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Apple Watch SE review: The smartwatch for the masses
Apple Apple Watch SE
What we like
What we don't like
The Apple Watch SE is a more affordable version of the Series 6 wearable. To reach the lower price point, it makes lots of small trade-offs, which shouldn’t matter to most potential buyers. It’s a true workout and smartphone companion that offers most of the features people want at a more palatable cost. And it’s probably the best Apple Watch for most people.
Find out why we like this affordable Apple wearable in the Android Authority Apple Watch SE review.
Update: December 2021: We have updated this Apple Watch SE review with details on watchOS 8.1, new competing devices, the Apple Watch Series 7, and more.
The Apple Watch SE is identical in design to the Apple Watch Series 6 save for two things: colors and materials. The Series 6 is offered in a nice range of shades, including silver, space gray, gold, blue, and red, but the SE is limited to silver, space gray, and gold. Similarly, where the Series 6 comes in aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium, the SE is only available in aluminum. Everything else is the same.
There’s not much to be said about the Watch’s design at this point, as it’s been carried over for a few years now (since the Series 4). The Apple Watch SE is available in two sizes: 40mm and 44mm. You can order it with a wide range of straps and add LTE for cellular connectivity if you wish. We reviewed the 44mm space gray model (GPS) with a red silicone strap. (We couldn’t get one of the new Solo Loop bands.)
The size and fit of the Apple Watch SE are good for me. The gently rounded underbelly is comfortable against the skin, and the edges never dug into my flesh. I don’t care for the feel of the plain silicone strap that came with our review unit (in fact, it gave me a rash.) It has a slick finish to it that doesn’t feel good against your wrist. I’d much prefer one of the cloth-like loops. That said, the silicone strap offered a snug fit that wasn’t too tight.
I was impressed with the display. The 44mm size is great, as it offers plenty of real estate across the 448 by 368 pixels. The SE doesn’t offer the always-on display functionality of the Series 6, but it lights up whenever you raise your wrist. I had no trouble viewing it outdoors under direct sunlight. One thing to note, the Series 6 offers sapphire glass on the stainless steel and titanium models. The Watch SE is limited to Ion-X glass for protection; it is more scratch-prone than the sapphire.
The digital crown is still one of the best control tools for any smartwatch in the market. There’s a flush button below the crown that also works well. The speaker slits are on the left edge of the watch. Myriad sensors are tucked into the glass on the bottom.
Apple gave the SE its S5 SiP processor, which has a 64-bit, dual-core engine. It’s paired with 32GB of storage, which is more than enough for some music files. Other hardware features include the W3 chip for pairing with AirPods, an always-on altimeter, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and compass.
Battery life is rated to 18 hours of active usage. You’ll find that your mileage will vary greatly. For example, with just casual use of the watch, using it to monitor daily activity easily reached the end of the day with a 50% charge. Tossing in just one GPS-tracked workout, however, will ding the battery significantly. Even so, I never found myself in battery trouble, even on long days that stretched from 7 AM to midnight. Recharging takes about 90 minutes.
In all, the Apple Watch SE continues to be one of the most comfortable and functional smartwatches out there.
Related: The best smartwatches you can buy
Health and fitness tracking
As with all Apple Watches, the Watch SE covers the gamut when monitoring health and fitness. However, it loses some key features of the Series 6, including blood oxygen monitoring and electrocardiogram smarts. If you were counting on these, you’d need to upgrade to the 6.
While those two heart health functions are absent, the Watch SE still monitors your heart rate constantly. It can tell you if you have a heart rate that is abnormally high or low and signal you if it detects irregular heart rates. These could be indicators of heart problems. I tested the Apple Watch SE against an Apple Watch Series 4 that I have on hand and found the heart rate detection equivalent between the two. The Series 6 gets an upgraded heart rate sensor, so again you’ll need to up your spending to get an even more accurate heart rate sensor.
More reading: The best heart rate monitors and watches
Sleep tracking is a big feature touted by modern wearables, and it’s one the Apple Watch SE punts on a little. Rather than fully track your sleep (we’re talking about advanced features, such as REM cycle tracking), the app helps you set and target sleep goals. For example, say you want to achieve eight hours of sleep per night. The watch will tell you when to go to bed to reach that goal. The app relies on when you last use your iPhone to determine when you get to sleep. The Apple Watch SE does not track sleep as thoroughly as some Fitbit devices might, but it covers the basics of sleeping time. If you want serious sleep tracking with advanced features, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
See also: The best sleep trackers you can buy
You’ll find the Apple Watch is a fine tool to have strapped to your wrist on the fitness front. It can automatically track many workouts, such as walks, swimming, or cycling, and can manually track many more. I found indoor and outdoor tracking to be very accurate. For example, I took the Watch SE on a regular (outdoor) hike that I do, and it got the mileage exactly right, with step counts that were about average for the trek. I also tested the Watch SE for walks on the treadmill. Its margin of error was within 0.03 miles, which is quite good over a 2.5-mile walk.
