Note: I originally drafted this for a small group of friends, But I converted this to a blog post because tech reviewers seem to think the Ultra fails to kill Garmin. This is the counterpoint review, with a software person’s spin on it.
The Apple Watch Ultra is a great device, and is the best fitness device I’ve ever owned. It brings all of the fitness features I need in a package that’s extremely useful for the 60-70% of the time I’m not exercising or sleeping.
And it demonstrates how Garmin is doomed, at least without major changes to their current strategy.
Right now, as long as the Apple Watch Ultra’s size is OK and battery life supports someone’s workout needs, it should beat out Garmin handily for any iPhone user considering the $600-$1000 fitness smartwatch market or any existing Garmin user looking for a new watch at that price. It’s not even a contest.
I’ve been a Garmin user for ~10 years (Forerunner 110 -> Forerunner 220 -> Fenix 6), with a brief, 1-month attempt at using a Fitbit Charge 5. My Fenix 6 is great–and I’ve only had it since May and paid $350 for it–so I came into the Apple Watch Ultra unsure that I’d keep it. But after using it for about a month, I’m convinced the people claiming it’s not “A Garmin Killer” are wrong. Garmin is way behind on a couple things that matter a lot. (see Garmin In Trouble)
It is true that the Ultra is a non-starter for Android users and very long endurance workouts that the Fenix battery can handle. For a time, Garmin will also continue to sell many devices to people who don’t need it but want the appearance of a “serious” workout watch1. Plus, there are other metrics and fitness stats that you get with a Garmin and Garmin Connect, like Body Battery, that you can’t get with the Apple Watch natively. But virtually all of the Ultra’s deficiencies are fixable in software (by Apple or by apps) and the Ultra’s smartwatch capabilities turned out to be a game-changer (for me at least).
Smartwatch / health features
This Apple Watch Ultra is practically a wrist-based iPhone and changed my mind about having a smartwatch. For years, I disliked the idea of having a full-featured smartwatch because I don’t want more notifications, and that seemed like the main benefit of having one. But it turns out that with just a little filtering to notifications2, having a full-featured smartwatch is actually very liberating. I rely less on my phone and get interrupted less.
The Ultra comes with cellular, and it’s powerful to the point where I can confidently just have the watch and don’t need to carry my phone. AFAICT, I really only need to carry my phone when I need the camera. That fits pretty much 95% of the time I’m out for a run or just around the house or walking the dog and want to be reachable. And it turns out that, in the short time that I’ve had the Ultra, it allowed me to answer an urgent medical call during a run where I didn’t have my phone.
Works as intended, and I’m pretty committed at this point that I’m never buying another watch without cellular.
This is my first watch with a touch screen, and I initially experienced a number of accidental launches with the default “Wayfinder” watch face and its “Complications”. For example, I looked at my watch and suddenly saw a timer going. I had a better experience by having a second, simpler “California” watch face set, but I do prefer the Wayfinder, and the accidental launches died down after a while. Note though that I had constant mis-clicked buttons on my Fenix 6, and had to set it to keep buttons locked as a result. So maybe the Ultra is an improvement? Not sure.
I justified this expensive purchase in part for the health features that Apple Watches have. I had previously tried the Fitbit Charge 5 for this, but that device was deficient for GPS activity tracking. According to the Quantified Scientist, Apple Watches blow away the Fenix/Epix for measuring heart rate, sleep, etc. But honestly, I can’t tell the difference. They both seem to give reasonable results. Outside, in the extreme cold during a run, the Ultra’s HR was spotty, but that’s the only thing I’ve noticed–and I’ve read the Fenix has that issue too (didn’t try it).
So, unlike my Fenix, the Apple Watch does have the ECG, abnormal heart rate detection, safety stuff, etc. etc. Was it worth those features? Unlikely. But is it worth everything else it brings to the table as a smartwatch? Bigly.
I’ve also been skeptical of the Apple Watch due to its battery life, and the Ultra turns out to be an improvement over base Apple Watch models that makes it good enough for me. It lasts 2-2.5 days with 2-3 hours of GPS/workout use. It charges quickly as well. I haven’t timed it, but it seems like around an hour to charge to full. I’m able to wear it almost all of the time, including sleep, and don’t feel inconvenienced by the battery.
