Apple Watch Ultra review: A big smartwatch with some little quirks

Image Credit: Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Hiking with the Watch Ultra

To get a better feel for the Watch Ultra as a companion for outdoor adventurers, I went on a moderate hike in New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation without a map. I was joined by our video producer, Brian, who had downloaded a 3.2-mile trail to his phone on AllTrails, but that was for backup purposes only. I was traveling blind.

I enabled the backtrack feature on the Watch Ultra and created a waypoint in the parking lot just before we hit the trail. I also started hiking training to monitor time and distance traveled.

Even with a card as a failsafe, we got lost a couple of times. On one of those occasions, we only realized we were going the wrong way when I noticed the watch telling us we were going in a straight line. Brian heard me say that, remembered we should have made a pretty sharp left turn a while ago, and pulled up his map to confirm. Would we have been hopelessly lost if I hadn’t checked out the Watch Ultra? Probably not. At some point we would have realized that we were not where we were supposed to be. But the device saved us some time and kept us on track.

Halfway through the trek, we tested the new siren feature, which uses the Ultra’s two built-in speakers, which Apple says are 40 percent louder than the Series 8. The company said one of the speakers is specifically designed to double as an emergency siren too A pattern of beeps and alarms function to alert your companions or nearby rescue workers to your location.

Apple Watch Ultra with Alpine Loop on a person's wrist showing the emergency menu. The options shown are, from top to bottom, Siren, Medical ID, Compass Tracking, and Emergency Call.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I asked Brian to go away before I left and hid behind a tree. Then I played the siren and did my best to stay out of sight. Brian found me in five minutes. Admittedly I didn’t go very far and there weren’t any huge trees with thick trunks. Brian said the siren initially sounded like a bird, and indeed the first sounds the clock plays are a series of high-pitched chirps. But they give way to howl patterns and the morse code beeps for SOS so people don’t eventually mistake them for something natural.

The siren seemed pretty loud to me, but from Brian’s perspective it got lost a bit in the sound of rustling leaves and a nearby babbling brook. Of course, the closer Brian got to me, the more clearly he heard the siren. However, don’t rely on the Watch Ultra to lure rescuers to your exact location from a mile away.

During our hike we came across a cute little creek and wanted to mark it in case we decide to come back. Since I had set the Watch Ultra’s action button to set a waypoint, I pressed it once to drop a pin and the system prompted me to mark the spot. I didn’t have to start from scratch—the watch had already filled in a suggested name, and I could use the on-screen keyboard to edit it. Incidentally, with the Ultra’s spacious screen, typing is surprisingly less awkward than on smaller wearables.

Thanks to the increased brightness of up to 2,000 nits, the Watch Ultra screen is easy to read even in direct sunlight. Much of this also has to do with Apple’s user interface, which mostly uses bold, colorful fonts on a dark background.

Off-angle view of Apple Watch Ultra with Alpine strap on a person's wrist. From this perspective, the orange action button and speaker grille are visible on the left edge while the screen content is dimmed.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

While I found it handy to be able to quickly set a waypoint with the action button, I often accidentally hit it when trying to press the digital crown. My thumb naturally rested on the side of the case while my index finger gripped the dial, often resulting in both buttons being pressed at the same time. This caused me to keep getting the create waypoint screen, for example, instead of going to the home page.

It was even more annoying after I set the action button to start a workout. The number of two-second hikes that are now in my activity history is a testament to how easy it is to press the action button. Over time I’ve learned to place my thumb where the strap connects to the case. But if you’re really struggling, you can always set the action button to do nothing (although that would defeat its entire purpose altogether).

As we neared the end of our trail, Brian and I decided to use the waypoint we created for the parking lot to find the exit. It was a bit confusing to find the page that would show us the directions – we had to rotate the crown while in the compass app to zoom in and out of different views. The orienteering view that appears after turning the wheel all the way in shows the route you have taken and your waypoints. Tapping one of these flags will bring up a list of your saved websites and you can choose one to navigate to. The Watch Ultra will indicate how far you are from the spot and in which general direction (left or right) you should go.

The Apple Watch Ultra with alpine loop band on a person's wrist. The screen shows the so-called technical view of the compass app with a white dot in the middle.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I followed the on-screen directions to the parking lot, which the clock said was only 400 feet away. I’ll admit: at this point I could already tell where the car was, so it was hilarious when hundreds of yards from the vehicle the clock beeped to let me know I’d arrived.

The GPS wasn’t very accurate, but I didn’t expect it to get me within inches of the car. I also took this opportunity to check out the backtrack feature to see if the Watch Ultra could reliably get me back through the trail we completed.

Once again I found the user interface confusing. Tapping the step icon in the bottom right corner of the Compass app brought up options to retrace or delete the steps I’ve saved. When I tapped back steps, it took me a while to figure out which way to turn and how to follow the orange line on the screen. I finally got it as I started to head back in the direction I had come from and saw some progress on the clock. In general, I find the Waypoint feature more useful than Backtrack as it creates a more direct path to where I want to go rather than making me retrace my entire journey.

We didn’t hike into the night, but if it had gotten dark we could have used the night mode version of the Wayfinder watch face as well. This will change the UI so that everything on the screen is red and the background is black so you can see better in the dark. Apple Watch Ultra review: A big smartwatch with some little quirks

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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