Apple Watch SE review

The mid-range Apple Watch SE is a very good smartwatch, but it feels a bit pricey for what it offers.

Apple Watch SE review
(Image: © Tom's Guide)

Tom's Guide Verdict

The mid-range Apple Watch SE is a very good smartwatch and gives you more than the Apple Watch 3, but it feels a bit pricey for what it offers.


  • +

    Classic design

  • +

    Huge app library

  • +

    Large screen

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  • -

    No always-on display

  • -

    Lacks ECG and blood Oxygen monitoring

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    Mediocre battery life

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Apple Watch SE: Specs

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
Compass: Yes
Storage: 32GB
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 7, but $80 more than the budget Apple Watch Series 3, the Apple Watch SE has a lot of what you’ll find in the Series 7, 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.

If you are shopping for an Apple Watch, it might be worth holding off for a bit as the Apple Watch SE 2 may be launching later this year, with substantial upgrades rumored. There's also the Apple Watch 8 if you want the absolute best of what Apple can offer in a smartwatch. For now though, here's what we make of the current mid-tier member of the Apple Watch line-up.

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.

For a more in-depth comparison, check out our Apple Watch 6 vs. Apple Watch 3 and our Apple Watch 6 vs. Apple Watch SE comparisons.

Take a look at our Apple Store coupons page for the latest discounts on Apple products.  

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Apple Watch SE: Solo Loop

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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.

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Apple Watch SE: Battery life and charging

Like the Apple Watch 3 and the Apple Watch 6, the Apple Watch SE has about 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.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Battery life: Apple Watch SE vs. Series 6 vs. Series 3
Row 0 - Cell 0 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.

Mike Prospero
U.S. Editor-in-Chief, Tom's Guide

Michael A. Prospero is the U.S. Editor-in-Chief for Tom’s Guide. He oversees all evergreen content and oversees the Homes, Smart Home, and Fitness/Wearables categories for the site. In his spare time, he also tests out the latest drones, electric scooters, and smart home gadgets, such as video doorbells. Before his tenure at Tom's Guide, he was the Reviews Editor for Laptop Magazine, a reporter at Fast Company, the Times of Trenton, and, many eons back, an intern at George magazine. He received his undergraduate degree from Boston College, where he worked on the campus newspaper The Heights, and then attended the Columbia University school of Journalism. When he’s not testing out the latest running watch, electric scooter, or skiing or training for a marathon, he’s probably using the latest sous vide machine, smoker, or pizza oven, to the delight — or chagrin — of his family.

  • Soulsurvivorla66
    I have to disagree with your argument that the SE is targeted towards parents who want to buy an Apple Watch for their child. I recently purchased the Apple Watch SE. And I'm a first time buyer. In the past, I found the cost to be prohibitive for a device I was uncertain as to how I might use. However, like a lot of people, I am now working out from home. And I wanted a wearable that can help me track my fitness. Along with the purchase, three months of the fitness app subscription is bundled into the price, which is great given that I want to try out the service. And then there's the integration with the rest of the Apple eco system. So for me, this device is best choice to test the waters.