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Apple Watch SE vs. Series 7: Black Friday deals give you another reason to buy the SE instead

The Apple Watch Series 7 has more health features and a bigger screen. But the Apple Watch SE is still a great value, especially on Black Friday.

Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE is still a great value in 2021. 

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Apple Watch fans shopping for a new smartwatch have three options to choose from: The high-end $399 (£369, AU$599) Apple Watch Series 7 (which replaces the Series 6), the midrange $279 (£249, AU$429) Apple Watch SE and the budget $199 (£179, AU$299) Apple Watch Series 3. Although the Series 7 comes with Apple's latest health features and a bigger screen, it's hard to beat the Apple Watch SE's value. That's especially true heading into Black Friday since Best Buy is offering it at a $60 discount in the US. The deal brings the SE's starting price down to just $219, making it the best Black Friday Apple Watch deal we expect to see this year. 

Although the cheaper $199 Series 3 can be tempting, we recommend opting for one of Apple's newer watches since the Series 3 is now four years old and can be difficult to update. That leaves the Series 7 and SE, and you're probably wondering how to decide between them.

Read more: Apple Black Friday deals: $219 Watch SE, $159 AirPods Pro and more

Like many buying decisions, choosing the right Apple Watch comes down to how you plan to use it. If you want the newest watch that can provide more details about your health in addition to basic activity and exercise tracking, go for the Series 7

But for those primarily interested in the Apple Watch's core functionality, you can save a lot of money without compromising much by choosing the Apple Watch SE instead. Tasks like logging workouts, checking your heart rate, setting timers and alarms with Siri, receiving notifications and using Apple Pay all work fine across both Apple Watch models. This makes it feel like the best option for most people, while the Series 7 can be considered a premium option for those with more demanding health tracking priorities. 

Here's a closer look at how to decide which Apple Watch is right for you.

Read more: 9 Apple Watch settings you should change right away

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The Apple Watch SE's screen is spacious enough, but the Series 7 includes a key feature

The screen serves as one of the biggest differences between the Apple Watch Series 7 and the Apple Watch SE, not just in size but also in its features.

The Series 7 comes with a larger display than any other Apple Watch since Apple minimized the borders that frame the screen. As a result, the Series 7 is slightly larger and comes in 41-millimeter and 45mm sizes, compared to the SE's 40mm and 44mm size options. That roomier screen means you'll get two new watch faces, an on-screen keyboard and two additional text size options that aren't available on other Apple Watches, including the SE.

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The Apple Watch Series 7 is the only model with a built-in QWERTY keyboard.

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Having a keyboard for responding to text messages is a nice perk, but the difference in size isn't going to mean you'll want to start writing longer text messages using your wrist. The Apple Watch SE's screen doesn't fit Apple's new keyboard, but it's still large enough to comfortably read messages and news headlines. The SE's screen is also roomier than the display used on the Apple Watch Series 3 and earlier, so if you are looking to upgrade from an Apple Watch from 2017 or earlier you will notice the difference. All told, the Series 7's bigger screen makes the experience feel more refined, but it shouldn't be the only reason you choose the Series 7 over the SE.

Instead, if this is your first Apple Watch or if you are coming from the Apple Watch Series 4 or earlier, ask yourself how much you care about having an always-on display. The Series 7's screen can show watch faces even when your wrist is down and the display is idle, unlike the Apple Watch SE. For some people, this might be a deal-breaker. After all, the Apple Watch isn't just a utilitarian device. It's also a fashion accessory, and I can imagine some people would rather flaunt a colorful watch face all the time instead of having their watch turn into a black square when the screen times out. 

Now playing: Watch this: Apple Watch Series 7 review: An improvement
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The always-on display is arguably more important to the overall experience than the difference in screen size. I've tested almost every Apple Watch model since the original's release in 2015, and the always-on display is one of the biggest features I tend to miss when switching from a flagship model (like the Series 6 or 7) to a budget option (like the SE or Series 3). It just makes the watch better at its two most important jobs: telling the time, and offering quick glanceable information. No more raising your wrist at the right angle or tapping the screen to check your stats during a workout. 

