Galaxy Watch Ultra Hands-On: Rugged Design and Sleep Apnea Detection for $650

The Galaxy Watch Ultra is the biggest shake-up of Samsung’s smartwatch line we’ve seen in years. It’s not only the most expensive Galaxy Watch ever at $650, but it has a bold new look, sleep apnea detection and some promising workout tools. Announced at Wednesday’s Samsung Unpacked alongside the new Galaxy Ring, Z Fold 6, Z Flip 6 and Galaxy Watch 7, the Galaxy Watch Ultra brings many features we’ve seen in the Apple Watch to the world of Android smartwatches.

The Galaxy Watch Ultra’s design is pretty polarizing and it won’t suit all wrists, unlike the regular Galaxy Watch 7. The Ultra marries Samsung’s classic round screen inside a square-ish 47mm case. After seeing it in person and playing with it for an hour, I’m still not sure how I feel about the Ultra’s “squircle” design. It doesn’t overwhelm my 152mm wrist and feels light thanks to the titanium construction, but it is bulkier than similarly-sized rugged smartwatches I’ve worn. I’ll have to spend more time with it before I make the final call.

More from Samsung Unpacked

Samsung is attempting to make the Galaxy Watch Ultra stand out from other Android smartwatches by blending unique health features, like sleep apnea detection, with a rugged design. Mobvoi’s TicWatch Pro 5 Enduro and Google’s Pixel Watch 2 have plenty of health and wellness features but don’t market themselves as outdoor watches. Garmin’s cross-platform watches are built for the outdoors with long battery life and a plethora of fitness tracking tools but lack key connectivity features like built-in LTE.

Samsung Galaxy Watch 7 and Galaxy Watch Ultra

The Galaxy Watch Ultra (top) and Galaxy Watch 7 (bottom).

Numi Prasarn/CNET

It’s actually Apple that seems to have provided the most inspiration for Samsung’s 2024 Galaxy Watch lineup. There’s the entry-level $200 Galaxy Watch FE, which has similar features and price to the $250 Apple Watch SE.

Then comes the $300 Galaxy Watch 7 which launched at the same time as the Galaxy Watch Ultra. The Watch 7 shares many of the same features as the pricier Watch Ultra, but it’s most similar to last year’s Galaxy Watch 6 in terms of look and feel. The Watch 7 comes in two sizes and has plenty of health features like the $400 Apple Watch Series 9.

There’s the $650 Galaxy Watch Ultra, an outdoor watch with a titanium case and long battery life that seems similar to the $800 Apple Watch Ultra 2.

Both the Galaxy Watch Ultra and Galaxy Watch 7 are available to preorder now. They will be available on July 24.

Watch this: Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra and Watch 7: Big Watch, Big Price

Galaxy Watch Ultra’s new design: Half circle, half square, no rotating bezel

The Ultra might be a 2024 Android smartwatch, but it feels like a throwback to the Gear Sport from 2017, which had a similar squared-off design. The Ultra’s titanium case comes in either a gray, white or silver finish. 

After killing off and bringing back the fan-favorite rotating bezel in the space of just two years, Samsung’s killed it off again on the Ultra. One of the most distinctive features of Samsung watches, the bezel is a great way to interact with the watch without needing to rely on the touchscreen, especially helpful if your hands are sweaty. I’m not sure why Samsung took away this unique feature on its flagship watch — I’m speculating it’s for durability reasons — but I know plenty of Galaxy Watch users will be upset.

Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra

The Galaxy Watch Ultra on my 152mm wrist. No rotating bezel here.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

If you are a bezel enthusiast, like myself, the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic stays in the lineup, but you won’t get the rugged design or faster processor like the newer watch. Samsung’s previous rugged watch, the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, is now discontinued.

The Galaxy Watch Ultra gets a nice, bright 1.5-inch AMOLED screen that reaches a maximum 3,000 nits, and you can use the touch bezel to navigate the watch by moving your finger around the inside rim of the screen. It somewhat makes up for the lack of a rotating bezel, but won’t be as easy to use when your hands are sweaty.

There are three buttons on the case, including a new Quick button. As the name suggests, press it to quickly start or pause workouts, log intervals during a workout, or hold it for five seconds to activate an 85-decibel siren. It can be customized to launch other apps and performs different tasks depending on context, just like the Action button on the Apple Watch Ultra 2.

Night mode is another familiar feature that puts a red filter on the watch face to make it easier on your eyes after dark. The Galaxy Watch Ultra has a new trick up its sleeve to change the watch face depending on the time of the day, which sounds cool.

