When the Apple Watch Ultra was announced last month, it included an initial low-power mode across the entire watch that mostly reduced some background features while maintaining workout accuracy. Meaning your heart rate and GPS sampling rates remained the same at 1-second refresh rates (the industry standard). In this initial low-power mode, Apple claimed you had enough battery for most people to finish the iron-distance race, averaging around 15 hours. Indeed, in my testing, I went out and turned on/high for 14 hours and finished with about 15% of the battery remaining in this mode.
However, upon the announcement, they also promised to put in a secondary, low-power workout “later this fall” that would reduce GPS readings to once every two minutes, and heart rate readings to once every one minute. This new mode was released today as part of watchOS 9.1. In this mode, the unit will achieve up to 60 hours of battery life. However, this is not 60 hours of GPS battery life, but rather 60 hours of smartwatch life, including other tasks, specifically:
Hiking, walking or running, over 600 time checks, 35 minutes of app use, 3 minutes of talking, and 15 hours of sleep tracking. Usage includes LTE on-demand and 5 hours connected to iPhone via Bluetooth over 60 hours hour “.
Then in this new mode, the following changes are made:
– Turn off Always On Display
– Low cellular connection to update every hour only
– Makes the cell phone on-demand when it is not within range of your phone
– Limits background features including irregular heart rate notifications and automatic exercise detection
– Lowers heart rate to once per minute, GPS updates once every two minutes
– Reduces distance and speed updates to once every 1-2 minutes (varies slightly)
– Power off (completely)
– Turn off all operating efficiency metrics (eg vertical oscillation/ground contact time)
– Reduces altimeter readings
– Closes the divisions and slides
– Turn off alerts
So to summarize, you have four basic levels:
Normal Use/Situation: 36 hours of smartwatch battery life
Normal use with exercise mode: 12 hours of GPS battery life
Low Power Mode (Full accuracy during exercise): Approximately 15 hours of GPS battery life
Low Power Mode (HR/GPS updates are discounted): 60 hours of smartwatch battery life
So, how much Actual GPS workout time is this new mode? Well, unfortunately, Apple will not make any claims there. And despite my recent history of going out and hiking/running so many products die (including testing an Enduro 2 last summer, and 8 days of hiking in the Alps later), I don’t exactly have time this week to get out and run/hike for several hours. Until this thing dies.
However, what I learned from the previous Apple Watch Ultra battery test is that the rate at which battery drops are very predictable. During my 14-hour walk with my first lower position, I kept hourly notes on battery burn rates. And for almost a whole day it was constantly burning at a rate of 6-7% / hour. The only exception was one hour in the middle of the day where it randomly burned 14% for no apparent reason. However, this 6-7% range matches what others have seen as well, again, in the full precision workout mode.
So, how about this new low power mode? Well, let’s run some easy tests. First, to enable it—which requires you to download the latest WatchOS 9.1 update, which will also appear once you’ve downloaded the latest iOS update—both of which were released today. Once you install that, within the Workout settings within the Watch app on your phone, you’ll see the new option Fewer GPS and heart rate readings:
When you do this, it does list a partial list of things in the app, but as I found out, that’s actually not the full list. Instead, you have to get out and run and realize what’s missing. So, I’ve included everything I could detect in the list above (including things like no power on).
With this empowerment, I set out on an adventure. In this case, I specifically left the phone off – but remember that the Apple Watch 2022 (Ultra/Series 8/SE 2nd Gen) units no longer take advantage of the phone’s connection for any GPS use anyway. That’s it on the device now. As before, LTE is not enabled on my Apple Watch Ultra.
When you start any run/walk/walk (the only activities this relates to), it will warn you again that you are about to enter smelly low data mode, and offer to bring you back to the upright and cramped position:
For this test, I ignored it, and went:
Now, I won’t make you bored by repetition during the whole round. Instead, I’m going to do some quick note stuff, and then some data stuff.
a) Speed/Distance/HR: While running, you lose any kind of speed/distance and instant heart rate metrics, instead, they update roughly once every 60 seconds for your heart rate (the latest heart rate snapshot appears once a minute). And then for distance, you’ll get these updates about every 90 seconds of testing. It wasn’t actually every two minutes of updating the GPS. This is interesting, as I would have expected that it will use wrist-based accelerometers for distance that are constantly updated (like any other watch on the market), but in reality, they only update every 1-2 minutes. You can see this below in these two photos I took, about 70 seconds apart, distance and heart rate staying the same (despite running all the time):
b) Power Operation/Advance Metrics: The running power data pages configured for this boot profile are completely gone, as did the running power data after booting up. Moreover, all the metrics related to running efficiency are gone – both data pages in the middle of the run and data pages after the run.
c) Altimeter: My barometric altimeter elevation page doesn’t seem to be updated in a very friendly way either. In some cases, it was once a minute, in others, it took several minutes between updates.
