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Apple Watch SE vs Series 6 vs. Series 3: How to choose?

We compare the most important differences between Apple's three smartwatches.

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CNET

There's a reason why the Apple Watch ($199 at Best Buy) continues to dominate smartwatch sales. It can do almost as much as your smartphone, it's one of the best fitness trackers out there and it even keeps your vitals in check. I've spent a lot of time wearing the latest Series 6 ($399), the $279 SE and $199 Series 3. I also over-research every purchase in my life. So trust me when I tell you there's no bad choice when it comes to buying an Apple Watch. (See the chart below for a full specs breakdown, including international prices.)

Even the Series 3, which still has its shortcomings (like battery life), will give you most of the features you need in a smartwatch. Everything beyond that is a "nice to have" that will mostly depend on your budget. Here's a breakdown of Apple's smartwatches to help you narrow it down. 

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Apple Watch Series 3: The most affordable option with a few trade-offs

If you're still unsure about making the leap from analogue wrist watch to smartwatch, or if you're on a budget, the Apple Watch Series 3 may just be your ticket. Starting at $200 the square watch face looks almost exactly the same as the more expensive models and packs in all the core fitness and smart features you need.

It's an extension of your smartphone that lets you make calls, send texts, get notifications and listen to music, as well as a fitness tracker that pushes you to improve your activity levels with a ring-based system. 

Like the more expensive Apple Watches, the Series 3 automatically detects over 12 different workouts, including swimming and cycling, and it gives you access to Apple's new Fitness Plus service, allowing you to stream guided workouts from home. And thanks to its built-in GPS, you can track your route even when you don't have your phone in tow. 

The Apple Watch Series 3 will also keep track of your cardio fitness levels. It has a lot of the same health features as the SE and the Series 6 including basic sleep tracking; cycle tracking; and measuring high, low and irregular heart rate alerts. The health features it misses out on include the built-in ECG, blood oxygen or SpO2 tracking, noise alerts and fall detection.

Series 3 downsides: No LTE and it's the older model

Despite its draws, there's the risk that this watch may have a shorter shelf life. It's currently the oldest model to receive WatchOS updates (Apple's smartwatch operating system) and only offers 8GB of storage which would preclude any larger updates in the future. This doesn't mean it'll stop working all of a sudden, but if and when it's left out of the WatchOS update cycle, you won't have access to the latest features and the integration with the iPhone ($900 at Boost Mobile) may not be as seamless. 

Also, Apple only offers a GPS version of the Series 3, so it won't work if you're buying it as a primary device for a child or family member and you want to use Family Setup

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Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Apple Watch SE: The best bang for your buck

The Apple Watch SE is the Apple Watch I recommend for most people because it has the best balance of price and features. It costs more than the Series 3, but if you have a little wiggle room in your budget it may be worth it for the faster processor (S5 chip vs. S3), a bigger and brighter screen, louder speaker, fall detection and longer battery life. That last one is key if you're using the Watch to track your sleep. The SE is also the cheapest option if you need an LTE model of the Apple Watch. 

Apple Watch SE downsides: No extra health features, no always-on screen

The Apple Watch SE has a raise-to-wake screen, meaning it fades to black when it's not in use. So if you're not a fan of having to flick your wrist to see the time, this might be a deal-breaker. You won't miss it if you've never used a watch with an always-on screen, but now that I've had a taste of the always-on display on the Series 6, it'd be hard for me to go back.

You also won't get the advanced health sensors found in the Series 6: the ECG and the blood oxygen monitor.

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Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Apple Watch Series 6: The FOMO-free smartwatch 

Starting at $399, the Apple Watch Series 6 has the most advanced features Apple offers on a smartwatch, with an even brighter screen than the Apple Watch SE that's easy to see even when it's on standby. 

The Series 6 is the only Watch with an always-on display and it has a built-in ECG app on your wrist. (These features were first introduced on the Apple Watch Series 5 in 2019, which Apple has since stopped selling.) The Series 6 is also the first, and only Apple Watch to monitor blood oxygen levels both on demand, or automatically as you go about your day (and while you sleep). It's not FDA-cleared like the ECG app and is not intended to be used as a medical device, but you can see all your readings plotted out over time in the Health app on your iPhone. Most people won't need all this data, but if you're a health nut, or have any respiratory issues, it's yet another source of information to keep tabs on. 

The Series 6 is the only Apple Watch that comes in a blue and red aluminum finish (aside from the silver, space grey and gold options) and the only model that's available with a stainless steel or titanium frame. 

Apple Watch Series 6 downsides: Faster charging but shorter battery life 

For all its convenience, the always-on display drains the battery faster. The Apple Watch SE usually gives me a day and a half of battery before I need to recharge, while the Series 6 with always-on lasts 2 hours less. You can always disable the feature to get more out of the Watch, but that kind of defeats the purpose of getting it in the first place. 

The silver lining is that the Series 6 charges faster than its predecessors and reaches a full charge in 1.5 hours, versus 2 hours on the SE. 

Specs


Apple Watch Series 3 Apple Watch SE Apple Watch Series 6
Price $199, £199, AU$299 $279, £269, AU$429 $399, £379, AU$599
Watch size 38mm,42mm 40mm, 44mm 40mm, 44mm
Colors Silver, space grey Silver, space grey, gold Silver, space grey, gold, blue and red
Material Aluminum Aluminum Aluminum, Stainless steel and Titanium
Always-On No No Yes
Interchangable bands Yes Yes Yes
GPS Built-in Built-in Built-in
Automatic workout detection Yes Yes Yes
Compass No Yes Yes
Water resistance Yes, up to 50m Yes, up to 50m Yes, up to 50m
Electrocardiogram No No Yes
Blood Oxygen No No Yes
Emergency features Emergency SOS (911 and emergency contacts) Fall detection, Emergency SOS Fall detection, Emergency SOS
Apple Pay Yes Yes Yes
Compatibility iOS/iPhone only iOS/iPhone only iOS/iPhone only
Software WatchOS 7 WatchOS 7 WatchOS 7
Processor S3 chip S5 chip S6 chip
Connectivity Wi-Fi only Wi-Fi and Cellular option Wi-Fi and Cellular option
Storage 8GB 32GB 32GB
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