Great fitness tracking
Loads of storage
No always-on display
Missing latest health features
Boasting a large, bright, sharp display, fast performance, and great fitness tracking, the Apple Watch SE is a compelling proposition for iPhone owners. The big question is: what compromises did Apple make to keep that price down? We’ve been using it for a week now and it offers almost everything we’ve come to expect from an Apple Watch.
About the Apple Watch SE
Apple is offering the Watch SE in two case sizes; 40mm or 44mm. Every model has an aluminum case, but it comes in a choice of three finishes: silver, space gray, or gold. There are also loads of different bands to choose from.
Here are some example prices:
- 40mm with Sport Loop: $279
- 44mm with Sport Loop: $309
- 40mm with Braided Solo Loop: $329
- 44mm with Braided Solo Loop: $359
- 40mm with Space Black Link Bracelet: $679
- 44mm with Space Black Link Bracelet: $709
If you want to add cellular connectivity, you’ll need to pay an extra $50, but remember that you’ll also need a plan for service, which is liable to cost you at least $10 per month.
The spec sheet is the same whichever model you go for:
- Display: LTPO OLED Retina display (44mm is 368 x 448 pixels, 40mm is 324 x 394 pixels)
- Processor: S5 64-bit dual-core processor
- Navigation: A-GPS, GLONASS, compass
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Ambient light sensor, Altimeter
- Water resistance: Up to 50 meters (5ATM and IP68)
- Audio: Microphone and speaker
- Battery: Up to 18 hours
- Storage: 32GB of storage
- Extras: Apple Pay
What We Like
Almost the same design as Series 6
If you’re a fan of the Apple Watch's classic rectangular design, you’ll be glad to know the Watch SE is essentially indistinguishable from the more expensive Series 6. The curved aluminum case of our Space Grey review unit looks great. Like the Series 6, there’s an inlaid power button on the right with the digital crown above it. The large display is always legible and very responsive to touch, and Apple’s haptic feedback is second to none.
You can get the Series 6 in stainless steel or titanium, and those versions have tougher sapphire crystal displays, but they’re a lot more expensive. Most people will opt for the aluminum case, which is paired with an Ion-X display, and that’s your only option with the SE. Externally, the only notable difference between the SE and the aluminum Series 6 is the option of red and blue finishes.
The Apple Watch SE is supremely comfortable. Our review unit has the simple sport loop, which is easy to tighten with Velcro, and seems to be durable enough for workouts. This is a smartwatch you can wear for long periods without discomfort and that’s extra important since Apple added the sleep tracking capability.
Great fitness and health tracking
I'm a big fan of Apple’s simple daily goals for fitness and health. You have daily targets for movement, exercise, and standing represented by rings. Close your rings each day, and you’ll trigger a snazzy animation that serves as a pat on the back. You can also earn special awards for specific milestones or personal bests. If you’re not on course to close your rings, the Apple Watch provides gentle reminders to encourage you.
It’s easy to track workouts with the Apple Watch SE and it offers a wide range of categories from indoor cycling to yoga to swimming (the Watch SE is also water resistant to 50 meters). There’s onboard GPS to track routes for running or biking. There’s also a heart rate sensor that’s capable of alerting you to irregular, or unusually high or low heart rates.
One thing that the Series 5 and Series 6 both have that the SE doesn’t is the ECG app, which allows you to take an electrocardiogram. The Series 6 also has a blood oxygen sensor, or Sp02 sensor. The ability to measure blood oxygen levels can be useful for detecting respiratory problems, potentially identifying sleep apnea, and for athletes trying to improve performance. These are not standard in most smartwatches and they’re likely not essential features for most people.
The Apple Watch SE does have fall detection to trigger a message to your emergency contacts if it detects a hard fall, noise monitoring to warn you if your environment is too loud, and a handwashing timer that’s supposed to kick in automatically when you’re washing your hands to ensure you do a good job. This last didn’t always work for me, but it’s a smart idea in the pandemic era.
A quick word on the new sleep tracking before we move on; it’s basic and focuses on your sleep schedule and length of sleep, rather than quality. You have to open the Sleep or Health app on your iPhone to see the data. Still, it’s nice to have and we’re sure it will improve over time.
Works seamlessly with iPhone and Apple apps
The Apple Watch SE works beautifully in concert with an iPhone. You can tweak precisely which alerts you want to come through to your wrist and choose whether they should vibrate or make a sound. You can also take or make calls through the Watch SE, which is useful if your iPhone isn’t right there or you have your hands full.
