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Hands on: Apple Watch SE review

The Apple Watch SE is a surprisingly impressive wearable

What is a hands on review?
Apple Watch SE review
(Image: © TechRadar)

Early Verdict

Our early tests with the Apple Watch SE show a wearable that takes the best of the range, drops the added health benefits and could well be the top-selling Apple Watch out there. Rather than feel like a cut-down version of the 'main' Watch, the SE makes the Apple Watch 6 feel more like the Apple Watch Pro.

For

  • Lower price
  • Still-powerful chipset

Against

  • No always-on display
  • Battery life still not improved

The Apple Watch SE was a surprise. First, it was only rumored to be coming quite late on in the run-up to Apple’s September launch event, which suggests that it was of far less importance than the headlining Apple Watch 6

Second… it actually seems like a really smart buy, even though it doesn’t have any real standout features.

Like the new iPad Air 2020 compared to the pricier iPad Pro, the Watch SE comes with nearly all the key features you’d look for in an Apple Watch, but at a much lower price than the Watch 6.

It sheds some key features - the always-on display of the more recent Apple Watch models is the biggest miss - but while it doesn’t have the advanced electrocardiogram and blood oxygen-sensing capabilities of the Apple Watch 6, it still offers enough to make it a more attractive buy than the more expensive Apple Watch 6.

Apple Watch SE price and release date

The price of the Apple Watch SE will depend on whether you opt for the GPS-only version or the cellular edition, and whether you prefer the simple Solo Loop / Sport band, or the more elegant Braided Solo Loop.

We were sent samples of the Solo Loop, but unfortunately they were a little too large for our wrists. However, there was something much more pleasing about just slipping them on, rather than having to fiddle with a buckle instead.

The Apple Watch SE is available now from the Apple Store or online, having gone on sale September 18 in key territories worldwide:

Apple Watch SE prices - Solo Loop / Sport Band
Region40mm GPS40mm GPS+LTE44mm GPS44mm GPS+LTE
US$279$329$309$359
UK£269£319£299£349
AustraliaAU$429AU$499AU$479AU$549

Apple Watch SE prices - Braided Solo Loop
Region40mm GPS40mm GPS+LTE44mm GPS44mm GPS+LTE
US$329$379$359$409
UK£319£369£349£399
AustraliaAU$499AU$569AU$549AU$619

A basic 'upgrade'

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The first question you might be asking is: what does the Apple Watch SE actually replace? It doesn't have the always-on display of the Watch 5, but it has more power than the Watch 4, so if those two devices were still on sale we might well be calling it the Apple Watch 4.5.

With that in mind, what upgrades, if you can call them that, does the SE bring over the Watch 4 (which as mentioned is no longer on sale)?

The main change is to the chipset inside – we found that the battery life of the Apple Watch 5 improved markedly when the always-on display was turned off, and given that’s not an issue with the Watch SE, we’re expecting good battery life from this device – and that’s what we’re seeing in the first couple of days of having it strapped it to our wrist.

There are still reams of useful features on the Apple Watch SE that those upgrading from the Apple Watch 3 would enjoy, and a lot of them are great for health tracking too – which is fast becoming the primary reason to buy this Watch.

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The decibel meter on board the Watch SE does a good job of alerting you when the sound around you is too high. The sleep tracking – which admittedly is available on any Watch capable of running the new WatchOS 7 these days – is useful, even if it’s not as fully-featured as dedicated sleep monitors, with things like time spent in deep, restorative sleep not specified.

The constantly-running altimeter is useful to let you know the true reflection of your elevation on a run – to the nearest foot according to Apple, although in side-by-side tests with the Apple Watch 6 on a workout we found that the height climbed and descended varied by 10-15 meters on a two-mile run. 

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Not massive, but we wouldn’t use the Watch SE to calculate our exact elevation stats on any workout.

At the other end of the fitness scale, the Apple Watch SE does feel like a great option for an elderly relative whose health you might want to keep an eye on – being able to get fall detection alerts, or warnings of issues with heart rate, will really bring peace of mind to those worried.

Combine that with the larger display on both the 40mm / 44mm size, courtesy of less bezel, and this is going to be a genuinely helpful device for the elderly.

With the new Family Setup feature for the Watch range, which enables you to set up an Apple wearable for someone else from your iPhone, buying the Watch SE for someone who doesn’t use an iPhone becomes a relatively straightforward proposition.

Apple Watch 6 design and display

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Apple has purposely not changed anything about the design of the Apple Watch SE, sticking with the same dimensions as the Apple Watch 4, 5 and 6, and thereby saving money by not having to create a whole new shell.

That means you’re getting the same 40mm / 44mm sizes to choose from (with a corresponding rise in price for the larger model), with the heart rate monitor on the back, and the digital spinning crown on the side, with the power button below, to let you interact with the Watch.

All elements of this promise a premium device the second you take it from the box, a hallmark of a device that has propelled Apple to the forefront of the wearables market, and the SE shows no sign of corners being cut in the design.

There’s something incredibly curious about the Apple Watch SE display: while it’s supposed to be the same as the Watch 6, time and again we found it to be a touch brighter in day to day use.

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

That’s curious partly because it’s supposed to be identical, but also because, when we fired the Watch SE to full brightness using the Torch app, the displays were equally as bright.

It was just that in day-to-day use, when glancing at the watch face to see the time or check on some information, the Watch SE was noticeably a touch brighter than the Watch 6, despite the brightness settings being set to an identical level.

Whether that’s because there’s no always-on display, which might add in some extra layer on top that could block a certain level or brightness, or just a quirk of design, the Watch SE has an ever-so-slightly more vibrant screen.

WatchOS 7

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

The key new features in WatchOS 7 are shown off well on the new range of Apple Watches, and the Watch SE is capable of sleep tracking, monitoring your handwashing, tracking a greater number of fitness workouts than before, and allowing you to use new services like the incoming Fitness Plus suite of workout videos.

In real-world use, we didn’t see too much of an upgrade with the new software - the handwashing monitoring was good when it worked, but more often than not the Watch SE didn’t pick up that we were soaping our hands, or only spotted it halfway through.

Sleep monitoring is okay – it works in terms of letting you know how long you were in bed and asleep, but doesn’t give information on the quality of sleep like other trackers do. 

And while it’s good to get info on whether you’ve got enough battery to last through the night, or if you’re low when you wake up, there’s not an easy way to charge the battery quickly.

Early verdict

Apple Watch SE review

(Image credit: TechRadar)

After 24 hours' use, the Apple Watch SE seems to be an impressive device – all the features most will care about are here, making it an excellent way to save money if you’re not bothered about advanced health metrics and can live without the always-on display.

It’s worth remembering that the starting price of $279 / £269 is just for the smaller model without cellular capabilities, and the price hikes up quickly if you want to get the larger model, or add the option to lose the phone - but compared to the previous models, the Watch SE offers all the features many will want for a little less than they’d expect to pay.

We’ll be testing the Watch SE properly over the coming days, to see how the battery life fares and whether this model is the one that every prospective Watch owner should be checking out first. 

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.