The Apple Watch SE 2 made me think twice about the Series 8

It’s easy to dismiss the Apple Watch SE 2 as the “lesser” Apple Watch, purchased only by those watching the bottom line. The Apple Watch Series 8 (or even the Apple Watch Ultra) is the one to buy, right? Sorry, but this is completely the wrong way to look at it.

Living with the Apple Watch SE 2nd generation made me realize it should be the default, go-to Apple smartwatch, and only then should you consider if you need the extra from the Series 8. It’s really that good, and here’s why.

Understanding the Apple Watch SE 2

I’m not reviewing the Apple Watch SE 2, so I’m not going into masses of detail about its specs or features — plus, I’ve only been wearing it for a few days. But I’m extremely familiar with the Apple Watch Series 7 and have worn the original Watch SE too, and this experience pretty much tells me what I need to know about the Watch SE 2’s value proposition. It also tells me who should be considering it, even without a few weeks with it on my wrist.

The Apple Watch SE 2 with Nike Bounce watch face.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s not that the Apple Watch SE 2 is the perfect smartwatch, it’s just that many of the features that differentiate the Watch Series 8 from it aren’t going to be missed by a fairly large segment of people wanting to buy an Apple Watch. Well, apart from one feature, that is, but I’ll come back to that.

Initially, I thought I’d miss the larger screen area from the Series 7 and Series 8, as the SE 2 is based on the 44mm and 40mm case last seen on the Watch Series 6. But I haven’t so far! I prefer the greater expanse when I’m using the bigger Apple Watches, but the Watch SE 2 hasn’t felt constricted or “old” just because it doesn’t quite have the same visual punch as its more expensive sibling. It’s still gloriously sharp and colorful, and that’s what matters most.

The Apple Watch SE 2's case back.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Apple has used a new material for the case back on the SE 2. It’s nylon rather than ceramic found on the Series 8, and I was a little concerned it wouldn’t be as skin-friendly, and that it may get too sweaty. So far, neither issue has proven to be something to worry about. I’ve worn it overnight with no adverse reactions, and although it’s not as cool as ceramic against your wrist, it doesn’t seem to get hot or sweaty. It’s there to reduce the cost, and for once, it doesn’t cheapen the look or mean a compromise in comfort.

Do you need the added health features?

I know what you’re thinking now, what about the health and fitness features? There are three primary features missing from the Watch SE 2: blood oxygen sensing, an electrocardiogram, and a temperature sensor. These are great to have and open the Watch up to track more of your wellbeing — blood oxygen works with sleep tracking, and the temperature sensor for enhanced cycle tracking, for example — but everything still works without them, and really well, too.

Crash Detection mode on the Apple Watch SE 2.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

I’ve never had the need (thankfully) to use the electrocardiogram outside of testing it for review purposes, cycle tracking isn’t relevant to me personally, and the Apple Watch isn’t the best device for sleep tracking regardless of its features due to a need to regularly charge the battery. The Apple Watch SE 2 still tracks workouts, has strong and reliable GPS, a heart rate sensor, and all the fitness apps I could want.

It comes with the new crash detection feature to go along with fall detection and noise monitoring. You also get irregular heart rate warnings, and the always-helpful hand-washing timer, too, so it’s not like you’ll personally be any less safe with the SE. You will be slightly less informed, data-wise, but you may look at the list above and question whether the additional features would be relevant to you on a regular basis. If they’re not, then the Apple Watch SE 2 maybe the better buy.

Plenty of power and battery life

If you do decide to order the Apple Watch SE 2 you can look forward to great battery life. Apple says you’ll get “up to 18 hours” with mixed use. For me, the Watch SE 2’s battery life has been better than that, reaching two full days with two tracked 30-minute workouts and a single night’s sleep tracked, too, along with the usual notifications and music control.

You won’t lose out on power either, as it has the same S8 processor as the Series 8 and Watch Ultra, and WatchOS 9 is excellent. It’s smooth when scrolling through the menus, and fast to open apps and show notifications in more detail. I haven’t noticed any performance differences switching from the Apple Watch Series 7 to the Watch SE 2, and suspect it will be the same when I move to the Apple Watch Series 8. This isn’t a criticism of either, as the Apple Watch in all its forms is the very best performing smartwatch you can buy.

The Apple Watch SE 2’s biggest drawback

What’s the one thing I miss that I referred to earlier? It’s the always-on screen. When the Apple Watch SE 2’s screen isn’t being used, it is a big, black expanse of nothing. This impacts functionality to a certain extent as you can’t see the time at a glance, but Apple’s wrist-raise gesture is flawless and goes some way to mitigating that, but it’s more from a watch fan’s perspective that its absence hurts.

I like wearing watches of all kinds, as much (if not more) for the design than any level of functionality. To wear one and for it not to show a watch face all the time is upsetting to me personally. Especially because Apple has opened up the fun Nike watch faces for everyone, which, when paired with the new Nike “Just Do It” Sport Loop band here, gives that cool Nike version look on an SE. The effect would be complete on a Watch Series 8 with its always-on screen.

It bothers me to the extent that I’d pay extra to get an Apple Watch Series 8, but if it doesn’t worry you, then the Apple Watch SE 2’s $299 starting price makes it a rarity: The perceived budget option in a product range being the best bet for a lot of people.

What these last few days have taught me is the Apple Watch SE 2 should really be your first stop when considering an Apple Watch, rather than considering the Watch Series 8 the default choice. Yes, the latter is technically superior, but really ask yourself whether those additional features will be important to you before buying one.

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