D) divisions: As mentioned, you won’t get splits while running, but you will get splits after running, although it won’t be accurate.
e) Heart rate belt: Fun fact: If you have a heart rate strap paired via the Apple Watch’s Bluetooth menu, it will use * at full accuracy (every second), which is great. I expect the battery to not get there, given that the BLE sensor coupling is (by design) incredibly lightweight from a battery impact standpoint, and in nearly every device, there are significant savings by using a BLE/ANT+ chest strap over an internal optical HR sensor.
However, the real bits of interest are the amount of distance you’ll lose. In my case, my path was not very complicated (read: not a mountain path). But, it was a road with some nice straight sections where not only the lack of GPS updates mattered much, but also some nice woodland sections where everything is completely missing. And while I have plenty of nifty comparison charts to show you, the best way to show this is actually Apple’s own map screenshots, as it easily puts dotted lines on all the sections that have GPS turned off, and then does Simply connect the dots:
Now in theory, if a phone is connected with access to Apple Maps, it does some snap-to-route sort of thing. But I didn’t have that connection in the middle of a run, and it wasn’t attracted to the track after a run. Realistically though, if you’re trying to get rid of every bit of battery on this watch for a 20+ hour adventure, it’s also likely in most cases that you’ll try to dump the battery on your phone, and the connection may be off/disabled to keep battery life.
Anyway, you can see the effect of GPS tracks in the comparison maps (here’s the full link if you want to dig deeper):
He obviously cuts corners like nobody’s business. All external/background partitions are missing. Rosie Ruiz would be proud. As for the final distances:
Apple Watch Ultra (lowest power mode): 10.54 km
CHORUS Vertix 2 (Multi-band): 11.66 km
Garmin MARQ Athlete 2 (Multi-Band): 12.00 km
Suunto 9 Peak Pro (all systems): 11.94 km
Finally, what about the battery life of the Apple Watch? Well, this seems to be more difficult. In my case, I started an hour’s run with 86% battery…and…umm… I finished an hour’s run with 86% battery. It obviously burned some battery, but I obviously stayed within the rounding errors for that to be 1% or less. You point out that Dave from Chase the Summit got a 1% burn in one of his one hour rides.
And while that all might sound impressive – let’s keep in mind that the watch basically runs entirely in low-power mode – roughly – sleep mode for about 60 seconds of “working” out of the entire watch. In fact, it’s definitely a little more than that, but in practice, the amount that Apple has put a stop to here makes this mode unusable. If we compare it to companies like Garmin, COROS, and Suunto, their low power modes are still relatively perfect except for the GPS sampling rate. But everything else (including distance/speed/HR updates) is mostly in 1-second intervals. And Garmin’s Fenix 7 Solar can prove an astounding 289 hours in this mode. Fenix 7X Solar? 578 hours. And dare I mention Enduro 2? 714 hours!
It is contained:
My point here is that for *sports* use, the new Low Power Mode isn’t very helpful. Alternatively, a mid-level low power mode that doesn’t sacrifice any data depth is where you want to be (and if you really need to save some battery there, plug in the HR belt instead).
However, as with most things Apple offers – taking advantage of certain features isn’t always endurance sports. Instead, it’s part marketing and part informal scenarios. If you want better battery life overall, don’t care about data depth, and don’t move that fast, then for casual walking, data loss isn’t a big deal. Especially if you have your phone with you so that Apple Maps can do some magic.
Either way, as I’ve said many times about the Apple Watch Ultra since its release: judge the future of this segment not by Apple’s initial trials and tribulations, but rather, as it has been around 12-18 months. It’s been just over a month since the Apple Watch Ultra began shipping, and this is the first of a number of sport-focused feature updates this year alone (still including a race pacer mode, track mode, and more). Some of these new features they will get right from the first time, some of them will need to come back for further improvement after user feedback.
With that, thanks for reading!
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