Apple Watch Ultra Is Beautiful, Rugged, and Repairability Is Just Within Reach

Apple Watch Ultra Is Beautiful, Rugged, and Repairability Is Just Within Reach

Based on Apple’s keynote, we expected the Apple Watch Ultra to be the most interesting teardown of the year. It was the only brand new product class announced amid the raft of iterative upgrades to the iPhone family, and it’s an adventure watch with a bigger screen and a host of new features. 

Well, we were almost right. While Apple made a big deal of features like a long-awaited Action Button, massive screen, and dive computer capabilities, it once again buried what may be the biggest leap in the Watch’s design. Just as it neglected to mention with its radically rebuilt iPhone 14, Apple has made a potentially giant step towards making the Watch more repairable.

It got less than a second of screen time in an hour-and-a-half presentation, but we caught it: a glimpse of an external screw on an Apple Watch. The staging was dimly lit, the shot was accompanied by lightning flashes (subliminal messaging?), and worst of all, the screw that peeped out was our nemesis, the dreaded pentalobe. But still—we never thought we’d see the day when we’d spot an exposed screw on an Apple wearable. 

Apple tends to avoid screws whenever possible, opting for the featureless future-obelisk look. But screws are a fixer’s best friend—they’re easy to remove, easy to replace, and less likely to break, which is why they should always be the first choice for repairnot glue

Apple’s keynote showcased adventurers and extreme situations at the edges of human capability. With their tiny parts and complex cabling, opening Apple Watches past has definitely pushed our own teardown capabilities. So take a deep breath, and let’s dive in. Ernest Shackleton—and the Ultra reveal—promised “honour and recognition in case of success.” Consider this teardown a challenge accepted.

Like a moth to a flame, we immediately head for those pentalobes. Visions of the newly easier-to-open iPhone 14 are dancing in our heads. What might these screws foretell: independent screen and sensor removal? Simpler battery replacement?

The rear seal is a mixed blessing. A thin, clear gasket helps with waterproofing and is reasonably lightly adhered. But the opening procedure completely shreds it. We’re thankful the adhesive isn’t more aggressive, but replacing this meticulous gasket to seal your Watch back up will be no fun at all. Reusable gaskets are admittedly chunky for a wearable, but they’re not unheard of.

Here we encounter our first bad omen: After some heat and careful prying of the rear case, we immediately lost one of the band release button springs. Hopefully you won’t need to replace your rear sensor array at the summit of your hike; this repair’s best done at home.

We are at the end of the once-promising rear entry path. The Apple logo taunts us from the back of the System in a Package (SIP), blocking all further access. To get to the battery we’re going to have to go through the now-flat and ultra-tight display seam. 

It’s not the worst result, but it could be a lot better. A replaceable back is good—glass cracks, and this is a much faster and cheaper way to replace the sensor module than was possible in previous Watches. Apple claims their design improvements to the iPhone 14 were primarily aimed at improving the experience for Apple Geniuses performing repairs in-store. That makes sense, and we were hoping to see that trend extend to the Watch Ultra. But from what we can tell here, it’s unlikely that battery swaps will be possible in-store without some substantial additional fixtures.

That means that Apple Store battery repairs probably won’t be possible on a same-day basis without a full device swap. Best Buy’s authorized repair website says that, “The majority of repairs will be completed within 5 business days, but this can vary depending on the type of repair needed.” That’s Apple-speak for, “we’re mailing your device into a service depot because we can’t fix it in store.” It’s a missed opportunity—if Apple could get the battery under the SIP, then these new screws on the bottom could enable a battery swap without going through the extremely well sealed display.

The beautiful use of external screws to secure both screen and rear glass on the iPhone 14 would be a welcome addition. Here’s a pitch: slope the Ultra 2 case at top and bottom, for a more ergonomic fit, and to allow for through-body screws?

About that display opening… If you thought the standard Apple Watch opening procedure was tough, the Ultra is, well, ultra tough. The seams are tight, the prying angle steep, the risk of separating the display from the glass: high. And yes you need to open from this side to get to the still-consumable battery. We’re all for a more accessible rear sensor, but if we had to pick easy access to one component it would absolutely be the battery.

