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The Galaxy Watch Ultra is Samsung’s most controversial smartwatch yet

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra on a person's wrist.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I’m just going to say it. Now that I’ve worn the Galaxy Watch Ultra for a short time, I’m convinced Samsung has a controversial hit on its hands.

Why controversial? There are two aspects of the brand’s latest wearable that will drive conversation about it during the initial launch period: The unusual design is going to be the top talking point, followed by how it has rather obviously been inspired by that other Ultra watch out there.

The design is right

The buttons on the side of the Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

When people get an eyeful of the Galaxy Watch Ultra’s daring blend of an almost square body and a round screen, it’s probably going to be all they can talk about. Love it or hate it, there will be opinions flying everywhere. It’s understandable, as most people are conditioned to expect a round screen or dial to live inside a matching, somewhat round case — much like the regular Galaxy Watch 7 and many traditional watches. When you’re only used to seeing all-round watches or square-ish watches like the Apple Watch, using both shapes so obviously on a single smartwatch looks contrary.

I’m here to tell you not to judge the Galaxy Watch Ultra until you’ve seen it a few times or, even better, have worn it on your wrist. When I saw the early leaked images of the Galaxy Watch Ultra, I was immediately reminded of watchmaker Bell & Ross’ iconic “round dial, square body” design language, which helps separate its pilot and dive watches from others. It also recalled one of my favorite watches of all time, the Tag Heuer Monaco. Both of these watches are perfect examples of how round and square design elements can work together on a wristwatch, but without a doubt, both need time for our eyes to adjust to the shapes — and then more time still to truly appreciate the design.

The Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra's heart rate sensor.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The Galaxy Watch Ultra comes in a single 47mm case size, meaning it’s a big smartwatch, but I was more conscious of the watch’s 12.1mm thickness than I was of its width. Part of the reason is the thick new rubber strap sat proud of my wrist, so it appears bigger than it actually is, and I think the overall depth means it’s going to be very noticeable under a cuff.

The new lug design is to blame for part of this, as it exits the case squarely rather than curving down toward the wrist as it does on the Apple Watch Ultra 2. There’s a new way of connecting straps, too, and while it appears they slide out of the lugs, they actually unclip after pressing the button on the underside of the case.

Now that we’ve mentioned the Apple Watch Ultra, we neatly arrive at what else is going to make the Galaxy Watch Ultra controversial.

Not the only Ultra smartwatch

A person wearing the Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Samsung’s first response to the Apple Watch Ultra was the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, which was a half-hearted competitor at best, and although it was a very good smartwatch, it was a confused product without a real home in the brand’s range. There’s no such ambiguity with the Galaxy Watch Ultra, as proven by Samsung being unwilling to even adopt its own superlative for the name, leaving us with no doubt that this is the Samsung equivalent to the Apple Watch Ultra 2.

The name is not the only similarity. The strap seen in our photos is very similar in design to the Ocean Band on the Apple Watch Ultra 2 but less versatile because it uses a normal buckle instead of Apple’s clever metal hook-and-loop system. The orange button on the side is called the Quick Button and activates different features when pressed, much like the Action Button on the Apple Watch 2, which has an orange highlight around it. You know that cool all-red Night mode watch face on the Apple Watch Ultra? Samsung’s got one of those, too, and there’s even a double pinch gesture to perform certain tasks.

The side of the Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The trouble with Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Ultra is that’s where the similarities to the Apple Watch Ultra 2 seem to end. The similarities are on the surface, and while it has all the toughness and environmental ability you’d expect from a tough watch, Samsung failed to show us why hardcore sports and activity people should wear it. There are a couple of special workout modes for serious cyclists, runners, and triathletes, but that’s about all.

The Apple Watch Ultra can blow its trumpet a little too loudly, but the Galaxy Watch Ultra doesn’t have a depth gauge, partnerships with sports specialists, special compatible accessories, or safety features like a siren. The Galaxy Watch Ultra is more ultra than the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, but it’s still only Ultra-ish compared to the Apple Watch Ultra 2.

Will Samsung succeed this time?

A person using the Samsung Galaxy Watch Ultra.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Despite the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro being quite good, it has never seriously been referred to as an Apple Watch Ultra competitor. So, has the Galaxy Watch Ultra got what it takes? The version I used wasn’t connected to a smartphone, so I couldn’t use it as intended, and can’t comment on anything other than the software feeling responsive and slick. It’s the first smartwatch with Google’s Wear OS 5, too, and changes inside the software were impossible to assess in my short time with it.

I love what Samsung has done with the design, which gives the Galaxy Watch Ultra true character, and it hasn’t just followed the crowd. The white and silver version looks excellent, just like it does on the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic, and it’s certainly going to be tough enough to withstand some harsh treatment. The technology inside has been upgraded over the previous versions, and as the Galaxy Watch 6 series really impressed, the new releases should be great to own. But will this be enough to convert iPhone and Apple Watch owners into Samsung and Galaxy Watch owners?

After all, this has to be part of what Samsung hopes to achieve. The Galaxy Watch doesn’t link with an iPhone, so if the Watch Ultra turns your head, you are ideally going to buy a Samsung phone to go with it, or vice versa. Samsung has got the design side right, and people are definitely going to pay attention to it, but I’m not sure if it has made it “ultra” enough so that it will appeal to the hardcore who don’t feel the Galaxy Watch 7 will be enough.

We’ll know more when we use it, but for now, you’re looking at what I think is the most controversial smartwatch release of the year, and I love it for that alone.

Andy Boxall
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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