“The Apple Watch SE misses out on some of the flashier features on the Series 6, but keeps nearly all the important ones, along with the same design, at a lower price.”
- Stylish design
- Highly customizable
- Comprehensive health tracking
- Responsive, fluid performance
- Reliable, easy-to-use software
- No always-on display
How exactly do you go about making the Apple Watch better? It’s already a feature-packed, superbly made, easy-to-use wearable that’s the smartwatch to buy if you own an iPhone. The answer is, you make it cheaper, and that’s what Apple has done with the Apple Watch SE. Of course, a reduction in price comes with a reduction in functionality, but just how much does this impact the SE, and should it put you off?
The answer is no, it definitely shouldn’t put you off. In fact, it’s shaping up to be the Apple Watch model to buy this year.
The Apple Watch SE looks exactly the same as the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6. It has a 1.78-inch Retina screen under Ion-X strengthened glass with a 326 pixel-per-inch density. The Digital Crown is on the side with a single button below it, and the aluminum case comes in either 44mm (seen in our photos) or 40mm sizes, with a choice of silver, space gray, or gold finishes. If you like the look of the Series 5 or Series 6, you’ll like the SE.
I chose a gold version paired with the charcoal Sport Loop band to review, and as you’d expect, it’s all beautifully made and presented, right down to the packaging it arrives in. The SE is only available in aluminum, with the posher, more expensive, and slightly harder-wearing titanium and stainless steel finishes reserved for the Series 6. The gold is less in your face than the renders on Apple’s site suggest, and it has a more brassy tone than I expected. It works really well with the charcoal strap’s blue and gray accents, and because the screen is usually black, the overall look is classier than the silver model, and more interesting than the space gray version.
The screen is often black because the SE does not have the always-on screen feature from the Series 5 and Series 6, and it only shows the time when you raise your wrist or tap the screen. If the last Apple Watch you used was the Series 3 or Series 4, this won’t be anything new. After using the Series 5 for the last year, I do miss having it on the SE, but the raise-to-wake gesture is so accurate and immediate, it’s never a struggle to find out what the time is.
The 44mm Apple Watch SE is lightweight at 36 grams, and the Sport Loop strap adds practically nothing to it, so it’s not only comfortable to wear during the day but at night, too. The SE supports WatchOS 7’s sleep-tracking feature, so if you want to wear it while you sleep, it’s a good combination. Swapping straps takes just a few moments, so if you want a metal strap during the day and to save the Sport Loop or other strap for nighttime, you can without a fuss.
About the Apple Watch’s square(ish) shape. When you put on the Apple Watch SE, or any Apple Watch actually, you immediately notice how little it interferes with clothes and movement. The Digital Crown never pokes into your wrist, and the lugs on the strap have very little overhang, so they don’t get caught on your shirt sleeve. The lack of sharp or harsh edges combined with the smooth ceramic and sapphire case back means you never feel it on your wrist regardless of your movement. Round smartwatches that ape traditional watch designs are rarely this comfortable.
The Apple Watch’s shape may be controversial to some, but it excels as a smartwatch designed to be worn all the time. It is, by a long way, the least intrusive watch-like wearable available, and this wear-and-forget nature is essential if you’re going to get the best from it. You will often forget you’re wearing the Apple Watch until a haptic tap reminds you.
Although it’s technically a WatchOS 7 feature, the automatic hand-washing timer is one of the Apple Watch SE’s many health- and fitness-monitoring features, and it’s excellent. Very much a product of its time, the Apple Watch SE listens for the sound and waits for the movement of you washing your hands, then starts a 20-second timer to ensure you put in the recommended level of effort. It’s shockingly effective.
The timer credits you with the time already put into washing and displays a soapy countdown before a haptic tap tells you you’re done. It has never failed to recognize when I’m washing. Unlike the Wear OS manual hand-wash timer you have to start yourself, this function is completely input free. There’s even a special section on handwashing data inside the Apple Health app. It’s a 2020 clean freak’s dream feature.
