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Apple Watch SE review

The Apple Watch SE might not have all the features available in the newer models, but this is a great Apple Watch for most

Apple Watch SE models in orange and pink
(Image: © Apple)

Live Science Verdict

If you’re looking for a larger-screen Apple Watch without breaking the bank, this could be it. The lack of always-on display irks, but overall it’s a great balance of price and features

Pros

  • +

    Cheaper than Watch 7

  • +

    Great user interface

Cons

  • -

    No always-on display

  • -

    Uses older, slower processor

It’s just over 18 months since the Apple Watch SE launched and while it was a winner then, the presence of the Apple Watch 7 (opens in new tab), with the larger screen, has made it less attractive as a device.

However, it is still the best Apple Watch for “most people”. What that means is – when you ask what you want in a Watch from Apple, is it just a device that sits on your wrist as a companion for your iPhone? If so, then you should check out the Watch SE, especially if you can get a deal on it.

Launched in September 2020 as the “affordable” version of the Watch 6 (opens in new tab), the Watch SE cost £269/ $279 for the 40mm version … and it's not come down much in price since then. 

Specs

Software: watchOS 8
Compatibility: Apple only
Battery life: 24 hours mixed use
Memory: 32GB
Display and size: 40 / 44mm
GPS: Yes
Water resistance: Yes, 50M
Heart rate: Yes
Sleep tracker: Yes
Step count: Yes
Music: Yes

In that time, the Watch 7 has emerged at the same £419/$399 price as the Watch 6 but with a larger, easier-to-read screen. So, given the most expensive Apple Watch is more feature-rich, we’d expect the Watch SE to be cheaper to show the gulf in performance. Thankfully, we are seeing good deals emerge for the SE – and it’s becoming a more attractive buy.

That said, the Watch SE is still a tremendous device for those who want a good fitness tracker (opens in new tab), a motivating health device and a smart digital companion to the iPhone – the notifications are rich and the range of watch faces is useful and continually growing.

There are small touches that a spec list can't show you: like the Taptic Engine that will tap away at your wrist to give you a notification, and which is far nicer than the heavy buzz many smartwatches offer.

The Breathe and Relax features in the Meditation app – which appeared with the new watchOS 8 software – are a genuine draw, so if you're not sure you'll get the maximum benefit from all the health-monitoring features of the new Watch 7, the Apple Watch SE is a top choice if you don't mind flicking your wrist to just see the time.

It might not rank as the best running watch (opens in new tab), but it's still a decent little tracker for anyone with an iPhone.

Close-up of Apple Watch SE face

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch SE: Design and display

  • Easy-to-read display
  • Nice haptic feedback
  • No always-on display

When it comes to the design of the Apple Watch SE, it's very familiar. You've probably seen an Apple Watch at some point over the years if you're reading this review, and you're getting the same curved glass covering a vibrant OLED screen.

The buttons on the right are the Digital Crown, used to scroll through menus and confirm choices, and the Side Button, which allows you to pay for things with Apple Pay and see your recently used apps. 

Both are easy to hit and more useful than they used to be: the Digital Crown, for instance, packs haptic feedback so you can feel the items scrolling past when you're browsing a menu.

The Watch SE comes in 40mm and 44mm screen sizes, depending on the size of your wrist, though unlike the Apple Watch 5 onwards there's no always-on display here. 

That may not sound like much (and does help improve the battery life) but it means if you want to know the time, it's an exaggerated raise and flick of the wrist just to find out how late you are for an important meeting.

However, the screen is bright and easy to read – it lacks the peak brightness of the Watch 7 but we've never had an issue with reading the Watch outdoors.

Apple Watch SE family setup

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch SE: Set up and usability

  • Simple set up
  • Great range of watch faces
  • Not as fast as newer Watches

The Watch SE sticks to Apple's mantra of “It Just Works”: from the set up (where you scan a digital image from your Watch with your phone or bring it close to an iPhone to begin pairing) to the first flicks you encounter, everything is clearly signposted and intuitive.

Some people may not like the sprawling spread of apps in grid view – it's easily changed to a list view – but most will delight in the many watch faces on offer.

Fancy a watch face that makes it all about your fitness and heart rate? Simply done. Want to see the battery life? That's an option. Care about the solar cycles or how bright your part of the world is right now? All there for you.

If you're scrolling through the Watch SE, you can either do so with the Digital Crown or the speedy and responsive touchscreen. 

As the Watch SE is based on the older S5 chipset from Apple, it lacks the zip of the Watch 6 or Watch 7, but still performs well under the finger.

Apple Watch SE: Features and performance

Apple Watch SE faces

(Image credit: Apple)
  • Great all-round fitness tracker
  • Sub-par battery life
  • Can be used to unlock iPhone when wearing mask

The Apple Watch SE might look like it's feature-poor from the outset – it lacks the ECG or SPO2 sensor that the Watch 5 and Watch 6 brought, and are still present on the Watch 7. 

However, we've found these to be redundant features. Sure, they're helpful if you've got a condition where monitoring your heart rhythm or blood oxygen is relevant, but for most they'll be played with once or twice and dropped.

