Like the iPhone SE, the Apple Watch SE is the affordable yet featured-filled Apple Watch. Though there are some compromises, it still delivers an experience true to what is expected from an Apple Watch, and is sort of a mishmash between the 4, 5 and 6 pulling in different features from each.
After two weeks with it, this isn’t just a terrific entry-point for a first smartwatch, but it’s filled to the brim with features. But bluntly: If you don’t need an electrical heart-rate sensor, blood oxygen monitoring and an always-on display, the Watch SE is the clear choice when it comes to Apple Watches. Here’s why.
Classic Apple Watch design with a standard display
The SE doesn’t stray much from the classic Apple Watch design.
The Apple Watch SE keeps the 30% larger display that first debuted on the Series 4. With SE, the bezels (or edges) around the display are slim, so not even the 40mm feels nearly as cramped as we thought it could.
You still get the Digital Crown with haptics and an action button on the right side. The haptics in the crown give you feedback when adjusting volume, scrolling through a message and naturally using the interfaces. The Apple Watch SE still retains WR50 resistance of up to 50 meters in water. That means you can wear it in the shower, wash your hands and even go swimming.
On the rear of the Watch SE is where things get a little different. Notably, the SE features a second-generation optical heart rate sensor. It’s not electrical, which means no ECG (electrocardiogram) support and no blood oxygen sensors. No super advanced health features here, but the SE can still monitor your heart rate in realtime and still deliver alerts. The core heart rate sensor on the SE is the same optical sensor found on the Series 6.
Alongside this core sensor, the SE features an accelerometer, a gyroscope for fall detection, the always-on altimeter, a compass, GPS and an ambient light sensor. The always-on altimeter just premiered on the Series 6, we’re pretty stoked it’s found on the SE. This will be handy for hiking and monitoring elevation.
The biggest change for us with the Apple Watch SE was the removal of the always-on display track. It makes sense as Apple needs to add in some compromises to get the price down. You’ll need to raise your wrist to wake the screen or tap it to engage with it. A small price to pay to, well, pay less.
The tech for the display is pretty much on-par with Series 6 as well. On the 40 and 44mm SEs, it’s protected by a layer of Ion-X glass and features a low-temperature poly-silicon and oxide OLED Retina display. Both sizes can reach a maximum of 1,000 nit brightness. It’s a 324X394 resolution on 40mm and 368X448 resolution on 44mm. To our eyes, it’s a vibrant smartwatch display that delivers no noticeable pixelation around text or any images.
Smooth performance and plenty of features
The Apple Watch SE boasts the Apple-made S5 processor — the same one inside the Series 5.
Put simply: That means that the SE delivers big value. It’s running watchOS 7 out of the box and set up was pretty quick. Once connected with an iPhone, either for personal setup or Family Setup, we were able to run through options and get apps copied over as a fresh install within 10 minutes. Going from a backup from a Series 5 or Series 6 took only about five minutes longer. Keep in mind, this is also dependent on a solid internet connection to pull data from the cloud.
Once set up, you can easily swipe left and right to find the watch face of your dreams. Long-pressing on a singular watch face brings you into the customization zone. Here you can adjust colors, type fonts and even the complications on the display. The latter are like mini-apps for your homescreen. We chose the current temperature from Dark Sky, our activity rings, calendar and easy access to heart rate. There are plenty of third-party apps that offer complications as well.
Our favorite new feature is real-time translations via Apple’s virtual assistant. It’s quite handy to get a quick translation right from your wrist and without opening a dedicated app. Most impressively, it shows how capable the S5 chip inside really is.
Apple Pay works just as well — and as quickly — as with the Series 5 and Series 6. And, thanks to watchOS 7, the Apple Watch SE can track handwashing just the same as the Watch 6. The microphones specifically listen for water from a faucet, hand motions and even the sound of soap being pumped from a bottle. And when it detects you’re washing your hands, you’ll see a countdown appear on your wrist. Once the 20-seconds is up, you’ll feel a vibration and hear a short jingle. You can also choose to receive a reminder once you’re back home to wash your hands. This taps into the GPS built inside and some improvements to Apple Maps.
Sleep tracking is on board as well, and allows you to set a goal for the number of hours, and tracks whether or not you’re hitting that goal. You won’t find data about different cycles like you might on a Fitbit, but it’s the same sleep tracking experience as on the Series 6 or any other Apple Watch that supports the feature. It just won’t track your blood oxygen periodically overnight.
Like previous Apple Watch models, it’s a lithium-ion battery cell inside and supports around 18 hours. For us that meant about a day and a half, including sleep tracking. The SE supports wireless charging with dead to 80% in about an hour and a half. Charging up to 100% is a bit longer at two and a half hours.
The fitness aspects on the SE are essentially the same experience you’ve had on every other Apple Watch with move and exercise goals you can track.
You can also use the Workout app to pick from a plethora of exercises — indoor or outdoor cycling, functional strength training, barre, dance, running, jogging, surfing and countless others — that the Apple Watch SE will accurately track through an array of sensors. We didn’t notice any slow downs or tracking differences between the SE and Series 6. Both were able to get an accurate number of calories burned, minutes exercised and heart rate tracked throughout.
The biggest thing we missed was the always-on display during activity. You can’t just glance down at your wrist while in a stretch to see the time. And we missed seeing the minutes worked out, calories burned and our heart rate. The solution? Raise your wrist or tap the screen. Some activities make this easier said than done, though.
The Apple Watch SE delivers a tremendous amount of value with minimal compromises — as any Apple SE product should.
If you can look past no electrical heart-rate sensor, blood oxygen monitoring and an always-on display it’s the clear choice when it comes to Apple Watches. And even if you opt for a cellular enabled variant, you’re still saving some dough.