The big and rugged Apple Watch Ultra is a very different beast than the “normal” Apple smartwatches that came before it. With so many new features, there’s still a lot we don’t know about it.
But over the past couple of weeks, I have discovered nine fascinating factoids that most reviewers haven’t picked up on yet. So to celebrate Ultra’s launch day, I’m sharing them with you now.
Apple Watch Ultra hidden features
The first Apple Watch Ultra reviews rightly focused on the adventure-oriented smartwatch’s marquee features. The giant screen looks beautiful. The bigger battery brings longer life (at last). The orange, customizable Action button enables shortcuts that athletes and explorers will appreciate. And the beefed-up design might make it too gigantic for some wrists.
But these interesting Apple Watch Ultra features largely flew under the radar.
1. The siren makes two sounds
Just in case you get lost in the middle of nowhere, beyond the reach of a cellular connection, the Ultra includes an onboard siren. It’s not surprising a lot of reviewers did not test it. At 86 decibels, it’s way too loud to use indoors. As a result, few people know what it actually sounds like.
It turns out Apple’s engineers went to great lengths to create a sound that you would not normally hear in the environment. That means it can’t be mistaken for anything else. Plus, the siren emits two distinct sounds in an alternating pattern. One is a distress tone; the other pulses SOS in Morse code.
2. The Alpine Loop is not what it appears to be
The Alpine Loop is arguably the most iconic Ultra band design. It features unique looped ridges along its entire length, with a titanium hook that slides into them.
It looks like it’s made from two separate layers of fabric, stitched together at regular intervals to form the loops. But looks can be deceiving. The Alpine Loop is actually something of an engineering marvel. Both layers are in fact a single piece of material, seamlessly woven as one, using an innovative technique developed just for this purpose. So, there’s literally no stitching on the band.
3. Running Track Detection will only be available in the United StatesApple Watch doesn’t have a great track record with running tracks.
Photo: Graham Bower
GPS runs into problems when you run around in circles. Tiny errors get compounded because you’re moving on the spot. That’s a big problem for running track users.
Olympic tracks provide a precise way to measure running distance. One lap is exactly 400 meters. So any inaccuracies in the distance estimates generated by Apple Watch are easy to see.
To address this, Ultra will offer automatic Track Detection. When you use a running track, it asks which lane number you’re on, and snaps to that lane. At the Far Out event earlier this month, Apple said the feature would be available later this year.
Initially, Track Detection will be U.S.-only, which suggests Apple is storing the track locations on a central database, rather than recognizing the shape of your running route. Tens of thousands of tracks will be supported at launch. So if you’re in the United States, there’s a good chance your local track is on the list.
4. The Apple Watch Ultra battery runs out much faster if you leave your iPhone at home
The Ultra’s battery is 76% larger in volume than Apple Watch Series 8. Apple claims it will last for up to 36 hours.
At first glance, that figure might look impressive, but Ultra is not just another Apple Watch. It’s a premium sports watch, designed to compete with the likes of Garmin. That’s why, in an oblique dig at Apple, the sports watch specialist bragged last week that it measures battery life in days, not hours.
Garmin has a point. Its Enduro 2 boasts 34 days of battery life. Yes, that’s days not hours. And with solar charging, that increases to 46 days.
For a sports watch, 36 hours of battery life is not impressive. And if you leave your iPhone behind, that figure goes down to 18 hours, because Ultra must rely on its onboard LTE, rather than piggybacking on your iPhone’s internet connection. Furthermore, these figures assume you only do a one-hour workout between charges. They drop even lower if you do a longer workout, because GPS and continuous heart rate monitoring drain the battery faster.
5. You can squeeze the Ultra to pause a workout
Previous Apple Watch models allow you to pause a workout by pressing the side button and Digital Crown at the same time. On the Ultra, you can push any two buttons to pause a workout. The easiest combination is the side button and the all-new Action button. You just squeeze the sides on the bottom half of the watch.
Depending on how you wear your watch, you might occasionally press the Digital Crown and side button by accident. This risks pausing a workout at the wrong moment and losing precious credits for your Activity Rings. Ultra offers a solution to this. You can disable the Digital Crown and side button combo, and only use the Action button and side button to pause workouts.
6. Ultra is the first Apple Watch with six metrics on screen at once
The Workout app puts the Ultra’s massive screen to good use by displaying up to six metrics all at once. This is a first for Apple Watch. (Series models can only display up to five.)
But that’s not all. Thanks to the new workout views in watchOS 9, you can add a second view with a further six metrics. That puts 12 metrics on your wrist during a workout. That’s ideal for checking all the new metrics Apple introduced this year, including Running Power and Form.
7. You can wait to get a GPS signal before starting your run — finally!
Most sports watches make you wait to get a good GPS signal before starting your workout. But Apple Watch has always allowed you to start workouts without the wait. Its user interface doesn’t even display GPS signal strength.
Like so many Apple products, it’s supposed to “just work.” Trouble is, it doesn’t. The maps I get from Apple Watch are often wildly inaccurate. Especially at the start of a workout.
The Ultra’s new Precision Start feature addresses this problem. It allows you to pick a workout but delay the start until you press the Action button. A GPS signal indicator is then displayed at the top of the screen. This solution provides the best of both worlds. If you’re in a hurry, you can just get started. But if GPS accuracy is important to you, you can now wait until you have a good signal.
8. Ultra uses machine learning to map your runs more accurately
The clever folks in Cupertino are using machine learning to make route mapping more accurate — even in places where even the Ultra can’t get a good GPS signal. For example, if you go for a run in downtown Chicago, the skyscrapers can interfere with satellite signals.
To solve this, Apple Watch calibrates itself on open skies runs. It combines GPS and accelerometer data to figure out the average length of your stride. Then, when your GPS is not so good, it can multiply your stride length with your step count to figure out how far and fast you’re running.
But that’s not all. The Ultra’s custom positioning algorithms use data from Apple Maps to correct GPS inaccuracies. For example, if you’re running alongside a river and your route appears to veer into the water, it snaps your route back to follow the river’s edge.
9. Apple Watch Ultra uses different microphones depending on the wind direction
Where regular Apple Watch models only have one microphone, the Ultra boasts three.
A three-microphone array isn’t new to Apple. iPhone has featured three microphones since iPhone 5. The smartphones use different microphones depending on whether you hold the phone to your ear to speak, use FaceTime or record video with the rear camera. In addition, iPhone uses all three together, along with a machine learning algorithm, to reduce noise.
The Ultra features a similar noise-canceling system. It also uses machine learning to automatically pick the microphone with the least wind noise. That means your friends will be sure to hear you when you call them to brag about your fancy new watch.
The Apple Watch Ultra is available now for $799.