You'll also get more color options and finishes to choose from by opting for the Series 7 over the SE. The Apple Watch Series 7 is available in aluminum, stainless steel and titanium finishes (although the latter two choices will drive up the price significantly), while the Apple Watch SE only comes in aluminum. Apple's newest watch is available in midnight (black), starlight (a mix of silver and gold), green, blue and red. The Apple Watch SE, by comparison, only comes in space gray, silver and gold.

Apple also improved the watch's durability with the Series 7 by adding dust resistance and tougher front crystal. It's a welcome change, but not one that should really factor into your buying decision unless you work in a dust-prone environment like a construction site. 

The Apple Watch Series 7 is fully loaded with health sensors -- but ask yourself if you need them

Apple Watch Series 7

All Apple Watches, including the Series 7 (pictured), the SE and Series 3, offer activity tracking. But the Series 7 offers more in-depth health measurements like ECG readings and blood oxygen saturation. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

Looking for a smartwatch to track things like your heart rate, calories burned and distance during a run? The Apple Watch SE will be more than enough. Both smartwatches come with tools runners will appreciate, such as GPS, an optical heart rate sensor, a compass for more precise navigation and an always-on altimeter for tracking elevation in real time. Both watches also offer the same selection of exercise types in the workout app and Apple's signature Activity Rings. 

Read more: The 2 Apple Watch features that changed my mind about smartwatches

But if you want a more detailed picture of your health, consider the Apple Watch Series 7. Like last year's Series 6, Apple's new top-tier watch is the only model in the current lineup to include a blood oxygen sensor and an electrical heart sensor for taking an ECG from your wrist. The question, however, is whether you need those sensors. Apple says the Apple Watch is not intended for medical use and its readings should only serve as clues about your general wellness -- not medical advice.

With that in mind, the watch's blood oxygen and ECG readings are probably best-suited for those who might need to keep a closer eye on their overall health. They provide another piece of data you can discuss with your doctor if you're concerned about your cardiac or respiratory health. 

Otherwise, the Apple Series 7 and Apple Watch SE share many of the same wellness and safety features. These include the ability to call for help with Emergency SOS, contact emergency services internationally, automatically detect when you've taken a hard fall and alert you when the noise levels in your surroundings could potentially damage your hearing. They also both include the Mindfulness app for participating in breathing and reflection exercises and the Sleep app, which monitors time spent asleep and sleeping respiratory rate.

Both Apple Watch models also work with the Apple Fitness Plus exercise service and sync with GymKit compatible exercise machines like the Peloton Bike Plus.

The Apple Watch Series 7 and Apple Watch SE have the same battery life, but the Series 7 charges faster

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The Apple Watch Series 7 (pictured) charges more quickly than the SE. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

When it comes to the Apple Watch's battery life, not much has changed in recent years. Instead, Apple has cut down the amount of time it takes to power up your watch with the Series 7. That makes it easier to top off the battery in the morning after a night of sleep tracking. 

The Apple Watch Series 7 comes with some internal changes and a new fast charger that should enable it to replenish 80% of its battery in about 45 minutes and 100% in roughly 75 minutes, according to Apple's estimates. The Apple Watch SE, by comparison, should take 1.5 hours to charge to 80% and 2.5 hours to fully charge.

In my own experience, the Apple Watch Series 7 charged noticeably faster than the Series 6 -- which also charges more quickly than the Apple Watch SE. But these changes were only noticeable when I left the Series 7 on its charger for at least a half hour. After 30 minutes of charging, the Series 7 had gone from zero to 54% while the Series 6 had only replenished 37% of its battery.

The faster charging adds some convenience to the Apple Watch. But like its other upgrades, it's not enough of a selling point on its own. 

The two watches have all the same connectivity features, but the Series 7 has a faster processor

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The Apple Watch SE (pictured) has many of the same features as the Series 7 at a lower price. 