For an in-depth look at the Apple Watch SE’s fitness features, be sure to read our review of the Apple Watch Series 6.
Smartwatch functionality abounds on the Apple Watch SE. It includes all the core behaviors you expect from a modern smartwatch.
First, and perhaps most importantly, apps. If there’s one thing the Apple Watch SE does well, it’s apps. Apple has an entire app store just for its smartwatches, and developers have actually filled it with wrist-sized versions of their smartphone apps. For example, I can use the Starbucks app to pay for coffee or the United app to scan my boarding pass, or I can use the Spotify app to control my playlists or the CNN app to check the latest headlines.
Apple stuffed a plethora of its own apps aboard the watch, too. Smartwatch essentials, such as calendar, messaging, stopwatch, and compass are aboard, as are nice-to-haves such as the camera shutter release, Apple Maps, and Apple’s Memoji app.
There’s a new service called Family Setup. As long as you buy an LTE version of the Apple Watch SE and have an iPhone, you can set up multiple watches for the family. Think of it as the easiest possible way to get your kid a phone/smartwatch combo. Because the watch has LTE (this service does not work with GPS-only watches), it can send/receive messages, phone calls, and connect to the App Store for discovering apps. We were unable to test this, however, because we don’t have an LTE-capable Apple Watch.
If there’s one area other watchmakers are sorely behind Apple, it’s the apps and overall smartwatch experience.
Apple recently pushed watchOS 8.1 to the wearable, including improved fall detection smarts, Covid-19 vaccination card support available within Apple Wallet, and an Always On time display fix. For Fitness Plus workout users, watchOS 8.1 also brings improved SharePlay to the platform, allowing up to 32 people to work out together through FaceTime. These improvements add to watchOS 8’s September feature additions, including a new Mindfulness app, redesigned Home, a new Focus mode, and the ability to store ID cards in Wallet.
Apple Watch SE review: Price and competition
- Apple Watch SE (40mm, GPS): $279
- Apple Watch SE (44mm, GPS): $309
- Apple Watch SE (40mm, LTE): $329
- Apple Watch SE (44mm, LTE): $359
You can spend as little as $199 on an Apple Watch or as much as $1,249, depending on the series and options you choose. The base prices are fairly straightforward. The Series 3, which is now the “budget” Apple Watch, slots in at $199, while the SE starts at $279, and the Series 6 starts at $399. Adding LTE, jumping to the larger screen size, or adopting a stainless steel band will set you back more.
Since we published this review, Apple has launched the Series 7, which doesn’t bring too many fundamental changes over the Series 6. However, it does introduce a more prominent face with a tougher coating. At $399, it’s a more futureproof alternative to the Apple Watch SE than the Series 6 if you don’t mind the unreliable heart-rate sensor.
See also: Apple Watch Series 7 review
Unless you’re on the strictest budget, I think you can safely ignore the Series 3. That $80 difference between the Series 3 and SE is truly not too much to ask for the dramatic improvement in features, such as the processor and display. The Series 6 gets you many advanced features, but many of them, such as the ECG and SpO2, won’t be missed by all but the most dedicated fitness buffs.
In other words, the Apple Watch SE has become the Goldilocks option, as it finds the right balance between price and features.
If the Apple ecosystem in general, and Apple Watch in particular, are not for you, you have options in the dedicated fitness band and smartwatch spaces. For example, there’s the Fitbit Charge 5, Fitbit Versa 3, or Huawei Band 6 for dedicated fitness tracking, or the Garmin Venu 2 for a more robust all-around experience. The Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 is a good shout for Android users, too, thanks to its Wear OS 3 base.
Apple Watch SE review: The verdict
The Apple Watch SE is a fine wearable. It excels at the basics, such as fitness and simple usability. It also lacks some serious features, such as advanced sleep tracking and the electrocardiogram and blood oxygen sensors of the Series 6 and newer Series 7.
The SE is a definite and worthwhile step up from the affordable Series 3. It adds just enough functionality to be worth the extra cash. On the other side of the same coin, it’s a better value than the $399 Series 6, and still a worthwhile consideration of the Series 7, too. While pricier Apple Watches will do a better job at some things, it’s not necessarily worth the extra dough for casual users.
At $279, the Apple Watch SE remains a good buy.