Price and Design
The Apple Watch SE starts at $279 for the GPS-only model or $329 for the GPS and cellular version (plus the monthly cost of data from your cellular service provider). In comparison, the Series 6 starts at $399 for the GPS-only model and $100 more for the GPS and cellular version. The Series 3, meanwhile, remains on sale for $199 in a GPS-only model. No matter which you choose, all Apple Watches required a paired iPhone, so Android users are out of luck.
The Watch SE features a 100-percent recycled aluminum case in either gold, silver, or space gray, in 40mm or 44mm sizes. It supports the same bands as other Apple Watch models, including the new buckle-free solo loop. The Series 6, in comparison, comes in a wider range of colors, including new navy blue and red hues, and finishes, including stainless steel and titanium. For this review, I tested the 40mm GPS and cellular Watch SE with a space gray aluminum case and a charcoal sport loop.
In the box with the watch, Apple includes a charging cable, but you don’t get a USB power adapter. Apple says it made this decision to help the environment, and it will have the same impact as eliminating 50,000 cars from the road.
From a design perspective, the Watch SE looks just like the Series 6 and its predecessors, featuring the distinctive squarish case with rounded corners the Apple Watch is known for. The 40mm model measures 1.56 by 1.35 by 0.42 inches (HWD), while the 44mm model is a touch taller and wider, but the same thickness, at 1.73 by 1.48 by 0.42 inches.
Looking at the Watch SE next to the Series 6 and Series 5, it’s hard to see a difference. Indeed, all three models feature the same size and resolution display, which is 30 percent larger than the one on the Series 3. To that end, the 40mm Watch SE has a 1.57-inch display with 394 by 324 pixels, while the 44mm Series 6 has a 1.73-inch display with 448 by 368 pixels.
Left to right: Apple Watch Series 6, Watch SE (both with variations of the new Memoji watch face)
The Watch SE is light and comfortable on my wrist, even when I wear it to bed. The 40mm and 44 mm GPS models weigh 1.07 ounces and 1.27 ounces, respectively, without the strap. The GPS and cellular versions are a touch heavier at 1.08 ounces and 1.28 ounces.
The SE is water resistant to 165 feet. Apple says it’s safe for shallow water activities like swimming in a pool or in the ocean. You can also wear it in the shower and hot tub. You shouldn’t, however, wear it while scuba diving, waterskiing, or “other activities involving high-velocity water or submersion below shallow depth,” Apple says.
Setup and Interface
The Watch SE has the same user-friendly setup process as the Series 6, with a few less steps. It comes partially charged, and as soon as you take it out of the box and turn it on, a screen will appear on your iPhone asking if you want to set the watch up for yourself or someone else using Apple’s new Family Setup service. It then instructs you to put the watch on, hold it up to your phone’s camera, and align the watch face with the viewfinder on screen to pair it. As soon as you do this, it asks if you want to restore from a backup (if you’re already an Apple Watch user) or set it up as a new watch. I had just set up the Series 6, so I chose to restore from that device.
Next, you can choose to create a passcode and enable automatic updates. If you enable automatic updates, you’ll receive a notification before any new software is installed.
After that, it goes over the Emergency SOS and fall detection features. To call emergency services, press and hold the side button. Doing so will also send a message to your emergency contacts. With fall detection enabled, the watch will automatically call emergency services if it detects you took a hard fall. You can disable this feature in the Apple Watch app.
If you have a cellular model, it then goes into the cellular setup process. With the cellular version, you can make and receive calls and access apps using cellular data when the watch isn’t connected to your iPhone. When you tap Set Up Cellular, it brings up a new page that lets you sign in with your cell phone carrier and add the Apple Watch to your plan.
As with other Apple Watch models, you navigate the SE with swipes to scroll and move, and taps to select. To see your notifications, swipe down from the top edge of the screen. To see your battery level and access additional controls like Do Not Disturb mode, swipe up from the bottom.
The Watch SE also features Apple’s signature digital crown on the top right side. Press this button to return to the watch face; press and hold it to talk to Siri; or turn it to scroll, zoom, or adjust.
Beneath the digital crown on the right side of the screen is a button with various functions. You can press it to quickly access your open apps; double press it for Apple Pay; or press and hold it for Medical ID information, Emergency SOS, and power. The Medical ID feature lets you create a medical profile including information about allergies and medical conditions so it’s available to emergency responders if necessary. The Emergency SOS feature lets you quickly notify emergency services and send them your location if you’re in trouble.
Key Features and Performance
The SE is powered by the same Apple dual-core S5 System in Package (SiP) as the Series 5. The S5 is 20 percent slower than the new S6 chip in the Series 6, but two times faster than the S3 SiP in the Series 3. While the Series 6 supports 5GHz Wi-Fi, the SE only works on 2.4GHz bands, as is true for the Series 5 and below.
Like the Series 6, the Watch SE runs WatchOS 7, the latest generation of Apple’s smartwatch operating system, which delivers many excellent features, including automatic handwashing detection with a 20-second countdown timer, sleep tracking, new workout types (dancing, core training, cooldown, and functional strength training), and cycling directions in select cities (including Beijing, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco Bay Area, and Shanghai). WatchOS 7 is also available on the Series 3 and above, but the new operating system is reportedly causing crashes, failures, disconnections, and significant battery drain on some third-generation models.
