Want a glimpse at the Apple Watch Series 9? Look no further than the Ultra

With the Ultra, Apple has taken a page from its now-familiar playbook for how to broaden the appeal of its mobile devices and applied it to its watch lineup:

  • Step 1: Introduce a solid but still not fully realized version 1.0.
  • Step 2: Refine, refine, refine.
  • Step 3: Make a “pro” version.

The Ultra is the first truly new Apple Watch variant since the first one was introduced in 2015, and it fills the “pro” slot. (I’m not counting the SE because it’s basically some old parts remixed to fill a lower price point.) But the Ultra won’t be the last. How do we know that? Apple’s playbook doesn’t end at Step 3:

  • Step 4: Let some “pro” features trickle down.

Apple has done that with the iPhone — two cameras for everyone! — and the iPad Air — pencil support! — but it hasn’t done it with the Watch. Before the Ultra, when each new series was introduced, the only thing that differentiated each of the new models were their materials. In a new market, that sort of strategy can work well because there’s lots of room to run. But the smartwatch market is anything but new now, and Apple needs a more segmented strategy.

Enter the Ultra, Apple’s first attempt to segment the market based on features. Some people might appreciate its upgraded GPS or sports-focused features, but the real draw is the jaunty titanium case, bigger battery and international orange Action Button.

Not all of the Ultra’s new features will migrate downmarket, but I’m guessing the Action Button will. Its utility and potential is undeniable, as my colleagues Brian and Kirsten discovered in their review. For one, athletes love watches with buttons — whether you’re running or biking or cross-country skiing, there’s no replacement for a physical interface. Want to start logging a run? You can customize the button to launch a run workout. Then, once in the workout, you can log a lap with subsequent presses.

As developers start to explore the Action Button and develop new uses for it, its appeal outside of endurance sports will almost certainly grow. For now, users can’t customize the secondary action depending on the app. But if Brian and Kirsten get their wish, that might change.

Because Apple has worked hard to build up the Watch’s fitness bonafides, the first non-Ultra with an Action Button will probably be an aluminum model, as stainless steel is too heavy for a sports-oriented watch. The case will probably be reworked to differentiate it from both the Ultra and the regular Apple Watches. It’ll probably be slimmer, more like a Timex Ironman to the Ultra’s G-Shock. The additional size will give the new model an edge in battery life over the regular models. After all, that’s partly how Apple improved the Ultra’s battery life — it could cram a bigger battery into its bigger case (49mm versus 45mm).

Larger watches aren’t for everyone, of course. That’s why the smaller 41mm size (40mm on the SE) still exists. But for outdoor fitness enthusiasts, …read more