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Apple Watch SE 2 review: simple, cheap, and brilliant

Man wearing the Apple Watch SE 2 and typing on a MacBook.
Apple Watch SE 2 review: simple, cheap, and brilliant
MSRP $249.00
“The brilliant Apple Watch SE 2 may not have all the headline features of the Series 8, but this simplicity is part of its appeal, as it does everything else its sibling can for a lot less money.”
  • Comfortable to wear 24 hours a day
  • Comprehensive, yet simple-to-use fitness tracking
  • Excellent smartwatch software and support
  • Latest processor provides all the power needed
  • Two-day battery
  • No always-on screen
  • Slow battery charging

The Apple Watch SE 2 is the cheapest way into Apple wearable ownership. It’s surrounded by technically more advanced models at higher prices, meaning it’s at risk of being overlooked. This would be a mistake, as what it should be doing is reminding you to really think about what you need from your smartwatch before settling on which model to buy. When you do this, there’s a good chance you’ll find the Apple Watch SE 2 is a stronger proposition than the others. Here’s why the Apple Watch SE 2 could be the smartwatch for you.

Apple Watch SE 2 design

The Apple Watch SE 2 (or 2nd generation, as it’s also known) is made from aluminum and is shaped and sized exactly like the 1st-generation Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 4, Series 5, and Series 6. It comes in Midnight, Starlight, or Silver colors, and has Apple’s tough Ion-X glass over the screen. There’s a choice of either 40mm or 44mm case sizes, and it’s the 44mm version in Silver you see in our photos.

The front of the Apple Watch SE 2.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s the back where things change compared to the older model. On the SE 2, the case back is made of a nylon composite in a color that matches the aluminum case, and although that sounds like a posh way of saying it’s made of plastic, it’s warmer and smoother to the touch than ordinary plastic — and that’s important when it’s against your skin.

The raised sensor array houses the second-generation optical heart rate sensor, which is the same one fitted to the first SE and the Series 5 watch, but it’s different from the third-generation sensor on the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra. If you own either the first SE or the Series 5, you won’t notice any difference when putting on the SE 2. It’s so light and comfortable that you forget it’s there until the wonderfully judged haptics tap your wrist. I’ve worn it day and night without it getting sweaty or irritating.

The nylon composite case back on the Apple Watch SE 2.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

During my time wearing the SE 2, I’ve struggled to come up with negative points about the design and feeling when you wear it. The Series 4 shape was when Apple hit its stride with the Watch, and we gave it a perfect 10/10 score in 2018. The SE 2 takes that same winning design and squeezes in the latest technology. You can fit any Apple Watch band to the SE 2, and it works with any of the Apple Watch charging accessories you can buy. There’s no downside to the Apple Watch SE 2 when looked at from this perspective.

The shape, size, and screen haven’t drastically changed over the past four years, but they didn’t have to. The Apple Watch SE 2 has not only one of the most recognizable smartwatch designs out there, but is also one of the easiest and most comfortable watches to wear. It’s watch-like, but not so much that ergonomics take a back seat and it becomes fatiguing to wear or impossible to keep on overnight. If you want a smartwatch designed for the office, the gym, sleeping, or casually hanging out at the weekend, the Apple Watch SE 2 is it.

The thing is, that same statement applies to the Apple Watch Series 8, so shouldn’t you just buy that one?

Apple Watch SE 2 screen and performance

Apple uses the same S8 processor across all its latest smartwatches, so you get the identical level of performance whether you buy the cheapest SE 2 or the most expensive Apple Watch Ultra. The software is the same, too, with watchOS 9 installed on all three. Each uses the W3 wireless chip to connect to your phone, and the link is rock solid with a massive range. The SE 2 misses out on the ultra-wideband U1 chip, but since its functionality is still limited, you’re not really losing much at the moment.

However, the big difference most will notice between the SE 2 and the Series 8 is the lack of an always-on screen. The SE 2’s display stays black until you lift your wrist or a notification comes through, while the Series 8 shows a watch face at all times. The always-on screen remains one of the most compelling reasons to spend more to get the Series 8.

It looks glorious, but it doesn’t really add much outside of that visual punch and being able to always see the time at whatever angle your wrist is at. Raise your wrist, however, and the Apple Watch SE 2’s dark screen activates instantly, so you’re never waiting that long to see the time. You just have to accept the screen will go dark at all other times.

The app grid view on the Apple Watch SE 2.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

My Apple Watch is usually hidden under a sleeve. Not because I don’t like the way it looks, but because it’s coming into winter, so it doesn’t matter whether the screen is always active or not. My point is, think about how you will wear the Apple Watch, your usual choice of clothing, and even whether you’ve worn a Fitbit or other often screen-less fitness tracker in the past. By doing so, you may realize the lack of an always-on screen isn’t something you will actually notice.

Notifications reliably appear on the screen after a flick of your wrist when the delightful haptics alert you to an incoming message. You can see images from tweets, reply to some messages, read text in emails easily, and dismiss individual notifications with a simple swipe. Set the Apple Watch SE 2 up carefully, and you’re never bombarded with unwanted information. Calls are instantly recognizable, and the speaker is loud enough to be heard outside.

Apps are fast to download from the App Store, and the choice is surprisingly large. All of this is easy to manage either in the accompanying Watch app on your phone, or the Grid view on the watch. The one annoyance with watchOS 9 is how the power controls are now an extra step away. When you long-press the side button, you have to now press an awkwardly small icon in the top corner to access them, whereas the power slider previously appeared immediately. You can read more about how watchOS 9 functions in our Apple Watch Ultra and Series 8 reviews — and, remember, it’s all exactly the same.

