Starting price: $279 (GPS), $329 (LTE+GPS)
Size: 40, 44mm
Display: 324 x 394 (40mm), 368 x 448 (44mm)
Heart rate sensor: Yes
Blood Oxygen sensor: No
Water resistance: 50m
The Apple Watch SE is the “better” part of Apple’s new good-better-best strategy for its smartwatches. At $120 less than the premier Apple Watch Series 6, but $80 more than the budget Apple Watch Series 3, the Apple Watch SE has most of what you’ll find in the Series 6, but its lower starting price of $279 makes it a bit more palatable.
So what does the Apple Watch SE give you that the Apple Watch 3 doesn’t? You get a larger display, international emergency calling, fall detection, noise monitoring, and optional LTE. After wearing the Apple Watch SE for a while, I’ve found it to be a very good smartwatch, but it feels priced too high for the features it offers. That said, be sure to check out why we recognized it in the 2021 Tom's Guide Awards for Health and Fitness. Spoiler, there's a specific customer we think it's a perfect wearable for.
Apple Watch SE: Price and availability
The Apple Watch SE starts at $279 for the 40mm GPS version and $309 for the 44mm case. If you want an LTE version, the 40mm model starts at $329 and the 44mm version is $359. That’s only a $50 premium for LTE; if you want the cellular option for the Apple Watch Series 6, it’ll cost you $100 more.
Apple Watch SE: Design and display
No big changes here: The Apple Watch SE's design is basically that of every other Apple Watch that came before. The Apple Watch SE will only be available with an aluminum case (the Apple Watch 6 is also available in stainless steel and titanium), but you will be able to choose between silver, gold, and space gray finishes. Apple sent me the space gray finish, which has a nice, clean look.
The Apple Watch SE has the same screen and S5 processor as the Apple Watch 5—which is 30% larger than that on the Apple Watch 3—though there's no always-on display option with the SE, as there is on the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 5.
I know that Apple is trying to differentiate between the SE and the Apple Watch 6, but the lack of an always-on display, especially on a device that costs more than $250, is a real disappointment. Still, the Apple Watch SE’s screen was very responsive, coming to life with a simple flick of my wrist.
The 44mm model I tested has a screen resolution of 368 x 448 pixels; the smaller 40mm model has a 324 x 394-pixel display. It’s good that Apple offers the SE in two sizes; my wife tried on my review unit and thought it was too large for her smaller wrists.
Apple Watch SE: Solo Loop
Apple also sent along a couple of its new Solo Loops; these elastic bands lack a clasp, but stretch to fit around your wrist. As someone who spends a lot of time typing, I find that the clasp on a traditional watch band presses against my wrist, making it uncomfortable to wear while working. The thinner, uniform Solo Loop eliminated this issue entirely.
However, a number of consumers have reported issues with Apple’s sizing chart, which has resulted in them receiving Solo Loops that were either too big or too small for their wrists. Because you can’t simply return the Solo Loop — you have to return the whole Apple Watch. I advise that you purchase a traditional watch strap until you have a chance to try out a Solo Loop in person.
Apple Watch SE: Health features
The Apple Watch has always focused more on general health than a pure fitness device from the likes of Garmin and even Fitbit to some extent. And that continues with this new, less expensive model.
The Apple Watch SE has the same accelerometer, gyroscope, and the always-on altimeter as the Series 6. It also has fall detection, noise monitoring, emergency SOS, and international emergency calling, things you don't get on the Apple Watch 3.
Unlike the flagship Apple Watch 6, the Apple Watch SE does not have blood oxygen (SpO2) monitoring. Considering that this feature has been around for years on Garmin devices — and you can get an SpO2 sensor on the $50 Amazfit Band 5 — this isn’t as novel a feature as Apple makes it out to be. And, the SpO2 sensor on the Apple Watch 6 is not FDA-approved, so wearers should not consider it to be a medical device.
The Apple Watch SE also lacks the ECG app that comes with the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 5, and which lets you conduct on-the-spot checks of your heart rate. However, the SE can monitor your heart rhythm in the background, and alert you if it notices an irregular heart beat.
