Apple Watch Ultra vs. Apple Watch Series 8

Picking the right Apple Watch officially got more difficult with this latest generation, with Apple releasing a rugged outdoor smartwatch for the first time, the Ultra.

With the Apple Watch Series 8 still acting as the lineup’s standard option, too, those in the market for an Apple smartwatch now have to decide which is the better fit for their needs.

Luckily, that’s where this comparison guide can help. Below, we’ve outlined all the key differences and similarities between the Apple Watch Ultra and Series 8, including details on the design, features, battery life and, of course, the all-important price. 

We believe there are two distinct types of users that Apple is aiming these smartwatches at, so read on to discover which camp you fall into.

Top picks: Best smartwatches from our reviews

Price

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No matter where you shop and what time of year you’re looking, the Apple Watch Ultra is always going to be more costly than the Series 8. 

In many cases, picking up the Ultra will actually set you back twice as much. And when analyzing the pure value for money, we don’t believe you receive twice as much functionality over the Series 8. 

However, we should also note that only the very base editions of the Series 8 offer such a big disparity. As we’ll detail below, there are many more case options available with the Series 8, and this has the potential to bump up the price a lot closer to the Ultra. 

If you’re likely to choose a pricier model of the Series 8, there’s much more of a case for jumping up to the Ultra. However, as we’ll get into below, price isn’t the only factor here – these watches are very different.

Design and comfort

Though these two follow the same square-faced design language, they feature many things that make them distinctly different.

The Ultra is designed to be a statement piece, while the Series 8 is able to blend much more easily into everyday life. Both do an incredibly good job of fulfilling the assignment, and you can rest easy knowing that the build quality on both is extremely high – even if neither is very easily repaired if something goes wrong.

Aside from that feel and style, though, these are the key design differences.

Case sizes and colors

With the Ultra, you only have the option of a silver titanium 49mm case, which may have those with wrists on the smaller side a little concerned. It’s not particularly unisex.

We think that the big and bold nature of the device actually means this is less of a problem than usual, but there are some practical considerations here, too.

Having a watch that’s too big and too heavy for your wrist may affect heart rate accuracy. And, for times when you want to keep things discreet, it’s obviously much more difficult to hide underneath wrists cuffs and jackets.

With the Series 8, you’ll have no such problem. Not only is it available in 41mm and 45mm case sizes, but it also comes in several colors and two different case materials – aluminum and stainless steel.

If you opt for the more expensive stainless steel, you’ll get a choice of a Gold, Silver, Space Black or Graphite finish, while the standard aluminum is offered in Midnight, Starlight, Silver and Product Red.

Naturally, the Series 8 is able to fit a much broader range of wrists and preferences.

Display

While the specs will show that both of these devices offer the same Always-on Retina LTPO OLED displays, there are some things to keep in mind when it comes to comparing the displays. 

Firstly, there’s that size difference discussed above – and having a 49mm case on the Ultra, combined with the fact it can reach 2,000 nits of brightness (compared to 1,000 on the Series 8), means it feels much more vibrant and accessible on the wrist. The Ultra’s run-off is also much flatter, which we prefer, while the Series 8’s display is rounded. 

Then there are the more slight differences, such as the fact the Ultra’s display is covered by scratch-resistant sapphire crystal. This is also present on the Series 8, but only in the stainless steel edition, not the aluminum model. 

The Ultra also has the extra Action button on the left-hand bezel, which you can map to different features and functions. It’s designed to offer easier control when wearing gloves. 

Durability

As the Ultra is more specifically designed for outdoor activities, there’s no real surprise when it comes to the question of which device is more durable. 

It doubles the Series 8’s water resistance levels, able to be used in depths of up to 100 meters, while also offering MIL-STD 810H certification. This means it’s passed testing focused on environmental conditions, such as extreme temperatures, moisture, dust and shocks. 

The Series 8 does, at least, offer the same dust protection rating, IP6X. 

Of course, whether the Ultra’s more impressive durability really matters to you is another question. If you’re planning on outdoor excursions, the Series 8 can definitely fill in, but it’s not designed to handle bumps and scratches. The Ultra’s case, on the other hand, is much more adept at coping with the outdoors.

Cellular editions

While the Ultra comes with cellular and Wi-Fi support as standard, the Series 8, as you might be starting to gather, offers potential buyers much more choice. 

If you’re interested in the aluminum case version of the Series 8, you’re given the option to forego cellular support and just stick to owning a GPS model. This is not only cheaper (both in terms of initial outlay and also by way of skipping the monthly cost), but, of course, a much better fit for those who don’t anticipate needing cellular support when away from their smartphone.  

If you want the stainless steel case version, however, you have no choice but to opt for the ‘GPS + Cellular’ model of the Series 8.

Whether you need this is really down to personal preference, though we find it a bit more of a necessity on the Ultra, where our phones aren’t necessarily to hand during outdoor activities.