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Aside from an always-on display and the health features mentioned above, the Apple Watch Series 7 and Apple Watch SE have a lot of the same functionality. Both watches support Apple Pay and Apple Wallet and allow you to view notifications and respond to messages from your wrist (although you'll only get the QWERTY keyboard on the Series 7). 

Each watch comes with a microphone and speaker for taking phone calls and interacting with Siri and they both include 32GB of onboard storage. You can choose to buy either watch with just GPS or both GPS and cellular connectivity.

Where they differ is in their processor. The Apple Watch Series 7 comes with Apple's S7 chip, which offers the same performance as the Series 6 and is 20% faster than the SE. The difference isn't very noticeable though; navigating around the Apple Watch SE's interface still felt snappy and smooth. The Series 7 also has Apple's U1 ultrawideband chip unlike the Apple Watch SE. That chip, which is also found in the iPhone 11, 12 and 13 and AirTags, makes it easier for the Apple Watch to communicate with nearby devices. 

Ultrawideband isn't a new technology. But it's still relatively new to consumer tech devices like smartwatches and phones, so there isn't much functionality built around it yet. For now, the most promising use cases involve making it easier for Apple devices to communicate with one another. The U1 chip improves AirDrop on the iPhone, for example, and also enables the HomePod Mini to pass off music and podcasts to your iPhone. 

In theory, the U1 chip should also make the Series 7 work better as a digital car key since it improves communication with nearby devices. But Apple Watch models as old as the Series 5 also support the ability to unlock your car, so it's unclear whether the U1 chip adds much to the experience in this regard. My guess is that this chip will become more important in the future once companies like Apple build more use cases for it.

How to choose the right Apple Watch

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The Apple Watch lineup includes the Apple Watch SE (left), Apple Watch Series 7 (middle) and Apple Watch Series 3 (right). But the Series 3 is four years old and difficult to update, so we recommend considering one of the other two watches instead. 

Lisa Eadicicco/CNET

When deciding between the two watches, it's best to think about how the Series 7's additional features come together to contribute to the whole experience rather than individual specs. The extra health capabilities (ECG and blood oxygen apps), larger always-on screen, faster charging and new processor make the Series 7 a better choice for those who prioritize sleep tracking and gaining a more holistic view of their health. It's also the right option for shoppers who want to make sure their Apple Watch stays relevant for years to come, since it runs on a newer chip, and don't mind spending more money to do so. 

The Apple Watch SE, on the other hand, feels like the best watch for most people. It's essentially a cross between the Apple Watch Series 4 and Apple Watch Series 5, which means it still has a lot to offer for those who just want to receive notifications, track workouts and use Apple Pay. That being said, since the S5 chip in the SE is already two generations old, there's a chance it could start feeling slow over the next couple of years. 

Apple Watch Series 7 vs. Apple Watch SE


Apple Watch Series 7 Apple Watch SE
Starting price $399 (£369, AU$599) $279 (£249, AU$429)
Size 41mm/45mm 40mm/44mm
Display Always-on with nearly 20% more screen area than the SE Always-on and more than 30% larger than Series 3
Display resolution 352x430 (41mm), 396x484 (45mm) 324x394 (40mm); 368x448 (44mm)
Durability Water resistance; IP6X dust resistance Water resistance
Sensors Blood oxygen, electrical heart, optical heart, compass, always-on altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS/GNSS, ambient light Optical heart, compass, always-on altimeter, accelerometer, gyroscope, GPS/GNSS, ambient light
Safety features Fall detection, noise monitoring, emergency SOS, international emergency calling Fall detection, noise monitoring, emergency SOS, international emergency calling
Processor Apple S7 system-on-a-chip Apple S5 system-on-a-chip
Colors Aluminum: midnight, starlight, green, blue red; stainless steel: silver, graphite, gold; titanium: natural, space black Aluminum: space gray, silver, gold
Battery Life Up to 18 hours, charges to 100% in 75 minutes Up to 18 hours, charges to 100% in 2.5 hours
Storage 32GB 32GB
Connectivity Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, W3 wireless chip, U1 chip, optional LTE Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, W3 wireless chip, optional LTE