The Apple Watch Ultra was designed and built with someone like me in mind. I have an iPhone 14 Pro Max, a 16-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro with a Studio Display, three Apple TV 4K boxes, and a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with a Magic Keyboard. In other words, I’m deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem, but on my wrist I alternate between two Garmin smartwatches: an older Tactix Delta and an Epix Gen. 2.
I tried the Apple Watch when it launched in 2015, but haven’t worn one for many years, mainly because I wanted something bigger that lasts longer and is more focused on fitness. Whenever a new Apple Watch model arrives I discuss the pros and cons, but Garmin always wins – in a nutshell, I like big and clunky watches, and for me even the 45mm Apple Watch Series 7 always felt a bit too delicate and small to the touch, more of a fashion statement than a fitness tool.
Compared to previous Apple Watches, Garmin watches are very clearly made for dedicated athletes. In addition to design and build quality, they also deliver battery life claims (from days to weeks depending on GPS usage and battery-saving tweaks) and deliver a torrent of data on everything from fitness to sleep to stress to calories. . And they generally last for many years.
The 51mm Tactix Delta has been to the gym with me every day, has been on treks and is so rugged I could probably use it as a hammer. The battery lasts for days and days and with all that data I can really keep track of my fitness. When I’m not at the gym, I wear the Epix Gen. 2, which has a beautiful AMOLED display and feels more like a casual smartwatch, but is still big and rugged and can last for weeks in battery-saving mode.
Like the rest of my Apple gear, none of my Garmin watches were cheap. The Epix starts at $900, and the Delta was even more expensive when it was new — both more than the $799 Apple Watch Ultra. So when Apple unveiled the larger, rugged Apple Watch Ultra at a lower price than one of my Garmin watches, I was immediately intrigued. As soon as the Ultra was announced, I ordered one.
Outweigh the cons
Garmin has long used transflective memory-in-pixel (MIP) displays which are excellent outdoors, but less so indoors, although the backlighting works well enough to make it easy to see what’s on the screen. In my view, MIP is nothing compared to the LTPO OLED screen of the Apple Watch, where the newer Epix comes in. with the always-on display that’s always on, you can easily get about a week between charges.
Another less than ideal part of Garmin life is how well its watches work with the iPhone. Overall, the Garmin Connect and Garmin ConnectIQ apps play well between the two ecosystems, but you can’t do as many things with a Garmin watch as you can with an Apple Watch. You can’t make calls or answer messages directly from the watch, you can’t access Apple’s deep library of apps, and it doesn’t integrate as seamlessly with Apple Health. (You get a lot more watch face options because third-party developers can make them for Garmin watches. This is a big plus for me.)
With the arrival of the Ultra, more than a few direct discussions erupted online about whether it goes far enough to even be considered Garmin devices in the same breath. Garmin even got involved in the debate, fire a tweet shortly after the Ultra was unveiled, he boasted: “We measure battery life in months. Not hours.”
If features like super-long battery life and built-in maps are what you’re looking for, the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t for you. The Ultra doesn’t quite match the range of outdoor features offered by the Tactix and Epix – but given how quickly Apple is repeating its products, I have a feeling it will close the gap soon.
The Apple Way
I soon found out that Apple has a long way in terms of the fitness and health data it now delivers with watchOS. It delivers data almost as comprehensive as I get from Garmin, so much so that it will take me a while to figure out how to best use it. Setting up my new Apple Watch was a little more complicated than it used to be, especially since there’s so much more now. But kudos to Apple for quickly realizing that fitness and health were the direction we needed to go, and headed there.
Just to be clear, I’m not going to use my Apple Watch Ultra for desert races or 20,000-mile dives under the sea. Compared to those athletes, I’m a poseur. We’re talking daily gym visits, daily dog walks, weekend walks, and the occasional bike ride. As a result, the promised battery life of 36 hours is fine, especially since I can now do sleep tracking with ease. In fact, when used in the real world, I got much better than 36 hours. Even with several workouts over the past few days, I’ve passed 48 hours — and that’s without a power-saving mode and before the Ultra’s battery-optimizing feature arrives.
I know the Ultra and its raw titanium design have come under fire for being a bit homey, but I disagree. It’s different, yes, but in a good way. It’s large and rectangular and doesn’t hide easily under long sleeves, but its rugged, industrial aesthetic is clearly aimed at Garmin users and should appeal to Apple fans. It’s still an Apple Watch, but it feels more like a tough wearable than a dainty smartwatch.
But where Garmin can’t compete is the Apple ecosystem. I’ve only had my Ultra for a few days now, but I can say it’s definitely good to have an Apple Watch on my wrist again. As usual, it’s the little things Apple does, like when my MacBook Pro locks when I leave and unlocks when I return. Or the simple convenience of responding to a message without having to take my Pro Max out of my pocket to reply.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
In the near future I will be rocking the Ultra. But I love my Garmins too. They’re still incredibly well-built, rugged devices that — especially for the aesthetics of changing things up every now and then — might have me banging my wrist for a day (or several).
If Apple ever comes out with a 52mm Apple Watch Ultra Max with seven days of battery life, I’ll be first in line. But for now it’s going to be hard to pry the Ultra from my wrist. It’s big enough, plenty featured and lasts long enough to tick all the boxes my Garmin did. And I don’t think I’m the only one.