On Track: Testing the Apple Watch Ultra’s GPS

At its most recent keynote event, Apple claimed that its flagship wearable, the Apple Watch Ultra, provides the “most accurate GPS of any sport watch in the market” in dense urban conditions. This is a big deal — in my experience, accurate GPS tracking in all locations is one of the most sought-after features among the athletic community.

For the most serious users, the feature ensures highly accurate pacing data, informing race strategy on the fly. Even for more casual athletes, getting a bad GPS track is frustrating. Finishing a run and finding that your watch has short-changed you by a mile because it lost signal is never a good feeling. And I should know — as a runner myself, I’ve had days when GPS has failed spectacularly to follow my tracks.

As a result, I was intrigued by Apple’s claim to have solved this issue with the Watch Ultra. The company says that the Ultra benefits from “a new precision dual-frequency GPS solution, that in addition to L1, also includes the latest frequency, L5, plus new custom positioning algorithms”. Diving into the technical specifications, L1 frequency is the oldest and most established form of GPS signal, so it’s the easiest to access, but its relatively low frequency means it struggles to travel through obstacles. L5 is the newest and most advanced form of civilian signal, which operates at a higher frequency, and is becoming more widespread as it’s added to more GPS satellites.

What this means in theory is more accurate GPS tracking that can cut through challenging locations — such as the dense urban conditions highlighted by Apple — and provide a clearer view of where a device is really moving. Added to that, the “custom positioning algorithms” indicate a mass of intelligence beyond what’s been revealed here, probably drawing on Apple’s Maps knowledge and other things.

I wanted to put Apple’s claim to the test and immediately knew where to go: Canary Wharf. This area of London is famous for its high-rise financial district, making it the most troublesome spot for GPS tracking on the route of the London Marathon— which happens to be taking place this weekend. Both times that I’ve run the marathon, my watches’ attempts to track the route have been catastrophic.

This failure is demonstrated in Figure 1 below, a map showing the official route through the skyscraper-lined streets (the red line) and the track recorded by my Garmin Forerunner 735XT in 2021 (the green line).

Figure 1. Map of the official route of the London Marathon, recorded on the Garmin Forerunner 735XT

Source: GPS Visualizer

And just for laughs, Figure 2 shows the results of using the Garmin Fenix 5S in 2019, which needs to be zoomed out to demonstrate just how terrible it is:

Figure 2. Map of the route of the London Marathon, recorded on the Garmin Fenix 5S

Source: GPS Visualizer

Can the new Apple Watch Ultra do any better? And should the thousands of runners going through their final preparations for Sunday’s London Marathon consider a last-minute switch to the Ultra?

To find out, I headed to Canary Wharf and followed the marathon route around these streets, with a couple of miles’ warm-up so that I wasn’t throwing the Watch Ultra in at the deep end. The results were impressive. Figure 3 shows the GPS track from my testing, with the official route in red and the Ultra’s efforts in blue:

Figure 3. Map of the route of the London Marathon, recorded on the Apple Watch Ultra

Source: GPS Visualizer

It’s not a perfect replica. Looking at the S-shape, which is the main high-rise section of the route, there’s some wandering from the route, and a bit of drifting particularly on the upper out-and-back section. But the Watch Ultra has undoubtedly fared a lot better than my previous attempts to track a run through Canary Wharf, and I’m seriously impressed by the capability.

The benefit for runners is potentially huge. Aside from providing a nice pretty map for London Marathon finishers, it could make a real difference to any runners aiming for a specific pace all the way around a course. When I ran the marathon in 2019 and 2021, my watch lost its bearings so dramatically that I had to do mental maths on the move because I no longer had an accurate assessment of my pace as the distance measured was so different to reality. Doing away with that risk will be a welcome change.

It should be noted that Apple isn’t the first to adopt a multiband approach to GPS tracking in its wearables. Multiband GPS has been launched on Garmin watches including the Epix and Fenix 7 range, as well as on Coros’ Vertix 2 and on Huawei’s Watch GT 3 and Watch GT Runner. Sadly, I don’t have all of these to hand so I can’t easily compare them, although I’m happy to make another visit! Either way, Apple has thrown down the gauntlet of claiming it has the most accurate GPS tracking in urban conditions. Its rivals won’t take this claim lying down, and I expect the title to be hotly contested, but it definitely looks like the Ultra is on the right track.