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Review: Apple’s Watch SE is the smartwatch most people should buy in a lockdown

Apple Watch SE
Price: from €294 (40mm) or €324 (44mm)
Rating: 5/5
Pros: great price, same look and feel as flagship Series 6
Cons: doesn’t have ‘always-on’ display or blood oxygen sensor

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Now that we’re set to yo-yo from lockdowns to ‘part normal’ arrangements for the winter and Springtime months, it’s an interesting moment to think about how we’re actually going to spend our time outside work.

Some are buying giant TVs. Others are getting Peleton-style home gyms.

But if you’re taking more and more walks, or thinking about more scheduled exercise, what about a decent smartwatch assistant?

Apple released two new Watch models a fortnight ago. I’ve now had a chance to wear and test both. While the flagship Series 6 (reviewed in-depth on Independent.ie) is a worthy high-end choice, it’s the mid-tier Watch SE that may be the one that makes more sense for most people who are interested in getting into one.

In short: it’s the same shape and size as the Series 6, with the same display resolution, the same storage (32GB), the same access to Watch faces (and straps) and it has close to the same engine power. But it costs €130 less, keeping the overall price of the 40mm model under €300 (including a band).

And the differences? The SE doesn’t have the new blood oxygen sensor of the Series 6, nor does it have an ECG sensor for heart ‘afib’ warnings. It also has last year’s (still powerful) processor and doesn’t come in either the new blue aluminium casing (which is very nice) or the Project Red edition, though it is available in the same grey, silver and gold casing options as the Series 6.

In short, unless you have a real dedication to monitoring as many intricate elements of your health as possible, these aforementioned differences may not be enough to make a meaningful difference to many people.

What might make a difference is that the SE doesn’t have the always-on display of the Series 6.

In other words, the SE works like most previous Apple Watch models where the screen switches itself on when you raise or twist your wrist.

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By contrast, the Series 6 (like last year’s Series 5), has a low-power always-on mode that doesn’t require any wrist movement -- you can glance at the time without any hand-shifting.

I’ll admit that, for me, this always-on element is a draw. I like to have the ability to spot the time rather than activate it.

But it’s an open question as to whether others would find it worthy of an extra €100-plus.

What else do you need to know? Like all new Apple Watches after the Series 3 (which has slightly smaller displays), the SE model comes in two sizes -- 40mm (from €294 with band) and 44mm (from €324 with band). Mine is 44m, but the 40mm version sits slightly more comfortably for anyone with slim or small wrists (between 13 to 20 centimetres).

There’s also an Apple Watch Nike version, which costs the same, with its own special band and Watch face.

Unfortunately, there’s no point in looking for a cellular version of the Apple Watch (which costs more anyway), as no Irish mobile operators have partnered with Apple (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it) to give this functionality.

The main advantage to this in other countries is that you can go out for a walk, a run or a cycle and leave your iPhone at home while still having full access to the network for messages, calls and notifications.

Battery life on the new Apple Watch SE ranges from one to two days, depending on mch use its apps and sensors. I typically get around 36 hours, except on days I used its fitness features (mainly the on-board Workout app) a lot.

Yes, battery life on this Apple Watch is considerably shorter than you’ll get on many fitness-specific devices, such as Fitbit wristbands or Garmin running watches. But bear in mind that the Apple Watch has a far brighter, better screen and does an awful lot more than almost all others.

The only time I find the relatively short battery life to be an issue is around sleep-tracking, which is now available to the Apple Watch through WatchOS 7.

It means that you don’t naturally stick your Watch on the little charging disc before you go to bed anymore as you’re wearing it in bed. In other words, there’s no obvious or ‘natural’ time to charge your Watch anymore.

There are new bands available. The most interesting ones are called ‘solo loops’ that do away with clasps, buckles or tighteners and let you just slip the Watch on or off. Getting one to be the right size might be tricky, although Apple gives you a measurement guide.

I mentioned processor power above. The Watch SE has a similar engine to last year’s flagship Watch Series 5. In my use of it, I couldn’t really find any difference in speed to the Series 6 at all -- everything is snappy and quick.

One nice element of almost every Apple Watch is that there is an element of future-proofing. Apple has a general policy of letting all its Watches update to the latest WatchOS, meaning that there isn’t yet an obsolescence fear.

This is partly because of the efficiency and influence of the operating system, WatchOS. If you’re on the up-to-date version, things are often snappier no matter how old your Watch.

This is one reason that Apple still sells the Series 3 -- originally launched three years ago -- as a viable model.

Given that this is the case, it’s worth asking a further question: if any new Apple Watch will last for years, might not you save even more money by getting that €215 Series 3?

If you’re very tight on budget or are the most casual Apple Watch user, sure. But if the €80 isn’t a key factor, it seems to me a little like a false economy. The screen size is probably the biggest factor.

The Watch SE gets considerably more screen real estate from the frame of the device than the Series 3 model. That’s because the Series 3 was the last model to use slightly thicker bezels. In plain English, it means that while both.

Watch models look similarly sized when you’re putting them on your wrist, you’ll see about 25pc more on the display of the newer model. That’s a huge difference. It also means that you can get the more affordable 40mm model instead of the 44mm model and still see an awful lot.

Smaller reasons include better speakers on the SE and the fact that you can only get a black or white rubber sports band with the Series 3 model at the time of purchase, whereas there are way more options included in the price with the SE.

You can also pick additional colours for the Watch SE casing itself. And then there’s the engine, which is about twice as fast on the SE as the Series 3.

There are a number of new Watch faces that come with WatchOS 7. My favourite one is ‘Artist’, although ‘Stripes’ (which is customisable) and ‘Chronograph Pro’ (which features a tachymeter) should be popular.

I sometimes switch to one of the modular watch faces, though, especially when I want to keep an eye on steps or weather forecasts. The only drawback to adding a step-counter onto one of the modular watch faces is that it doesn’t update on in real time as you look at it. Instead, it requires a tap or for the Watch to sleep and reawaken to update.

Fitness and health, or ‘wellness’ as Apple puts it, is probably the element that the company is most focusing on as it develops Watch models. Like its flagship predecessors, the Watch SE has things like ‘fall detection’ for older or vulnerable people.

But the core elements of a decent fitness device are also here in abundance, including pedometers, altimeters and other fitness-focused sensors,

In this context, one of the more interesting announcements Apple made to coincide with both the Watch SE and the Watch 6 is a soon-to-be-launched monthly subscription service from Apple called Fitness+.

It will integrate very closely with the sensors and abilities of the Apple Watch.

The way it works, Apple says, is that when a workout is selected and started on an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV, the correct workout type will then automatically also start on Apple Watch. During the session, the metrics from Apple Watch are shown on the larger iPhone, iPad or Apple TV screen and then “come to life for moments of inspiration”.

For example, when the trainer says to check heart rate or begins a countdown timer, those numbers will animate on the screen, Apple says. Using its own recommendation engine, the Fitness+service will assess previously completed workouts and “intelligently suggest” new options that match the workouts users select most often, or something new to balance their current routine.

It’s set to cost €10 per month, but there’ll be a free trial month and free access to family members.

The service will include personalised “studio-style workouts” that will be “delivered by inspiring world-class trainers and underscored by motivating music from renowned artists”.

The trainers on the service will include “professional athletes, yogis, personal trainers, martial artists, health coaches, gymnasts, Ironman champions, marathoners and many others”, Apple says.

In other words, Apple is going after the growing fitness subscription base pioneered by companies like Peleton and Fitbit.

Ireland is one of only six launch countries for Apple’s Fitness+ subscription service, which will go live before the end of the year.


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