Samsung is using a new 3-nanometer processor in both watches (Exynos W1000) which promises faster performance than earlier watches and anecdotally, it feels more responsive than the Galaxy Watch 6.

The Galaxy Watch Ultra is rated IP68 for dust and water resistance, plus it can be submerged up to 330 feet (100 meters) just like the Galaxy Ring. Samsung says the watch is built to meet the US military standard 810H and has an operating range of up to 29,500 feet (8,991 meters) and a temperature range of -4 F to 131F (-20 C to 55 C).

Galaxy Watch Ultra sensors

Flip over the squircle case and you’ll find a redesigned bioactive sensor. This is what drives the heart rate sensor, electrical heart rate signal and bioimpedance sensor, which measures body composition. Samsung claims the new models are more accurate than earlier Galaxy Watches for not only heart rate tracking and blood oxygen readings but now also provide an Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) Index. That’s an indicator of metabolic health and biological aging.

Heart rate algorithms used for higher-intensity workout types, like cycling and strength training specifically, have been tweaked for greater accuracy.

Like other high-end outdoor watches from Garmin and Apple, the Galaxy Watch Ultra has a dual-frequency GPS. It uses both L1 and L5 frequency bands for better accuracy in both outdoor and built-up areas. There’s also LTE built-in as standard, just like the Apple Watch Ultra.

Galaxy Watch Ultra sleep, health and workout tools

The Galaxy Watch Ultra has FDA-authorized sleep apnea detection and is the first of its kind available in the US. It needs at least two nights of sleep data to monitor for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea, a condition where you momentarily stop breathing during the night. You’ll get an alert on your phone if the watch detects an anomaly. The next Apple Watch is also rumored to get sleep apnea detection, according to Bloomberg.

Like the Galaxy Ring, you’ll also get to tap into Galaxy AI to get an energy score and wellness tips based on your metrics. The Galaxy Watch Ultra and Galaxy Watch 7 have ECG and irregular HR notifications like earlier watches.

The Galaxy Watch Ultra offers a unique functional threshold power test (FTP) for cycling, which is the maximum level of intensity you can maintain for an hour. A typical FTP test takes either 20 minutes or an hour, but the Galaxy Watch Ultra can calculate your maximum power in four minutes. A shorter FTP test can put less strain on your body. By comparison, the Apple Watch calculates your estimated FTP after about five high-intensity rides lasting at least 10 minutes each.

Like many Garmin watches, the Galaxy Watch Ultra has an aerobic threshold and aerobic threshold heart rate zones, which can be an important measure of intensity for endurance athletes.

There’s also a race feature where you can compete against your previous running or cycling workouts on the same course. The Apple Watch has had a similar feature called Race Route that’s been around since WatchOS 9.2.

Galaxy Watch Ultra bands and battery life

The Galaxy Watch Ultra uses a new dynamic lug watch band mechanism, so you won’t be able to use older bands from earlier watches. Fortunately, it’s really easy to swap bands in and out, with a satisfying click that lets you know the band is secure. There are three band options: a silicone Marine band for water and dive activities; a Trail band with a buckle and breathable fabric; plus the PeakForm band for everyday use.

Samsung rates the Ultra’s battery life up to 60 hours with the always-on display, with regular use. There’s a power-saving mode that can extend battery life up to 100 hours. If you’re looking to take it on an extended workout, the exercise power-saving mode can deliver up to 48 hours of runtime. 

Samsung Galaxy Watch 7 and Galaxy Buds 3 Pro

The Galaxy Watch 7 with Galaxy Buds 3 Pro.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Don’t forget about the regular Galaxy Watch 7

Most of the attention from this year’s Galaxy Watch announcement is focused on the Ultra. The regular $300 Galaxy Watch 7 is also getting similar features that might tempt you to upgrade, including sleep apnea detection and the new bioactive sensor. 

Like last year’s watch, it comes in either a small (40mm) or large (44mm) case. The small size comes in green or cream, while the large model is green or silver. They all use the same one-click band system like last year’s Galaxy Watch 6.

Storage options have doubled compared to the Galaxy Watch 6, so you can now get up to 32GB which is helpful if you like to store music on your watch or load up on apps. 

When paired with a Galaxy phone that supports Galaxy AI tools, both the Ultra and the Watch 7 will analyze incoming messages and give suggested replies that match the tone of the conversation. This works in the Messages app and WhatsApp.

I’m looking forward to putting both the Galaxy Watch Ultra and Galaxy Watch 7 through their paces. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Galaxy Watch Ultra and Galaxy Ring Gallery: Details Up Close

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