Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: What’s the better value?

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3
(Image credit: Future)

Although the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch SE have just arrived to revamp Apple's category-leading wearable lineup, the Apple Watch Series 3 remains for sale.

That's right — rather than the replace the $199 Apple Watch 3, the $279 Apple Watch SE is simply a new alternative to Apple's cheapest smartwatch. But with a mere $80 difference between the two models, you might be wondering whether one is better than the other.

While the Apple Watch SE is positioned as a hybrid of the Apple Watch Series 4 and Apple Watch Series 5, with fall detection and a built-in compass, it misses out on ECG readings and an always-on display found in Apple's other watches. The Apple Watch 3 is still limited by comparison, but it's the best Apple Watch you can get for less than $200 (and often less.)

This Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3 face-off breaks down the differences between these rather affordable smartwatches, and can even help you decide which is the better option for you.

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Specs at a glance

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Row 0 - Cell 0 Apple Watch SEApple Watch 3
Starting price$279$199
Sizes40, 44mm38, 42mm
Display324 x 394 (40mm), 368 x 448 (44mm) 272 x 340 (38mm), 312 x 390 (42mm)
Heart rate monitorYesYes
Fall detectionYesNo
Sleep trackingYesYes
Battery life18 hours18 hours

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Price

The Apple Watch SE will start at $279 for the GPS-only version, while the Apple Watch 3 retains its entry cost of $199. 

If you want a cellular version of the Apple Watch SE, you'll pay $329. Apple has discontinued the Series 3's LTE-equipped model, so the SE is a superior choice if you'd like to smartwatch to work independently of your iPhone. 

Check out the best Apple Watch deals right now to see the latest discounts on both models.

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Design

At a glance, the Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3 design differences are hard to spot. Both rounded squares are made of aluminum and look like every other Apple Watch in existence. 

If you have a ruler on hand, though, you'll be able to measure the slight size variations. The SE comes in 40mm and 44mm options like the Series 6, while the Series 3 is a smaller 38mm or 42mm. 

How to pre-order Apple Watch SE

(Image credit: Apple)

The displays are more obvious giveaways. The SE's bezels are slimmer than the Series 3, so you'll get more screen real estate — something to consider if your vision isn't sharp.

In terms of durability, you're getting up to 50 meters of water resistance with either the SE or Series 3. The Apple Watch 6 even sports the same swim-proof rating.

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Health and safety features

Neither the Apple Watch SE nor Apple Watch 3 support blood oxygen (SpO2) monitoring, the Apple Watch 6's standout feature. You also won't find ECG readings for detecting signs of atrial fibrillation. But there quite a few upgrades you'll get with the Apple Watch SE over the Apple Watch 3.

For one, the Apple Watch SE has fall detection and international emergency calling. These features can literally save your life by contacting emergency services in instances when you might not be able to do so for yourself. The Series 3 is limited to in-country SOS calling, and can't recognize when you've taken a hard fall.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If you're the outdoors type, the Apple Watch Series 3 also won't be a better choice than many of the best sport watches, despite its on-board GPS. Meanwhile, the Apple Watch SE has the built-in compass of the Series 5 and always-on altimeter introduced with the Series 6.

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Battery life

The Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch 3 are on an even playing field when it comes to battery life. Both promise 18 hours of battery life, which is the Apple Watch standard. Even the Series 6 is rated for 18 hours, but with that comes a brighter, always-on display and improved performance.

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3: Key differences

The Apple Watch SE is a more capable smartwatch than the Apple Watch Series 3. But, as this Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch 3 face-off explains, it's an odd option. 

The Apple Watch SE compromises between the $399 Apple Watch Series 6 and the $199 Apple Watch 3 in creative ways, so you'll need to want to pay attention to the specs rather than the price. 

At $279, it's complicated to call the SE a budget smartwatch, but it's a good value for you if want fall detection, a compass and an always-on altimeter. It's also the cheapest entry-point for an LTE-enabled Apple Watch.

If you don't need LTE and don't mind ditching those outdoor-friendly features, the Series 3 still suffices for the price. Plus it supports the same watchOS 7 software as the Apple Watch SE.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is the managing editor of social and video at Tom’s Guide. She covers smartwatches, TVs and audio devices, too. Kate appears on Fox News to talk tech trends and runs the Tom's Guide TikTok account, which you should be following. When she’s not filming tech videos, you can find her taking up a new sport, mastering the NYT Crossword or channeling her inner celebrity chef.