If you’re thinking about buying a Watch SE, chances are you’ve never owned one of Apple’s connected timepieces before.
Perhaps it’ll be your first smartwatch full stop, or maybe you owned an earlier model and have decided you'll probably be able to cope without a Series 6 telling you how much oxygen is in your blood. Whatever’s on your smartwatch CV, the SE’s lower price tag makes it a more appealing proposition to more people than ever before.
Starting at £269 (or £299 for the 44mm case, plus £50 on top if you want the cellular version), it’s still a long way from the ‘impulse buy’ category, but for anyone who thinks SpO2 is a mobile phone network and ECG never bettered their debut album, the SE has ditched some of the Series 6 features that your Average Joe might not deem worth shelling out the extra for.
So do these cost-cutting exercises fundamentally hobble the smartwatch experience? Or is the Watch SE an easy way to save yourself a good chunk of cash?
Design: Identity parade
Perhaps one of Apple’s smartest moves is making the SE practically indistinguishable from its more expensive Series 6 sibling. It comes in the same two sizes, 40mm and 44mm, and while aluminium is the only option when it comes to the case material, the three colours it comes in – space grey, silver and gold – are all available on the Series 6 as well.
What will give it away is the lack of an always-on display, which we’ll discuss shortly, but for many it’ll take a lot more than a glance to know you’ve taken the cheaper option. It doesn’t feel like that either, even with the bog standard Sport Loop attached, and you can always level it up with a slightly fancier strap if you start to feel inferior next to your Series 6-sporting pals.
In use it’s identical too. On the side you’ll find the digital crown, which is used to scroll through menus, zoom in and out of the app grid, and go back to the main watch-face screen. Beneath that there’s another button used mainly to show the Dock, which displays your favourite or recently-used apps. A double click also activates Apple Pay, although the SE also has Express Mode, which allows you to tap in and out of various public transport networks around the world without having to press a button first. Handy.
Features: Screening calls
Some initial issues with installing apps aside – fixed by restarting both iPhone and Watch – setting up an Apple Watch SE is a masterclass in simplicity. Once it’s strapped on you can use the Watch iOS app to choose which notifications you want to have delivered to your wrist. You can switch them on and off app-by-app, so you can make sure less urgent stuff stays on your phone and doesn’t use up precious battery life unnecessarily.
The Watch SE might not be able to do electrocardiograms or measure the amount of oxygen in your blood at any given time, but it still has an optical heart rate monitor, which matched the one in a Garmin Forerunner 45 almost beat-for-beat on our test runs. It can also alert you to irregular rhythms or an unusually low or high heart rate, although presumably the feeling of it beating out of your chest would do the same for the latter.
Like the Series 6 it also has an always-on altimeter onboard, which makes GPS-based activity tracking that little bit more accurate, but isn’t going to change the world for the average pavement pounder. You get all the usual day-to-day movement monitoring and reminders too, but they’re easy to turn off if you find it annoying to be told to stand up all the time. It also has Fall Detection and Noise Monitoring, which you won’t get by opting for the cheaper Series 3.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the SE and the Series 6 – aside from the price – is the lack of an always-on display. About 99 times out of 100 it’ll wake up when you want it to, and it’s practically instantaneous, but there will be occasions when you’ll need to give it a tap or repeat the wrist-flicking action in an overly pronounced way to make sure it gets the message.
In terms of size and sharpness, though, the screens are identical: a Retina OLED with 368x448 resolution on our 44mm review sample, or a slightly lower 324x394 on the 40mm version. That means the various faces available look great – even the analogue-aping ones with their tiny second markers and various sub-dials.
Inside you get 32GB of storage, but loading music via the Watch app is a bit laborious. That’s hardly surprising when doing the same on an iPhone has only got worse in recent years. We get it, Tim, you want us to subscribe to Apple Music.
Software: Swipe, sleep, run, repeat
Apple’s WatchOS has remained largely unchanged since it was introduced in 2015: a press of the digital crown takes you to a grid of little app blobs (although you can change it to a list to scroll through if you struggle to remember which icon’s which).
It can take a little getting used to, especially if you’re used to just swiping your way around iOS, but a lot of navigation can be done just using the touchscreen. It’s surprisingly accurate given the size, although some functions – ending workouts in particular – feel like they’d be better being handled by a single button-press instead.
Swiping down on the face screen takes you to a Notification Centre, while swiping up lets you check how much battery is left, eject any water inside, and quickly toggle things such as airplane or theater mode, the latter of which mutes any notifications and stops the screen from illuminating when you raise your wrist. How very considerate.
Although not exclusive to the SE or Series 6, sleep tracking is new to WatchOS 7. It’s pretty basic, showing only how much time you spent in the land of nod – no breakdown into light, deep or REM sleep, which some much cheaper watches do offer. The heartbeat-style haptic alarm is effective though, and could come in particularly useful if you share your bed with someone who doesn’t have to get up quite so early.
Want more detail? There are multiple sleep-tracking Watch apps available that’ll give you just that – and that’s one of the Apple Watch’s greatest strengths. There are apps to add all kinds of functionality, from hydration reminders to puppy training, so it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be.
Performance and battery life: Better than expected
With its 64-bit dual-core S5 processor and W3 wireless chip, the engine inside is practically identical to last year’s Watch Series 5, so the SE ticks over as smoothly as you might imagine. There’s no sign of any delay under your finger and apps launch instantly – even the live view from your iPhone’s camera shows barely any lag.
It’s often sensible to be sceptical about the numbers manufacturers quote when it comes to battery life but, if anything, Apple has low-balled its 18-hour estimate for the SE – and quite significantly. Of course, its marketing department seems to think everybody kite-surfs to work and climbs a mountain on their lunch break, so that perhaps isn’t entirely surprising.
From taking the SE off of its magnetic charging puck for the first time to it complaining about being down to 10% battery took nearly 48 hours – and that included a 30-minute run, much mucking about with faces and complications (both of which now offer more options), and plenty of notifications, with the screen brightness set at two-thirds of maximum. It wasn't just beginner's luck either; we managed to repeat that cycle three times over the first week. Of course, this will vary from person to person, and heavier use will obviously drain it faster, but the average wearer should have no trouble beating Apple’s quoted numbers.
It charges more quickly than expected too: from 6% to 100% in about two hours. If you’re wearing it to bed, that means you should be able to find time during the day to charge it fairly easily, although that will mess with the standard overnight charging routine. With no plug adaptor in the box, you might’ve had to change that anyway.
Apple Watch SE verdict
The SE might be more affordable but that word has always been relative with Apple kit – it’s still very much a luxury product.
Nothing here is particularly necessary to your everyday life, although the health and wellness features are clearly trying to make that case. If you want to fully commit to those, though, a Series 6 will offer you even more peace of mind. An always-on display would certainly make the SE better too, but sacrifices have to be made somewhere to keep that price down.
For those who just want to be able to see who’s texting them, whether it’s going to rain, or what song is playing, all without taking their iPhone out of their pocket, the SE does that better than any non-Apple rival and is certainly worth the extra £70 over the ageing Series 3.
It’s unlikely to provide an iPhone 3G moment for the Watch, when features and price both hit that perfect sweet spot and sales went through the roof, but if you’ve been tempted to take the plunge before, the SE might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.