Apple Watch SE Review: The One To Go For

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Revealed alongside the Apple Watch Series 6 at Apple’s Time Flies event in September 2020, the Apple Watch SE could be the new favourite among iPhone users. It offers many of the key features of the Apple Watch without the premium price tag of the flagship, although it’s not the perfect upgrade for all Apple Watch users.

Still, for those tempted by the Apple Watch in general, the Apple Watch SE could be the one to go for.

Design and features: Key features of the Apple Watch collection, combined

The Apple Watch SE isn’t a complete redesign of the smartwatch – in fact, in many ways, it’s identical to the premium Apple Watch Series 6. With seven generations of Apple Watch coming and going, you’ll either love or hate the design of Apple’s smartwatch at this point. I’m a huge fan personally, offering a sleek, compact, highly customisable on-wrist experience that’s largely unmatched by the competition, but there will be those yearning for a more traditional circular shape. It’s all down to personal preference.  

Importantly, Apple didn’t base the design of the Apple Watch SE on the older, boxier design of the Series 3 – which is still on sale at £199/$199 – instead opting for the improved design introduced in the Series 4. It’s an all-round improvement, immediately noticeable thanks to the larger displays and smaller bezels compared to the earlier iteration, and like the premium option, the Apple Watch SE is available in two sizes – 40mm and 44mm.

You’ll find Apple’s signature Digital Crown and side buttons mounted to the right of the display. It’s the Digital Crown that stands out most, offering both a free-scroll mode and a more traditional mode with haptic feedback to simulate the mechanical click of a wristwatch, and it’s pulled off flawlessly. It’s something that rivals have attempted to replicate, but nobody has perfected it like Apple.  

Inside the Apple Watch SE, you’ll find the S5 chipset first introduced in the Apple Watch Series 5. It’s not quite as snappy as the S6 chip found in the Series 6, but it offers double the performance of the S3 chipset in the Series 3. It’s noticeable in performance, with a generally snappier experience navigating the watch interface and interacting with apps, and there’s no real lag either.

There’s also an increased 32GB of internal storage on offer, allowing you to store photos and your favourite tunes for standalone use – as long as you subscribe to Apple Music, anyway.

There are a few differences in design compared to the Series 6 though; for starters, the Apple Watch SE is only available in an aluminium finish, with no stainless steel or titanium options on offer, and it’s limited to the gold, space grey and silver colour options. If you want the new colourful Product (RED) or blue colour options, you’ll have to opt for the premium Series 6.

The biggest difference in design, though, is the display. While the Apple Watch SE sports the same general look as the high-end Watch, it lacks one crucial feature: the always-on display. First introduced in the Series 5 and improved in the Series 6, it allows Apple Watch users to glance at the smartwatch without having to raise their wrist to turn on the display.

It does feel a little bit odd to leave out a feature present on rivals like the Fitbit Versa 3 that cost less than Apple’s option, but Apple does have to keep a handful of features exclusive to the high-end model.

It’ll be hard to move from an Apple Watch with an always-on display to one without the tech, but arguably, that won’t be something many people experience. Apple positioned the Apple Watch SE as an entry-level device for those new to the Apple Watch experience, or those upgrading from the Series 3 or older. There’s certainly not enough here to tempt even Series 4 owners, let alone Series 5.

The good news is that Apple’s wrist-raise detection is near-flawless, turning on with even the slightest gesture. That’s a stark difference compared to rivals like the Nubia Watch where you really have to exaggerate your movements to wake the display. It’s not quite an always-on display, but it is a battery-friendly alternative that you’ll likely not notice. And the fact that you won’t notice means it’s doing its job very well.

You might assume that not having an always-on display increases the battery life of the Apple Watch SE compared to its always-on counterpart, but you’d be wrong. You’ll get the same quoted 18-hour battery life as just about every other Apple Watch in the collection, but I’ve found that I can squeeze that to around two days of use if I’m not tracking exercise or using apps excessively.

When it does come to time to charge, the magnetic charger snaps into place and tops the Apple Watch up to full in little over 90 minutes, an improvement on the 2.5hrs of the Apple Watch Series 3. It can take some getting used to if you’re used to the likes of the Huawei Watch Fit and its 10-day battery life, but you’ll soon get into a routine, much like charging your iPhone on a daily basis.

Health and fitness tracking: Versatile, but not the most capable

Apple has never truly pitched the Apple Watch as a rival to professional-level fitness-focused smartwatches from the likes of Garmin, but that hasn’t stopped the company from offering a suite of health and fitness features to aid the average joe in leading a healthier lifestyle.

