Apple Watch Ultra has dual GPS for precise location finding

Teardown: Apple Watch Ultra

Image credit: Apple

Does Apple’s hardcore timepiece highlight the need for manufacturers to take a hard look at manufacturing outside China?

At £849 in the UK, the Apple Watch Ultra is a beast of a flagship product that packs in a lot of impressive engineering.

Cupertino’s new timepiece has a titanium case, submerged dive computer functionality to a depth of 100m (with the software due to launch as this article went to press), dual-frequency GPS for precise location, and dedicated bands for whether you are a hiker, a runner or a diver.

An action button makes it easy to, say, mark laps or other repeated sequences. Metrics in the activity programme are much more specific and greater in number. Battery life is 36 hours, enough for most ‘adventures’. And Watch Ultra has been manufactured to meet the MIL-STD 810H standard, meaning it should work in more extreme and hazardous conditions.

If other smartwatches sit on your wrist as a reminder of the exercise you should be taking, the Watch Ultra is explicitly for those who do. If fashion is your thing, buy the Apple Watch Hermes instead.

An iFixit teardown found that Apple appears again to be taking more steps also towards greater repairability. The ceramic back panel is attached with Pentalobe screws and removal gives access to the system-in-package (based around an S8, 64-bit dual-core processor derived from iPhone chips) and the sensor array.

Unfortunately, replacing the battery and the taptic engine means going in through the face screen. This is easier than for earlier iterations of Watch, but not that easy and still risks breaking the display.

“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,” notes iFixit’s Sam Goldheart. “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.”

However, that battery is now encased in metal, better for ruggedness and making replacement easier (it too is attached with screws, not glue) once you get inside.

Also, going back to the rear, opening it is effectively impossible without destroying a gasket that gives the Watch Ultra dive functionality. Repairs must be undertaken very carefully. A new gasket will be essential.

Apple Watch Ultra has dual GPS for precise location finding

Image credit: Apple

Nevertheless, Watch Ultra marks an improvement in terms of access, even if major obstacles remain. It also features some remarkable engineering given the target market and form factor (necessarily larger than standard Watches but still ergonomically designed to sit surprisingly lightly on the wrist). This extends through to the titanium frame.

“It’s really impressive on its own. The machining and attention to detail on these antenna pass-throughs and precision component cut-outs – it’s just gorgeous,” says iFixit’s Shahram Mokhtari.

Recent events suggest that repairability may not have been the only thing on Apple’s mind when it comes to the design choices made around Watch Ultra. The modular design and use of screws over glue will probably make assembly easier – and thus make it easier for Apple to adopt new sources for its manufacture.

The company warned in early November that: “We now expect lower iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max shipments than we previously anticipated and customers will experience longer wait times to receive their new products.”

The bottleneck is these products’ primary assembly site at contract manufacturing giant Foxconn’s megafactory in Zhengzhou, China. This was recently in the news when workers were shown trying to flee the sprawling campus because of a strict Covid-19 lockdown, scaling its walls and being prepared to walk many miles to their home towns.

Meanwhile, increasing Sino-US geopolitical tensions are causing Apple and other western consumer electronics companies to explore and establish second-source volume assembly sites outside China.

Watch Ultra’s packaging features the usual ‘Designed by Apple in California. Made in China’ blurb. But it emerged during the summer that the company has been in talks with both Foxconn and Luxshare Precision Industry to move general Watch assembly to factories in Vietnam, taking some of that work outside China for the first time.

There have also been rumours that some iPhone production could be added in India (and, here too, iFixit repairability and, by extension, assembly evaluations of the latest additions to that line have been more positive).

As products become more complex and – with Ultra a good example – seek to differentiate themselves by conforming to higher technical standards, shifting their assembly to a new site becomes still more difficult. Whatever you can do to smooth the path is practical, arguably essential. These moves have never been possible overnight; they are always an adventure in themselves.

So, repairability may be getting a boost not just because of regulation and consumer pressure but also fundamental supply chain concerns.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles