Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: which do you need?

Should you get the latest Apple Watch 8 or is it worth upgrading to the Apple Watch Ultra?

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra
(Image credit: T3 / Apple)

Now that the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra have been announced, you might be wondering what to do next. 

With two viable options for the active user out there (before we even consider the Apple Watch SE 2), there are a lot of features to weigh up and consider what you need most. With the Apple Watch Ultra the pricier option, not everyone is likely to need it, but do you? 

It's obvious that both will be some of the best smartwatches and best Apple Watches around, so to help you figure out how best to spend your money, we've placed the two head-to-head to see what is the best choice and why.

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: price and availability 

The Apple Watch 8 is available slightly earlier than the Apple Watch Ultra, although there's not much in it. The Apple Watch 8 launches September 16, while the Apple Watch Ultra is available from September 23.

Price-wise, the Apple Watch 8 starts at $399 / AU$679 for GPS and $499 /AU$789 for cellular. As always, prices will vary depending on the watch strap choice and the size of the Apple Watch 8 you go for with 41mm and 45mm models available.

The Apple Watch Ultra is $799 / AU$1,299 for a 49mm model and automatically includes cellular connectivity.

Winner: In terms of simplicity, the Apple Watch Ultra requires fewer decisions, but the Apple Watch 8 is significantly cheaper, even if you opt for the cellular model. 

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

 Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: design

The Apple Watch 8 continues the trend of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'. Like the Apple Watch 7 before, it has a distinctive rectangular screen with a choice of 41mm or 45mm models. It looks visually identical to its predecessor. The display remains either 1.57-inch or 1.73-inch with a resolution of either 352 x 430 or 396 x 484. It's also an always-on OLED display. 

As with other Apple Watches, there are plenty of watch straps to choose from. There's also a choice of four colors - midnight, starlight, silver, and product Red. Three stainless steel finishes can also be picked, including silver, gold, and graphite. 

In contrast, the Apple Watch Ultra is made from aerospace-grade titanium. It's more durable than the Apple Watch 8, offering corrosion resistance on top of crack resistance and the usual bevy of protection. Its titanium case extends to surround the front crystal so it can handle edge impact. It also has a 49mm display that is the Apple Watch's largest and brightest display yet, thanks to 2,000 nits of brightness. The digital crown has been revamped too, offering a larger diameter plus coarser grooves so it stands out in a way that you'll be able to feel, even when wearing gloves. 

The Apple Watch Ultra also has a new action button on the side of the casing. Clearly visible in international orange, it's a customizable button, so you can use it to perform a quick physical action of your liking. It also has a second speaker compared to the regular Apple Watch offering increased volume so it can handle being heard in noisy outdoor conditions. It also has three microphones for superior voice clarity, even in windy conditions. 

Rounding off the more rugged nature of the Apple Watch Ultra, the wearable also offers three different bands with specific purposes. There's the alpine loop that securely fastens through reinforced top loops for extra security, the ocean band that can stretch around a wetsuit, and the trail loop, Apple's thinnest band yet and very lightweight. 

Winner: Both watches target different audiences. If you want the most rugged solution to match your active life, the Apple Watch Ultra will survive with barely a scratch. For office use, however, the Apple Watch 8 will suffice for most people. 

Apple Watch Series 8

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: features and performance 

The focus of the Apple Watch Ultra is to suit the needs of the most active people, while the Apple Watch 8 is more of an all-rounder for anyone who wants a new smartwatch. 

The Apple Watch 8 continues the trend seen in previous models, such as the Apple Watch 7 by offering standard fitness and workout tracking for monitoring how far you run, walk, or complete other exercises. It also has emergency SOS, fall detection, sleep, and cycle tracking. The latter is boosted by the temperature sensor that we'll get into. 

One new feature of the Apple Watch 8 is its crash detection function. If you're in a severe car crash, it can automatically connect you to emergency services and notify your emergency contacts. As part of the latest WatchOS, it also has a new low-power battery mode, so you should be able to achieve up to 36 hours of battery life compared to the typical 'all-day' life of 18 hours. 

The Apple Watch Ultra goes much further in most ways. With up to 36 hours of battery life or up to 60 hours via some nifty battery optimization settings, it's made for long hikes and exploration. A BackTrack function means you can retrace your steps while exploring. For swimmers and divers, a new Depth app means the watch can function as a dive computer. 

A redesigned compass app also means you can set compass waypoints to mark critical locations. If you get lost, a built-in 86-decibel siren can be activated via the action button to help you be identified from a long distance.  

Winner: The Apple Watch Ultra has everything the Apple Watch 8 has plus more. It'll be excessive for some users though.

Apple Watch Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: sensors 

The Apple Watch 8 has everything the 7 had before, meaning a blood oxygen sensor, ECG facility, and notifications if your heart rate is unusually high or low. 

It also now has a temperature sensor aimed at people who ovulate. A two-sensor design, it has one on the back crystal near one's skin and another under the display. It can sample wrist temperature every five seconds overnight and detect differences as subtle as 0.1 centigrade. 

The aforementioned crash detection uses new motion sensors to detect extreme impact with the microphone spotting unusual sounds. 

The Apple Watch Ultra builds upon that with a dual frequency GPS solution that includes the latest L5 frequency. With new custom positioning algorithms, Apple believes it's the most accurate GPS of any sports watch on the market (including the best Garmin watches https://www.t3.com/features/best-garmin-watch). In the future, it will also detect when you arrive at a running track with the action button serving as a segment marker as needed. 

For divers, the Apple Watch Ultra doubles up as a depth computer. With WR1000 water resistance, it has a built-in depth gauge with the app able to show your current depth, how long you've been underwater and the water temperature. It can be used to a depth of 40m or 130 feet. 

Winner: The Apple Watch Ultra has more sensors. Many of these are best geared towards if you're underwater a lot or traveling far afield, but if you need them, they're essential additions.

Apple Watch Series 8

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: interface and user experience

 Interface-wise, you'll get a similar-looking experience on the surface, whichever Apple Watch you choose. Both will run the latest WatchOS and both will require an iPhone to pair with. 

Both watches now offer international roaming with the feature only available on cellular models of the Apple Watch 8 but on all Apple Watch Ultras. You'll also see other WatchOS improvements like being able to track your stride length and ground contact time, as well as race against your past self. 

The Apple Watch Ultra builds upon this by adding new metrics like vertical oscillation, heart rate zones, and custom workouts. Predictably, the action button all adds to this experience. It also has a Night Mode, so the UI turns red for better visibility in the dark which will be helpful when hiking far.

Winner: Again, the Apple Watch Ultra bundles in more. As you would expect for the price. 

Apple Watch SE 2022

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 8 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Verdict

 The Apple Watch Ultra is the ultimate Apple Watch but that doesn't mean it's for everyone.

It's much more expensive than the Apple Watch 8 and also bulkier and more rugged. If the most you tend to do with your free time is go for a walk locally or hit the gym, you won't need the Apple Watch Ultra. 

However, if you love to hit the back roads and go hiking for hours or days on end, the extended battery life and features like BackTrack could be a lifesaver and convenient. Working well as a depth computer will delight scuba divers too. 

For the average user, the Apple Watch 8 will suffice. With new features like a temperature sensor and car crash detection, it's more of an evolution on the Apple Watch 7 rather than a revolution. Still, if you want the latest tech, it will more than suffice for anyone but the dedicated diver or hiker.

Jennifer Allen has been writing about tech for nearly a decade. Her specialisms include fitness wearables, Bluetooth speakers, and all things Apple.