Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Apple's peak wearables go head-to-head

Thinking of buying an Apple Watch Ultra? Read our comparison between new and old before you splash the cash

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra
(Image credit: Leon Poultney)

During its annual event, Apple unveiled a headline-grabbing platter of new tech, including a brand new iPhone 15, with a fancy A17 chipset, as well as a fresh Apple Watch Series 9 and Apple Watch Ultra 2.

It might seem rash that only a year has passed since the Californian tech giant took the wraps off its ultra-rugged, ultra-outdoorsy Apple Watch Ultra, but it has seen fit to give it an overhaul and add a bunch of new features that make it arguably more tantalising than ever.

Double-tap gesture control, a brighter display and improvements to on-device Siri requests were just a few topline additions, but Apple also claims the best Apple Watch model has been tested all the way from 500 metres below sea level to the highest 9,000-metre peaks to ensure it performs in the toughest environments.

What’s more, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 comes steaming into the picture with the same price tag as its predecessor, meaning the additional extras don’t actually cost anything extra. 

That said, some retailers are already discounting the first-generation Apple Watch Ultra, so is it worth saving a few bucks or should you plump for the latest and greatest? We are here to answer that very question.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Price and availability

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is available now and costs $799/£799/AUS$1,399 when purchased directly from Apple. Alongside all of the flashy new tech smarts, which we will come on to later, Apple has also introduced a revised Alpine Loop, Trail Loop and Ocean Band for its second generation.

Both the Alpine and Trail Loop are now carbon neutral, contain over 30 per cent recycled content and feature a stylish new design, while the bezel of the watch itself is made from 95 per cent recycled titanium.

It’s a solid eco-effort from Apple, but we can’t help thinking that replacing a watch after just a year arguably undoes a lot of this hard work. But hey, everyone’s a critic, aren’t they?

If you don’t want a recycled titanium bezel, you can still buy the first-generation Apple Watch Ultra from third-party retailers for less than RRP/MSRP. For the best prices, visit T3's best Apple Watch deals guide or check out the price widgets below.

Winner: Apple Watch Ultra - only because it can be found slightly cheaper.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Design and build quality

If you remove the two watches from their respective straps and hold them up next to each other, it is impossible to tell the difference. The exterior, including the oversized Digital Crown and large orange Action Button, remains unchanged from the original design.

As we said, a host of new bands helps to separate these two generations, as these now come in bespoke designs for Apple Watch Ultra 2. But switch the two watches on, and the upgrades become a little more obvious.

The most pertinent of those is a much brighter screen in the Apple Watch Ultra 2, which now pumps out 3000 nits, as opposed to the 2000 nits produced by its predecessor. This is a huge increase in max brightness (50 per cent, maths fans) on a watch that was already a leader in its class and makes viewing the screen in broad daylight or in the murky depths of the ocean a bit easier.

Another new addition is the Modular Ultra watch face that is exclusive to the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and crams in the most complications seen on an Apple Watch to date. It does this by using the outermost edge of the 410 x 502-pixel display to present real-time data, including seconds, altitude, or depth, for example. I’m not 100 per cent sold on it, as it is very busy, but data obsessives will enjoy the sheer amount of information that can be gleaned from a quick glance.

Winner: Apple Watch Ultra 2 - for its brighter display and recycled titanium casing

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Features

Apple Watch Ultra 2 on the wrist of T3 Active editor Matt Kollat

Apple Watch Ultra 2 in action

(Image credit: Simon Beizaee)

There are very few new physical features to speak of in the Apple Watch Ultra 2, as you have to dive under the hood, so to speak, in order to get hands-on with the upgrades. The most notable of all is the powerful S9 SiP chip that was also announced for the Apple Watch Series 9.

Apparently, it is the best smartwatch chip (i.e. most powerful) Apple has produced to date and facilitates a number of new features, as well as making the general user experience more slick and streamlined. We had few complaints about the first generation Watch Ultra, but the latest certainly handles with a level of finesse that embarrasses some outdoor watch rivals.

The new chip also allows for Double Tap gesture control, where you can dismiss calls and generally replace the action button by double-tapping the thumb and index finger together. It works, and it is handy when your hands are otherwise engaged when, say, free-soloing The Dawn Wall.

On top of this, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 has a new 4-core Neural Engine that can process machine learning tasks up to twice as fast as the original Apple Watch Ultra. This means users can harness the power of Siri without Wi-Fi or cellular networks to enquire about health stats, such as steps walked or calories burned in a recent workout.

Winner: The Apple Watch Ultra 2, because it can now do more.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Software

Apple Watch Ultra on the wrist of hiker

(Image credit: Leon Poultney)

Both watches will happily run the latest watchOS 10 software, which brings with it some of the biggest wholesale changes, especially for those thinking of scrapping a smartwatch from Garmin, Suunto or Polar. Bluetooth connectivity has been enabled for power meters, speed sensors and cadence sensors for cyclists, while iPhone owners can use their smartphone as a separate bike computer.

Mapping has improved, although it is still very much limited to certain areas in the USA, where owners can make use of proper topographical maps with contour lines. We expect these regions to expand with further future updates (unless Apple is saving it for an all-new Ultra).

The ambient light sensor has also been used to automatically switch the Apple Watch Ultra into its cool night mode - where the display glows red - as soon as it detects darkness. It can also measure time spent in daylight for all of those desk-dwellers severely lacking vitamin D.

In short, the software update is available on both generations, so this round is largely a tie. Unless you are prone to losing your phone and have the latest iPhone 15. In this scenario, the powerful new chipset allows for Precision Finding of either your iPhone or Apple Watch Ultra 2. Great if phones magically disappear into sofas frequently. 

Winner: Apple Watch Ultra 2, just. Only because the expanded altitude range might be handy for a handful of owners, and Precision Finding is cool.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Battery life

Apple Watch Ultra 2 displaying workout modes

(Image credit: Leon Poultney)

Battery life is the elephant in the room. It is the bone of contention. It is the thorn in Apple’s side. Stand the Apple Watch Ultra up against a second generation Garmin Epix Pro, with its bright AMOLED display, and the 72 hours touted by Apple looks laughable compared to the 31 days in smartwatch mode or up to 58 hours in GPS mode offered by Garmin.

If you start looking at those Garmin devices with solar charging functionality, the playing field becomes even more skewed. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t addressed the battery life. The rechargeable lithium-ion battery still offers up to 36 hours under mixed usage, or 72 hours in a low power mode. It is still the longest battery life of any Apple Watch, though.

Winner: A tie. There’s no improvement here.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra: Verdict

My esteemed colleague Matt Kollat said it best in his review of the Apple Watch Ultra 2: it is a no-brainer update for those who had an older Apple Watch and were thinking about updating to the Apple Watch Ultra last year but didn’t.

In essence, newcomers to the model should plump for the Apple Watch Ultra 2, as the savings on the first generation are still negligible and the updates on the most recent iteration fully worth the meagre money.

If, however, you were an early adopter and invested in the first generation Apple Watch Ultra, the financial outlay suddenly stops looking like a great idea. But fret not, you’re not missing out on a huge amount and there will likely be a newer model coming along in, say, a year. 

Winner: Apple.

Leon Poultney

Leon has been writing about automotive and consumer tech for longer than he cares to divulge. When he’s not testing the latest fitness wearable and action camera, he’s out in a shed fawning over his motorcycles or trying not to kill himself on a mountain bike/surfboard/other extreme thing. He's also a man who knows his tools, and he's provided much of T3's drills coverage over the years, all without injuring himself.