thanks to its more advanced dual GPS system as well as the Action button, which makes it easier for “serious” athletes to tackle interval training and quick-start workouts.
Admittedly, due to a shattered tibia plateau from a skiing injury years ago, I had to opt out of our trip’s trail run in the mud along the western coast of Kona. Nonetheless, I did manage to wipe out in my sandals and smear the Ultra in red clay. A quick rinse in a dirty puddle and all functions were still going, the buttons and digital crown still working.
Though my workout stumbling around in the mud wasn’t quite what others were up to, I did monitor my vitals, and I learned a lot.
The Ultra monitors and displays biological data in real time. Heart rate, of course, but also ECG which can detect the irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation and sound an alarm. Blood oxygen levels, check. Energy expenditure (aka calorie burn), check. Sleep patterns, check. And now body temperature, which is useful for women tracking menstrual cycles and, frighteningly, also relevant to anyone during a pandemic.
The gyroscope that detects your falls and crashes can also keep tabs on how you run, including the amount of time your feet are making contact with the ground, how much you swing your elbows and other metrics elite runners use to hone their craft — all of which can be monitored in real time with alarms triggered to keep your form steady.
Interval pace tracking is also available across various activities. Pace monitoring is one of the more sophisticated training tools available to athletes today, especially endurance athletes. The Ultra correlates GPS data with your interval pace goal and lets you know if you’re ahead, behind, or on schedule. Prior to pace-tracking, those of us looking for better training insights tended to correlate heart-rate with intervals. Correlating pace with heart-rate is like seeing your fitness in 3D.
As a former competitive road cyclist who specialized in mountain stages, I can say that correlating interval pace, heart-rate and the Ultra’s sensitive altimeter data would have been a huge boon not only to training but also to race-day performance. I wish I’d had it back in the day when I was still fast.
Whatever type of fitness you get up to, the Ultra’s Workout app appears to lack nothing. There are, of course, also a bevy of excellent third-party Workout apps ready for use on the Ultra, from skiing to golf to tennis.
Diving with the Ultra
The Apple Watch Ultra had been out in the world for a few months now, but Oceanic+, the app that essentially turns the Ultra into a bonafide dive computer, is new. Because the safety of countless divers was going to be trusted to this app (and to Apple Watch Ultra), it had to be rock solid. But to pull seasoned divers away from their fancy dive computers, it had to be excellent — and beautiful.
Before diving, Mike Huish of the renowned scuba company Oceanic walked me through the Oceanic+ app, and as he did so I sat up straighter. It was then that it hit me: if this thing worked then my old dive watch, my trusty dive computer, and even my lovely mechanical compass (sniff sniff) were about to get the boot. But I really needed to get in the water.
When I jumped off the back of the dive boat, the Oceanic+ app came to life at 3 feet (1 meter) below the surface. As I descended further, this rig felt as natural and familiar as my old and trusted dive tools. Within a few minutes I realized how undeniably compelling — even beautiful — the Apple Watch Ultra and the Oceanic+ app were together. Tech-y, sure, but lovely.
Throughout my dives that day I ran the Ultra through its paces. I’d scraped the Ultra along the walls of that lava tube with no issue. I’d ascended too fast and the Oceanic+ app stopped me with a haptic alert. I saw that the water was consistently at 80 degrees regardless of depth. I noted moray eels and some very rare fish I’d spotted into the Oceanic+ log for each dive, the kind of notes I wish I’d kept all along over the years, but hadn’t.
After two full-length dives, I felt I’d just seen the future of scuba computers. Here are the details that leave me making such a claim.
The Ultra has excellent legibility
Lots of people (like me) need corrective lenses for reading but don’t have them in their scuba masks. I’m very happy to report that the Ultra’s screen in general and the Oceanic+ app were incredibly legible in all conditions, even with middle-aged eyes.
It’s the perfect size for a dive watch
The Ultra is a very nice size for diving. The screen felt ideally scaled for the task. Unlike the enormous dive computers that now dominate the market, this watch is one I could leave on all the time, even at dinner, which is my preference.
It has a familiar data set for divers
Dive computers are all arranged pretty much the same way, and for good reason. These devices show us relevant data, sized in the proper hierarchical manner: depth is primary, dive time secondary, no-decompression time tertiary, and alarms jumping to the fore as needed. The Oceanic app conformed to the norms, as it should. The data was immediately familiar and presented no learning curve.
The interface is intuitive and easy to learn
Getting around the various functions in the Oceanic+ app was surprisingly intuitive, after a little adjustment. I had to break an old habit of squeezing the whole watch when depressing the digital crown, as I tended to squeeze the left-hand action button too, setting things into motion I hadn’t intended to. It also took me a moment to stop tapping the screen, as it doesn’t work underwater, but I quickly got over that. Once I did, Apple’s lovely interface proved exceptional.
The compass is fantastic
A perfectly legible compass is available at the twist of the Ultra’s digital crown. This compass was so much easier to get to than on even the most sophisticated modern dive computers, and the Oceanic+ compass was easier to read than my beloved old-school mechanical compass.
The diving alarms are key, and super helpful
Oceanic+ will send haptic signals through a 5mm wetsuit, no problem. Alarms also show up as bright, color-coded screen warnings. We’d set conservative depth and time thresholds in order to trigger the alarms, and it was easy enough to kill them using the action button on the left. I’d never set such conservative alarms again, however, as every time I descended below 50 feet I got a haptic warning. For my second dive I set it to 100 feet, went to only 92 feet, and stayed vibration free. When I ascended quickly, the Ultra told me to “slow down.” When I took an abbreviated safety stop, it scolded me and left a red mark in my log.