Apple offers a low power mode and apparently ultra runners could use the Ultra, but, even so, the battery seems like a deal breaker for distance runners, bikers, hikers, etc. The Epix is about 2-3x and the Fenix is well beyond that, due to its passive LCD screen.
Running / Fitness
In my testing running around San Francisco, the Ultra’s GPS tracking is superior to my Fenix 6. GPS also locks on very quickly compared to the Fenix (about 2-5 seconds, consistently). The Fenix 7 and Epix 2 probably will give better results though, since those have multi-band GPS like the Ultra.
Running with the Ultra took a few tries to figure out. I was having trouble with the touch screen and the Workoutdoors app. Eventually, I figured out that the app has a screen lock mode, which I can activate easily in a settable way (mine is set to “Crown + right button” to lock/unlock). “Water lock” was another solution I used for locking the screen while running in the cold and under a jacket, and that worked well. I haven’t had any of these problems in warmer (above freezing) weather, or without sleeves.
Speaking of that Workoutdoors app, that’s the way you can get running maps on the Ultra. Because despite $800 and having their own mapping app included, you can’t get maps for fitness purposes on Apple’s own Workout app? WTF Apple? Being in software professionally, I’m guessing they had to scope that feature to ship in time. But it is a feature they must include to win over Garmin users.
As I mentioned above, Apple has a better ecosystem. So you can fix missing features with apps, and other things “just work” by adding an app. For example, install the Peloton app and then when you start a Peloton ride, it automatically grabs your heart rate from the watch. You can make this work with a Garmin and ANT+ as well, but this required no setup. It just worked based on logging into the app and the bike.
On the other hand, the Ultra is missing ANT+ so you can’t connect it to e.g. a bike power meter. That’ll be another deal breaker for existing Garmin users, though if someone’s not invested in that yet, there are bluetooth options that work.
Another thing that the Ultra’s missing are the training and recovery metrics that Garmin offers, like recovery time, stress, and training readiness. However, these are all based on metrics the Ultra has access to (HR, HRV, sleep, etc), so you can buy an app that calculates them (e.g. Athlytic). This is an improvement over my Fenix 6, which doesn’t have training readiness and no way to get it besides buying an Epix 2 or Fenix 7. On the Ultra, or any Apple Watch, I can just buy an app.
….however, let’s talk about those health and fitness “scores”
Now that I’ve had the ability to check stats like “sleep score,” “body battery,” “recovery time,” etc. across multiple apps and devices, I’m just going to say that I am frankly very skeptical of the accuracy of these. My Garmin would routinely report I was “stressed” when I was sleeping soundly. Or after a 45 minute spin the Fenix would claim I needed 85 hours of recovery. In fact, watch a few athlete YouTubers discuss these metrics and you’ll see them say things like “it’s sometimes right”, “it’s pretty well correlated with how I feel”. No one really knows the accuracy, and it often is completely off for how I feel or slept or worked out.
And this is probably why Apple just sticks with the actual metrics: Heart rate. HRV. HR Recovery. Sleep stages. Just the numbers, no derived score or interpretation. VO2 Max is I think the only one they derive.
So while I currently am trying “Athlytic” and “Training Today”, they’re pretty arbitrary in the results they show, much like my Garmin was. I’ll probably unsubscribe and just forget about those “scores” for now.
Garmin In Trouble
I mentioned above that the AWU proves Garmin is in trouble. What we’ll do is look into the technical ecosystem of Garmin. There are two main fundamental issues:
1. App Platform
For a software developer, building an app for Garmin means developing in a way completely unique and different than Android and Apple. On all its devices, Garmin uses a custom OS, platform and even a custom langage called Monkey C (that looks almost nothing like C). Further, unlike Apple and Android, which make it possible to link in common C++ libraries across the two platforms, you cannot do this with Garmin. Everything must be implemented in Monkey C (AFAICT).
While Garmin does supply Connect IQ to download and update apps, there’s no paid marketplace. A developer can’t charge a subscription fee through Garmin, and must maintain their own way of doing this and enabling the app, though Garmin does supply an API to enable trial periods and redirecting to your company’s unlock URL.
Overall, it makes no sense for professional developers to spend time learning to build an app for this ecosystem. There’s no front door for billing/subscriptions and it uses a completely custom platform that can’t host any existing libraries you may have between WatchOS and WearOS. The only people who will develop for this are hobbyists, or professionals doing it as a hobbyist.
