Apple Watch SE (2022) Review: Almost Everything I Want in a Smartwatch
Editor's Choice: Apple's new budget smartwatch is a step up from the original, but it still doesn't have everything on my wish list.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Editor's note, Nov. 17: The Apple Watch SE proves you don't need the most expensive smartwatch to get a great experience. The $249 Apple Watch SE has most of the Apple Watch's most important features at a much lower price than the $400 Series 8, which is why it's earned a CNET Editors' Choice award. My original review, published in September, follows.
Say goodbye to the Series 3; the 2022 Apple Watch SE is now the cheapest smartwatch in Apple's lineup. The second-gen SE starts at $249 (£259, AU$399) and replaces the $279 original model as well as the $199 Series 3.
The new Apple Watch SE's upgrades are modest rather than dramatic, but they should keep the watch feeling fast and relevant for years to come. Such changes include a new processor that matches the one inside the $400 Series 8, car-crash detection and a tweaked design. You'll also get new features that are coming to certain other Apple Watch models, like low-power mode for extending battery life and a new version of the Compass app to help you retrace your steps.
Most new features can be found on older watches too
At $249, the Apple Watch SE is the best option for those who just want a smartwatch for tasks like reading iPhone notifications, tracking workouts, logging sleep and using Apple Pay from your wrist. Much like the iPhone SE, the Apple Watch SE offers the basics along with Apple's newest processor at a more palatable price than its flagship counterpart. And if you want cellular connectivity, you only have to pay $50 extra for the LTE-enabled version, unlike the cellular Series 8, which costs $100 more than the GPS-only version.
The Apple Watch SE is a versatile and relatively affordable smartwatch. But it's missing one feature I would have loved to see at this price: an always-on display.
There also aren't many new features that are exclusive to the SE, which might make a tough case for upgrading. The Apple Watch SE is best for people who are buying an Apple Watch for the first time or are upgrading from a Series 3 or earlier.
Apple Watch SE design
At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the new Apple Watch SE for the 2020 model. Like its predecessor, the new SE is available in an aluminum finish and comes in 40- and 44-millimeter options. What has changed, however, is the SE's color choices. You'll get to choose between midnight, starlight and silver, while the 2020 version came in silver, space gray and gold.
Apple also redesigned the back of the watch with a new finish that more closely matches the Apple Watch's casing. It's a nice touch that makes the new SE feel more premium, but it's only noticeable when the watch isn't on your wrist.
The Apple Watch SE lacks the larger screen found on the Series 8 and Series 7, which for the most part, didn't make much of a difference. I've been switching between the Series 8 and the new SE during the course of this review, and I've also worn the Series 7 for the past year.
The biggest thing I miss about having that larger display is the ability to use an on-screen QWERTY keyboard for quickly responding to texts when I'm away from my phone. Samsung's $280 Galaxy Watch 5, which also comes in a 40mm option and is around the same price as the Apple Watch SE, has a digital keyboard. I wish Apple could have found a way to make this work, too, but you can still send messages through dictation or by scribbling letters.
If you prefer to use a larger text size on the Apple Watch, you may also benefit from using one of the larger models. But otherwise, the SE's display has plenty of space for comfortably reading notifications and news headlines.
Above all else, I hoped Apple would bring an always-on display to the new Apple Watch SE. I've grown accustomed to seeing the time, progress on my activity rings and the weather whenever I look down at my wrist after wearing the Series 7 and Series 8. But now that I'm wearing the SE, my Apple Watch turns into a blank, black square unless I intentionally activate the display. (Again, Samsung's similarly priced Galaxy Watch 5 has this feature, as do Fitbit's Versa and Sense watches, which also work with the iPhone.)
It's reasonable that the SE is missing certain features found on the Series 8 and other flagships. But an always-on display seems like something that should be standard across the Apple Watch lineup at this point after debuting three years ago.
Apple Watch SE speed
Inside the Apple Watch SE is Apple's S8 processor, the same chip that powers the Series 8. This makes the SE feel snappy and smooth overall; apps launched quickly, and Siri was able to recognize my speech right away. Apple says the new SE is 20% faster than its predecessor, and the upgrade is noticeable. Apps opened instantly on the new SE, whereas the 2020 Apple Watch SE sometimes experienced a slight pause.