Apple Watch SE 2 health and fitness tracking

The Apple Watch SE 2’s second-generation heart rate sensor doesn’t have an electrocardiogram feature, and it doesn’t track your blood oxygen either. The new temperature sensor isn’t on board here, so detailed ovulation estimates aren’t possible. You still get notifications for abnormally high or low heart rate, cycle tracking, fall and noise detection, crash detection, and basic sleep tracking. The smartwatch is swimproof to 50 meters, it handles the Backtrack feature adequately, and it supports the excellent new redesigned compass app. It also has the same altimeter, accelerometer, and gyroscope as the Series 8.

Workout mode on the Apple Watch SE 2.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Tracking a workout couldn’t be easier. Press the Digital Crown to open the menu, select the Workout app, and tap your preference. The app highlights workouts you use often, so there’s rarely any need to scroll through the extensive list. Heart rate, active calorie burn, and time elapsed are all clearly shown, and all your music controls are just a swipe away. GPS connects in the background without any need to wait around before starting out on your walk, run, or cycle. It’s all instant, informative, and crucially, frictionless.

It’s where the Apple Watch, in general, excels. There’s no need to sync it with your iPhone — it just does it all for you. I haven’t questioned if new data has been uploaded from the Apple Watch SE 2 because it’s always completely up to date. You don’t have to think about it at all, and combined with the very comfortable design, it means the Watch SE 2 blends perfectly in with your life without a fuss. This should be a given, but it’s not at all in the world of smartwatches.

The Apple Health and Apple Fitness apps have some data overlap that makes finding what you want a little frustrating, plus you don’t get the same level of detail in the data as you do with a Garmin, Polar, or Fitbit product. On its own, the Apple Watch SE 2 is ideal for the casual exerciser and isn’t really for the marathon runner who demands masses of data — but third-party apps are there to provide more information should you want it. Tracking workouts back-to-back with the Apple Watch Ultra, I couldn’t see any meaningful differences in heart rate, calorie burn, or ease of use.

Apple’s Ring-based motivational system to reach your daily activity goals is very clear, but don’t expect the Watch or Apple’s apps to provide deep insight into where you can improve. If the smartwatch was pitched at hardcore exercisers, then this would be a concern, but it’s really not. The Apple Watch SE 2 suits people who aren’t interested in pushing any physical limits, and is instead ideal for people concerned about their overall health and want an accurate, easy-to-use tracker complete with an informative, not overly complex app platform behind it. If you want to see how much more accurate the Apple Watch Ultra’s GPS is over the SE 2, we cover it in detail in the Apple Watch Ultra review.

Apple Watch SE 2 battery and charging

There will be times you miss the always-on screen if you buy the Apple Watch SE 2, but there will be others when you’ll be thankful it’s not there, using a little bit more power from the battery. Apple states the Watch SE 2 gets the same 18 hours of use as the Series 8, but in my experience, unless you’re tracking GPS workouts every day, this is on the conservative side.

The Apple Watch SE 2 on charge.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

With a single non-GPS tracked workout, all the usual notifications, a permanent connection to your phone, and sleep tracking, the Apple Watch SE 2’s battery will last two full days. It may need Apple’s Low Power mode at the end of the second day, which deactivates certain features to extend remaining power, but not if you didn’t track your sleep.

Sleep tracking is something you may want to give up too, as the Apple Watch SE 2’s charging is slow, and doing so overnight is preferable. It uses the same magnetic puck as other Apple Watch models, but there’s no fast charging, and it takes more than two hours to go from a few percent to full capacity. It takes an hour less to fully charge the Series 8.

Apple Watch SE 2 price and availability

The Apple Watch SE 2 starts at $249 for the 40mm model with a Sport Loop, Solo Loop, or Sport Band. The 44mm SE 2 starts at $279 with the same band options. Add cellular connectivity, and the price goes up to $299 for the 40mm and $329 for the 44mm SE 2. In the U.K., the Apple Watch SE 2 starts at 259 British pounds for the 40mm version and 299 pounds for the 44mm model, while adding cellular will take the price to 319 pounds for the 40mm and 349 pounds for the 44mm.

Wondering if you need cellular? How often do you leave home, or want to leave home, without your phone? If the answer is never, then you probably don’t need it. If you want to go on a run without your phone, but still want to be in contact, it’s helpful. Remember you’ll pay about $10 per month extra to add it onto your phone contract.

How much cheaper is the Apple Watch SE 2 than the Series 8? If you want the 41mm version with a simple band, then it’s $399, or $429 for the 45mm version, making it $150 less expensive.

The Apple Watch SE 2 is probably all the Apple Watch you need

Don’t even think about buying a non-Apple Watch for your iPhone. None of the others that may work with iOS have the same level of integration — from replying to Messages to the use of the App Store tothe simplicity of setup. It makes wearables that aren’t the Apple Watch less helpful and, often, more annoying.

The Apple Watch SE 2 on a mans wrist.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

The choice comes down to which of the Apple Watches you should buy, and for once, the cheapest may very well be the best one for you. The ECG, blood oxygen monitoring, and always-on screen are very good features and do justify the additional cost of the Series 8 over the SE 2. But ask yourself if they are features you can justify for yourself. The ECG could be a lifesaver for some people, while blood oxygen monitoring only really becomes informative if you want to track sleep, but many people will simply never use them at all.

Don’t get caught up thinking the missing features make the Apple Watch SE 2 too basic either. The simplicity, and how so much happens in the background, is a massive part of its appeal. If you’ve looked hard and can’t see how the extra Series 8 features would fit into your life, then save your money and buy the Apple Watch SE 2. It does absolutely everything else the Series 8 can do almost faultlessly, and is a joy to wear and own.

Editors' Recommendations

Andy Boxall
Senior Mobile Writer
Andy is a Senior Writer at Digital Trends, where he concentrates on mobile technology, a subject he has written about for…
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