The SE features the same size and resolution display as the Series 6, but it doesn’t have an always-on option like you get with the Series 6 and Series 5, which allows you to see the watch face and time when your wrist is down. There’s no denying that an always-on display greatly improves the user experience, making the Apple Watch feel like more of a traditional watch. On the Watch SE, the screen wakes as soon as you raise or flick your wrist, and turns off automatically when you lower it. You can also tap the screen or press the digital crown to activate it.
I thought the SE’s lack of an always-on display mode would be a deal breaker, since I’m used to wearing the Series 5 and more recently the Series 6, but it surprisingly didn’t bother me. The SE’s screen always lit up as soon as I lifted my wrist, making it easily visible whenever I wanted to see it.
With Do Not Disturb enabled most of the time, the SE lasted 30 hours before I got a low-battery alert (when the battery drops to 10 percent, the watch alerts you and asks if you want to use Power Reserve). In comparison, with the always-on display and Do Not Disturb enabled most of the time, the Series 6 lasted nearly 25.5 hours before displaying a low-battery alert.
The Watch SE offers the same safety and emergency features as the Series 6, including fall detection, high and low heart rate notifications, irregular heart rhythm alerts, Emergency SOS, and international emergency calling. It also features the Noise app, which sends you an alert when the decibel level of the surrounding area can cause hearing damage.
The international emergency calling feature lets you ring emergency services when you’re traveling abroad in more than 150 countries, even if you don’t have your phone nearby. It also works with the fall detection feature, so if the watch detects a hard fall followed by a period of inactivity, it can automatically notify emergency services, from almost anywhere in the world. Just keep in mind that you’ll need the GPS and cellular model to take advantage of this feature.
The SE also gives you access to the same fitness tracking features you’ll find on the Series 6, including the Move, Exercise, and Stand rings that can motivate you to stay active. It will also support Apple’s new Fitness+ at-home workout service that’s slated to launch before the end of the year. The Watch SE cannot, however, take an electrocardiogram (ECG) or measure your blood oxygen saturation level (SpO2), two advanced health-tracking features you get on the Series 6.
On the lifestyle front, the SE offers access to the App Store, which lets you browse and install apps right on the watch itself. With more than 20,000 apps available, the Apple Watch easily has the largest, highest-quality third-party selection of any wearable.
It also features a compass and the same always-on altimeter as the Series 6. Thanks to the always-on altimeter, you can see your elevation change in real time when you add it as a complication on the watch face.
For comparison, the Series 3 doesn’t support international emergency calling as it doesn’t come in a cellular model. It also lacks fall detection, support for Family Setup, noise monitoring, a compass, and an always-on altimeter, but it does offer Emergency SOS and heart health notifications.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Apple is giving prospective Watch buyers more variety than usual with this year with three models to choose from. The Series 6 delivers the best smartwatch experience you can get today, and accordingly earns our Editors’ Choice, but it’s undeniably pricey at $400 and up.
Starting at $279, or $120 less than the Series 6, the Watch SE is a compelling alternative if you want the apps, connectivity, fitness, and safety features of the Series 6, without paying a premium for advanced health monitoring capabilities. It gives you most every feature of its pricier sibling, with the exception of an always-on display, an SpO2 app for blood oxygen saturation readings, and an ECG app to check your heart rate and rhythm for signs of atrial fibrillation on demand. But while it lacks an ECG, it features an optical sensor to measure your current heart rate, and can alert you if it detects an unusually high or low pulse or an irregular rhythm.
The SE also supports fall detection and Emergency SOS, two other potentially lifesaving features. It runs Apple’s latest smartwatch operating system, watchOS 7, which features a 20-second handwashing countdown timer, sleep tracking capabilities, new watch faces, and workout-tracking options. And an excellent suite of safety features, combined with support for Apple’s new Family Setup feature that lets you set up and manage an Apple Watch for a family member who doesn’t have an iPhone, makes the SE a particularly compelling smartwatch for school-age children and the elderly.
The three-year-old Series 3 remains on sale as another cost-conscious option, for $80 less than the SE, but we think you should skip this one. The SE offers a larger display, a faster processor, and enough new safety features to make the extra $80 a worthwhile investment. For a more affordable alternative or if you’re an Android user, check out the $199.95 Fitbit Versa 2. It’s not as powerful as the SE and has a much smaller selection of apps, but it has an always-on display, multiple days of battery life, and Amazon Alexa and Fitbit Pay support.
The Bottom Line
The Apple Watch SE drops the always-on display and a couple of advanced health sensors from the Series 6, but otherwise delivers the same winning app, fitness, and safety features for $120 less.
Apple Watch SE Specs
|Phone OS Compatibility||iOS|
|Heart Rate Monitor||Yes|
|Display Size||1.57 inches|
|Battery Life||18 hours|
|Fitness Features||Accelerometer, GPS, Heart Rate Monitor|
|Estimated Battery Life||18 hours|
|Separate App Store||Yes|
|Phone Call Capacity||Yes|
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