But what's really significant about the SE gaining the Series 8's processor is that it future-proofs the SE to some degree. New features coming to future versions of WatchOS will likely work on the 2022 SE since it runs on Apple's newest processor.
In the past, certain features haven't been available on older watches because of their aging hardware -- even if that model supported the overall software update. Handwashing detection, for example, is only available on the Series 4 and higher even though the Series 3 supported Apple's WatchOS 7 software.
The SE's new processor means you likely won't have to worry about missing out on features like this in the future. The 2020 SE, by comparison, runs on Apple's S5 chip from the Series 5, which is now about three generations old.
Apple Watch SE battery
There's good news and then there's bad news when it comes to battery life. First, the bad: The Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 8 each have the same 18-hour battery life as their predecessors. Now, the good news: Apple is adding a low-power mode to the Apple Watch. There's even better news for current Apple Watch owners: it'll be available for the Series 4 and later.
Low-power mode limits the Apple Watch's sensors and turns off certain features, like the always-on display (for watches that support it), automatic workout detection and background heart-rate measurements to preserve battery life. Apple says low-power mode can extend the Apple Watch's battery life up to 36 hours for the Series 8 when its accompanying iPhone is present.
I haven't had the chance to test this feature for 36 hours continuously yet, but I've been switching between regular and low-power mode on the new SE to see the difference. After 12 hours of use with the battery starting at 100%, my Apple Watch SE had more battery capacity left with low-power mode turned on compared to similar usage without it. But the difference was minimal. Low-power mode will likely make a bigger difference on the Series 8 and other flagship watches: Those devices have more features that will be limited in low-power mode, such as an always-on display and blood oxygen saturation measurements, so the difference should be more noticeable.
Apple Watch SE battery life
Low-power mode on
12 hours of use, including about 1 hour of outdoor workout tracking
Low-power mode off
12 hours of use, including about 1 hour of outdoor workout tracking
Apple Watch SE features
The other major new addition coming to the Apple Watch SE, Series 8 and Ultra is the ability to detect car crashes. Apple upgraded the accelerometer and gyroscope inside its new watch lineup to enable this feature. The company also says its crash detection algorithm is based on data from professional crash test labs that simulate head-on, rear-end, side-impact and rollover accidents.
When a crash is detected, Apple will alert emergency services and share your location if you've been unresponsive for 10 seconds. Your emergency contacts will also be alerted. (This feature is present in the iPhone 14 lineup as well.)
Car-crash detection adds to the selection of safety features Apple has been offering for years. These include emergency SOS and fall detection. It also comes after Google had previously added crash detection to its Pixel phones.
Apple is also bringing improvements to the Apple Watch's Compass app that should make it easier to navigate unfamiliar areas and mark points of interest. Two new features, Backtrack and Waypoint, are coming to the Series 6 and later, including both generations of the Apple Watch SE.
Backtrack does exactly as its name suggests; it uses GPS to create a path so that it can point you in the right direction to retrace your steps later. Waypoint lets you mark your current location as a point of interest.
I turned on Backtrack when walking just under a mile from my home to a nearby park. When it was time to go home, the Compass app displayed a straight line representing the path I took on my way to the park, along with an arrow pointing me in the direction of that path.
I could see this being useful for navigating open areas that Google Maps might not be able to help you with, like a campsite or festival ground. You can turn on Backtrack manually by opening the Compass app and tapping the icon that looks like footprints. Apple also says it'll turn on automatically when you're off the grid, but I haven't had the chance to try this yet.
Samsung offers a similar feature for outdoor hikes and cycling on the Galaxy Watch 5 Pro, although it works a little differently. The feature, called Track Back, displays your current location and the path you traveled to get there on a map, as my colleague Lexy Savvides explains in her Galaxy Watch 5 Pro review.
Apple Watch SE vs. Series 8: Health tracking, compared
The Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 8 have a lot in common when it comes to activity tracking. Both watches are swim-proof, support the same variety of exercise modes, offer sleep tracking and can measure heart rate and your cardio fitness level. You'll also get notifications for high and low heart rates and irregular heart rhythms on both watches. After using the Series 7 for almost a year, I didn't miss much when tracking workouts with the SE instead.
