Which Apple Watch Should You Buy?

CR takes a look at what all four models have to offer

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.

apple 6( left) & SE ( right)
Apple Watch Series 6 (left) and Apple Watch SE

Apple Watches aren't cheap, but they have a lot to offer. They'll help you manage your life without picking up your phone, doing everything from paying for your morning coffee to getting directions and staying on top of your important texts and email.

The question is: Which Apple Watch should you buy?

The newest model, the Apple Watch Series 6, sits at the top of Consumer Reports' smartwatch ratings, but it costs twice as much as the tried-and-true Apple Watch Series 3.

There's also the Apple Watch SE, which rates similarly to the Series 6 in our testing and represents a new middle ground for consumers.

More on Smartwatches

And while the well-rated Apple Watch Series 5 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 all the bells and whistles but costs $400 to start.

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 new flagship watch adds a blood-oxygen sensor, letting you see how effectively your body circulates oxygen during your workouts and when you sleep.

There’s also a faster processor, along with better battery efficiency and quicker charging, both designed to help the watch's battery power through a night of sleep tracking.

In our testing, the Series 6 proved to be excellent at step counting and heart-rate tracking. And because this is Apple’s latest and greatest, you can personally design your Series 6 on the company's website, choosing the finish and band that best suits your style.

On the downside, the odds of getting a deal on one of these is slim. But if you’re leaning toward a model with cellular service, check with your wireless carrier. As with phones, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon sometimes offer discounts if you finance the device through them.

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 also has the same look and feel as the Series 6. 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.

Apple Watch Series 5

The Series 5 doesn’t have the blood-oxygen sensor, the battery efficiency improvements, and the faster charging found on the Series 6, which makes it less optimized for Apple's new sleep-tracking feature.

It also uses the slightly slower chip installed in the SE.

But the Series 5 will take an EKG. It also offers the always-on display, international emergency calling, and Apple’s compass app.

And Apple didn’t make much in the way of external design changes this year, so the Series 5 looks pretty much the same as the Series 6 and SE.

Shop around and you might find a deal on one of these. But don't wait too long; retailer inventories won't last forever.

Apple Watch Series 3

The Series 3 is a bit smaller than the other options. It comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes. And the bezels—the black border surrounding the displays—are a bit larger. So what you get is a noticeably smaller watch face.

And you'd be missing 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 5 and 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.

Other Factors to Consider

Do you need cellular? All four 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.

I tend to think most people don’t need a watch with cellular. My sister has a Series 3 with it. That's because she’s a runner who likes to leave her phone behind but wants to be reachable and to stream her favorite workout mix. And that makes sense. As for me, I never seem to be out of Bluetooth range of my phone.

And while my sister can conveniently use the wireless headphones she’s already wearing to take a call while on the run, those without headphones might pause and look around before speaking directly into their watch, considering everyone within earshot.

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, I know at least one who thought a 40mm Series 4 was just right for him.

Fancy finishes: The starting prices listed in this article are for the basic aluminum finish. But you can go fancier. I’m partial to the silver stainless steel finish available for the Series 6 that starts at $700.

There’s also a titanium version that will run you $800 and a Hermes-designed option that will cost you upward of $1,400.

Beyond the Apple Watch: Yes, Apple's smartwatches are great, but we recommend models made by companies like Fitbit and Samsung, too. 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 cheaper than smartwatches.

Bree Fowler

Bree Fowler

I write about all things "cyber" and your right to privacy. Before joining Consumer Reports, I spent 16 years reporting for The Associated Press. What I enjoy: cooking and learning to code with my kids. I've lived in the Bronx for more than a decade, but as a proud Michigan native, I will always be a die-hard Detroit Tigers fan no matter how much my family and I get harassed at Yankee Stadium. Follow me on Twitter (@BreeJFowler).