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Apple Watch SE review (hands on)

The mid-range Apple Watch SE is a somewhat stripped down version of the Apple Watch 6 at a lower price.

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

Our Verdict

The mid-range Apple Watch SE is a somewhat stripped down version of the Apple Watch 6 at a lower price.

For

  • Classic design
  • Huge app library
  • Large screen

Against

  • No always-on display
  • No ECG
  • No Pulse Ox
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
ECG: No
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 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.

I'll be using this wearable a lot more before rendering a verdict for our Apple Watch SE review, but here are my first impressions of this new smartwatch.

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.

You can already place your orders for the Apple Watch SE, which goes on sale this Friday (Sept. 18). Here’s how to pre-order the Apple Watch SE.

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. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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. However, there's no always-on display option with the SE, as there is on the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 5. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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.

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.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The Apple Watch SE has the same accelerometer, gyroscope, and the always-on altimeter as the Series 6. It also features fall detection, noise monitoring, emergency SOS, and international emergency calling, things you don't get on the Apple Watch 3.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Unlike the flagship Apple Watch 6, the Apple Watch SE does not have blood oxygen (SpO2) monitoring nor the ECG app, which can tell wearers if they have an irregular heart beat, a condition which could lead to more serious issues.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

With watchOS 7, the SE (as well as the Apple Watch 3 and later) provides 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.

(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. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

I plan to take the Apple Watch SE on some runs and other activities, as well as use its sleep tracking, to see how it holds up as my testing for this Apple Watch SE review continues. 

Apple Watch SE: Battery life

Like the Apple Watch 3 and the Apple Watch 6, the Apple Watch SE is rated for 18 hours of 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. It's just 90 minutes for the Apple Watch 6 versus 2.5 hours for the Apple Watch SE to reach a full charge. 

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We’ll update our Apple Watch SE review once we’ve had a chance to test Apple’s claims.

Battery life: Apple Watch SE vs. Series 6 vs. Series 3
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: Outlook

At first glance, the Apple Watch SE appears to be just right in terms of price, specs, and performance. But based on my initial impressions, Apple’s latest smartwatch seems too expensive for what it offers. 

The $199 Apple Watch 3 may have a chunkier bezel, but its display is just as bright, you get the same App Store experience, the same battery life, and all of the same goodies that come with watchOS 7. The features it doesn’t have — fall detection, noise monitoring, emergency calling and LTE — aren’t what I consider mission-critical for a smartwatch.

While Apple makes a big deal about the blood oxygen 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. Plus, the lack of an always-on display on the Apple Watch SE — another feature common to cheaper devices — is also a bummer. 

The main target for the Apple Watch SE appears to be for people who want to get an Apple Watch for their kid and sign up for Apple’s new Family Setup, which lets you monitor multiple Apple Watches from your iPhone. But, there's cheaper ways to track your child's whereabouts than buying a $300 smartwatch—plus the monthly cellular fee. Perhaps further testing and time will reveal an additional set of users for this lower-cost Apple Watch.

  • 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.
    Reply