Apple Watch SE preview: Basically a $400 smartwatch for $250

Apple Watches are starting to look mostly the same. The new Series 8 and Watch SE look so similar to last year’s Series 7 that I’m having trouble telling them apart. In fact, the new models that Apple unveiled last week bring some less obvious changes. The most notable of these is a new temperature sensor, which is currently being used to track ovulation, as well as an integrated high-G accelerometer that allows for accident detection.

The company also introduced the Watch Ultra, which is specifically designed for outdoor adventurers. The Ultra may be the most exciting smartwatch of the three, but what the new Watch SE offers for the money makes it the more interesting device in my book. Also, Apple dropped its price by $30, so the SE is now $250, despite being basically the same as the $400 Series 8. Honestly, this feels like the smartwatch that most iOS users should consider.

The week I’ve had the Watch SE, I’ve worn it alongside either my Series 7 or Series 8, which I’m also testing. Aside from the size, I didn’t notice much of a difference between the three models. The Series 8 is available in 41mm or 45mm cases; I use the latter. It’s a little big for my wrist, but I like how much easier it is to see things on this roomier screen. Meanwhile, the new SE is available in 40mm or 44mm options; I have the smaller version which I particularly prefer as it is more comfortable to wear in bed.

The main features you’ll miss if you opt for an SE over a Series 8 are the Always On Display (AOD), ECG reader, blood oxygen app and new skin temperature sensor. Like the older SE, this year’s model charges slower than the 7 and 8 Series and doesn’t have the U1 chip for ultra wideband. It also lacks the IP6X dust resistance of its higher-end counterparts. So if you’re likely to take this Tough Mudding or to the beach, it might be worth considering a more expensive model. Those who hate chunky bezels will also find the SE’s thicker bezels off-putting, but without a direct comparison I didn’t notice much of a difference.

Otherwise, this year’s Watch SE actually packs the same System-in-a-Package (SiP) processor as the $400 Series 8, along with a high-G accelerometer that enables crash detection. In my time with it, unsurprisingly, the SE was just as responsive as the Series 8, starting workouts and running heart rate scans at the same time. It was generally slower at detecting outdoor walking workouts, but when I agreed to record a workout it usually showed the same duration as the premium watch. It also usually recognized when I’d stopped walking quicker than my Series 7.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist, held up in front of a red building and tree.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

As for the other missing features, I honestly haven’t really used the Series 7’s ECG and blood oxygen readings that I’ve had for a year. I’ve done maybe three scans of each type in that time, and I definitely rely on heart rate more than blood oxygen to gauge my fitness.

I only noticed that the AOD was missing in the SE when I wore both the SE and Series 7 and they each buzzed with an alarm. I had to wait a split second for the SE’s screen to wake up, while on the Series 7 the notification could appear instantly. Other than that, however, the AOD didn’t have a huge impact on my experience with the SE.

It didn’t even affect battery life, for better or for worse. You’d think the SE would last longer without the always-on display, but most days the SE and my Series 7 lasted equally, even though the latter had an AOD. Both hung around throughout the day, tracking my morning workouts and frequent outdoor walks while providing various reminders and alerts. I was usually able to make it to the next morning even with some leftover battery.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist, held up in front of a row of colorful kettlebells.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

I’ve yet to test the new low-power mode on the Watch SE, but I tried it out on the Series 8 when I was about 20 percent juiced before an 8am workout class one morning. I enabled low-power mode and was able to track the entire 45-minute session and return home with less than 10 percent left.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the Watch SE still had 92 percent battery after tracking my sleep overnight. I woke up to a report showing all the zones I went through in my five hours of sleep and the time I spent in the core, deep and REM phases. This is a watchOS 9 feature, so if you have an older model, you’ll get it when you update your software.

The Apple Watch SE (2022) on a person's wrist with an activity app and rings.

Cherlynn Low / Engadget

Compared to the last Watch SE, this year’s model has a larger screen and the new SiP and sensors I mentioned earlier. If you’re considering an upgrade from this model, the new SE will certainly feel fresh. However, when deciding between a new SE and a Series 8, it’s less a question of what you can live without and more of how much money you have left. Those who don’t mind spending $150 more can buy the Series 8 to ensure they have all the features Apple offers. Otherwise, most people will be happy with what the new Watch SE delivers for the money.

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