Apple Watch SE Review
For less money, with few sacrifices, the Apple Watch SE offers all the company’s core smartwatch features.
It’s the first deviation we’ve seen since the 2014 launch from the usual route of Apple smartwatches.
It falls beyond the basic 1-6 generation sequence we’ve seen so far. The Apple Watch Series 6, of course, still exists, and the Apple Watch Series 3 remains. This means there are now officially three versions of Apple Watch to choose from.
But don’t call it the ‘cheap Apple Watch,’ as before the launch it was widely touted.
Apple Watch Series 6 vs Apple Watch SE vs Series 3
While the Apple Watch SE does undercut the fully-fledged Series 6, it’s still a fairly costly $279.99 for the smaller 40mm model.
But perhaps the better way to think of it is the mass-appeal Apple Watch. The greatest hits album, that everyone can enjoy. A true contender for the best smartwatch money can buy, in terms of price and experience.
While ECG and SpO2 have been exciting additions in terms of advancement, we feel many people will happily forgo them to save 1/3 of the price tag. And the Apple Watch SE offers them that chance.
But is it right for you? Read on for our full review.
Apple Watch SE price, rivals and context
Apple Watch SE showing the new Typographic watch face
Let’s put the Apple Watch SE in context. It’s cheaper than the Galaxy Watch 3 which challenges the Apple Watch Series 6 with ECG and blood pressure monitoring, but it’s still more than almost every Amazfit, the Huawei Watch GT2e and Fitbit Versa 3.
But it fills the yawning gap between the $199.99 Series 3 and $399.99 Series 6.
And at just $80 more than the Series 3, for us it’s a no-brainer given the design improvements and significant increase in features.
Apple Watch SE from the side showing aluminum materials in grey
This shouldn’t take long, as the Apple Watch SE is physically identical to the Series 6 and Series 5.
We’re fans of the Apple Watch design, and it’s a statement that you buy into, just as you do for Rolex or Tag Heuer. We totally understand those that prefer round watches. But it’s personal taste.
While the Series 3 uses the older, boxier shape with the smaller display, the Apple Watch SE comes with the shape introduced with the Series 4. It’s a better-looking device in pretty much every respect, and we’d recommend paying the extra for the Watch SE over the Series 3 on looks alone.
The larger screen enables more complications on watch faces and more information on screen – and it comes in both 40mm and 44mm models.
You do get a smaller choice of finishes with the Apple Watch SE. You can only get aluminum in either gold, space grey or silver. The new colors are reserved for Series 6, and you won’t get stainless steel.
The Watch SE uses the S5 processor, which was engineered for Series 5, so the whole thing is quick and snappy. It’s twice as fast as the Series 3, although we’d say you’d only notice this when using more cumbersome apps.
Apple Watch SE showing new watch face, blue strap
There’s no always-on display here; only the Series 6 gets that. We got used to the always-on display with the Series 5, and it does feel like a backwards step. Having a dark screen on your wrist feels a little old school, even if the Apple wrist raise is nearly seamless. This is probably the compromise people will feel most keenly.
Again, you get more storage on the Apple Watch SE than Series 3, with 32GB available for music and media, up from 16GB.
The number of watch faces has again increased in watchOS 7, and there’s more choice than ever before. Apple still takes a less-is-more approach, but lets you customise most faces with first and third party complications. These are small pieces of information or quick links to apps, right from the watch face, such as seeing your fitness goal progress or battery info.
Health and fitness features
Apple Watch SE and the workout app
What you don’t get is where the Apple Watch SE varies from the Series 6 (and Series 5).
There is no ECG or SpO2 sensor, so the Watch SE comes up short if you are trying to max out on health info.
But it’s always an outstanding watch for fitness.
For starters there are the three workout rings – calories, exercise minutes and standing time – which are a strong fitness motivator. And if that wasn’t enough, then in weekly challenges, you can fight with friends.
In every watchOS update, there is a built-in GPS that locks on automatically when you start an exercise, and the workout app continues to expand. It tracks most of the disciplines of running and cycling, plus swimming, and now includes tennis, yoga, training for physical power and more.
In its own right, it has become a versatile app and, if you like, can send data out to Strava. We’re also fans of the Strava dedicated app from the Apple Watch App Store, though, for racing.