Sleep tracking is another new WatchOS 7 feature. With the right band, the Apple Watch SE is comfortable enough to wear when sleeping, and it automatically recognizes when you go to sleep. You can also set up a sleep schedule using Wind Down, which preps the phone for nighttime. It still adds helpful shortcuts to the lock screen like access to the timer, alarm, or music, for example. This lessen distractions, while the Watch shows only the time and your alarm until it goes dark when you sleep.
The sleep data shown isn’t very comprehensive. It lists your time asleep and works out averages, but doesn’t provide detailed metrics on sleep phases. Sleep tracking is a nice addition to Apple Health and it helps build an overall picture of your lifestyle, but it doesn’t provide deep analysis regarding sleep patterns. It’s for casual use only, and although the impact on the battery is relatively small, not using it extends the time between charges, which may prove more useful.
Workout tracking is excellent. Workouts can be started on the watch, and there’s a huge array of specific activities to choose from. Data is collected and shown inside the Apple Health app, along with daily activity data. Apple Health doesn’t go into massive detail, and instead simplifies goals using the Activity Rings system. The idea is to close each ring — goals based on movement (shown as calorie burn), exercise, and standing — each day, which is easy to understand and motivational.
The Apple Watch SE isn’t for marathon runners, hardcore bicyclists, or anyone fixated on their VO2 Max. It provides a comprehensive overview of daily activity and general health without getting too nerdy about it. It tells you if you’re burning fewer calories than usual, if you’re doing more exercise than the week before, and makes it obvious how far you’ve got to go in order to reach a daily goal.
You don’t get the electrocardiogram (ECG) or blood oxygen (SpO2) monitors on the Apple Watch SE, but it has a heart rate sensor on the back that will detect irregular rhythms, along with fall detection and noise monitoring. Apple’s mindfulness feature, Breathe, is present, and the Watch can be set up to remind you to take a few moments to relax each day. It also reminds you to stand up once an hour if you’ve been sitting too long. It all adds up to a comprehensive, cohesive, and complementary package of features that keep you on track and motivated.
All of the health-tracking features on the Apple Watch SE work with very little input from you, outside of initial setup, while the data is attractively and clearly shown in the app. Serious sports enthusiasts may not find the data in-depth enough, and may also benefit from the SpO2 monitoring on the Series 6, but for everyone else, the Apple Watch SE is all the health monitoring wearable they’ll need. Apple’s new Fitness+ program, which works in conjunction with your Apple Watch SE, launches later this year and has the potential to make it an even more rounded package.
The health and fitness features are a large part of the Watch’s appeal, but what about everything else? Everything you do on the Apple Watch SE is incredibly polished, fuss-free, and slickly speedy. It has the same dual-core processor as the Series 5, not the updated S6 processor used in the Series 6, but I’ve not once wished the SE had more power as response is almost instant, even when using data-heavy applications like maps or accessing email. The Digital Crown is a joy to use, with haptics matching the rotation needed to move through the operating system. The lower button activates the Dock which can be populated by recent apps or a selection of favorites for quick access.
Notifications are expertly handled. Let’s use a Twitter notification as an example. If it includes a picture it’s shown on the Watch and it does so with no waiting around for it to appear. You get an extremely tactile haptic alert, you raise your wrist and the message shows up almost straight away, where it can be viewed in its entirety, Liked, and retweeted from your wrist. It’s superb.
Now take this experience and apply it to Apple’s Messages, emails, and many other apps, including Microsoft Teams. You can usually interact with most — such as reply, flag, like, or delete — quickly and easily without reaching for your phone. Then extend this level of speed and functionality to the vast majority of other installed apps, or third-party apps you may install yourself. If you choose the Cellular model (for $50 more up front, plus a monthly service cost) you will be able to make and receive calls independently from your phone, but even if you don’t you can still use the phone feature on the Apple Watch with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Voices are loud and clear, and it’s useful when your hands are full.
The watch supports Apple Pay, it displays music controls when music is playing on my phone, there are plenty of varied and useful watch faces to choose from, and there’s Siri too. You can even create Memoji on the Apple Watch, a process that’s incredibly fast and smooth given the amount of choices and animation involved. It’s a very good example of the Apple Watch SE’s superb overall fluidity and performance, no matter what you’re doing.
