Notable: Apple Formally Clarifies iPhone GPS Dependency Shift on Series 8, Ultra, SE (2022)

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Let me set expectations up front: This post is 100% written for sports tech GNSS geeks. You see, back when the 2022 Apple Watch editions were announced back in September, there was one significant change: None of the new 2022 models would leverage our phone’s GPS if your phone was within range. Up till now, every Apple Watch edition would utilize your phone’s GPS if your phone was within range. Depending on your viewpoint, this was either good or bad.

For people that wanted to preserve their phone’s battery life, this was annoying. Further, in cases where your phone might have been deep in a backpack or other non-ideal spot/pocket on your body, it reduced GPS accuracy of the watch. And way back in the early days of the Apple Watch, it also resulted in some weird GPS handover issues when leaving your home but your phone was still in range at the beginning of the workout, though, those were largely solved over time.

Inversely, for some people – they preferred this approach. Charging their phone was ‘easier’ throughout the day than removing a watch to top-off the battery, especially a watch known for comparatively short battery life.

However, that all changed with the 2022 Apple Watch editions. For the Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch Series 8, and Apple Watch SE (2nd gen/2022), all of these models will always use the internal GPS of the watch itself – and will never leverage your phone’s GPS signal. It will always, and only, utilize the GPS in the watch itself. In the case of the Apple Watch Ultra, that meant it would always use its dual-frequency/multiband GPS, as opposed to perhaps an older phone without multiband GPS.

Now, setting aside which solution you prefer, the challenge was that Apple actually didn’t formally clarify this in a support article or other written statement. Instead, it was noted more casually in the hands-on area at Apple’s Headquarters following their big keynote, back in September. It was further re-iterated in follow-up media briefings, calls, and even a 24-message-long e-mail thread in my inbox discussing it, in depth. Unfortunately, none of those locations were spots where I could just direct the umpteen million of you that kept asking for a reference for this nugget of info.

However, that has now been solved. Apple has added a single line-item to the end of a support article that makes this clear, saying:

“Apple Watch Ultra, Series 8, and SE (2nd generation) use the built-in Apple Watch GPS even when your iPhone is nearby. To preserve battery life, older Apple Watch models use the GPS from your iPhone when available.”

Of course, this concept was also relatively easily proven too – if you had a few watches and a few phones handy. You could visually confirm that on the new 2022 watches, they didn’t burn your phone’s battery as much during a GPS activity, as previous watches did. But doing such testing in an isolated way is tough for most people, given other background apps and such. Plus, it’s just a heck of a lot easier to point folks at a single line of text.

Either way, I’m happy to see this officially covered in a support article, if for no other reason than to make happy a bunch of sports tech GPS/GNSS geeks like myself. Think of it like an early Christmas present, except, there’s no chocolate or anything else to unwrap.

Of course, as for which GPS leveraging method you prefer – I suspect that debate will rage on. Ideally, I’d love to simply see a toggle allowing you to choose your preference. But, I suppose that’d be asking for another Christmas present.

With that, thanks for reading!

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19 Comments

  1. Leo M

    Thank you for updating us on this. This is good news.

  2. TimRules!

    Yup, the ability to switch is absolutely needed here – the ability to have the Ultra work as (basically) a screen extension for the phone would really maximize its battery life (for the few times I needed it).

    • Timothy Hammill

      Agree, I use my apple watch / iPhone for downhill ski tracking. Through the phone gps, I consume about 30% of the phone battery and 20% of the watch. With the recent change, I burn through about 75% of the ultra’s battery.

  3. CowRob

    I have a BYO credit from a carrier and am faced with the question: ’14 Pro Max, or Ultra watch’.

    It begs the question ‘is the Ultra powerful enough to be an iPhone replacement?’. I think there will be a lot more people asking that question coming up. Since it does more on its own; is it/could it replace an iPhone?

    • David

      I’ve for the first time ever subscribed to cellular with my Ultra. Because of the battery life it makes using the cellular a non-factor and it really is cool to leave the iPhone behind… most of the time. I still sometimes bring the iPhone because I like to stop and take a picture or because I know at the end of a run I plan to stop somewhere for food etc. and want to doom scroll the phone because I can’t handle dead time by myself anymore in 2022… ugh, I have to work on that.

    • CowRob

      In an article that I read that sparked my search for more opinions, that was the only thing that the person said they missed. Well, that and playing games on the train. It got me thinking of what I use the iPhone for, and could I ‘suffer’ without some of the more esoteric features that the watch would obviously not offer. Pictures isn’t actually a useless feature (hit a deer last night) but could I live without it.

      Just seeking more opinions. I don’t particularly care for the ‘Ultra Look’, but whatever.

      The idea that it’s not a ‘real’ activity watch is making me hesitant. Is there still not connection to HRM straps, pedals, power meters, Di2? (I mean just showing the battery level of Di2 would be BRILLIANT!)

