Apple Watch SE review: Back to basics with a blank screen

The Apple Watch SE isn’t quite the iPhone SE of Apple’s wearable line. While it does have a starting price tag that’s about 30 percent lower than the flagship Series 6 watch, the Apple Watch SE doesn’t have the latest processor or an outdated design, nor is it the cheapest Apple Watch you can buy. That puts it kind of in no man’s land for now, an unenviable position for a product expected to move the needle.

But you’ll be very happy with the Apple Watch SE if it is your first smartwatch. It has all of the features you want in a modern smartwatch—a big screen, next-gen sensors, swappable bands, good battery life—at a price that probably won’t break your budget. Aside from the new exclusive red and blue colors you can only get with Apple’s flagship watch, the Apple Watch SE looks identical to the Apple Watch  Series 6 and can be outfitted with any of the new Solo bands.

apple watch se strap Michael Simon/IDG

You can still swap out any old Apple Watch strap with the SE.

If you can get a Solo band that fits, that is. I ordered a Solo Loop with my Apple Watch SE using Apple’s online printed sizing tool. It clearly said I needed a size 9, but it’s too big on my wrist, so Apple is swapping it out for a smaller size. I’ll write about it when I review the Apple Watch Series 6, but the band’s material is very soft and nice, and the stretchiness seems like it won’t get worn out too quickly.

Looks aside, however, the Apple Watch SE is missing a variety of features that might make the jump to the Apple Watch Series 6 worthwhile. They might not seem all that important on the tech sheet, but the always-on display, Sp02 sensor, and ECG app are valuable additions that give Apple’s flagship a serious advantage. The missing features make the SE feel more outdated compared to the Series 6 than the iPhone SE does compared to the iPhone 11. The Apple Watch SE feels like more of a tool to sell Apple Watch Series 6 watches than a viable budget option.

A watch for now, not later

It’s weird to start a review by writing about what a product doesn’t have, but the biggest detriment to buying one isn’t the lack of an always-on display or next-gen sensors, it’s future-proofing. Assuming you’re likely to keep your Apple Watch SE for at least two years, when you’re staring at a blank screen on your wrist all day in 2022, the Apple Watch SE’s often-off display is going to feel antiquated.

apple watch se apps Michael Simon/IDG

The screen on the SE is big and bright—when it’s on.

The lack of an Sp02 sensor will seem equally glaring, as well. While it’s not surprising to see the Apple Watch Series 6’s marquee feature left off its more-affordable doppelgänger, blood-oxygen sensing is quickly becoming an essential health metric. Fitbit has shipped trackers and watches with Sp02 sensors for years, and while there is still a ways to go before smartwatches sensors can be as accurate as an over-the-counter pulse oximeter finger clamp, the algorithms will no doubt improve over the next few generations.

In the age of COVID-19, Sp02 is becoming extremely important for tracking impending illnesses even before symptoms show. According to recent studies, the information from an Sp02 sensor can be invaluable for detecting and treating COVID and similar respiratory illnesses, as well as track any possible lingering breathing issues. It could become as indispensable as a heart-rate sensor as sleep tracking matures.

Working while you sleep

Speaking of sleep tracking, the Apple Watch SE is one of the first Apple watches to support sleep tracking out of the box as part of watchOS 7, and it does it well enough for a first-gen feature. It’s nowhere near as detailed as a Fitbit tracker and with the same 18-hour battery life as previous Apple Watches, you’ll need to plan your day and night accordingly to make sure you don’t run out of juice overnight.