Yet it's under this high-level health monitoring that the Watch SE shines, as it's just a good smartwatch, balancing well between useful features that enhance your day and not overfilling things with too much choice.

For instance, the Watch SE tracks sleep and heart-rate variance, but not stress levels. It'll track a wide range of sports, including dance, running, high-intensity interval training and more, but doesn't have options for tracking what happens when you jump out a plane, as top-end fitness-focused smartwatches do.

If you're hoping for a device that will let you take a call hands-free without needing to reach for your phone, the Watch SE can do that. It'll show your messages with a nice, rounded bubble, and let you send them back using your voice.

With 32GB of storage, you can fill it with your own music or subscribe to Apple's Music service, allowing you to download music to your wrist – and no longer have the need to take your phone with you to listen to tunes. And with competitors like Spotify now doing the same thing, the Watch SE is growing in prowess as a media companion.

That usefulness appears in elements like the music control, which pops up automatically if you start playing music on your phone. So often we’d be listening and then realise we have no hands to grab a phone and change tracks, but there's the option, right there on your wrist when you raise it next.

The Watch SE can help with the issue of not being able to unlock an iPhone with Face ID when wearing a mask. It will look for a connected Watch and skip the lock screen, as it knows you’re nearby. It’s a handy feature during the pandemic and one we used far more than we expected to.

We feel the Watch SE is feature-rich enough for most, though it's still not perfect. It's not as accurate in terms of GPS performance as a dedicated Garmin (have a read through our round-up of the best Garmin watches (opens in new tab), if you're looking for a top-end tracker) but it's darn close. In our test we found that it managed to be within a few hundredths of a mile over a longer course, but wasn't as bang on mile markers as we'd like.

The heart rate monitor is good enough for many, too, but it can struggle to track unless you move it further up the arm. If you're after a top-end fitness device, no model in the Watch range is going to be your friend. Instead, look to brands such as Garmin and Polar for proper fitness tracking.

Apple Watch ring system

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple uses a system of rings to show you how active you’re being each day. These rings ‘close’ when you hit your daily exercise targets. Standing, moving or exercising will help close those rings so that they form complete circles – if you don’t hit your target, then the rings will have a gap in them.

Being encouraged to close your rings each day is motivating and the Watch SE will learn your daily rhythms and ping you when it thinks you need help remembering to work out. It has an inbuilt decibel-meter to remind you to watch out for your audio health, and it'll track your VO2 max and daily resting heart rate. We like wearing it to get these notifications and know we're on track.

One major issue for the Watch SE is the battery life. Apple's claim of 18 hours in normal use is pessimistic: we easily got 24 hours of use, even with some running and other movement and use throughout the day. It's capable of monitoring you without a hint of needing a charger through a 2-3 hour run, losing 9% battery over 90 mins when connected to your phone, so GPS isn’t needed on the wearable. 

But for generally lasting without needing to find a power top up – especially if you want to track sleep – it's too short. If you want to monitor your slumber, when are you supposed to charge it? The Watch SE takes more than two hours to charge, so it's hard to know when to do this.

Apple needs to start offering a Watch with three days of battery life at least. It's annoying that, even without an always-on display, the Watch SE doesn't offer satisfying battery life.

Should you buy the Apple Watch SE? 

If you just want an Apple Watch, and worry about the stuttering performance and age of the Watch 3, then we recommend the Watch SE as your best bet.

You will miss the always-on display, but for the overall Apple Watch experience you’re getting a great range of features here.

We would say that the lack of a price drop since launch is galling. We’d suggest keeping an eye out for a good deal to bring it down a touch in cost (and we’ve already seen a few sales that offer it).

You’ll get a lot out of the Watch SE, as long as you find a decent charging schedule.

If the Apple Watch SE isn’t for you…

Apple Watch Series 7

(Image credit: Lloyd Coombes)

Apple Watch 7 (opens in new tab)

The easy alternative offer, the Watch 7 is 50% more expensive, but you’re getting a newer, faster and larger-screen watch, without adding much heft to the wrist.

If you don’t care about the always-on display, or need the SPO2 or ECG sensor, then this may not be worth the upgrade – but it will stay with you for a long time.

Garmin Venu 2 Plus wristshot

(Image credit: Garmin)

Garmin Venu 2 (opens in new tab)

Among the best fitness watches, this is the one to go for if you want to spend the same but want things like an always-on display and demand more metrics from your device. The impressive display, combined with nearly three times the battery life, means that more serious runners or lifters should be checking this out.

Fitbit Versa 3 on person's wrist

(Image credit: Lloyd Coombes)

Fitbit Versa 3

A cheaper option, the new Fitbit Versa is more fitness tracker than smartwatch, but also comes with GPS tracking, as well as a wider range of body metrics. Plus, there are more ways to help you work out.

If you want to spend a little less add this to your list of possibles – and it will last a good three days with everything turned up to the max, too.

Gareth Beavis
Global Editor in Chief, TechRadar

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera.