Like many of my fellow gadget-heads, I was immensely excited when Apple announced Apple Watch Ultra last week. I ordered one on the spot. Now having a bit more time to contemplate, I am considering canceling my order and keeping my trusty old Garmin Fenix 6X Pro.
What do I need a “watch” for?
I am deeply immersed in the Apple ecosystem — owning a product pretty much in every category they build for. Their walled garden is a pretty expensive place but it works great. As a developer, there are things I would like to improve: full Posix on iPad, i3 like window manager builtin to macOS, etc, but overall the Apple ecosystem is a damn good compromise.
One gaping hole in the Apple-land has been the spot on my wrist. I used every Apple Watch from series 0 to series 4, but ultimately had to conclude that they were not very good for what I do: I run, I hike, I MTB. The battery did not last even an overnight hike, the map did not work offline, training app did not guide me much for how to train, and pairing with the bike’s ANT+ power meter did not exist.
Thus I purchased Garmin Fenix 6X Pro. It was the polar opposite of the Apple Watch, fixing every gripe I had with the Apple Watch. But at the same time, it was like traveling back in time to having a Nokia feature phone. No more LTE, no integration to apps, a dull transflective screen, super slow CPU, pre-iPod era “MP3” player, …
Apple built the Ultra vision just for me?
Looking at the Apple Keynote, I was salivating with them finally getting me: A beautiful, large, titanium watch built for a hiker-runner like me. Large battery, rugged build, super-accurate GPS… everything I want. Right?
Expensive, but still an instant order: I could always return it if it would not live up to the promise.
But it will still take 10 days to receive the watch and I am starting to doubt if there is even a slight possibility of Ultra living up to the promise.
Sufficient battery life?
Regardless of what Garmin marketers are claiming, Apple Watch Ultra has a larger battery: 542mAh to be exact. This is 29% more than the 420mAh that I have in my Fenix 6X.
That said, Apple SOC sucks those milliamps faster due to having a drastically higher performance and more functionality than the HW in Fenix 6X. While the details are not yet available for Apple Watch Ultra, we compare to Apple Watch Series 7 and assume that Ultra is probably not any slower:
- Both have ARM CPU
- Apple has 64-bit dual core CPU, while Garmin uses 32-bit single-core
- Garmin uses ~ 150 MHz CPU, while Apple clocks at 1.8GHz (12x difference)
- Apple has 1GB of memory, while Garmis has just 16MB (64x difference)
Apple Watch is thus 20–50x faster than Fenix 6X. Fenix 7 and Epix 2 are clearly faster than 6, but the difference is not that drastic.
Added capabilities of the Apple Watch Ultra may seem great, but they also will use drastically more power compared to Garmin Fenix 6X. A head-to-head comparison is impossible before anyone without NDA has gotten their hands on a watch, but I am listing my expectations below:
- Not doing much: Apple 4 days, Garmin 14 days
- Hiking: Apple 2-3 nights, Garmin 5 nights
- Running with music: Apple 13h, Garmin 15h
And just to repeat, these are my expectations based on Apple Watch S7 user reports, battery capacity differences, and Ultra specs. In other words, guesses.
Having a reliable map while hiking is a must-have for safety and comfort. Lately, I have been using my iPhone with various hiking apps as my main app and Garmin Fenix 6 as the secondary map. And sometimes printing out an overall paper map as an emergency backup.
Garmin has truly wonderful maps called TopoActive that cover the whole globe. I always have all of North America loaded on my Fenix: meaning that I always carry every hiking path on the whole continent on my wrist. Gives you a feeling of superpower for never being lost.
Furthermore, Garmin has full routing on the wrist: while being in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone or coverage, you can choose any location on the map and Fenix will build a route following the hiking paths there. While hiking it will signal you about upcoming turns or if you wander off the planned route. I use this all the time while hiking.
Apple has… Nothing. Nada. They are proud to have a compass app where you can drop a pin or trace your steps back to the starting point.
