Apple Watch SE Review

Fewer perks, but a better value than the Series 6

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4.3

Apple Watch SE

Apple Watch SE

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

What We Like
  • More affordable than Series 6

  • Fast and responsive

  • Stellar fitness tracking

  • OK battery life

What We Don't Like
  • No always-on display

  • No ECG or blood oxygen sensors

  • Fewer style options

  • No third-party faces

If you don’t think you’ll miss the omitted health sensors, then the Apple Watch SE is a sensible alternative to the pricier Apple Watch Series 6.

4.3

Apple Watch SE

Apple Watch SE

 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

We purchased the Apple Watch SE so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.

Just like the iPhone, the Apple Watch has become a reliably annualized device, with a new and upgraded version releasing every year to replace the previous edition. The new model always carries a premium price tag, so usually Apple keeps an older version around at a lower price. But Apple did something a bit different for 2020.

Alongside the new Apple Watch Series 6 comes the also-new Apple Watch SE, a more affordable model that acts as a hybrid of features from previous editions. It has the processor of the Series 5, but not the always-on display or health sensors of the Series 6—but it costs $120 less than the current top model. All told, the Apple Watch SE is still a capable smartwatch for those who can live with the omissions, but if you’re considering an Apple Watch, which version is really worth your cash?

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Design and Display: One big change

The Apple Watch SE has the exact same dimensions and design as both the Series 6 and Series 5 before it, with the familiar, mini-iPhone-esque rounded rectangular shape. Whether you opt for the 40mm or 44mm (tested) version, the crisp and compact touchscreen is really the star of the Apple Watch experience, providing a colorful and responsive canvas for watch faces, apps, health and fitness tracking, and more.

The one notable downside is that the Apple Watch SE does not have the always-on display of the Series 5 and 6, which means the screen remains blank when your wrist isn’t raised. Not only is the always-on screen handy for catching a glimpse at the time without waiting a beat for the screen to flicker back to life, but it also helps better sell the idea that it’s a proper timepiece rather than a modern, digital approximation. Still, the first few Apple Watch models didn’t have an always-on screen, and they were still capable, compelling devices.

The Apple Watch SE does not have the always-on display of the Series 5 and 6, which means the screen remains blank when your wrist isn’t raised.

Apple offers significantly fewer style options for the Apple Watch SE: just the core Silver, Space Gray, and Gold color options in aluminum. The Series 6 has bold new blue and (Product)RED aluminum colors, along with pricier stainless steel and titanium options, but those are exclusive to the top-line watch.

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Still, at least you have the ability to customize the Apple Watch SE with all of the same bands that you can use with any other Apple Watch stretching all the way back to the original, whether you opt for one of Apple’s many official options or a third-party alternative. There are rubber, leather, fabric, and stainless steel options out there, and I’ve personally grown to prefer Apple’s svelte Velcro Sport Loop over the slightly chunkier, ubiquitous rubber Sport Band.

Functionally, the Apple Watch SE has the same physical controls as the Series 6, with the rotating Digital Crown on the right side above a single button. The Crown is great for scrolling through menus and text, as well as flitting through long lists of options—such as when customizing a watch face with “complications,” or widgets—while the button provides easy access to your current open apps.

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Setup Process: Use your iPhone

You’ll need your iPhone to set up the Apple Watch, but it’s a pretty effortless process. Simply hold the button on the right side of the Watch to power it on and then hold it near your iPhone running iOS 14. Your iPhone should recognize the nearby Watch, and then you will use the phone’s camera to scan a unique pixel flurry design on the Watch screen to pair the devices. From there, you’ll choose whether to restore from a previous Watch backup or start fresh, as well as log in with your Apple ID and create a Watch passcode. You’ll pick from a few simple setup options along the way, too, but otherwise, it should only take a few minutes.

The Apple Watch has gradually become a more robust and useful wearable device in time, and the SE model still provides the vast majority of that experience at the lower entry price.

Performance: Up to the task

 In everyday usage, I found the Apple Watch SE to be smoothly responsive thanks to its dual-core Apple S5 chip, i.e. the same one found in 2019’s Apple Watch Series 5. Apple says that the new S6 chip in the Series 6 is up to 20 percent faster, and put side-by-side, I noticed that apps did indeed load a beat or two faster on the Series 6. Luckily, the Apple Watch SE doesn’t feel slow on its own, even if it does lag behind the latest and greatest model.

