Smartwatches have evolved since the first Apple Watch. Sort of. They still look largely the same, battery life is still an issue and, often, software is fairly limited. Yet, they’ve secured their place on many wrists by offering more fitness and health tracking tools over time. And, not surprisingly, Apple quickly became the top seller in the space. Today, most people know what to expect from a good wearable, and while they’ve become more popular, smartwatches still aren’t mainstream.
The Apple Watch SE might just change that. It’s the company’s first new smartwatch that costs under $300, and offers basically everything its more expensive stablemates do, minus advanced features like ECG and blood oxygen sensing. Its processor is a year older than the Series 6’s, and you won’t get an always-on display. At $279, it’s $80 more than the Series 3 that Apple is still selling. Yet, what the Watch SE offers for the price might appeal to iOS users who are smartwatch curious, but haven’t felt confident enough to drop $400 on one.
Design and hardware
I’ve never liked smartwatches with rectangular faces, but out of all of them, the Apple Watch has the nicest build. The SE looks nearly identical to the Series 5 and 6, so if you’re familiar with those you’ll know what to expect. Its display is larger than the Series 3, though, which you can still buy for $199. The SE is small, light and feels like a high-end machine neatly crammed into a dainty 40mm or 44mm case. I may have to live with a squarish watch, but at least this looks classy. Fitbit’s $329 Sense has a slightly squatter square case that’s a little heavier and doesn’t feel as dense or premium.
Shape aside, the Watch SE’s OLED Retina display is crisp, bright and colorful. App icons, Memojis and pictures my friends sent all looked tack sharp. While I still prefer Samsung’s spinning bezel for scrolling through apps, Apple’s digital crown has a lower profile and keeps the watch small and light.
It’s worth noting that the Watch SE uses the same Ion-X glass display as on the aluminum models of the Series 6 and older, not the sapphire crystal on the stainless steel and titanium editions. When an amber alert came through one evening, the prolonged vibration caused my Watch SE to fall off a table, cracking its screen. Other Apple Watch models have been pretty hardy, but it seems you might want to be a bit more careful with the Watch SE.
This year, Apple introduced a new band it’s calling the “Solo Loop.” It’s one continuous strap with no buckles, clasps or any other fasteners. You put it on the way you would a rubber band: Stretch it over your knuckles then push it onto your wrist. Because it doesn’t have different options for you to adjust the fit, the solo loop’s sizing is crucial. You’ll have to pick from nine sizes when you buy the watch, and Apple provides guides on how to use household objects to figure out what’s right for you.
I love this band. It’s incredibly easy to take off and you can even get it back on with just one hand. The strap that Apple chose for me fit comfortably, too. Though, people have reported having trouble with the fit, especially since the silicone bands seem a bit tighter than the woven options, so you’ll want to be careful when taking your measurements. There’s a chance you might have to deal with returning your watch strap after you buy it before eventually getting the right fit.
watchOS 7 and new features
If you’ve used an Apple Watch before, most of the SE’s features will be familiar. The knob is a handy way to scroll through notifications, apps and volume controls, and together with the button it offers several nifty shortcuts. Long pressing the digital crown triggers Siri, while pressing the button below shows the power menu. Double tapping that pulls up your default card on Apple Pay.
Navigating the interface is the same as before, too, and if you’ve already set up your favorite apps in the dock, they’ll carry over when you set up the new device. As an Android user who’s mostly lived with other smartwatches though, I found it jarring that a swipe right doesn’t bring me back a page. I also still prefer Samsung’s Tizen OS for its simpler navigation where my favorite widgets and apps are just a spin away. On Apple’s Watches I have to first pull up all apps or the dock, then find the one I want.
What’s new with the Watch SE are mostly updates from watchOS 7, like the new Fitness app, sleep tracking and automatic hand wash detection and countdown. There are also new shareable watch faces with support for multiple complications from the same app. Having the daily UV index and the weather at the same time on my home screen made it easy to tell when I could skip the sunscreen.
Tapping any of these complications pulls up the respective app, and it was easy to summon my activity rings to see how far I was from closing them. In watchOS 7, you can set individual targets for each of the three circles, as opposed to one overall goal. I spend so much of my day stuck at my desk that a Stand goal of getting up every hour for 10 hours is nearly impossible to achieve, so I tuned that down and bumped up my exercise target instead.
Apple also added four new workouts you can track with watchOS 7 -- dance, core training, functional strength training and cooldown. Dance and cooldown are intriguing additions but, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference in tracking these activities versus a generic “other exercise” session. Apple said it uses the watch’s sensors to figure out how your arms and legs are moving as you dance to predict body movement, then uses that data along with your heart rate in its algorithm to determine your calories burned. It’s nice to have theoretically more accurate information on your calorie expenditure, but at the end of the day, the report you’ll get looks very similar to what you get for other activities.
I don’t like wearing a watch to bed, but of all the smartwatches I’ve tested lately, the Apple Watch SE is the one I minded the least. Sadly, it also delivers the least insightful data. While Fitbit and Samsung use the heart rate monitor to figure out whether you’re in REM, light, deep or restorative sleep, Apple only takes into account accelerometer data. It does track your heart rate overnight but doesn’t use that to tell what sleep zone you’re in. The Watch SE also wasn’t as accurate at detecting when I fell asleep either. It assumed I had gone to bed at the time I had set in my Wind Down sleep schedule when in fact I only got in an hour later.
