Since the release of the Series 2 model six years ago, the Apple Watch has featured its own GPS. When possible, the watch has also used the iPhone's GPS. With the most recent batch of Apple Watch devices, that has changed.
According to documentation provided by Apple, the most recent three Apple Watch models will now use their in-built GPS even if an iPhone is close by. Apple Watch Ultra, Apple Watch Series 8, and, unexpectedly, Apple Watch SE 2 are included in this. This week, the change's documentation was made public by sports tech blogger DC Rainmaker and The Verge.
A few weeks ago, Apple updated its support paper, "Calibrate your Apple Watch for enhanced Workout and Activity accuracy," to include the reason.
Even when your iPhone is close by, Apple Watch Ultra, Series 8, and SE (2nd generation) use the built-in GPS. Older Apple Watch models use your iPhone's GPS when available to conserve battery life.
That Apple Watch Ultra can accomplish this is not surprising. At least twice as long of a runtime as the Apple Watch Series 8 is provided by the larger battery. Though the hardware hasn't changed much from the Series 7 to the Series 8, it's a curious choice to add the Series 8 and SE 2. Users who exercise outdoors now have one more reason to update or choose one of these devices.
When the first Apple Watch was introduced in 2015, its sole source of GPS data was the iPhone. This persisted for the Apple Watch Series 1 the next year, but starting with the Series 2 model, GPS has been a feature on every Apple Watch.
According to Apple, the choice to retrieve GPS information from the iPhone whenever possible is made in order to prolong the Apple Watch's battery life. Series 2 and later watches only use the GPS when necessary, which occurs when the watch is too far away from the phone.
Future outdoor exercises will use GPS data collected on your wrist rather than your pocket or back. As a result, there is a better chance for GPS data that is free of obstacles.
Additionally, this year's Apple Watch GPS performance has increased, especially for the Apple Watch Ultra. The first Apple products to use dual-band GPS frequency are the iPhone 14 Pro, iPhone 14 Pro Max, and Apple Watch Ultra. In big cities and other places with lots of obstacles, the additional band is tuned to provide superior location data.