The dive log is beautiful
The log is my favorite feature of the Oceanic+ app. I stopped keeping a dive log years ago, and I wish I’d kept one if only to know what I did on what day. Other dive computers have elaborate logs now that sync with smartphones, but the Oceanic+ app looks especially nice on the iPhone. You get beautiful graphs that display depth, temps, ascent rates and no-deco times. You get maps showing in and out points (nice for drift diving, especially), sliders for logging visibility, surface condition and current. You can make notes of flora and fauna seen and other memorable moments. I wish I had all that for the hundreds of dives I’ve since mostly forgotten.
Room for Improvement
Despite my tendency toward antiquated tech and a penchant for getting lost on purpose, I was truly impressed with the Apple Watch Ultra as an outdoor tool, and especially with the Oceanic+ app for diving. There are, however, some things I’d like to see improved, which I believe would help Ultra better serve us outdoorsy folks.
Focus Modes Could Be Easier
We outdoorsy types tend to want to disconnect, to get lost, to forgo technology and immerse ourselves in nature. It was a little challenging for me to conceptually accept an uber-connected Apple product as an excellent companion for such pursuits.
Specifically, after decades of getting us connected, Apple will need to make it easier for us to selectively disconnect. This is hugely important for Ultra, not only for reasons of escape but for safety, too.
Apple already offers the most sophisticated and customizable Focus Modes of any smart device, but these features are tucked into the recesses of the Settings app. This required a lot of fussing around, and when I wanted to assign an extreme Focus Mode I named “F#@% The World” to the action button on Ultra, it required launching the Shortcuts app on the iPhone, and….well, I still haven’t gotten it to work.
Apple Watch Ultra is crying for a dedicated Focus Mode app. This app would get us out of the Settings app, allow us to quickly select the features we want to keep enabled, and then name the Focus Mode.
My Rock Climbing Focus Mode would eliminate all haptics, for example, as those could be dangerously distracting when dangling. My Mid-Day Hike Focus Mode would disable texts, phone calls, email and social media. I’d have a Writing Focus, a Date Night Focus, and probably five different Motorcycling Focus Modes, depending which bike I was on and what I was doing on it.
Battery Life Concerns
For long-range trekking, the Ultra’s battery life spans from 12 hours of constant exercise tracking, to 36 hours of “normal use,” to 60 hours in low power mode. For most uses, low power mode will suffice much of the time, but I’d pack a solar-charging battery to keep the Ultra juiced up for emergency situations on longer treks.
Battery life remains one of the big questions across a number of tech industries as we try to go carbon neutral, and the signs of improved efficiency are promising. For those of us used to SCUBA computers and other digital watches that run replaceable batteries that can last many months, and sometimes years, Ultra will require a new vigilance.
What’s missing from Oceanic+?
In a nutshell: gas gauge integration. Modern dive computers can accept signals from monitors in our regulators that will put gas levels on the wrist. I pressed Huish on this point, maybe a little too hard as we edged up on the realm of non-disclosure agreements I hadn’t signed. I don’t know if the Ultra can accept the specialized signals that gas monitors send to dive computers, but I got the sense that we will find out soon enough.
In addition to gas monitoring, I’d also like to see some more professional features added to the Oceanic+ app over time. The compass could include programmable countdown timers for navigating from a dive plan in zero visibility conditions. Perhaps the log could connect to my certification organization’s database. All in good time, I’m sure.
Using haptics as communication signals between divers is an interesting idea — like an underwater walkie-talkie. Salt water’s tendency to block radio signals may make it impossible, but perhaps employing the signals used for wireless gas monitors would work for haptic signals between Oceanic+ users. This capability would be useful for trying to share a cool octopus sighting (everyone but me sees them), or for getting attention when in distress.
I can also imagine texting pre-formatted messages between divers using multiple Ultras. Anything from Octopus! to automatically sharing one’s gas levels with a dive leader seems compelling. I am uncertain if relying on the Ultra to send emergency signals underwater would be wise or not, but the idea is interesting.
What’s the future for the Apple Watch Ultra?
The good news is that Apple Watch Ultra is a platform open for development, not a fixed tool destined for replacement. I imagine that the kinds of features I’m suggesting will find their way to various apps, including Oceanic+, over time. Such things will happen should the quirky demands of the outdoorsy set be heard in Cupertino. I got the sense in Hawaii that Apple was listening to us.
I’ve concluded that if you’re going for a digitally connected tool watch that can do it all, the Ultra is at this time the best option. For those who are already using Apple products, the Ultra is going to be a pretty obvious choice. For those who don’t already own and use Apple kit, the buy-in may be a little prohibitive, financially and logistically.
Speaking personally, I’ve found turning back to my old mechanical dive watches and other 20th century tools to be both comforting and strange. Comforting because I know my mother-in-law isn’t going to text me on my Bremont or my Scubapro, and strange because these tools seem like antiques compared to the Ultra.
As romantic as I can be toward watches, in the end my choice to use the Ultra or not would come down to questions of practicality, safety and the kind of adventure I was embarking upon. For scuba, I’m fairly convinced. Were I to train for an endurance event, sure. Were I looking to get totally lost in the southern flats of the San Luis Valley near my spiritual home of Taos, New Mexico — maybe not.
Then again, there is the power button.