Sometimes, the most expensive option isn’t the best one, and smartwatches are no exception. For the past two weeks, I’ve swapped out my typical Apple Watch SE for the Apple Watch Ultra 2, and for the most part, I much prefer the $249 pick to the $799 one.

From an always-on display to an Action button, there’s a lot to love about the Apple Watch Ultra 2. But it’s a highly specialized device, with a lot of features included that most people won’t need. Even if cost wasn’t a factor, I’d bet a good amount of folks would still prefer either an Apple Watch SE or Apple Watch Series 9.

Let’s break down the pros and cons of Apple’s most expensive and least expensive watches to help you find which one is right for you.

Why get a smart watch?

I didn’t start wearing a smartwatch until just after the pandemic, when I started commuting to work more often. I’m not much of an athlete, and I thought the whole thing was kind of silly, like wearing a “please mug me” sign. I suppose people once said the same thing about flip phones.

The Apple Watch SE is meant for someone like me. It’s small, lightweight, and does just enough to win me over. I like to think of it like an updated iPod Nano. It’s a tiny box I can use to control my media, use tap-to-pay, and occasionally track walks. That’s all I need, but it was convenient enough that I’ve grown to love the thing and how it lets me keep my phone in my bag while on the train.

Others, however, have bought into smartwatches since the beginning. They love the detailed sensors higher-end models come with, the luxury looks available with an upgrade, and feeling their hefty cases on their wrists. For these people, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a great choice.

What does each Apple Watch model come with?

Apple currently sells three Apple Watch models, and I’ve tested two. None are bad choices, but they each cater to a different audience, so there’s a lot to take into account even if money is no object.

The cheapest Apple Watch is the Apple Watch SE, which comes with the smallest size option and bare minimum specs. For $249, its aluminum body packs a 1,000 nit display, a battery that’s advertised to hold up to an 18 hour charge, the S8 chip (powering features like Siri and Find my iPhone), and an optical heart rate monitor. You’ll get water resistance up to a 164 feet depth, and for a $50 upcharge, you can add in the ability to connect a cellular plan.

The Apple Watch Series 9 is one step up and starts at $399 (cellular adds $100 to the price, and you can pay even more for a stainless steel case). For that extra money, you’ll get a 2,000 nit always-on display, the S9 chip (unlocking the double tap feature and upgrading Siri as well as Find my iPhone), a new ECG, temperature sensing, fast charging, and a low power mode for your battery that’s purported to last up to 36 hours.

Finally, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 starts at $799 and only comes in one model, with additional upcharges being reserved for accessories. All Ultra 2 models have a titanium case, a 3,000 nit always-on display, the S9 chip, 328 feet of water resistance, an upgraded GPS, cellular compatibility, and a purported battery life of up to 36 hours in normal use and 72 hours in low power mode. There’s also an orange Action button on the side and additional sensors including a gyroscope and a depth gauge.

All Apple Watch models come with OLED screens, a digital crown, speakers (although they’re upgraded on the Ultra), and a menu button, but if we were to discuss everything that’s different about them, we’d be here all day. For more details, check Apple’s site, but even with everything I’ve already laid out, I’ve yet to touch on the most important difference.

Credit: Michelle Ehrhardt

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is too big and heavy for my wrist

Remember how I called the Apple Watch SE an updated iPod Nano? That wouldn’t fly with the Apple Watch Ultra 2.

The SE comes in 40mm and 44mm sizes (I have the 40), and weighs a max of 33g even on the larger model with cellular included. The Apple Watch Ultra 2 only comes in 49mm, and weighs 61.4g.

This thing is chonky, especially for a smaller wrist like mine, and feels less like wearing a control center for your iPhone—or perhaps a whole separate iPhone entirely. It’s cool for bragging rights, but less so for the type of everyday use that sold me on smartwatches in the first place. 

Outside of its specialty use cases, the always-on display is about the only upgrade I actually enjoyed for most of my time using it. Everything else was just a burden.

If you’re like me, the Ultra 2 is just a bad pick, even if you can afford it and usually opt for top-of-the-line options like the M3 Max MacBook Pro. You’ll end up getting a lot you don’t use, and a worse experience with what you do, so do yourself a favor and cheap out.

