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Apple Watch SE review: Cut back but still great

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
269
inc VAT, 40mm Wi-Fi+GPS

Lacks the Series 6’s advanced health features, but the Apple Watch SE is cheaper and still a great smartwatch

Pros 
Cheaper than the Series 6
Packed with features
Accurate HR and GPS tracking
Cons 
No ECG or blood oxygen readings
Charges slower than Series 6
No always-on display
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The Apple Watch SE is the first ‘lite’ Watch Apple has produced and it’s the cheapest new smartwatch the firm has ever launched.

At first glance, you could be forgiven for wondering why on earth you’d pay any more for the Series 6. Especially considering the Apple Watch SE has the same display and resolution, the same size and shape and does most of the same things as the more expensive model.

READ NEXT: Apple Watch Series 6 review - the best smartwatch you can buy? 

Apple Watch SE review: What you need to know

So instead of launching straight into an overview of the Watch SE’s features, I’m going to focus first on the differences between the two watches.

More specifically, I’ll highlight what the Apple Watch SE lacks in comparison with the Apple Watch Series 6.

As it turns out, the list isn’t very long:

  • No always-on display: The Watch SE’s screen turns off when you’re not looking at it and only switches on when you raise your wrist or tap the screen. The Watch 6’s display can be set to permanently active
  • Fewer colours: The SE is only available in silver, grey and gold
  • No SpO2: Blood-oxygen measurement is only available on Series 6
  • No ECG: You can’t get a medical-grade ECG report from the Watch SE as you can with the Series 6
  • No always-on altimeter: The altitude complication doesn’t update in realtime on your watch faces as it does on the Series 6

Otherwise, the Watch SE can do everything the Series 6 can. It runs Watch OS 7 and has GPS, motion sensors, an altimeter and a heart rate tracker. It’s just as water-resistant, too, down to 50m, so you can use it for swimming.

Apple Watch SE review: Price and competition

The biggest difference between the two watches is price: in short, Apple Watch SE is considerably cheaper, starting at £269 for the 40mm and £299 for the 44mm model. That’s a difference of £110 compared with the Series 6.

The cellular Watch SE models are an even bigger bargain. They cost £319 for the 40mm watch and £349 for the 44mm for a difference of £160.

The principal rivals for the Apple Watch SE are its own stablemates, the Series 6 and cheaper Series 3 (£199), followed closely by the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 (from £379) and the Fitbit Sense (£299).

For those more keen on purchasing something with less emphasis on smart facilities and more on sports tracking, the Garmin Forerunner 245 (£236) and Garmin Vivoactive 4 (£239) make good choices, as do the Polar Vantage M (£213) and Coros Pace 2 (£180).

None of these quite have looks or the vivid colour screen of the Apple Watch SE, but they do have better battery life and more serious fitness-focused features baked in.

Apple Watch SE review: Design and smart features

I’m not going to go too deep here into the design, because it’s essentially identical to the Apple Watch Series 6 and the Series 5.

To recap, just like those watches, it’s available in two sizes (40mm case or a 44mm) and in three colours (space grey, silver and rose gold), all with aluminium bodies. The screen on the smaller watch is 1.57in in size and has a resolution of 394 x 324, while the larger one is 1.78in with a resolution of 448 x 368.

The optical heart-rate reader on the rear does look different to the Series 6, which is hardly surprising given that it can’t do the blood oxygen or ECG readings.

It’s worth noting, however, that this doesn’t mean the SE is completely shorn of advanced health warnings. Via Watch OS 7, the watch will still be able to notify you if it detects you have an irregular heart rate via its optical sensor and you can set up high and low heart rate notifications as well.

In every other respect, there’s no difference between the Watch SE and the Series 6. It still handles notifications beautifully, allowing you to reply to messages on the watch. You can use Siri to set reminders and alarms and ask about the weather or reply to text messages via voice dictation.

It’s also possible to use the Watch SE to answer phone calls right from your wrist and there’s an extensive App Store you can use to install all manner of different apps, extending the SE’s capabilities even further.

Apple Watch SE review: Battery life

As ever, Apple publishes a detailed breakdown of the Watch SE’s battery capabilities on its website, but the headline claims are similar to the Apple Watch Series 6: it’ll last for around 18 hours of mixed use, or 14 hours with 4G enabled; 6 hours of continuous GPS usage; or 5 hours continuous GPS usage with 4G enabled.

Although these numbers are a little lower than for the Apple Watch Series 6, I found that the Watch SE would last a touch longer, with around 20% more capacity remaining at the end of a day’s use where I’d gone for an hour-long run. That’s probably due to the display not being on all the time.

While battery life may be comparable, however, charging time is very different. On the Watch SE, it’s considerably slower than the Series 6, with Apple quoting a time of around 1hr 30mins to charge to 80% (half an hour slower) and 2hrs 30mins to 100% (a full hour slower).

If you want to use the new sleep-tracking feature (which I go into more detail on in my Apple Watch 6 review), that means you’ll need to plan carefully when to charge the watch.

Apple Watch SE review: Exercise, GPS and heart rate

When it comes to working out, there’s barely any difference between the SE and its more expensive sibling, despite the fact that they have different innards. The main thing is that you need to raise your wrist to see the screen while working out.

Otherwise, you get all the same exercise modes – everything from walking, running and cycling to pool and open-water swimming is catered for – and all of the same metrics displayed on-screen, which can be customised via the app.

That also means there are the same limitations as well. Although the Watch SE can generate some serious-looking data, including an estimate of your VO2 Max, those keen to set their own heart-rate zones and create structured workouts are going to be disappointed.

Still, the Watch SE appears to be just as accurate from a heart-rate tracking perspective as its pricier sibling, which is to say it’s excellent. It was rarely more than two or three bpm different from the MyZone MZ-3 chest belt I used as a control.

GPS tracking, too, was very reliable, although like the Series 6 it does tend to smooth out small corners where other wearables I’ve used - the Polar Grit X, for instance - track kinks in the road a little more accurately. In the screenshot below, the Apple Watch SE trace is red, while the Polar Grit X is in blue:

Apple Watch SE review: Verdict

The Apple Watch SE is another top-quality smartwatch from Apple. It fills a gap in the range between the now rather aged Series 3 and the all-singing, all-dancing Series 6.

For me, it strikes the perfect balance. It’s every bit the great smartwatch the Series 6 is, minus the advanced health features, always-on screen and fast charging, but at a much-reduced price.

If you own an iPhone and don’t fancy splashing out £379 for the full-fat Apple Watch experience, the Watch SE is a superb choice and a very tempting alternative.

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