It starts off at a basic level, offering all-day tracking that’ll monitor not only your calories burned, but your exercise minutes and hours where you’ve stood up for at least a minute. These are displayed in fun colourful circles that can be placed directly on most watchfaces, and you can sync up with your friends for a bit of friendly competition. No greater motivation to get moving than seeing your best mate beating you, right?

However, you can take things up a notch with exercise-specific tracking. The Apple Watch SE is smart enough to notice when you’re running or cycling and will ask you if you want to start tracking, but for those that like to make sure it’s tracking the correct workout, you can manually browse from a growing list of exercises – ranging from outdoor running to HIIT and swimming – and display key tracking metrics on-screen.

The beauty of the Apple Watch is its simplicity, and that extends to exercise tracking too. It’ll only give you the core data on the watch itself, and although that depends on the exercise you’re doing, you’ll get stats like overall time, calories burned and in the case of running, your average time per mile. A swipe to the left reveals easy access to media controls, and a swipe to the right allows you to pause or end the workout.

The Apple Watch SE features built-in GPS, meaning you can leave your iPhone at home and go out for a run and not worry about whether your data is accurate. It’s further improved by optional 4G connectivity, allowing you to make and receive calls and text as well as stream music from Apple Music and use watchOS apps when your iPhone isn’t nearby.

The Apple Watch may not display many metrics during a workout, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tracking just about everything you do. To access a more detailed breakdown of your recent workouts, you’ll have to dive into the Fitness companion app for iPhone. From there you’ll get access to graphs showcasing your heart rate, GPS heatmaps (for outdoor activities) and metrics like VO2Max and elevation.

Admittedly, it’s not as detailed as what you’ll get from dedicated running or hiking smartwatches, but it’s the versatility of the Apple Watch SE that impresses most. No matter the type of exercise you undertake, there’s likely a tracking mode that’ll be helpful to you.

Part of the reason that it isn’t quite as detailed as rivals is the lack of not only the ECG first introduced in the Apple Watch Series 4, but also the lack of bloody oxygen monitoring present on the Apple Watch Series 6. The former allows for more precise heart rate monitoring and the ability to detect signs of atrial fibrillation while the latter shows how well saturated your blood is with oxygen.

It’ll be down to personal preference whether these features are important enough to you to merit the £110/$120 upgrade to the Series 6. As with the always-on display, I expect this is a decision to help differentiate the SE and the Series 6, but it is a little disappointing considering the similarly priced Fitbit Sense offers both blood oxygen monitoring and ECG functionality.

One feature that did make the cut, however, is Fall Detection. Like the ECG monitor, Fall Detection was a feature first introduced in the Apple Watch Series 4, and it’s arguably one of the best safety features of any mainstream smartwatch right now, so it’s great to see it available on the SE.

If you take a tumble, the sensors built into the SE can detect this and check that you’re okay. You can tap the on-screen notification to let the watch know that you’re well, or alternatively, you can get the watch to call the emergency services. The watch will begin to bleep and vibrate with a growing intensity if you don’t respond before finally calling the emergency services on your behalf. If you’ve got a cellular model it’ll call directly (even if you don’t have a plan set up) and if you’ve got a standard model, it’ll use your iPhone to connect.

It’s a life-saving feature that Apple likes to focus on in its Watch keynotes, and will no doubt provide great peace of mind not only for those that go on runs and hikes, but those thinking of getting the Apple Watch SE for an older relative.

Software: watchOS is smoother than ever

While the Apple Watch hardware is great, it’s watchOS that truly contributes to its popularity. Simply put, watchOS is the most complete smartwatch operating system on the market right now, offering an unmatched level of polish and functionality for iPhone users. You’ve got plenty of third-party apps on offer, each with their own complications for watch faces, alongside full notification support and quick access to Siri, simply by raising your wrist.

The Apple Watch doesn’t have as many watchfaces as some competitors, it’s true, but those that are available are highly customisable and of an Apple standard. There are plenty of options on offer, from traditional watchfaces to those powered by Siri, and my personal favourite, a watchface that blazes with fire every time the display is turned on (fun fact – that was a real-life shot filmed by Apple). Every single watchface is customisable, be it the colours of the dials to the complications displayed, allowing you to get quick access to the information you need without having to open any third-party apps.

