The Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE on the wrist of the writer.
The Apple Watch Series 6 (left) and Apple Watch SE (right) look very similar on the wrist.

For a lot of people, the Apple Watch SE could be the perfect smartwatch.

Apple’s new budget-friendly offering packs in the vast majority of features most people desire in a smartwatch and leaves out the higher-end tech and add-ons that, I’d venture, often go unused, anyway.

More to the point, the things the SE does do, it does well. In Consumer Reports’ testing, the watch—which starts at $280 for a 40mm GPS-only model—received some of the highest marks possible for essential functions like heart-rate tracking and step counting.

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In fact, when you compare watches of the same size, finish, and connectivity capabilities (for example, 40mm GPS-only models with aluminum cases and 5G compatibility), the SE watch performed about the same in our testing as the significantly more expensive Apple Watch Series 6.

It also edged out the Apple Watch Series 5 by a few points. The only watch to score significantly better in our testing was the stainless steel version of the Apple Watch Series 6, which uses a sapphire-crystal display that doesn’t scratch as easily as the Ion-X glass on the SE.

Just keep in mind that the Series 6 offers features and hardware not found on the SE, including sensors that let users record their own electrocardiogram and blood oxygen levels. Though we don't officially test the accuracy of those extras in our labs, we do take the features themselves into account when calculating, say, versatility scores.

Are those features worth the added cost?

Here’s a closer look at the Apple Watch SE, what it offers, and how it did in our testing. 

What You're Getting

Same look and feel. When lined up side by side, the two smartwatches look very similar. (See photo at the top of this story.) At a glance, your friends won’t be able to tell the difference.

Like the Series 6, the SE comes in two sizes (40mm or 44mm) and two hardware configurations (GPS-only or GPS plus cellular). The bands are interchangeable, too, so you can order one of those new silicone Solo Loops for the SE, if you'd like.

But there are differences between the two models. The SE doesn’t have Apple’s always-on display, which means you have to raise your wrist to activate the screen and check the time. And the SE comes in only one finish: aluminum—and not the new red and blue aluminum finishes available on the Series 6. If you want a stainless steel or titanium watch body, you have to opt for the Series 6, too.

Premium hardware. The SE features the same always-on altimeter, gyroscope, and compass as the Series 6.

Top-rated tracking. The SE is great at the basics. The GPS-only version of the watch received Excellent ratings from CR’s testers for both heart-rate tracking and step counting.

It also proved to be durable, receiving a Very Good rating when tested for scratch resistance and an Excellent rating for making good on its promise of being water resistant up to the equivalent of 50 meters (164 feet).

But, as mentioned before, the SE doesn’t come in the stainless steel finish, which uses the more durable sapphire-crystal display that received an Excellent rating in CR’s scratch test.

Fall Detection and Family Setup. Apple says it created this watch with seniors and children in mind, so the model gives you access to both of these features—plus the new Sleep app, rolled out in Apple's watchOS 7 update. By contrast, the $200 Apple Watch Series 3 does not.

The SE also supports Emergency SOS, which lets you call for help and alert pre-selected contacts, and international emergency calling, which is useful if you run into trouble overseas. In comparison, only Emergency SOS works with the Series 3.

What You're Giving Up

The sensors on the back of the Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 6.
The Apple Watch SE (left) and Apple Watch Series 6 (right) feature different sensors on the back.
Photo: Bree Fowler

EKG and blood-oxygen sensors. From the front, the Apple Watches look pretty much the same. But if you turn them over, you’ll notice that the sensor setup on the back is different.

That's because the SE does not offer the do-it-yourself EKG and blood-oxygen level readings available on the Series 6 model. While there is some value in monitoring the electrical activity of your heart and the oxygen levels in your blood, the apps that perform those functions aren’t intended for medical use, says Apple. So, if you have cardiac or respiratory health issues, you may want to look for a different device altogether.

I've also found the Series 6 model's blood-oxygen app to be difficult to use.

Despite swapping out my first watch for another, switching to a tighter band, and placing multiple video calls to Apple officials, including a pair of engineers who helped design the feature, I've rarely been able to get the app to work properly. Instead of readings, I often get “Unsuccessful Measurement” responses.

According to Apple, I'm not doing anything wrong; the app simply may not work on my specific body. In contrast, a CR colleague who used a silicone band that could be strapped onto the wrist was able to get readings from a Series 6 watch with no trouble.

Ultimately, though, unless you’re really into wellness—and collecting oodles of data to share with your doctor—the EKG and blood-oxygen features are of limited use.

Even without the EKG app, the SE does track your heart rate, both during workouts and on a day-to-day basis, and will alert you if the readings are abnormally high or low and if they suggest you may have an abnormal heart rhythm.

Older chip set. The SE uses last year’s S5 chip, not the S6 contained in the Series 6, which Apple says is about 20 percent faster. But the S5 is plenty fast. In fact, Apple says it’s about twice as fast as the chip inside the Series 3, in case you were thinking of buying one of those.

Should You Buy it?

For many Apple fans, the SE’s combination of practical features, modern look, top performance, and friendly price make it the Goldilocks of smartwatches.

It’s just right.

For $280, the SE is a clear step up from the Series 3. And it's an attractive alternative to the Series 6, especially given the $120 difference in price between the two models.

Are the extra features truly worth that much? I don't know. After all, the new iPhones are coming soon. And given the prices of premium smartphones, it’s never too early to start squirreling away cash for your next purchase.