When is the Apple Watch Ultra 2 worth it?

But that doesn’t mean the additions to the Ultra 2 are just back-of-the-box selling points that Apple is using to jack up the price. They’re genuinely useful for people who need it, i.e. outdoorsy folks.

The whole reason I started this comparison was to test out the updated Golfshot app, a golf course assistant for Android, iOS, and Apple Watch. Earlier this month, it got an update for Apple Watch Ultra and Ultra 2  that was a genuine game changer, and could totally make the upgrade worth it for me if I were a big golfer.

On top of adding driving ranges to the app’s lineup of courses, the update makes use of the Apple Watch Ultra line’s extra sensors to track your swing in detail every time. SwingID allows the app to track factors like tempo, rhythm, backswing, and the like, and while it’s available on Apple Watch Series 9, Apple Watch Ultra can track your swing at 800hz, allowing it to detect exactly when you hit the ball.

In just a short few hours of play, I managed to use this data to see what was causing my shots to veer off to the right so frequently, and ended the session straightening them out.

It’s cases like this where Apple Watch shines. For instance, the extra waterproofing and Depth app makes it a diving companion, while the detailed watch face options, extra large battery, loud speakers, and cellular connectivity make it useful for keeping hikers both informed and safe.

I’m not likely to use these features anytime soon, but given that competing activity watches like Garmin’s Mk3 Dive Computer can reach into the thousands of dollars, the Apple Watch Ultra could be a fair replacement for more specialized equipment.

The large size also puts Apple Watch Ultra in greater competition with luxury watches. I tend not to pick my outfit for bragging rights, but there’s no arguing that the Ultra doesn’t look slick, especially if you add on one of Apple’s official Hermès bands.

Do I need Apple Watch Ultra if I’m just going to the gym?

I like to view Apple Watch Ultra best as a specialty activity companion, and while I did try wearing it to the gym, I didn’t get much out of it. My typical day at the gym involves about a half-hour of using the elliptical and ten minutes of weight lifting, and for this, the Ultra only really gave me one benefit: the Action button.

On the side of both Apple Watch Ultras is an orange Action button that can be set to trigger anything from a stopwatch to a flashlight (which turns the watch’s screen white and sets it to max brightness). Most available Action button functions are also available as features on the Apple Watch SE and Series 9, but require digging through menus, so being able to turn them on with a single button press is convenient. It’s a similar experience to the Action button on the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max.

I set the Action button to start my workout, and I could press it again to pause workouts. I didn’t notice too much deviation in the recorded data on either watch, but because I usually just wait for my SE to detect when I’m working out before starting tracking, I was able to more accurately time my workout tracking on the Ultra 2. The SE, for all its lightweight convenience, can be a little slow to notice when I’m in the gym.

If you work out outside, there’s also the larger battery to take note of. I usually have to charge my SE every night, but I was able to get away with charging it every other night on the Ultra 2. You’ll still be set for hours either way, but you’re less likely to accidentally wear a dead watch with the more expensive model.

Aside from in-exercise tracking, there is also something to be said for the ECG and Cycle Tracking apps. While these are also available on the more modestly priced Series 9, the closest the SE offers is the ability to manually log cycles.

Credit: Michelle Ehrhardt

Which Apple Watch should I get?

The best Apple Watch for you may not be the one with the most bells and whistles. I prefer a small, lightweight device with a minimal interface that I can mostly use as a companion while commuting, so the SE isn’t just a budget compromise to me: It’s my favorite option.

The Ultra 2, meanwhile, is great for people who regularly dive, golf, hike, or engage in some other more intense outdoor hobby. Its extra sensors and more rugged design allow it to keep up with more expensive specialty equipment, and despite its bulk, it’s still capable of everyday use cases like tap-to-pay.

The Series 9 is a great compromise. Its smallest option is only a touch larger than the SE’s, it comes in more colors, and it has a few extra sensors without getting as big as the Ultra 2. It’s a good splurge pick, but be sure to look up whether you’ll actually use its extra sensors paying the extra $150 for it.