Apple Watch SE preview: Basically a $400 smartwatch for $250

If you don’t need ovulation tracking or an always-on display, the new Watch SE is a steal.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Apple Watches are starting to look mostly the same. The new Series 8 and Watch SE look so much like last year’s Series 7 that I struggle to tell them apart. But in fact the new models Apple unveiled last week bring some less obvious changes. The most notable of these is a new temperature sensor that’s currently being used for ovulation tracking, as well as an onboard high-g accelerometer that allows for crash detection.

The company also unveiled the Watch Ultra, which was designed specifically for outdoor adventurers. The Ultra may be the most exciting smartwatch of the three, but what the new Watch SE offers for the money makes it the more interesting device in my book. Plus, Apple shaved $30 off its price, so the SE now costs $250 even though it’s basically the same as the $400 Series 8. Honestly, this feels like the smartwatch most iOS users should consider.

In the week I’ve had the Watch SE, I’ve been wearing it alongside either my Series 7 or the Series 8, which I’m also testing. Size aside, I haven’t noticed much of a difference between the three models. The Series 8 is available with 41mm or 45mm cases; I’m using the latter. It’s a little too big for my wrist, but I do like how much easier it is to see things on that roomier screen. Meanwhile, the new SE comes in 40mm or 44mm options; I have the smaller version, which I prefer especially since it’s more comfortable to wear to bed.

The main features you’ll miss if you opt for an SE instead of a Series 8 is the Always On Display (AOD), ECG reader, blood oxygen app and the new skin temperature sensor. Like the older SE, this year’s model also charges at a slower rate than the Series 7 and 8, and doesn’t have a U1 chip for ultra wideband. It also lacks the IP6X dust resistance rating of its more premium counterparts, so if you’re likely to take this Tough Mudding or to the beach, it might be worth considering a more expensive model. Those who hate chunky bezels will also find the SE’s thicker borders off-putting, but without a side-by-side comparison I didn’t notice a big difference.

Otherwise, this year’s Watch SE actually packs the same system-in-a-package (SiP) processor as the $400 Series 8, as well as a high-g accelerometer that makes crash detection possible. In my time with it, the SE has, unsurprisingly, been just as responsive as the Series 8, starting workouts and completing heart rate scans in the same amount of time. It did tend to be slower at detecting outdoor walking workouts, but when I agreed to record a workout it usually showed the same ongoing duration as the more premium watch. It was also typically faster at recognizing when I’d stopped walking than my Series 7.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist held up in front of a red building and a tree.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

As for the other missing features, frankly, I haven’t really used the ECG and blood oxygen readings on the Series 7 I’ve worn for a year. I’ve performed maybe three scans of each type in that time, and I definitely rely more on heart rate than blood oxygen to gauge my fitness.

I only noticed the AOD was missing from the SE when I was wearing both the SE and the Series 7, and they each buzzed with an alert. I had to wait a split second for the SE’s screen to wake, whereas the notification was ready for immediate viewing on the Series 7. Aside from that, though, the AOD didn’t greatly impact my experience with the SE.

It didn’t even affect the battery life, for better or worse. You’d think that not having an always-on display would make the SE last longer, but most days the SE and my Series 7 lasted the same amount of time, despite the latter having an AOD. Both of them hung around all day, tracking my morning workouts and frequent outdoor walks while serving up various reminders and alerts. I could usually make it to the next morning with some battery leftover, too.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist held up in front of a colorful row of kettlebells.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I’ve yet to test the new low power mode on the Watch SE, but I did try it on the Series 8 when I only had about 20 percent of juice one morning ahead of an 8am workout class. I activated low power mode and was able to track the entire 45-minute session and get back home with less than 10 percent left.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the Watch SE still had 92 percent of battery after tracking my sleep overnight. I woke up to a report showing all the zones I’d undergone in my five hours of sleep, detailing the amount of time I had spent in core, deep and REM. This is a watchOS 9 feature, so if you have an older model you’ll get it when you update your software.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist, showing the Activity app and rings.
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Compared to the last Watch SE, this year’s model features a larger screen and the new SiP and sensors that I mentioned earlier. If you’re considering upgrading from that model, the new SE will certainly feel fresh. If you’re choosing between a new SE and a Series 8, though, it’s less a question of what you can live without and more of how much spare cash you have. Those who don’t mind spending $150 more can buy the Series 8 for the assurance of having every feature Apple offers. Otherwise, most people will be satisfied with what the new Watch SE delivers for the money.

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