Review: Apple Watch SE is the smartwatch for first-time buyers and upgrade-holdouts


While power users and fitness gurus are likely going to be drawn to the higher-price Apple Watch Series 6, the Apple Watch SE brings a lot to the table for significantly less money.

In late September, Apple announced the Apple Watch SE, a budget-friendly alternative to the newly launched Apple Watch Series 6. While it didn’t launch at the suspected price point or with the anticipated plastic case, it was clear that Apple had everyday consumers in mind when they made the Apple Watch SE.

What the Apple Watch SE is

The Apple Watch SE is a new lower-cost Apple Watch packed full of features without needing users to break the bank to get one. It has the design of the Apple Watch Series 4 with the S5 processor of the Series 5 Apple Watch. Conveniently, watchOS 7 comes preinstalled on the device.

watchOS 7

The watch body is only available in aluminum, which serves to keep the price low. Like previous models, it comes in Silver, Space Gray, and Gold.

The smaller case measures 40mm, while the larger is 44mm. The Retina display is 30% larger than the Apple Watch Series 3 but similarly does not feature an always-on display. The 40mm case features a resolution of 324 by 394 pixels, while the 44mm case has a resolution of 368 by 448 pixels — both a significant upgrade over the Apple Watch Series 3.

The Apple Watch SE has many of the same internals as its higher-priced sibling, the Apple Watch Series 6. It features the same accelerometer, gyroscope, and always-on altimeter. Like the more expensive model, the budget-friendly one also monitors noise, detects falls, and even has international emergency calling on the LTE version.

The lower-cost Wi-Fi version allows you to pair your Apple Watch SE with your iPhone. Once paired, you can sue it to start calls on your iPhone, play and control music and podcasts, monitor your heart rate, track your sleep, track your workouts, and more.

Of course, there’s a cellular version, which allows the Watch to perform many of its essential tasks through LTE, rather than its connection to an iPhone. Given that Apple’s implementation of Family Setup requires LTE, this seem essential to Apple’s plan.

Family Setup allows family members who don’t own iPhones — such as kids or elderly family members — to utilize an Apple Watch. Once paired with the family group organizer’s iPhone, Apple Watch-only members get their own phone numbers and the ability to make FaceTime audio calls, track activities, create Memoji, and more.

Memoji can be created on the apple watch

There are even special distraction-free watch faces for kids, designed to prevent distractions while doing schoolwork.

The Apple Watch SE also includes a dual-core S5 System-in-Package, making it about two times faster than the S3 SiP in the Apple Watch Series 3.

What the Apple Watch SE isn’t

There are a few important distinctions to be made between the Apple Watch SE and, say, the Apple Watch Series 6. Unlike the latter, the Apple Watch SE doesn’t have an always-on display.

This may be a no-go for some users, but for someone who has never had an always-on display, you won’t likely notice what you’re missing.

From a personal use-case standpoint, I primarily use my Apple Watch to track my fitness goals, walking directions, and alert me to texts — the actual timekeeping function is generally secondary, as I’m never terribly far from an easily accessible clock.

It’s also missing two key health features — the ability to do an electrocardiogram or measure your blood oxygen level. These features were left out to keep the price down, and for many people, that might be reason enough to splurge on the Apple Watch Series 6.

Apple Watch Series 6 Apple Watch SE Apple Watch Series 5
Price (starting) $399
Lowest Apple Watch 6 prices
$279
Lowest Apple Watch SE prices
$399
Lowest Apple Watch 5 prices
Sizes 40mm, 44mm 40mm, 44mm 40mm, 44mm
Display Always-On Retina Retina Always-On Retina
LTPO OLED
Case Materials Aluminum,
Stainless Steel,
Titanium
Aluminum Aluminum,
Ceramic,
Stainless Steel,
Titanium
Processor S6 S5 S5
Heart Sensor Blood Oxygen Sensor
With ECG
Second-generation
optical heart sensor
Second-generation
optical heart sensor
with ECG
Water Resistance 50m 50m 50m
Battery Life Up to 18 hours Up to 18 hours Up to 18 hours
Recharging Wireless Wireless Wireless
Connectivity Wi-Fi,
Bluetooth 5.0
Wi-Fi,
Bluetooth 5.0
802.11n 2.4GHz,
Bluetooth 5.0
Other Sensors GPS
Compass
Barometric altimeter
Accelerometer
Gyroscope
Ambient light sensor
GPS
Compass
Barometric altimeter
Accelerometer
Gyroscope
Ambient light sensor
GPS/GNSS,
Compass
Barometric altimeter,
Accelerometer,
Gyroscope,
Ambient light sensor

What it’s like using the Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE is, ostensibly, the same experience as using any other Apple Watch that runs watchOS 7. You get the same experiences — Memoji, hearing health tracking, fitness tracking, hand washing timers, and more. If you already like Apple’s smartwatch offering, the Apple Watch SE is sure to please.

Where you’ll likely notice the differences is when you upgrade from an older model. That was certainly true in my case.

On a personal note, as someone who upgraded from the Apple Watch Series 3, I can say that the Apple Watch SE is significantly faster to respond to actions, because of the SiP that is two generations newer. I had never really thought of my Apple Watch Series 3 as slow, but the Apple Watch SE feels very, very fast.

The battery life is still right around 18 hours with moderate use, and while we would have liked to see it stretched out a bit more, it’s still respectable. It manages to go all day, even with obsessive checking and the constant pinging of texts and app alerts. If you want to use it for sleep tracking, charging it a couple of times throughout the day — like while you shower, eat dinner, and get ready for the day is usually enough.

If you don’t want to track your sleep, pitching it on it’s charging puck overnight means that you’ll never worry about running out of battery during the day.

Who the Apple Watch SE is for

As Apple has stated, the Apple Watch SE is designed to appeal to first-time buyers or those looking for a modestly priced upgrade.

It’s a great “kid’s first Apple Watch” model, too. Because it can be paired with a caretaker’s iPhone, the Apple Watch is an excellent alternative to a cellphone for young kids or those who may not want to deal with the hassle of owning a smartphone phone.

If you’re upgrading from the Apple Watch Series 3 or earlier, chances are, you’ll find the Apple Watch SE a worthwhile investment. If you’re a first-time buyer looking for a reliable Apple Watch that you don’t need to drop $400 on, but will still be supported for years to come, it may be the one for you.

Suppose you’ve got kids or relatives who you want to add to your Family Setup. In that case, the Apple Watch SE with LTE edges out the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE, if you can find the older model. The Apple Watch SE with LTE boasts better battery life, a newer processor, and will likely be supported by Apple for a longer time.

Still, we wouldn’t recommend upgrading just yet for anyone who uses the Apple Watch Series 4 or Apple Watch Series 5 — you’ll lose some features — like the ability to do ECGs or an always-on display — that you’ve come to enjoy.

If you’re in the market for the Apple Watch SE, you can snag one from Apple for $279 for the 40mm GPS-WiFi version, or $309 for a 44mm GPS-WiFi version. If you want to bump up to an LTE version, a 40mm model will cost you $329, and a 44mm model comes in at $359.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

  • Affordable without skimping on core features
  • Twice as fast as Apple Watch SE
  • Comes with watchOS 7
  • International emergency calling (LTE versions)
  • Always-on altimeter
  • No always-on display
  • No ECG features
  • No SpO2 monitoring
  • Battery life could be a little longer



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