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Apple Watch SE's lack of always-on display actually isn't a deal breaker: Our first impressions

Hands-on with Apple's newest affordable smartwatch, the Apple Watch SE.

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The Apple Watch SE.

Apple/Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET
This story is part of Apple Event, our full coverage of the latest news from Apple headquarters.

Featuring WatchOS 7, water resistance and a proprietary dual-core S5 processor, the Apple Watch SE serves as a cheaper alternative to the flagship Apple Watch Series 6. The Apple Watch SE starts at $279 (£269, AU$429). It comes in cellular and Wi-Fi-only variants and ships out Sept. 18.

Though it doesn't have all the same high-end features as the Series 6, such as blood oxygen level measuring and an electocardiogram (EKG or ECG) sensor, the Watch SE still has some features that are new to WatchOS 7. That includes new watch faces and Family Setup. Staple features such as sleep tracking, fall detection and messaging are also built into the Watch SE. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple unveils lower-priced Apple Watch SE
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One particular software feature that is missing from the Watch SE is the lack of an always-on display. Introduced in the Watch Series 5 last year and continued in the Watch Series 6, an always-on display doesn't require you to raise your wrist or tap the screen to look at the time or check for notifications.

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The Apple Watch SE with the Solo and Braided loops.

Apple/Screenshot by Lynn La/CNET

As big fans of the always-on display, we believed this would be a deal breaker. But during our brief time with the Watch SE, we noticed that the SE's raise-to-wake feature works fast and smoothly enough that we hardly missed the always-on display.

The Watch SE doesn't have as fast as a processor as the Watch Series 6, but the company said the SE is twice as fast as 2017's Series 3 watch. During our time with it, we didn't notice much difference in speed between the Watch SE and the Watch 6.

The Watch SE also looks similar to the Series 6 and has the same brightness and resolution. It will be compatible with Apple's two new watch bands, the Solo and Braided loop, too. We checked out the Solo loop and the material felt very comfortable. Rather than fussing with a fastener, it's convenient to simply slip onto your wrist, which is handy when you have your hands full. Finding the perfect fit is important, however, and Apple provided steps to help you pick the right size. 

Though the Watch SE is cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 6 ($399, £379, AU$599), it's hardly the cheapest wearable on the market. The Galaxy Watch Active 2, for example, costs the same and the Fitbit Versa 2 is cheaper at $200. The SE isn't even the cheapest wearable you can buy new from Apple. The Apple Watch Series 3, which launched in 2017, currently goes for $199.

For more on the Apple Watch SE, check out CNET's comparison, Apple Watch Series 6 vs. SE: What's the difference between them anyway?