If you’re not sure which edition to choose, and are leaning towards the Series 8, opting for the base GPS edition is a great way to save a bit of cash.

Features compared

Given the fact that both the Series 8 and Ultra run off the same S8 chip and watchOS 9 software, the broad experience is very similar on both devices.

However, with both offering contrasting designs, there are also differences to be aware of when it comes to the general smartwatch and tracking experience.

Smartwatch features

As we say, the watchOS 9 experience is virtually identical whether you choose the Ultra or the Series 8. Menus look the same, watch faces are widely available across both models and features like cellular connectivity, crash detection and fall detection work identically.

The only real difference you might find is in the apps that are available. While the Watch’s App Store is bustling with great options, some are specifically designed to take advantage of certain features only available on the Ultra, such as live mapping. There are also examples like the Siren app, which harnesses the Ultra’s 86-decibel alarm, that are exclusive.

Health tracking

While the Apple Watch Series 8 is often touted as one of the best health watches on the market – including by us – the Ultra actually matches it across the board. 

This is because it comes packed with all the same sensors – ones like the blood oxygen sensor, ECG, temperature sensor and optical heart rate monitor – and, therefore, is able to offer the same insights.

Whether it’s taking an ECG reading, tracking your cycle by analyzing body temperature history through Apple Health or just tracking your heart rate during exercise, both are capable of the same things.

Things like Apple’s sleep tracking, as well as the fall and crash detection mentioned above, are also the same on both devices. 

Activity tracking

Where these two devices differ in the features department is when it comes to tracking activity. The Apple Watch Series 8 is no slouch, we should say, and it offers more than enough functionality to track most people’s exercise and offer handy insights through the Activity app.

The Ultra, though, just takes things a bit further. The most noticeable and worthwhile upgrade we found during testing is the location accuracy, with Apple promoting dual-frequency GPS in the Ultra. It’s something we’ve tested thoroughly in a city marathon setting, and the results are certainly impressive.

The Ultra is also developing into an adept dive computer, with Apple’s collaboration with Huish Outdoors harvesting an Oceanic+ app specifically designed for scuba and free divers. This isn’t something we’ve had the opportunity to test just yet, but it’s another feature that pushes the Ultra into niches the Series 8 just isn’t designed to touch.

Outdoor jaunts that require the likes of waypoints are also taken care of in the redesigned Compass app, though this is also available on the Series 8. Really, we’ve found that the more substantial ‘features’ that aid outdoor activities are actually the physical design implementations like the siren, Action button, dual speakers and three-mic array. 

Navigation does feel like a missed opportunity in terms of the native feature set of the Series 8, but as ever, there are apps that will plug this hole.

Battery life and charging

On paper, the Apple Watch Ultra offers double the battery life of the 18-hour Series 8, with Apple quoting 36 hours of use before you’ll need to stick it back on the charger. 

While Apple’s own estimations are one thing, however, both of these smartwatches are capable of lasting much longer in our experience. We usually get around 1.5 days with the Series 8, and just shy of 3 days with the Ultra. 

There’s the new Low Power Mode available in watchOS 9, and the Ultra even has its own battery-saver mode that can extend hikes and other outdoor activities.

And while that is a positive, both still fall short of alternative watches.

The Series 8’s most natural rival, the Samsung Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, can typically last anywhere from around 3-5 days, while the Ultra’s usual cycle of around three days barely lays a glove on true outdoor watches such as the Fenix 7.

So, where does that leave us when comparing these two devices? Well, the Ultra certainly takes that extra step from the Series 8, allowing you to go a full weekend of adventuring away from a charger, for example. 

 And while it’s still not great, it’s more readily able to keep you in the flow of tracking your day. It allows you to track a night of sleep, roll straight into a lengthy workout and still not have to worry about charging until the next day.

That’s not been possible on any Apple Watch previously, and, if you’re tired of battery anxiety on a Series device, we can testify that this is a huge quality-of-life improvement. 

Verdict: Which is best?

We love both of these devices, which is why they feature in our roundup of the top smartwatches available right now. However, as we alluded to up top, they are quite distinct. 

We believe the Apple Watch Ultra is the better smartwatch, but that doesn’t make it the better pick for most people trying to pick between these two. 

Choose the Apple Watch Ultra if… the core experience provided in the Series devices just doesn’t provide enough battery life or depth when tracking activity – or if you want a smartwatch that has a much more rugged, masculine design than what Apple has offered previously. It’s much more expensive than the base Series 8, but it finally gives those who want a little more functionality a great option to consider. Think of it as an Apple Watch on steroids that finally suits hikers and watersport lovers.

Choose the Apple Watch Series 8 if… you want the best smartwatch experience on the market in a sleek design that doesn’t cost the earth. It doesn’t give you all the functionality and extra features of the Ultra, but, unless you’re a relatively consistent outdoor adventurer, or you just don’t like the Series 8 design, it’s difficult to justify shelling out for the Ultra.

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