Do you want 90% of the Apple Watch Ultra’s looks, ability, and software features without spending $800? Maybe you think it’s impossible, and to get everything the Watch Ultra offers, you have no choice but to wear Apple’s biggest, most feature-packed smartwatch yet. Well, that’s not quite true.
We built an Apple Watch Ultra-style Frankenwatch for $352 — less than half the price of the Ultra. And this is how we did it.
Best of all, it’s still an Apple Watch
We know what you’re thinking — we are going to link to a no-name rugged smartwatch available through Amazon and be done with it, right? No, not at all. We’re starting out with the excellent and highly recommended Apple Watch SE 2. At its heart, the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t all that different from the Apple Watch SE 2, as crucially, it uses the same S8 dual-core 64-bit processor and Apple’s WatchOS 9 software. In other words, you have a practically identical platform to build your Apple Watch Ultra alternative on.
The Apple Watch SE 2022 has Crash Detection and Fall Detection, irregular heart rate notifications, sleep and cycle tracking, GPS (but only L1, not L1 and L5 like the Watch Ultra), and the option of a cellular connection. You also get a compass, an altimeter, and the same accelerometer and gyroscope. There are a great many similarities between the two, but it’s not a carbon copy of the Watch Ultra.
What are the big differences? The Watch SE 2 is made of aluminum instead of titanium. The Watch Ultra has a brighter screen set under sapphire crystal, plus a larger 49mm case compared to 40mm or 44mm. The Watch SE 2 doesn’t have an IP6X or MIL-STD toughness rating, and there’s no Action Button either. The SE 2 is water resistant to 50 meters, not 100, and it doesn’t have any of the dive features (including the depth gauge). The Apple Watch Ultra has a newer heart rate sensor and can also take electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood oxygen readings, which the Watch SE 2022 can’t replicate, and it doesn’t have a temperature sensor either.
Hardware differences aside, it’s actually Watch OS 9 that’s the key here. Do you want the Backtrack feature and Compass waypoints, Low Power Mode, heart rate zones and running power, and a host of workouts to track? These are all WatchOS 9 features, and therefore available on all Apple Watch models that support it, including the Watch SE 2. WatchOS is the best smartwatch software out there, with rock-solid reliability, masses of helpful features, and comprehensive notification support. You’ll have to raise your wrist every time you want to see the time as the Watch SE 2 doesn’t have an always-on screen though.
Making the Frankenwatch
None of these differences should put you off. If you want all those features above, then you should just get the Apple Watch Ultra. But arguably, a lot of the features you’re “missing out on” are very specific, and many people won’t use them very often, if ever. Instead, the Frankenwatch is for those who want just some of the Ultra’s looks and functionality, with a bit more toughness and the right strap, for not as much money.
So, what do we have? The Frankenwatch is a 44mm Apple Watch SE 2, which costs $329, and it’s fitted with an Amizee Rugged Case from Amazon, which costs $10. It’s made from TPU plastic and promises shock and drop protection, while the raised bezel will give the screen some additional scratch protection too. There’s a bright orange button cover on the side, just not the same side as the one on the Apple Watch Ultra.
The Alpine Loop strap is one option for the Apple Watch Ultra and can also be purchased separately for $99, but this is not one of those. It’s a generic copy found on Amazon for the far more reasonable price of $13. For this price, nothing is made of titanium, obviously, and the quality is not equal to Apple’s undoubtedly excellent strap. But the Frankenwatch is about saving money, not spending it. If you want the real deal, Apple’s band is readily available through the Apple Store.
To save you breaking out the calculator, the Frankenwatch you see here cost a grand total of $352, a substantial $497 savings over the Apple Watch Ultra. No, it can’t match some of the hardware specs nor does it share the same materials, but inside there aren’t that many differences, and the software is identical.
A rugged and powerful Apple Watch for a whole lot less
Because watchOS 9 is so capable and provides all of the Apple Watch Ultra’s software prowess, creating a similar experience for the more casual weekend explorer with the Apple Watch SE 2022 really is about toughening it up. If you want to have fun hiking for the weekend once in a while, spending so much on the Apple Watch Ultra may not be realistic. Spending about $23 modifying the SE 2 so it’s tougher is far more sensible. Plus, it can quickly be reverted to “normal” at the end of your weekend away. If the strap breaks or the case begins to look grubby, you’ve not spent much on it, and it won’t cost much to replace them either.
But is it worth creating your own Frankenwatch? The cheap strap is actually far better than I expected it to be, and I love the bright orange color and the tough metal hardware. It’s comfortable on my wrist, hasn’t got sweaty, and doesn’t feel like it’s going to break any time soon. For the ridiculously low price, it’s surprising how close it looks to the real thing from a distance.
The case is definitely going to protect the Apple Watch SE 2022 from immediate harm. It covers the sides of the watch and guards the Digital Crown, while still leaving it free to press and rotate. The orange button is pure plastic tat, and I wish I’d chosen the silver rather than Starlight finish, so it wasn’t quite so gold-looking. It’s also really quite ugly. But to protect the Watch SE 2 from harm on the one weekend a year I go near a long hiking trail, it doesn’t really matter.
Our Frankenwatch creation genuinely will protect the Apple Watch SE 2 if you decide to go all Apple Watch Ultra with your activities, just without the Apple Watch Ultra on your wrist or the need to splash out on one. It has all the same software features and after spending $23, some extra toughness and a lookalike strap. We’re not suggesting you buy the Apple Watch SE 2022 instead of the Apple Watch Ultra if you’re serious about outdoor activities, but if you’re only partially interested and hike once or twice a year, modifying the cheaper, more everyday Apple Watch SE 2022 will probably serve you just as well.