2. Data Platform
Check out this Garmin Connect API site and note what’s missing.
Garmin allows their data to go out, but none to come in. It sounds like this should be okay. But it means that you can’t use Garmin Connect without a Garmin device, and there are a growing number of fitness devices you might like represented in your Garmin Connect data. Example: Peloton.
Compare this to Apple Health, where all devices and apps read and write data. Obviously you have to have purchased an iPhone (or iPad, I guess), but it’s still a completely open platform.
Garmin was way ahead of the pack on fitness and smart watches, but now has classic “innovators dilemma” for issue #1. The obvious solution for them would be to move to WearOS, which would immediately sink demand for their old watches. As soon as they announce the change, no one will buy a Fenix nor Epix. Ask Nokia how it went when they switched from SymbianOS to Windows Mobile.
Another issue with moving to WearOS is that the watches wouldn’t be fully functional on iOS. But Garmin already isn’t–they can’t respond to calls or send texts–so I guess it’s no loss there.
The final problem with moving to WearOS is that they have spent years optimizing devices for their custom OS. Would they be able to have a better product than other WearOS makers?
And as far as data lockout, they can easily fix this one, but won’t. They do it to force you to buy a Garmin device and only a Garmin device to get data into Connect.
The Verge’s review of the Apple Watch concludes with:
While Apple is going to sell a ton of these to weekend warriors, tech dads, and aspiring non-couch potatoes, I’d argue the Ultra is best for athletes hovering at the cusp between intermediate and advanced levels. The battery life is best for weekend excursions, and the simpler UI and metrics are preferable if you’ve yet to crave overly complex charts. Hardcore athletes or explorers are more likely to want extra features they’re used to that the Ultra doesn’t have.
As I read somewhere else on the internet, “Apple makes smartwatches that have some fitness features and Garmin makes fitness watches with some smart features”. For me, the Ultra’s smartwatch features were enough of a game changer that it was easy for me to decide to give up my Fenix as my daily driver. It’s also true that the AWU won’t be good for extended ultra marathons, multi-day hikes/expeditions or maybe even long days of backcountry skiing. A Fenix still beats the AWU for many situations.
Garmin’s biggest problem is there’s actually no reason for a current Fenix owner on iOS to buy another Garmin. If I need a Fenix for a hike or a race or a full day of skiing, my Fenix 6 is all I’ll ever need. Since the Fenix isn’t a smartwatch, there isn’t the same built-in obsolescence. My Forerunner 220 served me well for 8 years and I still could have kept using it. But even for most new buyers, it makes little sense to buy a Garmin. Few new buyers need the workout features of a Fenix 7 ($700) or Epix ($900), while being okay giving up significant functionality offered by the AWU ($800) when that functionality is what you’d all of the time you’re not working out.
And if I needed a replacement Garmin for specific use cases, I would buy a cheaper older one, as I already did, or buy another cheaper brand.
So I think The Verge’s conclusion is true, except that “weekend warriors, tech dads and aspiring non-couch potatoes” will apply to Garmin’s top end watches. For most, the Fenix or Epix is a watch that provides no added value except the image of being really into extreme fitness. I suspect that image is why we saw fitness YouTubers initially decry the Apple Watch Ultra (then reluctantly declare a few months later the AWU is their new daily driver).
Meanwhile, the Apple Watch Ultra is so much more functional and many of its shortcomings compared to Garmin can be fixed with software. As Apple continues to improve the battery life, it will soon not make sense for any iPhone user to ever buy a new Garmin or any other dedicated fitness watch.
And that means trouble for Garmin. Of course, Apple has a walled garden for Apple Watch and makes it tough for competitors to connect with the iPhone (e.g. my Fenix can’t even send canned responses to messages), but the door is open for WearOS and Android. My experience with having a cellular-enabled watch is that I’ll never go without one again. If other tech companies go big on smartwatches on WearOS, Garmin will be competing primarily against them on Android rather than Apple on iOS. That is… only if Garmin is able to face up to its innovator’s dilemma and dump their proprietary platform. If they can’t, it’s a matter of time before smartwatches fill the needs of nearly every fitness watch user and those dedicated watch brands go away.