Researching how to solve the situation on Apple Watch, it looks like the only solution would be a combination of two apps:
WorkOutDoors on the watch provides a beautiful vector-based map and allow following a pre-made (GPX) routes. To my knowledge, this is the only app for Apple Watch that has vector maps and thus can work offline with sufficient detail and area for hiking. This is a battle-proven app that seems to have three downsides:
- You have to pre-load the maps before heading on your adventure. It is limited to a fairly small area of 40x70 miles or so. If you forget to do this, you do not have a map.
- There is no routing. You need to use some other app on your computer or phone to plan the route and then export that as a GPX file to the app.
- It does not support always on display. You have to flick your wrist to activate the app.
Garmin Explore is a wonderful app that runs on iPhone / iPad / web browsers. It has full access to Garmin TopoActive maps and works well for building routes. What differentiates it from every other app out there is that it can route offline. No internet connection is needed.
While I have not tested this yet, it looks like I can use Garmin Explore to plan routes while hiking (on my iPhone), export the route as GPX to my watch and follow it with the WorkOutDoors app.
While this is not as robust as it is on my Fenix 6X today, the map UX on WorkOutDoors + Apple Watch Ultra is a significant improvement over slow Fenix 6X.
Watch as a training coach
One thing I have grown to love with Garmin Fenix is the integrated training metrics and coaching experience. My watch measures my life 24/7 and pro-actively helps me understand things like:
- How my exercises are impacting my fitness level?
- How did I sleep and what should I change to sleep better?
- What my training schedule should look like to run a marathon: what type of runs I should do this week? It even gives me a choice of several running coaches with different coaching styles who will teach me how and why to do interval runs, and how to avoid injuries.
- What should I expect my race time to be for 10k considering my current level of training?
- How long should I rest until training next?
- It shows my lousy running VO2 Max score on watch face reminding me that my detraining has been too long and I need to again train regularly to avoid becoming a couch potato
I like this — great work Garmin team. Watch is not just a measuring tool, but a kicking my ass towards becoming better.
I am worried that Apple Watch is still just a “did you close your rings today” checkmark, not a coach that offers me insights and guidance.
With WatchOS 9 Apple finally has the basic running metrics in place — including training zones that I could not train without. Excitedly, they do some machine learning magic to produce accurate running metrics from the wrist alone while Garmin would need to rely on an external HRM belt for those. That said — I continue to be a slow runner who does not race and does not care about fancy pants stuff like ground contact time or vertical oscillation too much.
But when I wake up, will Apple Watch tell me who should I train today? Do I need more rest? Help me make a plan to improve my VO2 Max and 10k time.
I do not know yet, but believe that there would be good apps to fill the gaps in the Apple Fitness app. Any recommendations?
Do I need a smart or a dumb watch?
This is the largest gap between the two watches: one is an iPhone on your wrist and one is a trusty Nokia 3210. Apple Watch does zillion things — freeing me from carrying my iPhone everywhere or at least pulling it out of my pocket.
But do I need that? I am already glued to my screens most of the time. Should I tempt myself with another smart array of beautiful OLEDs on my wrist? Or should I enjoy the dumb watch on my wrist that allows me to leave the network behind from time to time?
I already have the latest iPhone with all the bells and whistles. It can do almost anything. Do I need and want another one on my wrist?
Want: maybe, Need: hell no.
So, which one?
I started writing this post with the title: Why did I cancel my order? But to be honest, I am still lingering between canceling the order and trying it out just for the fun of it.
Top factors for me:
- Hesitancy and temptation of making my watch smart again
- Uncertainty from leaving Garmin’s well-working integrated training coach behind to an unknown jungle of Apple Watch training apps
- Having LTE connectivity and a well-working music app on the watch would allow leaving the phone home on runs
- Lack of built-in offline hiking maps is a hassle
Updates to the post
- Tested the WorkOutDoors on Apple Watch Ultra. “It is complicated” might be the right answer to the question whether it can provide good enough offline map on Ultra.
- Wrote a head-to-head comparison of training metrics coverage, including coverage of hardware.
- I have purchased both watches myself and have not been paid to promote either. This post contains Amazon affiliate links to the products mentioned. Purchases made through them will help support this site at no cost to you.