Apple Watch SE is (possibly) all the smartwatch you need

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Sometimes, the most expensive option isn't the best one, and smartwatches are no exception. I've traded in my typical Apple Watch SE for the Apple Watch Ultra 2 over the past two weeks, and for the most part, I prefer the $249 option to the $799 option.

From the always-on display to the action buttons, there's a lot to love about the Apple Watch Ultra 2. But it's a highly specialized device that's packed with features that most people won't need. Even if cost wasn't a factor, I bet many people would still prefer the Apple Watch SE or Apple Watch Series 9 .

Let's break down the pros and cons of Apple's most expensive and cheapest watches to help you find which one is right for you.

Why buy a smartwatch?

It wasn’t until the pandemic ended and I started commuting more frequently that I started wearing a smartwatch. I'm not a very good athlete and I thought the whole thing was a little silly, like wearing a "please rob me" sign. I think people used to say the same thing about flip phones.

The Apple Watch SE is for people like me. It's small and light enough to win me over. I like to think of it as an upgraded version of the iPod Nano. It's a little box that I can use to control my media, use tap to pay, and sometimes track my walks. That's all I need, but it's convenient enough that I've grown to love this thing and how it allows me to keep my phone in my bag on the train.

Others, however, buy smartwatches from the get-go. They like the detailed sensors, upgraded luxury look, and wrist-heavy case of the higher-end models. For these people, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 is a great option.

What does each Apple Watch model come with?

Apple currently sells three Apple Watch models, and I tested two. None are a bad choice, but they each cater to a different audience, so even if money isn't an issue, there's a lot to consider.

The cheapest Apple Watch is the Apple Watch SE, which has the smallest size option and lowest specs. Its $249 aluminum body features a 1,000-nit display, a claimed 18-hour battery, an S8 chip (powering features like Siri and Find My iPhone), and an optical heart rate monitor. You'll get water resistance up to 164 feet, and for an additional $50 you can add the ability to connect to cellular networks.

The Apple Watch Series 9 takes things a step further, starting at $399 (cellular adds $100 to the price, and the stainless steel case costs even more). For the extra money, you get a 2,000-nit always-on display, an S9 chip (which unlocks double-tap functionality and upgrades Siri and Find My iPhone), a new EKG, temperature sensing, fast charging, and low power consumption. The battery's power mode is said to last up to 36 hours.

Finally, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 starts at $799 and comes in one model, with accessories costing extra. All Ultra 2 models feature titanium casings, 3,000-nit always-on displays, S9 chips, 328 feet of water resistance, upgraded GPS, cellular compatibility, and claimed battery life of up to 36 hours with normal use and 72 hours at low In power consumption mode. There's also an orange action button on the side and additional sensors, including a gyroscope and depth gauge.

All Apple Watch models come with an OLED screen, Digital Crown, speakers (although they're upgraded on Ultra), and menu buttons, but if we were to discuss all the ways they differ, we'd be here all day. For more details, visit the Apple website , but even though I've laid out everything, I haven't touched on the most important differences.

Apple Watch Ultra 2 is too big and heavy for my wrist

Remember how I called the Apple Watch SE an updated version of the iPod Nano? The Apple Watch Ultra 2 can't do that.

The SE comes in 40mm and 44mm sizes (I have the 40mm), and even the larger model with cellular has a maximum weight of 33 grams. Apple Watch Ultra 2 is only 49 mm thick and weighs 61.4 grams.

This thing is clunky, especially for someone with a smaller wrist like me, and doesn't feel like wearing a control center for your iPhone — or maybe a separate iPhone entirely. That's cool for bragging rights, but not so cool for the type of everyday use that made me buy a smartwatch in the first place.

Aside from its specific use case, the always-on display was the only upgrade I really enjoyed for most of the time I used it. Everything else is just a burden.

If you're like me, the Ultra 2 is just a poor choice, even if you can afford it and usually opt for top-tier options like the M3 Max MacBook Pro . You'll end up with a lot of stuff that you don't use, and what you do make for a worse experience, so do yourself a favor and go cheap.