We’re trying to be less cynical. We know at least some of the Apple team is focused more keenly on repair than ever, and the Ultra does have one until-now “beta” feature we love: the hard shell battery. Previously only seen in the smaller model Watches, the metal casing not only better protects the finicky Li-ion battery, it also enables adhesive-free installation. 

You heard right! No adhesive, just four Y000 screws. Too bad you have to risk breaking the screen to get to this point. Oh and that little “hair” on the battery? Yeah we kept trying to clean it off too—that’s actually a case cutout. Our best guess is that it allows for a bit of flex and pressure relief should the battery start swelling. If you know better, drop us a line!

​These tiny Watches truly are marvels of engineering, but it does seem like a 180º flip as we saw in the 14 should be feasible—imagine opening the rear sensor and having access to this robust little battery package? A fixer can dream…

But here’s the unfortunate reality: The Apple Watch is an accessory, not a daily staple. Accordingly, Apple is betting you’re willing to part with it for a couple days, or accept a loaner watch while your personal watch is shipped to a repair hub. That means there’s less incentive to make repairs quicker, and they get to control the repair tools.

Slow doesn’t mean that repairs aren’t profitable, however. In fact, sensor replacements probably just got a whole lot more lucrative for Apple.

Apple’s repair estimate has two categories of Ultra repair: Battery, and “Other damage.” Replacing the battery, which is just as tough a repair as ever, is $99. “Other damage,” presumably including the newly removable sensor, is a baffling $499. Sure the sensors might be pricey, but as expensive as a screen—and the labor required to swap that screen?

Quick detour back to that screen, we have to give credit where it’s due. While screen removal is painstaking, it’s actually more streamlined than Watches past. We complained that the dainty seals got shredded upon opening, but prior to the Series 6, Watches were sealed with a gasket that was also responsible for Force Touch. Yeah the gasket was essentially e-waste after any repair—which is why we include a replacement in our Watch kits. The Force Touch Sensor was admittedly less fiddly to reinstall, but streamlined repair is streamlined repair. 

Removing the gasket on the Series 3

Apple also managed to consolidate the myriad antennas into the screen and body of the Watch itself. An incredible feat of miniaturized engineering. That makes for fewer cables and more direct paths to the critical components—battery and screen—with less chance of collateral damage along the way. The integrations likely increased the cost of the screen, but the display is already going to be the priciest bit of this Watch, so the tradeoff feels fair. Okay, enough about things getting more compact…

The Ultra’s Taptic Engine turns out to be surprisingly hefty. At nearly 16% of the Ultra’s weight—coming in at 9.8 grams—this buzzer, which can help keep you apprised of emails at 8,000 feet, is a whopping 50% bigger than the 6.4 g Series 8 Engine. The Taptic Engine and battery took up virtually the entire internal volume—no wonder “Siren” can only reach alarm-clock-level volume.

For as hard as these dual drivers work—it acts as a bilge pump after all—it’s quite hard to reach for replacement. No wonder these repairs cost $499 and require mailing away. The drivers are however quite a bit bigger (70% by weight) than the Series 8 (and therefore the nearly identical Series 7 of yesteryear). Maybe that’s why 86 decibels was worth bragging about? 

To our eye it looks like this dual-speaker is split to allow for a Siren “end” and a “speaker” end. Despite Ultra anatomy diagrams, it doesn’t look like there’s any extra, more distinct hardware here. Just a single long speaker. 

The Ultra, left, packs a significantly larger battery than the Series 7, right.

The rest of the tech in here is equally impressive: a precision case (conceivably made with liquidmetal, but definitely still at least partially machined), a well-gasketed depth sensor (we assume), and plenty of antennas (check out the pass-throughs on the case). The case is a really incredible part—we’d love to see the crazy complex manufacturing process.

That said, it’s hard not to wish for just a little bit more forethought—namely, and primarily, a truly removable battery. With a number of robust dive computers and high-end fitness watches already on the market, it’s also a little tough to see where Ultra fits into the consumer landscape. Maybe repairability can set future Ultras apart—then again, maybe it will follow the Apple Watch Edition into obscurity. Only time—as clocked on a watch with, ideally, a battery that can be replaced without shattering its fancy OLED screen—will tell.