Apple Watch SE Review: Incredible value with a only few things missing

Apple Watch SE Strip Watch Face
(Image: © Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

While the new "SE" moniker attached to the Apple Watch SE has no official designation, I'd like to think it stands for "surprise edition" because that's what the Apple Watch SE is — a pleasant surprise. It takes so much of the life-saving ability that the Apple Watch is known for and couples it with internals that make using the device feel as speedy and snappy as you'd expect. With only a few compromises on features and $120 less than the Apple Watch Series 6, is the Apple Watch SE worth it?

I decided to test it and find out for myself, using a space gray aluminum Apple Watch Series SE running watchOS 7; I have been wearing it non-stop since I got it up here in the Great White North.

Apple Watch SE: In Brief

For people who want:

  • A cheaper Apple Watch
  • Fall detection and emergency SOS
  • Compass, health, and fitness tracking
  • Noise monitoring and Always-on altimeter
  • Optional LTE connectivity
  • All-day battery life

Not for people who want:

  • Always-on display
  • ECG and Blood Oxygen apps
  • Stainless steel or titanium finish
  • U1 chip

The biggest hurdle that the Apple Watch SE has to overcome is likely the lack of an always-on display, a feature that was first introduced in last year's Apple Watch Series 5, and now, is only found on the Apple Watch Series 6. When it comes to the always-on display missing from the Apple Watch SE, you may or may not care — but I suspect the audience that Apple is targeting likely won't care.

The Apple Watch SE isn't designed for people looking to upgrade from the Apple Watch Series 5; after all, most of the internals of the Apple Watch SE are the same as the Series 5. Instead, Apple has created the perfect mid-level Apple Watch that is meant to entice first-time buyers and upgraders from older models — like the Series 4 and older —which already are used to not having an always-on display.

Of course, Apple also has an entry-level (so to speak) Apple Watch in the Apple Watch Series 3, but if you compare the Apple Watch SE to the Apple Watch Series 3, you'll quickly see just how much the Apple Watch SE has to offer.

When you strap on an Apple Watch SE, you get to take advantage of some of the best life-saving and health features that Apple has to offer. There are countless stories of fall detection and emergency SOS helping real people out of real life-or-death situations. Plus, features like irregular heart rate notifications and alerts when your heart rate is too low or too high have immense health benefits to users, especially users who already have heart conditions.

You've seen that all before, just like you've seen the same accelerometer and gyroscope that makes activity tracking so darn efficient and useful. Still, the Apple Watch SE also includes an always-on altimeter, tracking your elevation all-day long. Hikers, cyclists, and other fitness junkies will love being able to get better elevation data as they make their treks into the wilderness.

Of course, there are a few final compromises to wrap your head around. The Apple Watch SE is missing the ability to use the ECG app (which has been around since the Series 4) and the new Blood Oxygen app. Plus, it also only comes in an aluminum finish — likely to keep the price solidly in the middle of the pack — so you can't take advantage of the more premium materials offered on the Apple Watch Series 6.

If you're a relatively healthy person and on the younger side of the age spectrum, these features likely won't matter to you too much. Being a 29-year-old, I only found myself using the ECG app on my Apple Watch Series 4 mostly as a novelty. Perhaps that's the ignorance that youth affords me talking, but it is the truth. Of course, the ECG app and Blood Oxygen app can be super useful tools to help you get a better snapshot of your overall health, and for the people that really want or need those features, the Apple Watch SE will fall short.

Lastly, it seems prudent to mention that the Apple Watch SE doesn't come Apple's U1 (Ultra Wideband) chip, but the Apple Watch Series 6 does. Right now, this pretty much means nothing, as the chip doesn't allow the Apple Watch Series 6 to do anything special that separates it from the Apple Watch SE; however, it could in the future. The U1 chip is rumored to be necessary to take advantage of the upcoming Bluetooth trackers from Apple, known as AirTags, but that's just a future "promise", and doesn't affect how the Apple Watch SE functions.

All in all, the Apple Watch SE is the best Apple Watch when it comes to value. The $279 starting price point makes it much easier for first-time buyers to get on board while getting about 95% of the features that the more expensive Apple Watch Series 6 has to offer. While the Apple Watch SE isn't a suitable upgrade for an Apple Watch Series 5 owner, it's a fantastic upgrade for those looking to upgrade from older Apple Watch models, and that's how I'll be approaching this review.