According to the Watch SE, I was restless right after I fell asleep, when really I was just awake and fidgeting. Then, when I woke up and snoozed my alarm a few times, none of those movements registered and Apple decided to take the time I finally stepped out of bed as when I woke up. This is the sort of unreliable tracking that plagued early Fitbits, but they’ve grown much better over the years. If accurate and insightful sleep tracking is important to you, the Apple Watch won’t be your best option.
Apple also introduced a Wind Down and Wake Up feature that helps you prepare for bed and your work day. I set my bedtime to 1am, and at midnight, the Watch SE went on Do Not Disturb and stopped bothering me, which was nice. But I continued to while away on my phone anyway, despite Do Not Disturb being enabled there too.
When my morning alarm went off, it was a gentle tune rather than a jarring cacophony, which was nice, but not much different from simply picking a better sound for my phone. These sounds were already available for iOS, anyway. What is better is that you can use the watch’s haptic engine for a vibration-based alarm on your wrist to rouse you without bothering others. Also, if you wake up and move in the 30 minutes before your set time, the Watch will ask if you want to turn off the alarm, which is a nice touch.
Another new watchOS 7 feature is hand-wash detection, which is particularly relevant during the pandemic. The Watch will automatically recognize, based on the way your hands are moving, if you’ve started to wash them. Then, it’ll turn on the microphone to listen for sounds of water and soap suds to confirm, and launch a 20-second timer to make sure you’re scrubbing for the recommended duration.
This is helpful when I’m getting my first wash in after returning home, but kind of annoying subsequently because I don’t always need to wash my hands for 20 whole seconds. Sometimes I just need to get some grease off my palm and ten seconds is enough. Thankfully, all you get if you stop washing before the time’s up is a gentle admonishment that you can skip, so it’s only a minor annoyance. The Watch SE was almost always able to detect when I’d started washing my hands, missing only one very quick session. But it also thought I was cleaning my hands when I was actually washing some grapes. Again, it was easy enough to just ignore the timer and go on with my day.
Performance and battery life
While most of the new watchOS 7 features are underwhelming, I’m pretty happy with everything else the Watch SE provides. Siri responds in an instant, and voice dictation is quick and accurate, even with a conversation playing on TV in the background. Since these voice-based tasks are processed on the watch, they’re understandably faster than before. The SE’s S5 chipset (or System-in-package, as Apple likes to call it) is the same as the one on the Series 5, so you’ll find similarly speedy performance. The Series 6, however, has a new S6 SiP that the company says is up to 20 percent faster than the S5.
Apple also does some things better than Samsung or Fitbit. When you get a message on your watch, you can reply with more options like your voice, a handwriting keyboard, emoji, suggested responses, Memoji stickers or a Digital Touch. Pictures that come in your notifications also appear and take up the whole screen, and the watch’s camera app acts as a remote viewfinder for your phone. Tizen offers versions of some of these features, either in limited form (pictures are only supported in text message alerts, for example) or via third-party apps, but Apple’s system feels snappier and more thoughtful.
The Watch SE is also more intuitive when it comes to guided breathing sessions. Instead of simply vibrating once to prompt you to start breathing the way Fitbit does, the Watch SE vibrates in a pattern that mimics a balloon stretching as it fills with air -- quicker at first, then slower as it approaches capacity. This is easier to follow with my eyes closed, which makes for a more relaxing experience overall.
I was also pleased at how quickly the Watch SE connected to GPS on my outdoor walks, and Apple Maps effectively guided me to a nearby bakery. Its new cycling directions thoughtfully include guidance on bike paths and the steepness of slopes along the route, too. I do wish it was more accurate at knowing when I’ve reached a street corner and need to know where to turn, but in general Maps on the watch worked fine. I also appreciate how the Watch SE’s always-on altimeter includes the changes in elevation on my workout reports when I’ve finished a walk, bike ride or hike.
There are other features like fall detection, emergency SOS as well as high or low heart rate notifications that fortunately didn’t come up during my review window, but they’re there if you need them. Later this year, too, you’ll get hearing health notifications that can warn you if you’ve spent too long blasting music on your headphones. In late 2020, Fitness+ will be available, and those who bought a Watch SE will get three months free access to the interactive on-demand platform. If you’re setting up the SE for someone else in your family, you’ll no longer need a separate iPhone for them to use the watch. The new Family Setup feature lets you configure their device from your phone and you can keep track of their metrics remotely, too.
That’s a feature you’ll miss if you choose to get the cheaper Series 3, since Family Setup requires a cellular Watch. Not only is the Series 3 not available with LTE, it also uses older sensors like the heart rate monitor and accelerometer, which means it won’t support features like fall detection either. Plus, the Series 3 uses a smaller display and a slower processor, so it won’t feel as roomy or responsive as the SE.
Apple estimates you’ll get about 18 hours of juice on the Watch SE, and that seems pretty accurate. Since there isn’t an always-on display, it’s not surprising that I got about a day and a half before needing to plug the device in. That battery life is similar to the Galaxy Watch 3, better than the Watch Active 2 and slightly shorter than the Fitbit Sense. Apple expects similar runtime from the Series 6, though, and that’s with an always on screen.
For $279, the Apple Watch SE packs more features you’d expect from a modern smartwatch than the competition. While the Fitbit Sense does offer a ton of health-tracking tools for $329, it’s not as good at being a smartwatch as the Watch SE. Though Apple’s sleep-tracking lags behind the likes of Fitbit and Samsung, it beats them by simply being better at integrating with the iPhone. Anyone on iOS will have a hard time finding a better smartwatch (apart from the Series 5 or Series 6), and those who don’t need advanced health features like ECG or blood oxygen monitoring won’t miss much. People contemplating their first smartwatch will find the Watch SE a polished, well-rounded introduction to the category.