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Battery: Depends on how you use it

 Without the always-on display, the Apple Watch SE has a more resilient battery that can potentially last for two full days, barring heavy GPS usage. Despite wearing the Watch all day for notifications, light fitness tracking, and health testing, plus keeping it on overnight for sleep tracking, I was able to get from morning on day one to bedtime on day two without having to top up on the magnetic charging pad.

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

That’s similar to the performance I recorded with the Apple Watch Series 4 without the sleep tracking, but the Series 6 doesn’t last quite as long. That’s the trade-off of the always-on screen. And if you’re doing any heavy-duty fitness tracking with the GPS, then you’ll probably need to stick to a daily charging routine to ensure that the SE is always ready to go.

Software and Key Features: Almost the full package

The Apple Watch SE does nearly everything that the Series 6 can, but there are a couple of notable feature omissions. Both are related to specialized health sensors that respectively perform electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood oxygen tests. Both help make the Series 6 an excellent consumer health wearable, but their omission is surely a big reason why the Apple Watch SE costs 30 percent less than the Series 6.

The Apple Watch SE doesn’t feel slow on its own, even if it does lag behind the latest and greatest model.

Even without them, the Apple Watch SE is still a strong health and fitness device that can capably track activities like running, biking, and swimming (it’s waterproof), and encourages small, positive changes and added bits of movement with its enduringly clever Activity rings. These rings provide an at-a-glance look at your movement, exercise, and how often you’ve gotten up from your seat during the day. They’re social, too, as you can connect with friends and family to help encourage each other to close your rings.

And although the Apple Watch SE sheds those aforementioned health sensors, it still reads your heart rate automatically through a sensor pressed against your wrist and will alert you if you have an especially high, low, or irregular heart rate. 

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

It also does little things during the day like prompt you to stand once an hour, to do a breathing exercise, or to wash your hands. You can shut off all of those things if they become overwhelming, but some users may appreciate them. Sleep tracking is also available, as introduced in the recent watchOS 7 update, providing an overview of your resting habits as you wear the device overnight. It might force you to find another window for charging the Apple Watch SE, however.

Outside of fitness needs, the Apple Watch has many other everyday uses and benefits. You can use it to read notifications, thus saving you the chore of reaching into your pocket or bag for your iPhone, and even reply to messages and emails. You can take calls on your wrist, listen to music and podcasts via Bluetooth headphones (like Apple’s AirPods), and get handy walking directions including a haptic pulse against your wrist when it’s time to turn.

Some may want to pay extra for those Series 6 benefits, but for everyone else, the Apple Watch SE is a much more sensible option.

The Apple Watch has gradually become a more robust and useful wearable device in time, and the SE model still provides the vast majority of that experience at the lower entry price.

Price: Serious savings

At $279 for the 40mm Wi-Fi model and $309 for 44mm, with 4G LTE-equipped models starting at $329, the Apple Watch SE is a fair bit more affordable than the $399+ Series 6. The “Apple Tax” on gadgets is well-established and fans know what to expect, but the Apple Watch SE offers a compromise that puts it more in line with rival smartwatches while only losing a few perks in the process.

Apple Watch SE
 Lifewire / Andrew Hayward

Apple Watch SE vs. Apple Watch Series 6

 Trying to decide whether to go with the Apple Watch SE over the Apple Watch Series 6? If so, then you’ll need to make a few compromises. You’ll lose the electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood oxygen sensors noted above, along with the always-on display, and there are fewer style options available for the Apple Watch SE. That’s basically it, however—so if the health tests aren’t a big selling point for you, then you can potentially save some cash by sacrificing the always-on display. Considering the price difference, that may be an easy decision for some iPhone users.

Want to take a look at some other options? See our guide to the best smartwatches.

Final Verdict

A sensible value without breaking the bank.

 While it’s true that the Apple Watch Series 6 is the fastest and most capable version with a wider array of style options, the Apple Watch SE is a smart alternative for those who can’t stomach spending $399+ on a wearable gadget. It still does nearly all the same stuff for $120 less, with the always-on display and a pair of health sensors being the most notable omissions. Some may want to pay extra for those Series 6 benefits, but for everyone else, the Apple Watch SE is a much more sensible option.

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Specs

  • Product Name Watch SE
  • Product Brand Apple
  • UPC 190199763036
  • Price $279
  • Release Date September 2020
  • Product Dimensions 1.5 x 1.73 x 0.41 in.
  • Color Blue, red, stainless steel, titanium
  • Price $279 (Base 40mm), $309 (44mm), $329 (Cellular)
  • Warranty 1 year
  • Platform watchOS 7
  • Processor Apple S5
  • RAM 1GB
  • Storage 32GB
  • Waterproof 50m under ISO 22810:2010