Which Apple Watch Should You Buy?

CR takes a look at what the new—and existing—models have to offer

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Apple 6 and Apple SE watches
Apple Watch Series 6 (left) and Apple Watch SE
Photo: Apple

Apple Watches aren’t cheap, but they have a lot to offer. They can help you manage your life without picking up your phone, tackling everyday tasks like getting directions, fielding texts and emails, and, yes, paying for your morning coffee.

The question is: Which Apple Watch should you buy?

We’re hoping to have test results soon on the Apple Watch Series 7 launched earlier this month with updated styling and a slightly larger screen than the Apple Watch Series 6 now atop Consumer Reports’ smartwatch ratings. In the meantime, the tried-and-true Apple Watch Series 3, which costs half as much as the Series 7 model, remains in the lineup.

There’s also the Apple Watch SE, which rates similarly to the Series 6 and represents a middle ground for consumers.

More on Smartwatches

And while the well-rated Apple Watch Series 6 has been discontinued, it hasn’t disappeared from store shelves just yet. So you’ll find significant discounts as retailers try to shed their stock.

With all those options, it can be hard to choose the best one, especially if you’re shopping for a gift for someone else. And just a heads up: Apple Watches work only with iPhones. If the person you’re shopping for uses an Android device, you’ll need to find something else.

With a starting price of $200, the Series 3, launched in 2017, is the most affordable option. But it’s not as fast as the newer models. For $80 more, the SE has a speedier chip and the same modern look of the pricier Series 6. And the latter watch has lots of bells and whistles but still sells for $300 and up. The Series 7 starts at $400.

Keep in mind that the prices above are for GPS-only models. Adding a cellular connection will cost you about $100 more, plus monthly fees for the service. So it’s best to ask yourself if you really need it before you shell out the extra bucks.

Here’s a closer look at what each Apple Watch model has to offer.

Apple Watch Series 6

The feature that separates the Series 6 from the SE is a blood-oxygen sensor that lets you see how effectively your body circulates oxygen during your workouts and your slumber, which helps support the watch’s sleep-tracking features. The Series 6 also has a sensor that enables an EKG function designed to detect unusual heart rhythms.

The Series 6 comes in a variety of finishes, including stainless steel and titanium, all compatible with a wide range of sporty bands and dressy straps. It also can run the watchOS 8 operating system introduced with the Series 7 model.

In our testing, the Series 6 proved to be excellent at step counting and heart-rate tracking, placing it at the top of our smart watch ratings overall.

The introduction of the Series 7 has triggered steep discounts on the Series 6, with the cellular version selling for $359 at B&H, a discount of $140. The price cuts on the non-cellular version are currently less steep at $329, but the 40mm red version was on sale for as little as $249 not long ago and there’s a decent chance for similar savings as Black Friday approaches. Since the Series 6 has been discontinued, be prepared to move quickly if the size and color you want appears at a price you like. Instead of waiting for another dip, try asking the retailer for a price-match guarantee.

Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE has the always-on altimeter, gyroscope, and compass found on the Series 6. It supports the Fall Detection, Family Setup, and sleep-tracking features, too, plus Emergency SOS, which lets you call for help and alert preselected contacts, and international emergency calling, useful if you run into trouble overseas.

The watch has the same look and feel as the Series 6 and you can even personalize it with one of Apple’s new bands.

What are you giving up? Most notably, the blood-oxygen tracking and the ability to take your own electrocardiogram. You also get a different processor. While not as speedy as the one in the Series 6, Apple says, it’s about twice as fast as the one in the Series 3.

And there’s no always-on display, so if you want to check the time, you have to raise your wrist to get the watch’s screen to light up.

We’re seeing only light discounts on the SE given that it has not changed in the last year.

Apple Watch Series 3

Available in 38 and 44 mm sizes, the Series 3 is a bit smaller than the other options. And the bezel—the black border surrounding the display—is a bit larger. So what you get is a noticeably smaller watch face.

You’ll also be missing out on a lot of new features that have rolled out since the Series 3 first hit the market. This watch doesn’t do blood oxygen, EKGs, sleep tracking, or international emergency calling.

The processor is not nearly as fast as those in the Series 6, Series 7, or even the SE. And the model doesn’t have an always-on display or a compass app.

But despite its age, this watch does do the basics well. Our testers rate it as Very Good for both heart-rate tracking and step counting at a price that’s not much more than many fitness trackers.

Other Factors to Consider

Do you need cellular? All Apple Watch models can be purchased with GPS alone. Adding cellular raises the sticker price by about $100, plus the roughly $10-per-month fee for a wireless plan.

Most people probably don’t need a watch with cellular. If you’re a runner and you want to leave your phone at home but want to stream your favorite workout mix and be reachable for calls and texts, the cellular option is a sensible upgrade. But many users are rarely out of Bluetooth range of their phones, which makes a cellular watch redundant.

Is bigger better? Regardless of which model you’re considering, most women will probably gravitate toward the smaller sizes. The bigger watches cost a little more, and while most men tend to buy the bigger size, some men find the 40mm watch to be just right.

Fancy finishes: The starting prices listed in this article are for the basic aluminum finish. But on the Series 6 you can go fancier with a silver or gold stainless steel finish, which adds several hundred dollars to the price and a titanium version that’s even more expensive. There’s also a top-of-the-line Hermès design with fashion-forward straps.

Beyond the Apple Watch: Yes, Apple’s smartwatches are great, especially if you own a lot of other Apple devices, but we also recommend models made by companies like Fitbit and Samsung. As always, Consumer Reports members can consult our ratings for full test results on more than 30 options.

And if you’re more into counting steps than reading email, making calls, or checking the latest sports scores, you might want to think about a fitness tracker. They have fewer features, but they’re often significantly cheaper than smartwatches.

Editor’s Note: A caption in the previous version of this article, published on October 19, 2021, misidentified an Apple Watch Series 6 as a Series 7.