Apple Watch SE showing resting heart rate
Of course, there’s also a heart rate monitor and that offers plenty of health statistics. It measures your workouts, as well as keeping track 24/7. On the Watch and in the Apple Heath app, it populates resting heart rate data, which is an important statistic to track.
You also get warnings of high/low heart rate, which have shown themselves to be a life saver.
And some other potential lifesaving features also come with the Apple Watch SE.
Thanks to the advanced accelerometer which was added, Fall Detection comes from Series 5. The Apple Watch will call emergency services for you if you take a fall and don’t get back up again.
And there are noise alerts, too, that will alert you if your hearing could be affected by your climate.
And while it’s not a life-saver, it’s made from Series 6 by the always-on altimeter, so when you run or hike, you can see live ascend/descent.
For health and wellbeing, the Apple Watch is an outstanding all-rounder. If you’re a marathon runner, or if you’re really pushing your body through preparation, then poor battery life and a lack of top-level sports science metrics will mean that Garmin or Polar will be better served. But the Apple Watch SE provides an inspiring and reliable experience that is recommended for most individuals.
Apple Watch SE sleep tracking
Sleep monitoring was recently implemented via watchOS 7 for the first time, so that makes an appearance here, naturally.
As you’ll find on Fitbit or other rivals, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive or data heavy. But enough is there to boost your sleep.
For any time you wake up in the night, Apple’s sleep monitoring would include a rundown of how long you slept, displaying dark and light times.
There’s a greater emphasis, though, on continuity, time in bed and time asleep.
Consistency is important for sleep enhancement, and the iPhone bedtime feature goes hand-in-hand with the monitoring of the Apple Watch. That puts your iPhone and Apple Watch before bed in a state of no interruption, reminding you that it’s time to hit the hay.
And it displays your preferred bedtime as a baseline to the time you actually fell asleep in the Apple Health study.
Apple Watch SE review: the people’s smartwatch
A wake-up alarm may also be mounted, which uses the haptics on the watch to rouse you.
It’s not a smart wake feature like you’ll find on Fitbit and Withings, which will wake you gently using your sleep cycle. The advantage of these features, however, is debatable, while the Apple Watch strips things back to being basic and necessary again.
It does do enough to be beneficial, but it seems lightweight if you’re used to the level of data on sleep cycles, stages and scores elsewhere.
Of course, since its App Store is filled with sleep trackers that offer all that level of information, should you want it, the Apple Watch manages to swerve these kinds of criticisms again.
Apple Watch SE showing a notification
With the Apple Watch’s exercise, sports and wellness features, it’s easy to get carried away and forget that it’s a perfect wrist companion.
And it is the versatility that makes it the best out there smartwatch.
I’m not keen on getting loads of wrist updates personally, so it’s easy to get them down to the core essentials.
Similarly, I also keep the number of apps down. But the range of the Apple Watch App Store is unrivalled. Basically, on your wrist, the Apple Watch can be as active or passive as you need it to be, and that is one of its greatest strengths.
Of default, on your wrist, you get Apple Pay. And if you want a data connection for streaming music and podcasts, receiving calls away from your iPhone and all that jazz, there are LTE options for the Apple Watch SE.
Apple Watch SE battery life
In terms of battery life on the Apple Watch SE, there is no real improvement, and despite the lack of always-on display, according to Apple, you can still get about 18 hours.
This was always the biggest concern about the Apple Watch, and you now have the likes of Fitbit, Garmin and Huawei providing it for those who need more.
In our testing, however, we got more than 18 hours. We will easily have more than 24 hours, moving into a 36-hour period rhythm. And that included about 30-60 minutes of exercise monitored by GPS.
Thanks to fast nightly charging, we’ve never had a big problem with Apple’s single day battery life, but sleep monitoring poses an issue.
That’s because there isn’t a normal point in the day for charging now.
Now you need to make sure you grab time either as soon as you wake up (our preferred time) or before you go to bed on the charger. It’s a bit annoying, and charging requires active thought, unlike before.
The good news is that the charging process is quick. The charging time for the Series 6 was reduced to 1.5 hours, and the Apple Watch SE is not far from that either.
The main factor for iPhone users to look at Apple Watch alternatives is still the battery life and we felt the strain even more with sleep tracking.
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