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You can do better than the Apple Watch Series 3 in 2021, even if you want to save money

Cheaper doesn't necessarily mean best value.

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The Apple Watch Series 3.

The Apple Watch Series 3 was a turning point for the Apple Watch line back when it debuted in 2017. The third version of the Apple Watch was the first to include a cellular option that did not require an iPhone to be nearby to work. This let it work for Dick Tracy style phone calls and CNET's Scott Stein touted in his review that when combined with Apple Music the watch began to feel like an iPod Shuffle on his wrist. Now in 2021, you can still buy the Apple Watch Series 3 for $199 (£199, AU$299) and it's still actively getting updates from Apple to support WatchOS 8. 

This makes the Apple Watch Series 3 at $199 the cheapest entry point for the Apple Watch in 2021, as it was last year in 2020. Even though it's the least expensive way to get access to an Apple Watch, WatchOS 8 and the world of watchbands that clip into the Apple Watch, there's also a question of whether or not it's a good value at that price. At $199 or less, there are also newer competing watches that work with iOS and Android, have modern features that the Apple Watch does not have like an always-on display and will likely get continued support years into the future. The latter point is of considerable note, since there's no guarantee that the Series 3 will see the eventual WatchOS 9 after already receiving four years worth of support.

Let's go over a few reasons why you should be wary if considering the Apple Watch Series 3, along with comparable alternatives.

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Updates

The Apple Watch Series 3 is still able to get updated to the new WatchOS 8 operating system, but the process of getting that update installed might be more trouble than it's worth. Apple offers its own support page on what to do if you do not have enough space to update your Apple Watch, which involves having to unpair the watch and set it up as new in order to make enough space for the update.

That's because the Apple Watch Series 3 includes 8GB of internal space for the version without cellular, while the step-up Apple Watch SE at $279 includes 32GB. The cellular version of the Apple Watch Series 3 had 16GB of space, but that was discontinued. We don't yet have technical specifications for the Apple Watch Series 7, but last year's Series 6 also includes 32GB of space. 

It's unlikely that most Apple Watch users will ever use all of their storage space, but for downloading and installing an update, the Apple Watch Series 3 clearly does not have enough space to make updating simple. By comparison, when I've updated the Apple Watch SE or the $180 Fitbit Versa 2 that released in 2019, I just plop the watch into a charger, fire up the respective app for the watch from my phone and start the update from there. Roughly 10 to 20 minutes later, the process is done.

Apple Watch SE

The Apple Watch SE hits a middle ground of modern Apple Watch specs at a lower price than the Series 6 or upcoming Series 7.

Vanessa Hand Orellana/CNET

Older specs

The Apple Watch Series 3's age also includes its overall specifications, and it's not just a storage space difference as mentioned in the last section. The Series 3 includes an S3 SiP with a dual-core processor, a version of the optical heart sensor available in 2017 and on the 38mm version a 563 square millimeter display area. While newer updates do add compatibility with services like Apple Fitness Plus, a software update does not change that many of these specs are showing their age. The Apple Watch SE by comparison has a newer chip with a 64-bit dual-core processor, a second-generation version of the optical heart sensor and on the 40mm version includes a 759 sq mm display area that's far roomier than the Apple Watch Series 3's display.

Even though the Apple Watch SE is $80 more than the Apple Watch Series 3, its feature list further shows off how much more you receive over that Series 3 model. An always-on altimeter can track your elevation, the watch includes fall detection, heart health notifications, Bluetooth 5.0 for better connections with wireless headphones and many other features that are available in the Apple Watch Series 6. The main differences that keep the price $120 less than the Apple Watch Series 6 are the lack of an always-on display and a few health features like no ECG sensor. That said, if those sensors and an always-on display are important to you, you might want to cast a wider net than just Apple's watches.

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Fitbit Charge 5 includes many of the newest health tracking sensors into a wearable that's cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 3.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Better options for $199 or less

Once you turn away from just considering the Apple Watch, there are several other options that handle many of the Apple Watch's best features and in a few ways perform even better.

Fitbit is particularly stacked with products under $199 that might do everything you want the Apple Watch to do. The aforementioned Fitbit Versa 2 at $180 has six days of battery life, fitness tracking, sleep tracking and an oxygen saturation (SpO2) sensor. That last sensor is available on the Apple Watch, but only if you pay up for the Apple Watch Series 6 or the upcoming Series 7. If you are willing to trim the battery life down to two days, you can use that watch's always-on display. The weaker points of the Versa 2 are its limited third-party app support, which is unlikely to grow now that Fitbit will be turning its attention toward supporting Google's Wear OS.

For the same $180, you can also get the brand new Fitbit Charge 5. While this one is more of a fitness tracker, it's stacked with nearly every modern fitness tracking feature (including an ECG sensor and stress tracking) along with GPS.

And while we haven't tested it, Mobvoi's $199 TicWatch E3 is slated to be updated to the next version of Google's Wear OS that is codesigned with Samsung. That watch currently supports the previous version of Wear OS, includes health tracking features along with the SpO2 sensor and is waterproof with an IP68 rating for pool swimming. It's worth caveating that we're still learning more about the new version of Wear OS, including its compatibility with the iPhone and which Fitbit features are eventually making their way into Google's OS.

Go refurbished

Another way to get a better Apple Watch and save some money is to turn to Apple's refurbished store, which can get you a discounted Apple Watch Series 4, Series 5 or Series 6 with a one-year warranty. Of note at the time of this writing, the Apple Watch Series 5 in that store is currently at $309, which for slightly more than the Apple Watch SE includes an always-on display.

Yet if you are really looking for the cheapest way into the Apple Watch world and you still feel like the Apple Watch Series 3 is for you despite the technical limitations, you may as well shop around. Since Apple has been selling this watch for four years, you can find deals on it all over the internet. On Walmart, you can buy a refurbished Apple Watch Series 3 for $140 with support for LTE. If you are willing to go used, you can find others on eBay between $100 and $130. If you want to buy it from a store, you might be able to get an open box model from Best Buy, which is listing the Apple Watch at $165.

But seriously, don't buy the Apple Watch Series 3 in 2021. With all of these options, there is so much better out there for the money.

Are you still wearing the Apple Watch Series 3? Or prefer using a different watch or fitness tracker? Let us know in the comments.