Where the two watches really differ is in their health-monitoring capabilities. Unlike the Series 8 and Series 7, the Apple Watch SE can't take an ECG from your wrist or measure blood oxygen saturation levels. It also doesn't have temperature sensing, which is new to the more expensive Series 8 and the high-end $800 Apple Watch Ultra.
Whether these omissions matter depends on your needs and what you're looking for in a smartwatch. I rarely find myself taking an ECG or a blood oxygen reading on the Series 7. But those who want to keep a closer eye on cardiac and respiratory health and share that data with their doctors might.
The Series 8's new temperature sensor seems like it has the potential to be more useful to me on a regular basis. The watch has two sensors -- one underneath the display and another on the back, closer to your wrist -- so it can measure your wrist temperature overnight. You must sleep with the watch for five nights so that it can establish your baseline wrist temperature before receiving readings in the Apple Health app. Once it records your baseline, you'll be able to see whether your wrist temperature deviates from the norm overnight.
Since I haven't had the Series 8 for long, I can't say how useful this functionality is, or whether it makes the Series 8 worth recommending over the cheaper SE. I've only been wearing it long enough to get readings for the past five nights, and I suspect this metric will be more valuable to track over the long term.
Apple charts wrist temperature data in a graph within the Apple Health app, but it seems like it's largely up to you to make sense of it. I've deviated from my baseline wrist temperature on most nights, according to the readings I've received so far. Over the weekend, my wrist temperature was higher than normal -- which makes sense considering I had a few drinks with friends on those nights. But I'm curious over the long term to see if these deviations correlate with when I'm feeling under the weather, which could be a sign that I need some extra rest. That would be particularly useful considering the Apple Watch doesn't have a readiness score like the Oura or Fitbit.
Apple is promoting fertility planning as the primary benefit of measuring wrist temperature. The company says the Series 8 can provide retrospective ovulation estimates, by way of the Series 8's new temperature sensor, along with more accurate period predictions.
Apple says data stored in the health app -- including female health statistics like ovulation estimates -- is encrypted when your iPhone is locked with a passcode, Face ID or Touch ID. The same goes for data backed up to iCloud. You'll also want to make sure two-factor authentication is enabled for your iCloud account, which should be turned on by default. This ensures that health data is end-to-end encrypted, meaning Apple cannot read or access your data.
To make sure two-factor authentication is on, open the Settings menu on your iPhone, tap your name, and choose the Password & Security option. Check out our full review of the Series 8 for more information about the Series 8's temperature sensor.
Apple Watch SE: The bottom line
At $250, the Apple Watch SE is a compelling choice if you don't want to spend $400 or more on a new Apple Watch. The new model is about $30 less expensive than the previous Watch SE, but $50 more than the Apple Watch Series 3, which used to be the cheapest watch in Apple's lineup. That extra $50 gets you a much faster processor, support for Apple's WatchOS 9 software, a larger screen, fall detection and more.
The Apple Watch SE is the best choice for those who just want a smartwatch for receiving iPhone notifications on their wrist, tracking workouts and sleep and using features like Apple Pay. The Apple Watch SE feels like a general purpose smartwatch and fitness tracker, while flagship watches like the Series 8 are moving in a more health-centric direction.
The Apple Watch SE's lack of an always-on display is a disappointment, and it's the one feature I found myself missing after switching to the SE from the Series 7 or Series 8. Some of the Apple Watch SE's new features, such as low-power mode and the updated Compass app's Backtrack and Waypoint tools, aren't exclusive to the SE and can be found on certain older models.
That's great for current watch owners because it means you may not have to upgrade to get new functionality. However, it also means you probably won't need to upgrade to the SE if you have the 2020 version or another recent Apple Watch, like the Series 5 or Series 6. But the fact that the SE has the same chip as the Series 8 means it will likely run smoothly and support software updates for a long time.
Overall, the Apple Watch SE is the right choice if you're buying an Apple Watch for the first time or upgrading from an older watch like the Series 3. But most other people who've bought a new Apple Watch in the last three years can probably give this a pass.