Confessions of an Ex-Garmin Bro

A few years ago, when I was starting as an analyst focussed on wearables, I found that no matter which smartwatch I was currently testing out for work, I’d always come back to a Garmin as my default watch for personal usage. As someone who regularly runs and cycles, I wanted the best sports features during exercise, and I had little doubt that Garmin was streets ahead of the competition.

I could probably have been most accurately described as a “Garmin Bro”. This is someone, typically a man, whose Garmin is not just their watch, but part of their identity. They’re likely to be a fairly serious amateur athlete — usually a runner — keen to gather up all their performance data. In fact, they’re probably hoping that you ask them about their watch so they can tell you all about running and how they got on at last weekend’s parkrun. Maybe you know a Garmin Bro, or maybe you are one. But for these people, their watch isn’t just a tool — it marks them out as part of the athletic community.

I can definitely identify with this community, and as a finisher of seven marathons and a regular participant in 5 km and 10 km races, getting the best running data from a wearable device has always been a priority. Still, the conveyor belt of wearables never stops, so I’ve continued to test multiple devices from across the market. And finally, something has come along which has broken the Garmin stranglehold on my wrist.

The Apple Watch Ultra has gradually cemented its place as my regular smartwatch since it launched in September 2022. In that time, it’s become one of my all-around favourite devices and one that I wear every single day — and replacing my Garmin watch.

Some of the most obvious reasons for this are Apple’s advances in sports tracking capabilities on its Watch range over the past year or two. It’s slowly refined and expanded the feature set for runners, adding tools like structured interval workouts and a host of advanced metrics such as cadence, vertical oscillation and running power. It also claimed that Watch Ultra offers the “most accurate GPS of any sports watch in the market”, a claim which stood up pretty well when I tested the device on the London Marathon course earlier this year. Apple has also signalled its intention to go after cycling, announcing at its recent WWDC event that the Watch Ultra will support bicycle power meters soon.

But the Watch Ultra has also hit a sweet spot for me in several other ways. I’d historically struggled to gel with Apple’s smartwatches because of their lack of buttons — which, in my view, are essential for sports — and a limited battery life of up to 18 hours. These concerns were enough to keep me away from Apple’s wearables ecosystem. But the Watch Ultra’s Action button has proven a huge step forward for me, providing an invaluable extra input method when exercising. Also, the expanded battery life regularly powers me through two days of use.

Added to this, the slickness of the Apple ecosystem is quietly excellent and translates brilliantly for sports uses. When I head out of the door for a run, I’m also taking all my cards on Apple Pay; a host of automatically downloaded podcasts and playlists in case I need some entertainment; and the in-built cellular connectivity means I can be contactable on the move.

It’s not perfect, and there are improvements I’d still love to see in the Apple Watch family. From a software perspective, the ability to follow pre-planned routes using offline maps requires workarounds and third-party apps, which feels like a miss. It’s something I expect Apple to improve in future software updates.

And from a hardware angle, the biggest downside to Apple Watch Ultra is probably the aesthetic: it’s undeniably chunky. When I first tried it on and shared the images on Twitter, I was bombarded with replies laughing about my “very small” and “flimsy” wrists. I’ve got used to wearing it, but in pictures, it sometimes still manages to look gigantic. I’d probably appreciate a slimmed-down version, as would any similarly petite-wristed readers, but that decision usually sacrifices battery life.

Also, Apple positioned the Watch Ultra as a device for ultramarathon runners, deep sea divers and wilderness explorers, but I’m not convinced that this is the demographic it has resonated with. I’ve toed the start line of at least a dozen races with my Watch Ultra and usually feel lost in a sea of Garmin and Coros users. Whenever I spot a Watch Ultra in the wild, it’s normally on the wrist of someone whose main exercise is probably a leisurely nine-hole round of golf on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a far cry from the sportier vibe I was used to in my Garmin Bro days.

Still, these aren’t serious reasons to avoid the Watch Ultra, and its all-round functionality far outweighs any concerns about aesthetics. For anyone who owns an iPhone and wants a smartwatch that can go almost anywhere and provides an excellent feature set for sports and exercise, the Watch Ultra should be high on the list. Almost a year since first trying it, it remains firmly strapped to my wrist.