When is the Apple Watch Ultra 2 worth buying?

But that doesn't mean the Ultra 2's new features are just out-of-the-box selling points that Apple uses to drive up the price. They are really useful for people who need it (i.e. people who are outdoorsy).

The whole reason I started this comparison was to test the updated Golfshot app , a golf course assistant available for Android, iOS, and Apple Watch. Earlier this month it got an update for the Apple Watch Ultra and Ultra 2, which is a real game changer and if I were a pro golfer, the upgrade would be totally worth it for me.

In addition to adding a driving range to the app's course lineup, the update also leverages additional sensors from the Apple Watch Ultra Series to track your every swing in detail. SwingID allows apps to track factors such as speed, tempo, backswing, and while the feature is available on the Apple Watch Series 9, the Apple Watch Ultra can track your swing at 800hz to accurately detect when you hit the ball.

In just a few hours of playing, I successfully used this data to understand what was causing my shots to veer to the right so frequently and ended up training to correct them.

It's in situations like this that the Apple Watch shines. For example, additional waterproofing and depth apps make it a great diving companion, while detailed watch face options , an extra-large battery, speakers, and cellular connectivity make it useful for keeping hikers informed and safe .

It's unlikely that I'll be using these features anytime soon, but considering that competing activity watches like Garmin's Mk3 dive computer can cost thousands of dollars, the Apple Watch Ultra might be a reasonable alternative to more professional devices.

The large size also makes the Apple Watch Ultra more competitive with luxury watches. I don't usually choose my outfits for the sake of showing off, but there's no doubt that the Ultra doesn't look slick, especially if you add one of Apple's official Hermès straps .

Do I need an Apple Watch Ultra if I just go to the gym?

I most like to think of the Apple Watch Ultra as a professional activity companion, and while I did try wearing it to the gym, I didn't get much out of it. My typical day at the gym includes about half an hour on the elliptical and ten minutes lifting weights, and for that, the Ultra only gives me one perk: the "Action" button.

Both Apple Watch Ultra models have an orange action button on the side that can be set to trigger anything from a stopwatch to a flashlight (which turns the watch's screen white and sets it to maximum brightness). Most of the available action button functions are also available as features on the Apple Watch SE and Series 9, but require digging into the menus, so they can be opened with just the press of a button, which is very convenient. This is similar to the experience of the Action button on the iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max.

I have an Action button set up to start a workout, and I can press the button again to pause the workout. I didn't notice much of a difference in the data recorded on the two watches, but since I usually just wait for my SE to detect when I'm exercising before starting tracking, I was able to time mine more accurately on the Ultra Workout Tracking 2. SE Although lightweight and convenient, I noticed when I was in the gym that it could be a little slow.

If you're exercising outdoors, you'll also want to look out for a larger battery. I usually have to charge the SE every night, but with the Ultra 2 I can charge it every other night. Either way, you'll still get a few hours of use, but you're less likely to accidentally wear it to death. View more expensive models.

In addition to in-motion tracking, EKG and cycle tracking apps are also worth mentioning. While the more affordable Series 9 also offers these features, the closest the SE offers is the ability to manually log cycles.

Which Apple Watch should I buy?

The best Apple Watch for you might not be the one with the most bells and whistles. I prefer a small, lightweight device with a clean interface that I can use primarily as a companion while commuting, so the SE is more than just a budget compromise for me: it's my favorite option.

The Ultra 2, meanwhile, is perfect for anyone who regularly scuba dives, golfs, hikes, or engages in some other more intense outdoor hobby. Its extra sensors and sturdier design allow it to keep up with more expensive professional devices, and despite its bulk, it's still capable of everyday use cases like tap-to-pay.

The Series 9 is a good compromise. Its smallest option is only slightly larger than the SE, it comes in more colors, and has a few extra sensors, but nothing as big as the Ultra 2. It's a good splurge, but be sure to see if you'll actually use its extra sensors for the extra $150.

Apple Watch SE [2nd generation] Apple Watch Series 9 Apple Watch Ultra 2