You see, while the Watch has a large library of standalone apps, most people probably won’t use them all that often – I certainly don’t. It’s all about the complications that those third-party apps bring for me, and it’s an area where the Apple Watch certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Notification support is another area where the Apple Watch stands out. While getting notifications on your smartwatch isn’t a feature specific to Apple’s watch, the ability to react to those notifications without reaching for your smartphone is. The deep integration with iOS allows you to perform actions like quickly dismiss or reply to text messages, and depending on third-party app support, you can perform quick actions like liking a tweet you’ve been mentioned in on Twitter.

Thanks to a built-in speaker and microphone, you’ve even got the option of taking incoming calls via the Apple Watch SE directly. It’s not as loud as the loudspeaker on your iPhone, and isn’t ideal for longer conversations, but it’s a very handy feature for quick calls. Top tip: you can actually use the tip of your nose to tap the Apple Watch display, perfect for answering calls when your hands are full. You might get odd looks, but hey, it works!

And, of course, you’ve got easy access to Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant.

The primary way to interact with Siri is to raise the watch and say Hey Siri, but you’ve also got the option of pushing and holding the digital crown and simply raising your wrist and speaking directly into the watch from close proximity. When doing the latter there’s no need to wake Siri beforehand, and has become my go-to way to set timers, alarms and other functions using the virtual assistant.

One of the new features introduced in watchOS 7 is sleep tracking, a much-requested feature from Apple Watch fans, but considering the suite of sensors aboard not only the Apple Watch SE but Series 6, it’s surprisingly basic. It tracks your total time in bed, only indicating periods when you’re awake and asleep, with no information on overall sleep quality, sleep cycle tracking and other factors that contribute to just how well-rested you feel when you wake up.

More helpful is the new Wind Down mode, a feature available on iOS 14, iPadOS 14 and watchOS 7 that locks the display and silences incoming notifications just before your set bedtime, encouraging time away from digital devices before you hit the hay. In the case of the Apple Watch, it’ll gently wake you up the next morning too.

You see, Apple is more focused on creating a healthy bedtime routine than providing the in-depth sleep tracking metrics available on most other fitness trackers, as a healthy sleep routine is integral to a healthy lifestyle. I get it, but it’s just a bit odd that the company didn’t, y’know, focus on both at the same time. I’m a sucker for sleep tracking metrics, and the current sleep tracking just doesn’t scratch that itch for me.

Still, there’s always watchOS 8 to look forward to in 2021, right?

Pricing and availability

Despite being the ideal entry-level model in the Apple Watch collection, Apple decided to keep the ageing Apple Watch Series 3 on sale and offer the SE as a mid-range option between the Series 3 and Series 6. As such, you can pick up the Apple Watch SE for £269/$279 for the 40mm variant and £299/$309 for the 44mm variant, with cellular connectivity costing an additional £50/$50.

That’s £70/$80 more than the Apple Watch Series 3, and considering not only the dated design but the ageing S3 chipset on offer from the entry-level model, we’d recommend spending the extra on the Apple Watch SE. Things are a little more complicated when it comes to the Apple Watch Series 6 however – it’s down to you whether the premium features like the always-on display, ECG monitor and SpO2 monitor are worth the extra £110/$120.

It is expensive compared to the competition, but it does offer an unparalleled experience for iPhone users. It just depends on what matters more – the overall experience or the capabilities of the fitness tracking. If it’s the latter, I’d suggest taking a look at our roundup of the best fitness trackers for a cheaper alternative.  

If you are tempted by the Apple Watch SE, you can buy it directly from Apple alongside third-party retailers like John Lewis and Amazon.

Verdict

If you’re new to the Apple Watch ecosystem, the Apple Watch SE is the perfect option. It’s more budget-friendly than the premium Apple Watch Series 6, and while it doesn’t offer headline features like the always-on display, ECG or SpO2 monitors, it does offer the core Apple Watch experience. Importantly, it’s a vast improvement on the entry-level Series 3, both in terms of design and performance, and well worth the extra £70/80.

You’ve got access to the updated Apple Watch design, first introduced with the Apple Watch Series 4, complete with larger displays with thinner bezels, alongside key features like Fall Detection, advanced fitness tracking with built-in GPS, a raft of customisable watchfaces and the ability to make and receive calls, texts and more.

The Apple Watch SE is the one I’d recommend to the vast majority of iPhone users, unless there’s a specific reason for needing the built-in ECG or blood oxygen monitoring.



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