Raise your Apple Watch and say “Hey, Siri” or hold down the digital crown and Apple’s assistant will answer your questions or obey your commands. We also appreciate the ability to snap photos remotely, and the option to ping your iPhone from your Apple Watch, for those times when you’ve misplaced it. Apple Maps is helpful for navigation and Apple Pay is an easy way to make contactless payments.
While the Apple Watch SE is at its best with Apple’s apps, there are good third-party apps available—perhaps the best selection you’ll find on a smartwatch. There are smart home apps like the Philips Hue app, fitness apps like Strava and Runkeeper, and other useful things to have on your wrist like Things 3 for to-do lists. Most Apple Watch apps work seamlessly with their iPhone counterparts.
There is a whopping 32GB of storage on the Apple Watch SE, but music, podcast, and audiobook syncing can be finicky. You also need to subscribe to Apple’s services, or buy through them to get content onto your Apple Watch SE.
A great price with very few compromises
Perhaps the best thing about the Apple Watch SE, in a nutshell, is the lack of compromises. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t a few, and we’ll get to them in a minute, but the SE delivers an experience that’s difficult to tell apart from the Series 5. The advantages that the Series 6 offers—considering it starts at as much as $120 more—seem almost inconsequential.
The newer processor in the Series 6 is claimed to be 20 percent faster, but the SE is fast enough for me. The SE lacks the mysterious U1 chip, for more precise location awareness, which doesn’t seem to do much right now (though it may in future). You can probably do without the ECG or blood oxygen sensor, too. As noted below, the big miss is the always-on display. Adding it all up, though, the Apple Watch SE has fewer compromises than expected for the price.
What We Don’t Like
No always-on display
I switched to the Watch SE from last year’s Series 5 mostly without missing a beat, but the lack of the always-on display does set the Apple Watch SE apart from the Series 5 and 6. Lifting or sometimes just moving your wrist brings the display to life, as does an incoming notification. But if your arm is motionless and you glance down, all you’ll see is a blank screen. This detracts from its function as a watch and it’s annoying when you want to surreptitiously glance at the time.
Limited battery life
Apple says you can expect up to 18 hours of mixed use from a fully charged Apple Watch battery, whether it’s the SE or the Series 6. That seems about right based on our time with it. Realistically, you will need a daily charging schedule. Since sleep tracking has been added, this is trickier than it used to be; you may need to top up before bed if you want to wear your Apple Watch SE overnight so it can log your sleep. It’s also worth noting that the Series 6 can charge up somewhere around 30 percent faster than the SE.
No Android support
We got excited when Apple announced Family Setup, thinking it might be an opportunity to use an Apple Watch without an iPhone. Unfortunately, you need a Cellular model to take advantage of this feature, which lets you set up your Apple Watch on a family member’s iPhone. It also blocks a lot of functionality including Apple Pay, Podcasts, and sleep tracking. The prospect of proper Android support is still bleak; to put it simply, Android phone owners should not buy an Apple Watch.
Should You Buy It?
Yes, especially if you're new to the Apple Watch or on a tight budget
The Apple Watch SE would be a great first smartwatch for people keen to dip a toe in the water. It also offers some compelling improvements over older Apple Watches from the Series 3 back. Apple still sells the Series 3, starting at $199, but you’ll miss out on quite a lot and have to make do with a much smaller usable display (there are big bezels around the screen on the Series 3). The SE fully justifies the extra $80.
People with the Series 4 or Series 5 don’t have much reason to look at the SE and should consider the Series 6 or wait until next year. I didn’t feel a big difference between the SE and Series 5, though I do slightly prefer the Series 5 for its always-on display.
If you’re primarily looking for a fitness device, check out our picks of the best fitness trackers. Android phone owners should consider the Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, the classy (but pricey) Galaxy Watch 3, or one of the other options in our best smartwatches guide.
While the SE is not the best Apple Watch you can buy, it is the best smartwatch in its price range, and Apple has packed a lot into this watch for the $279 entry price. We’d stop short of using the word bargain, but the Apple Watch SE is a good deal.
Meet the tester
Simon Hill is a freelance technology journalist with a decade of writing experience covering everything from smartphones to smart home gadgets. For the last few years, he served as Associate Editor at Digital Trends where he wrote features, reviews, analysis, how-tos, and more.
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