Apple Watch SE Review: The brain of the operation — watchOS 7

watchOS 7 Shortcuts Complications

watchOS 7 Shortcuts Complications (Image credit: Joseph Keller / iMore)

Apple Watch has always been an incredible piece of hardware, but it's also only as good as the software that powers it. The Apple Watch SE ships with the brand-new watchOS 7 and can take advantage of all of its main features right out of the box.

Sleep tracking is finally here, and the Apple Watch SE makes a perfect bed companion. If you can mentally get past wearing your watch to bed, the Sleep app will not only give you some basic sleep tracking abilities but focuses on getting you into a proper sleep schedule. With features like Wind Down, which will automatically put your iPhone and Apple Watch in Do Not Disturb mode for a set amount of time before your scheduled bedtime, allowing you to ignore those pesky notifications as you get ready to sleep.

On top of that, all the new watch faces and new features for complications make the Apple Watch SE just as customizable as an Apple Watch has ever been. The new Chronograph Pro, Typograph, Memoji, GMT, Count Up, Stripes, and Artist watch faces look stunning on the Apple Watch SE, but the big news in watchOS 7 is the updates to complications. Most importantly, apps can now offer multiple complications on a single watch face, and developers can create different versions of the same type of complication. As watchOS 7 — and future iterations — ages, and developers have time to make some cool complications, I think it's safe to say that the possibilities of customizing your watch face on the Apple Watch SE are just about endless.

Lastly, I have been delighted to see just how snappy and speedy watchOS 7 runs on the Apple Watch SE since it does sport the S5 processor that the Apple Watch Series 5 had, but not the new faster S6 processor that the Apple Watch Series 6 carries. Still, even comparing it to my Apple Watch Series 4, it's noticeable quicker to launch apps, scroll through menus, and generally use the Apple Watch SE. I don't think you'll miss much performance by going with Apple's slightly older processor — you'll just save money.

I won't dive into all the nitty-gritty details of watchOS 7, but I highly suggest reading Joe Keller's full watchOS 7 review. In short, I think the Apple Watch SE and watchOS 7 pair perfectly together to offer an Apple Watch experience that rivals the best we've seen in previous iterations.

Apple Watch SE Review: Design and watch bands

Apple Watch SE Digital Crown (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

There isn't really anything new in terms of design with the Apple Watch SE. it comes in the same 40mm and 44 mm case sizes that have been around since the Apple Watch Series 4. Plus, it's compatible with all the same Apple Watch bands as any previous model, and Apple did launch some fancy new bands for customers to get excited about.

The Solo Loop is the cheapest one, not raising the price when you buy the Apple Watch SE, while the new Solo Braided Loop costs a little more. These new bands need to be measured to fit your wrist correctly, and there have been some problems early on with the bands not fitting people properly, which is why I decided to stick with a classic Sport Loop.

The only real noticeable design differences on the Apple Watch SE is on the Digital Crown and the sensors on the bottom. As mentioned before, the Apple Watch SE doesn't have the ability to use the Blood Oxygen and ECG apps, meaning it lacks those sensors. All this means is the Digital Crown doesn't have the red circle on it that we've seen since the Apple Watch Series 4, and the bottom sensor array looks slightly different — not that anyone ever sees that while you're wearing it.

Finally, if you're a swimmer, like taking runs in the rain, or often get your Apple Watch wet, you don't have to worry about the Apple Watch SE. Apple didn't skimp on the water-resistant, and it's still rated swim-proof for a depth of 50 meters (164 feet).

Apple Watch SE Review: Let's talk about health and fitness

Apple Watch SE Workout (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

Likely one of the main reasons anyone buys an Apple Watch is for fitness tracking, and the Apple Watch SE does everything you would expect. You can track so many different workouts through the Workout app. Running, cycling, yoga, tennis, strength training, HIIT, hiking, swimming, and too many more to name — all available on Apple Watch SE. Plus, automatic detection for workouts is still on board, meaning if you forget to start the Outdoor Walk workout on your morning stroll, your Apple Watch SE will only take a couple of minutes to detect your walking and prompt you to start the workout if you want.

Every iteration of watchOS seems to bring more and more workouts to the Workout app, allowing you a ton of ways to close your activity rings — a pastime that has become a (healthy) obsession for many folks. Even I'll admit, the new Fitness app widget you can throw on your iOS 14 Home screen makes an excellent motivational tool.

Pretty much all the other good health and fitness features you've come to know and love are included with the Apple Watch SE. When you're in an environment that's too loud, the Noise app will tell you. If you take a nasty fall, the Apple Watch SE will ask if you are okay or you need assistance, and if it detects that you're not moving, it will call emergency services for you. Plus, it monitors your heart rate continuously, so if your heart rate is too high or too low, your Apple Watch SE will tell you.

