I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the Apple Watch Ultra is the best Apple Watch to buy if you’re serious about running. From the watchOS 9 updates that allow you to build tempo sessions and recognize when you get to a running track, to the all-important action button that allows you to pause your run without taking your gloves off. I’ve run with the Apple Watch Ultra for a year now, and it’s a great gadget, but it hasn’t truly replaced my Garmin watch.
When it came to the London Marathon this year, another Tom’s Guide editor and I put the Garmin Forerunner 965 and the Apple Watch Ultra to the test over 26.2 miles. While the Apple Watch had a bright screen, and both coped well with the GPS challenge of Canary Wharf’s skyrise buildings, the Garmin was a clear winner for one key reason — its battery life.
I want complete confidence that my watch will last from the minute my early-morning alarm goes off to eat my pre-race porridge, until I take my final sip of celebratory wine in the pub, with my medal draped around my neck. The Forerunner 965 lasts 31 hours in GPS mode without music and 8.5 hours in GPS mode with music. Meanwhile, with everything on, the Ultra has a battery life of around 12 hours.
So, with the rumored Apple Watch Ultra 2 dropping in a couple of weeks, here’s what Apple would need to do to finally make me switch from Garmin for good:
A better battery life
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Apple needs to up its game if it wants to keep up with the likes of Garmin, Polar, and Coros in the adventure watch space. At the moment, I have the Garmin Epix Pro strapped to my wrist. Garmin claims that the Epix will last up to 6 days with the display always on; if you turn on GPS, it will last up to 30 hours, and if you turn everything on and listen to music, you’ll get 9 hours out of the watch. There are ways to stretch the endurance up to 14 days when using GPS, though its accuracy will be lower.
With everything on, the Ultra has a battery life of 12 hours. In Apple’s new battery-life-saving mode, you can reduce the frequency of GPS and heart rate readings if you’re going to be away from an outlet for a while and get 60 hours of battery life, but if you’re heading away for a weekend marathon, you’ll almost definitely need to pack your charger.
I’m someone who cannot comprehend charging my watch as much as my phone, and while I appreciate the smartwatch capabilities of the Ultra, the battery life needs to be boosted before it becomes my go-to running watch.
More strap options
Over a year of testing, I’ve struggled to find an Apple Watch Ultra band that works for me. The Alpine loop looked wonderful, with its bright orange, hey-look-at-me design, but I never got to grips with the G-hook, which makes it a little fiddly to get on and off. The Trail Loop is definitely the most comfortable of the three bands to wear and to get on and off and was my go-to, but both the Trail and the Alpine had the same issue — they looked grubby very quickly, and they stayed wet for a while after swims, runs in the rain, or in the shower. With both, I ended up removing the watch to shower, or wash up, which isn’t the end of the world, but is a little annoying.
Lastly, the Ocean Band is designed for water sports. I liked the material of this band and found it far less irritating than the material straps when wet, but it wasn’t the most comfortable for day-to-day wear. This strap is designed to fit over a wetsuit, so there was a lot of material to try and tuck away. Read more about all the Apple Watch Ultra straps here.
Ideally, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 will have some more strap options for fussy runners like me. This wouldn’t be a difficult fix, just give me a silicone sports strap over a soggy material band any day.
A smaller screen
This is a pipe dream, but I’d love the opportunity to get the Apple Watch Ultra in a smaller screen size. While the 1.92-inch screen is undoubtedly bright and beautiful, on my wrists, the large bezel dug into my wrist bone, making the watch a little heavy and uncomfortable to wear 24/7.
The ability to pause my rings
Last, but by no means least, all of the best Apple Watches need the option to pause your rings. Whether you’re a recreational runner or an athlete, there are times when you cannot train due to injury, the need to properly recover, a pregnancy, or simply travel to a race or training camp. While Garmin watches give you the option to pause your training status during an injury or pregnancy, Apple doesn’t. To really be able to compete with other watches on the market, Apple needs a more holistic view of training, as getting to the start line injury-free is far more important than closing your rings.
Of course, we’re not 100% sure that Apple is, indeed, launching a newer version of its adventure watch. All should become clear at Apple’s Wonderlust event on September 12. Stay tuned, as we’ll be bringing you all the updates here on Tom’s Guide.