Two days use before recharging is entirely possible with the Apple Watch SE. This is going to vary depending on your use, but for me starting at 9 a.m. using it normally complete with tracking exercise for an hour, then wearing it overnight to track sleep, and using it through day two, it was down to 18% by 6 p.m..
Overnight sleep monitoring has consumed between 15 and 25% of the battery so far, and it’s this variation that makes the second full day’s use hit-or-miss. If you don’t bother with sleep tracking and instead charge or turn the Watch off overnight, two days use is no problem at all. Even with an hour’s fitness tracking the SE lasts from early morning until past midnight with around 60% battery remaining.
Not that it matters. For a smartwatch with Google’s Wear OS to last two days, it needs special modes, a clever second screen, or very careful use — in other words, you can’t really count on it. The Apple Watch SE doesn’t require such special attention, and that makes it far easier to live with.
The 44mm Apple Watch SE costs $309, while the 40mm model costs $279, provided you choose any Sport Loop, Solo Loop, or Sport Band strap (including the Nike models). If you want the Braided Solo Loop you’ll pay $329 or $359 — or buy it for $99 on its own later. Add cellular connectivity for a $50 bump on either model, plus a monthly carrier charge.
In the U.K. the 44mm Apple Watch SE is 299 British pounds or 349 pounds with a cellular connection, and the 40mm model is 269 pounds or 319 with cellular connectivity. Add the Braided Solo Loop and the cost increases to 349 pounds for the 44mm model and 319 for the 40mm model.
The Apple Watch SE is almost faultless, and Apple once again shows everyone else how smartwatches are done. But what about those features that are missing — do they stop it being a must-buy? The always-on display is the most unfortunate omission that may impact daily use, and knowing it’s on the Series 5 and Series 6 makes them just that little bit more tempting. The ECG and SpO2 features are more specialist, and those who feel they will use them regularly enough will be able to justify the $120 extra it costs to buy a Series 6. Everyone else won’t miss them.
Spending more on an stainless steel, ceramic or Hermés Apple Watch only gives you bragging rights as they’re all technically identical to each other, and the SE’s performance with last year’s processor is excellent. I’ve no hesitation in recommending the lower cost, almost fully featured aluminum Apple Watch SE, but will have to wait until I’ve worn the Series 6 for a time to say for sure if the SE is the Apple Watch to buy this year. However, at this stage, it’s looking like it very well could be.
Is there a better alternative?
Not really. If you own an iPhone and are thinking about buying a smartwatch, the Apple Watch is the one to buy. However, what about the $399/$429 Apple Watch Series 6? It adds several features — the ECG, SpO2, and the always-on screen among them — but is visually identical, and the jump in price is significant if you don’t expect to use the enhanced health features. You could also seek out a Series 5, which may be found at a slightly lower price than the Series 6, and enjoy the always-on screen and an ECG too.
While smartwatches that use Google’s WearOS, Samsung’s Tizen, and Huawei’s Health software can connect with the iPhone, they do not provide the same level of integration with iOS, and you will miss out on several features including Messages support. Many are around the same price as the Apple Watch SE, but the performance and capabilities are not as good.
The only other alternative to seriously consider for your iPhone is the $299 Withings ScanWatch. It has all the health tracking features from the Series 6 including an ECG and SpO2 measurement, better sleep tracking, and a very attractive design. It puts less of an emphasis on the connected elements like notifications, but they are there and do work well enough.
How long will it last?
Smartwatches don’t follow the same upgrade cycle as a smartphone, and the Apple Watch should easily last three or more years provided it’s treated well. The aluminum body can be damaged if you’re careless, for example. The Apple Watch SE is water resistant to 50 meters though. The wealth of replacement straps helps increase its lifespan too.
Your own requirements will dictate whether the additional health-related features on the Series 6 will become more useful in the near future. If you think they might, spending more on the Series 6 now may prevent you feeling the need to upgrade the SE early. Software support should continue for at least three years. WatchOS 7, the latest version, is compatible with the 2017 Apple Watch Series 3 for example.
Should you buy it?
Yes, the Apple Watch SE provides almost everything you want from a smartwatch.
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