Apple Watch 6 review: watchOS 7
With watchOS 7, the SE (as well as the Apple Watch 3 and later) also gets sleep tracking, a hand-washing app, and Apple’s new Fitness app, which includes new workout presets such as core training, functional strength training, cool down and dance.
Automatic activity tracking works pretty well. I was about 10 minutes into a brisk walk when the watch asked me if I wanted to record an activity; the Apple Watch’s GPS didn’t kick in until the last quarter mile, but the watch calculated my total walk as 0.75 miles, just one tenth a mile less than my actual distance.
The hand-washing guide worked, though it takes a few seconds for the watch to recognize what you’re doing. A gentle buzz lets you know the watch has started timing you, while a second buzz tells you your hands are clean enough.
The hand-washing guide worked, though it takes a few seconds for the watch to recognize what you’re doing. A gentle buzz lets you know the watch has started timing you, while a second buzz tells you your hands are clean enough. It’s a little oversensitive; the hand-washing app also turned on when I was peeling vegetables.
Sleep tracking was moderately accurate; the Apple Watch SE counted some TV-watching before bed as actual rest. As with other Apple Watches, I had to make sure the SE’s battery was topped off before I went to bed.
Apple Watch SE: Smartwatch features
Where the Apple Watch SE — and all Apple Watches — excels is with smartwatch features. Apple has by far the largest app library of any smartwatch, which makes the SE a true extension of your phone on your wrist. From the SE, I could control my smart home devices, make and receive phone calls, look up directions, play music, and much more.
However, if you have a lot of apps installed on the Apple Watch, it takes more time than it should to find the app you want from the main app screen. While you can move the app icons around and group them together, you can’t organize them any other way.
The Apple Watch has a plethora of customizable watchfaces, NFC for mobile payments, and, if you purchase the LTE model, you can use it independently of your phone. Apple’s new Family Setup also lets you set up and manage an Apple Watch for your child. You can use the watch to set fitness goals, send them allowance money, and limit features when they’re in school. Provided the watch has LTE, you can monitor where they are, too. It’s a very pricey GPS tracker for kids, but one that’s more full-featured.
Apple Watch SE: Battery life and charging
Like the Apple Watch 3 and the Apple Watch 6, the Apple Watch SE hasabout an 18-hour battery life, which means you'll be recharging your watch every day. When it comes to playing music and using GPS, the Apple Watch SE has a slightly shorter battery life than the Apple Watch 6.
The most noticeable difference is in charge time: just 90 minutes for the Apple Watch 6 versus 2.5 hours for the Apple Watch SE to reach a full charge. I found myself charging it up every day, but getting annoyed when I forgot and then glanced down to see I had 10 percent battery remaining.
|Apple Watch SE||Apple Watch 6||Apple Watch 3|
|Music playback from watch||10 hours||11 hours||10 hours|
|Talk||1.5 hours (LTE)||1.5 hours (LTE)||n/a|
|GPS workout||6 hours||7 hours||5 hours|
|Charging time||2.5 hours||90 minutes||2 hours|
Apple Watch SE: Verdict
You’re not going to find a more well-rounded smartwatch than those made by Apple. From the design to the features, no other smartwatches come close.
But, depending on how you look at the features offered in the $399 Apple Watch 6, the $280 SE can seem like a bargain or a ripoff. While Apple made a big deal about the SpO2 sensor in the Apple Watch 6, it’s a feature that’s already found on much less expensive fitness trackers and smartwatches such as the Fitbit Versa 3, not to mention the $50 Amazfit Band 5. And, the lack of an Always-on display — again, something common to cheaper smartwatches — is also a bummer.
Does the fact that you have to pay $120 more for these already-common features make the Apple Watch 6 really overpriced and the Apple Watch SE just somewhat overpriced?
Or is the fact that the SE has as large a display, international emergency calling, fall detection, noise monitoring, LTE, and the same battery life as the Apple Watch 6 make it the real value among Apple’s three smartwatches?
My advice is to grab the Apple Watch 5 while it’s still on sale—you can get it for as low as $299. While it doesn’t have SpO2, you’ll get the ECG app and the always-on display, as well as the same processor as in the Apple Watch SE.
While the Apple Watch SE is ultimately a very good smartwatch, there’s something about its features and price that doesn’t quite click for me.