Apple Watch SE review: a great buy with few compromises

It’s not the best Apple Watch, but it's the most easily recommendable
Apple Watch SE
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The Apple Watch SE offers all the company's core smartwatch features for less money, with few compromises.

It's the first deviation from the standard path of Apple smartwatches we’ve seen since the launch in 2014.

It falls outside the simple Series 1-6 generations we’ve seen so far. Of course there's still the Apple Watch Series 6, and the Apple Watch Series 3 remains. This means there are officially now three Apple Watch models to choose between.

But don’t call it the ‘cheap Apple Watch,’ as it was widely touted before launch.

While the Apple Watch SE does undercut the fully-fledged Series 6, it’s still a fairly costly £269.99 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 £379.99 Series 6.

And at just £70 more than the Series 3, for us it’s a no-brainer given the design improvements and significant increase in features.

Design

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

Where the Apple Watch SE differs from the Series 6 (and Series 5) is in what you don’t get.

There’s no ECG or SpO2 sensor, so if you’re looking to max out on health data then the Watch SE comes up short.

But it’s still an excellent fitness watch.

For starters there are the three activity rings – calories, exercise minutes and standing time – which are a powerful fitness motivator. And if that wasn’t enough, you can do battle with friends in weekly challenges.

There’s GPS built in, which locks on automatically when you start an activity, and the Workout app keeps growing in every update of watchOS. It tracks most running and cycling disciplines plus swimming, and now includes tennis, yoga, functional strength training and more.

It’s become a powerful app in its own right, and will push data out to Strava if you want. However, for running we’re still fans of the Strava dedicated app from the Apple Watch App Store.

Apple Watch SE showing resting heart rate

There’s still a heart rate monitor, of course, and that provides plenty of health data. It analyses your workouts, as well as keeping tabs 24/7. It populates resting heart rate data on the Watch and in the Apple Heath app, which is an important statistic to monitor.

You also get high/low heart rate alerts, which have proven to be a life saver.

And the Apple Watch SE also brings some other possible lifesaving features.

Fall Detection comes from Series 5, thanks to the advanced accelerometer that was introduced. If you take a fall and don’t get back up, the Apple Watch will call emergency services for you.

And there’s also the Noise Notifications, that will warn you if your environment could damage your hearing.

And although it's not a life-saver, the always-on altimeter makes it from the Series 6, so you can see live ascend/descent when out running or hiking.

The Apple Watch is an excellent all-rounder for health and fitness. If you're a marathon runner, or really pushing your body in training, then short battery life and a lack of top-tier sports science metrics would mean you're better served by Garmin or Polar. But for most people, the Apple Watch SE offers a motivating and reliable experience that comes recommended.

Sleep tracking

Apple Watch SE sleep tracking

Sleep tracking was recently introduced for the first time via watchOS 7, so naturally that makes an appearance here.

It’s nowhere near as detailed or data heavy as you’ll find on Fitbit or other rivals. But there is enough to improve your sleep.

Apple’s sleep tracking will offer a summary of how long you slept, showing dark and light periods for any time you woke up in the night.

However, there's a bigger focus on consistency, time in bed and time asleep.

Consistency is crucial for for improving sleep, and the Bedtime feature on iPhone goes hand-in-hand with the Apple Watch's tracking. That puts your iPhone and Apple Watch into a do not disturb state before bed, reminding you that it’s time to hit the hay.

And in the Apple Health analysis, it shows your preferred bedtime as a baseline against the time you actually fell asleep.

Apple Watch SE review: the people’s smartwatch

You can also set a wake-up alarm, 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 use your sleep cycle to wake you gently. But the benefit of those features is debatable, while the Apple Watch again strips things back to be simple and essential.

It does enough to be useful, but if you’re used to the level of data on sleep cycles, stages and scores elsewhere, it does feel lightweight.

Of course, the Apple Watch again manages to swerve these kinds of criticisms because its App Store is loaded with sleep trackers that provide all that level of detail, should you want it.

Smartwatch features

Apple Watch SE showing a notification

It’s easy to get carried away with the Apple Watch’s fitness, sports and health features – and forget that it’s a great wrist companion.

And it’s that versatility that makes it the best smartwatch out there.

Personally, I’m not big on getting lots of wrist notifications so it’s easy to get those down to the core essentials.

Likewise, I keep the number of apps down too. But the Apple Watch App Store selection is unrivalled. Essentially, the Apple Watch can be as active or passive on your wrist as you need it to be, and that’s one of its greatest strengths.

Of course, you get Apple Pay on the wrist. And there are LTE options for the Apple Watch SE, if you want a data connection for the streaming of music and podcasts, receiving calls away from your iPhone and all that jazz.

Battery life

Apple Watch SE battery life

There’s no real change in terms of battery life on the Apple Watch SE, and despite the lack of always-on display, you’ll still get around 18 hours, according to Apple.

This has always been the major complaint about the Apple Watch, and for those that need more, you now have the likes of Fitbit, Garmin and Huawei offering that.

However, in our testing we got more than 18 hours. We’d comfortably get more than 24 hours, settling into a rhythm of 36 hour cycles. And that included around 30-60 mins of GPS tracked exercise.

We’ve never had a huge problem with Apple’s single day battery life, thanks to easy nightly charging – but sleep tracking creates a problem.

That’s because there’s now not a natural point in the day to charge.

You now need to ensure you’re grabbing time on the charger either as soon as you wake up (our preferred time) or before you head to bed. It’s a bit annoying and, unlike before, charging requires active thought.

The good news is that charging is quick. The Series 6 has had charging time slashed to 1.5 hours, and the Apple Watch SE isn’t far off that either.

Battery life is still the key reason for iPhone users to look at Apple Watch alternatives and we felt the pressure even more with sleep tracking.



Apple Watch SE
By Apple
It’s not the best Apple Watch, but it's the most easily recommendable. The Apple Watch SE is anything but a ‘cheap Apple Watch.’ It brings the brilliant core experience that most people want, for less. It frees the Series 6 to become a more aggressive health watch, while enabling more people to enjoy the excellent fitness and sport tracking features, apps, smarts and Apple Pay.

Hit
  • Top design
  • All the essential features
  • Competitive price
Miss
  • Battery life
  • Missing ECG and SpO2
  • No always-on screen