      Leaning towards not going Ultra… Sounds like a leap rather than a step. *shrug*

    • Dave

      It connects to BTLE HR straps no problem. If you’ve got the right apps, you’ll be able to pair a power meter too, if you have one that uses BTLE. I sent mine back after about 10 days, but only because I already had a Fenix 7X and found the Ultra a little uncomfortable to sleep with. I bought a Series 8 instead and have really enjoyed it as my daily wear watch. I use it on treadmills a lot, as well as outdoors from time to time. I still have the Fenix, but I keep it for longer stuff when I’d take my phone in my running pack anyway, and want the topo maps and a few other things it does so well. Can it replace an iPhone? For me, definitely not. If all you need is calls, messages and some other stuff, you might be fine…although it still needs a phone to set up from.

    • CowRob

      Good points…

      I have an Edition 7, and find it works okay for basics, but still needs an iPhone for help. (I use it for the rings, among other things. Hooked on those I am I guess) It does a pretty fair job at the ‘features’, but the Pulse Ox was a disappointment. Not a feature in my book. My Massimo does it loads better than the 7, so much so that is something I now never use on it. I assume that the pulse part is good, never had a reason to doubt it. I’ve never tried to pair anything to it like straps, etc. I hate to say it, but it’s almost more of a ‘convenience item’, and while that’s not a bad thing, I’m not sure that enabling the LTE system would actually buy me much. Also by the end of day, it’s usually between 75 and 55% battery, and I’m not doing that much navigation, etc with it. I tried sleeping with it on, and it used up quite a bit of battery time.

      But the article I read said that the Ultra might really be able to pull of an ‘iPhone-less world’ for people. That does sound kind of nice. Riding with the iPhone Max is interesting. It’s like having one foot two sizes too big, as many of the ‘carry bags’ don’t have that much room for iPhones in cases and money/cards/etc.

      It sounds like I have answered my own question, but I’m trying to be open to the idea of going ‘phone-less’, and it does sound enticing.

      Seems like maybe it’s too early to be asking about ditching ‘the brick’.

      Generally, I did try to use my AW4 for navigation while riding, and the battery life was abysmal. I had to jump charge it on the way home just to keep it alive. The larger battery is a huge step in the right direction on both the 7 and the Ultra.

      Cheers…

    • Paul S.

      I have both an Ultra and a 14 Pro. I don’t think that the Ultra can be used as a replacement for an iPhone. For one thing, you need an iPhone to share the number with; I don’t think it’s possible to get a separate number for an Apple Watch. I have forgotten my iPhone on occasion (and once my phone ran out of battery during a ride), and it’s nice to have LTE for those occasions. (I’ve had a 3LTE, a 5LTE and now an Ultra.). But using it exclusively? I wouldn’t. It’s no replacement for an iPhone.

    • Mike Richie

      The only way you can use an Apple Watch without an iPhone setup with the same Apple ID, is through Family Sharing, where someone still needs to have an iPhone. I think most carriers require the Watch be added to another phone plan with an iPhone.

  4. Stu

    On a similar note the Ultra will use your iPhone’s cellular connection (if in range) in preference to using the watches on-board data connection (if you have a plan). This is also annoying as it drains the phones battery which if you have a Mini (like me) can drain very quickly. I’ve not seen an option to change this.

  5. David

    This absolutely was the right way to do it. While I’ve used Apple Watches for years, I’ve ALWAYS carried my iPhone with me on runs and it just seemed absurd that the device in a waist belt under my shirt and blocked by half my body 100% of the time was used for GPS when I had a watch in the open on my wrist. This just makes sense to me. Apple Watch Ultra for the win.

    (That said Apple should make this DEFAULT but offer a setting for those who want max battery life to use the phone instead. It seems absurd as usual that Apple just decides.)

  6. Konrad Schwarz

    2nd paragraph: For people who want to preserve their ~~phone~~ watch battery ….

  7. Timothy Hammill

    Great article, this is why I subscribe. Thanks!

  8. Lee

    So with the previous iterations you can toggle this on/off (via disabling BT) but with the new ones you can’t? Seems strange.

  9. Charles Lozner

    Hey There –

    I have an Apple Watch Ultra and am struggling to figure out what is the best app or workout to use for things like Backcountry Skiing and Skate Skiing. It’s a joke that these aren’t included as activities that actually use GPS and produce a track. It was a bummer to learn that the hard way on my first skate ski with the watch.

    Today, I tried using “Hiking” as my activity for a backcountry ski tour. It produced a great track and the elevation looked great. But the mileage was almost double what it should’ve been. Apple reported 5.5 miles, while Strava and Gaia, with the EXACT SAME GPX TRACK, called it 3.5 miles.

    I don’t get it! Any help from this community is greatly appreciated.