Review: Apple Watch Ultra 2 is big, bright, powerful and awesome, even if you don't do all the adventurey stuff

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 displaying the Modular Ultra face.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2 displaying the Modular Ultra face. Photo credit: Newshub.

Apple released the first Watch Ultra last year as a device designed for "training, races and adventures".

It was the biggest and toughest wearable the company had created with a slew of impressive features for divers, mountain climbers, skiers and people who generally get way out into the wopwops to do extreme things.

That's not me, as much as I might wish it were.

I live in central Auckland, have a desk job and do a shockingly low amount of physical activity, let alone extreme sports, so I skipped the first Ultra and instead used a standard Series 8 for the past year.

But then a similarly sedentary friend told me how she loves her Ultra simply for having the biggest screen and longest battery life of any Apple Watch. That made sense.

So when Apple offered me the new Watch Ultra 2 to review, I jumped at the chance. Now after a couple of weeks with it I agree, the bigger screen and bigger battery make it lovable, even before you get to the extra features.

It also of course has a bigger price. The Watch Ultra 2 has just launched at $1599 in Aotearoa, which is what a fairly decent mobile phone might cost, so it's far from cheap and a much more niche product than the standard Apple Watch range.

But it is bloody nice.

Of the new stuff in the Ultra 2, the two most impressive features are also coming to the cheaper Series 9 devices: 'Double Tap' and carbon neutrality.

The Double Tap feature is, unfortunately, not available yet, but coming "later this year". I have had a go with it and it is amazing, but it's not out yet. 

The carbon neutral thing is already here and while it's not an exciting new feature to play with, it's hugely impressive and Apple should be commended for it. This year's new smartwatches are the company's first fully carbon net neutral products, in keeping with the aim to be 100 percent carbon net neutral by 2030.

That means they're offsetting the carbon in designing, manufacturing and shipping the smartwatches, but also the electricity used by users of the devices to charge them throughout their lifetime. There's plenty of recycled stuff used and downsizing of packaging and various things done to achieve this, a lot of effort and cost worked into doing it - and that's the sort of thing every company that can ought to be doing.

So what about that big screen? Is bigger really better? Yeah it is.

If you have smaller wrists, this 49mm beast might look silly on you; but if not the extra size is great, especially when it comes to using the full QWERTY keyboard.

The bigger screen also allows for more visual complications, which the Ultra 2's exclusive modular face takes awesome advantage of. It comfortably fits eight complications on the screen, including a customisable bezel that can dynamically display stuff like water depth, elevation or seconds. It's a beautiful display that also automatically changes to a lovely red night mode, too. I like it a lot.

Apple's Ultra Watch 2 has its new S9 SiP chip, which packs extra power that means everything runs even more super smooth and fast, as well as being very, very bright. At up to 3000 nits, this is the brightest screen Apple has ever made for any of its devices yet.

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 reviewed by Daniel Rutledge for Newshub NZ.
The Apple Watch Ultra 2. Photo credit: Newshub.

When you're outside and the sun is blazing, that level of brightness will mean the watch remains highly legible. It's certainly been fine on the brighter spring days Auckland has recently had, but that's only scratching the surface - think crazy blinding sunlight up a mountain, or murky oceanwater while you're scuba diving, that's the sort of situation where this ultra brightness would be fantastic.

But it has also made for a decent and more accessible torch than the one in my phone, too.

I've also liked the new precision find on the watch, which directs me toward my phone if it's lost to just centimetres from it. It could also be helpful for finding friends or family when they're lost, especially in crowded areas or dense bush and other places where older versions of similar technology weren't as precise.

The one major drawback of Apple Watches compared to other smartwatches has always been battery life. You generally don't get much more than a day out of them before needing to plug them in.

It's wonderful going more than two days before I need to recharge the Ultra 2. If you were going into the wopwops with it, you can pop it on low power mode and get up to 72 hours out of it. That's still not great compared to some rival products, but considering what this one can do it's not bad.

The other major difference on the Ultra watches versus the non-Ultra ones is the action button. Coming to this at the same time as the action button on the iPhone 15 Pro, it's not as useful or exciting to me, but I'm not using it for the workout or adventurey stuff a lot of people would be. For them, the quick access to stopwatch, waypoint dropper, starting a workout or dive might be handy.

The best feature is yet to come

At Apple Park in California earlier this month I got to try out the Double Tap feature and it's just as remarkable as it looked in the announcement video.

I was very impressed it didn't need to calibrate to my wrist or go through any setup. I just popped on a test watch and boom, it immediately knew when I was tapping my thumb and forefinger together.

Using that simple gesture to control the watch, to cycle through options and select them - it was astonishing. It’s a gamechanger and, maybe, the first step toward a new form of human computer interaction that eliminates the outdated mouse and keyboard in front of a screen thing we've been done so far.

Whatever it means for how we interact with computers in a few years from now, it means a simple but very satisfying and convenient upgrade to how we use smartwatches this year. I hope.

The worst thing about the new Apple Watch range is that it launched without Double Tap, but rather just with the promise of it. This is the one major flaw of this product's launch - but it's a flaw that looks like it will be corrected in a matter of weeks.

Aside from that, I've enjoyed everything about the Apple Watch Ultra 2, even though I've only used it as a normal smartwatch and not done any extreme sports or anything. As such it's very much a luxury item, a highly expensive device that is more powerful and feature-packed than I need.

If you can afford it though, having the biggest and brightest could well be worth it if you're the sort of person who wants the very best version of any device you buy. But I'd much more readily recommend the Series 9 to most people, or the SE watch - Apple's cheapest and only available for under $500 - as being better value for money.

Newshub was supplied an Apple Watch Ultra 2 for this review.