As mentioned before, you don't have access to the ECG app or Blood Oxygen apps offered on the Apple Watch Series 6, but that's all it's missing in terms of health and fitness features. Most people will be happy that the Apple Watch SE has their favorite workouts and life-saving features included that you can't get on the Apple Watch Series 3.

Apple Watch SE Review: Don't worry; it's still a smartwatch

Apple Watch Se Watch Faces (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

It's no secret that Apple Watch has long been a health and fitness device, even more so than it is a smartwatch, but you can relax, the Apple Watch SE is a perfect companion to any iPhone. It offers the same excellent smartwatch features we all know and love that have made the Apple Watch the best and most versatile smartwatch on the market for years.

When it comes to integrating into your daily life, the Apple Watch SE doesn't miss a beat. New message? Check your wrist. Music controls? Check your wrist. Apple Pay? Tap your wrist. It's just as easy to use your Apple Watch SE to fit into your work life and daily life as it has ever been. As always, the app selection for the Apple Watch SE is top-notch, with thousands of apps available through the App Store. Games, social media, productivity, any genre of app you can imagine exists on the Apple Watch. Those apps can be as active or inactive as you want; if you prefer keeping the haptic feedback notifications on your wrist to a minimum, you can.

You can get an LTE version of the Apple Watch SE as well, meaning if you want to stream music, make calls, or otherwise not have to rely on your iPhone's data connection, you have that option. Plus, the Apple Watch SE has the same storage capacity as the Apple Watch Series 6 — 32GB — meaning you have more room than the Apple Watch Series 3 to load up with music, podcasts, apps, and more.

Apple Watch SE Review: Charge up that battery

Every year, I secretly hope Apple will announce an Apple Watch with a significantly upgraded battery life, but the Apple Watch SE battery performs virtually the same as previous iterations.

Even though it lacks an always-on display, Apple still cites the Apple Watch SE as having an 18-hour battery life, but in practice, you're likely going to get more than that. On average, I'm getting anywhere from 24 to 34 hours of usage on a full charge — usually with at least one solid 30-minute workout that uses GPS. Your mileage may vary depending on how you use your Apple Watch, and if you intend on using the Sleep tracking feature in watchOS 7, you'll need a charging routine.

I've been using the sleep tracking features of the Apple Watch SE every night since I got it, meaning I haven't been able to charge my Apple Watch SE overnight like I used to. Instead, I found the perfect little sliver of time in the morning to charge my Apple Watch SE, which doesn't require me to miss having my Apple Watch for any activity I do throughout the day. If you want to use the sleep tracking features, you'll need to find the perfect window of time that you can charge your Apple Watch SE in you schedule, as you'll need to charge the watch every single day.

Apple Watch SE Review: The Bottom Line

Apple Watch SE With iPhone Running Widgets (Image credit: Luke Filipowicz / iMore)

While the Apple Watch SE isn't anything drastically different than we are used to seeing from Apple, it does offer a unique price point that we haven't seen in the Apple Watch lineup, maybe ever. It seems like this is the first time we've had the luxury of three options to choose from when it comes to the Apple Watch. With the Apple Watch Series 3 sticking around at a $199 base price, the Apple Watch SE starting at $279, and the premium Apple Watch Series 6 costing at least $399, its a great time to shop for an Apple Watch.

For me, the Apple Watch SE comes down to value, and I happen to think it has that in spades. When you compare it to the older Apple Watch Series 3, it blows it out of the water, all the while only costing $80 more. In contrast, when you compare the Apple Watch SE to its big brother — the Apple Watch Series 6 — it manages to stand only slightly below its sibling. Yet, it costs an entire $120 less — that's value anyway you look at it.

The critical thing to keep in mind is the Apple Watch SE isn't aimed at Apple Watch Series 5 owners. Hell, it's probably not even aimed at people who have an Apple Watch Series 4, but rather its aimed at first-time buyers and, more importantly, the upgraders.

If you have an Apple Watch Series 1, Series 2, or Series 3 and are considering upgrading, the Apple Watch SE is the clear winner for most people. Sure, it doesn't have an always-on display, and you can't use the ECG and Blood Oxygen apps, but that won't matter to you if you're upgrading from an Apple Watch Series 2 that doesn't have those features anyway. You don't miss what you never had; that's the play for the Apple Watch SE — and it's a damn good one.

Luke Filipowicz
Staff Writer

Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way. 

Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.