Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Cut through the specs and get the most for your money
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For the first time since its launch in 2016, there are three Apple Watch models to choose from that all look very similar at first glance. But upon closer inspection, you’ll find that there are very distinct differences between them that go much deeper than their price differences. Here’s how they stack up.
Update 9/18: The Apple Watch Series 6 and Apple Watch SE are now available for purchase at Apple.com and wherever Apple Watches are sold.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Design and display
Apple hasn’t strayed very far from its original square design over the seven generations of Apple Watch, so there’s not a huge difference between the three watches. Apple hasn’t shared exact dimensions for the Series 6 and SE just yet, but they will presumably be a bit larger and thinner than the Series 3, just like the Series 5:
- Series 3: 38.6 x 33.3mm x 11.4mm
- Series 5: 40 x 34 x 10.74mm
But your wrist won’t notice the difference. Apple has the best and most recognizable watch design in the smartwatch industry, so any of the three will look and feel great on your wrist.
Where they differ, however, is with the display. The Series 3 has Apple’s older display, so it’s smaller (38mm model: 563 sq mm; 42mm model: 740 sq mm) and has square corners. The SE and Series 6 have larger displays (40mm model: 759 sq mm; 44mm model: 977 sq mm) with rounded corners to match the display body.
While the SE and Series 6 have identical display specs, only the Series 6 has an always-on option, which lets you see the time even when your wrist is lowered. Apple also says the always-on display is 2.5-times brighter than last year’s model, which will certainly help in bright light.
Our pick: While the sizes and designs are very similar, the displays make all the difference with the Series 6 and SE. And we really liked the Series 5’s always-on display.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Colors and material
While all three watches are available in silver and space gray aluminum like always, you have considerably more options as you go up the line. The Apple Watch SE adds a gold color, while the Series 6 has new blue and Product(Red) hues.
If you upgrade to one of the cellular models, you can get silver, graphite (DLC), or gold (PVD) stainless steel, or natural titanium or space black titanium. Additionally, the Series 6 and SE are available in Nike (silver and space gray aluminum) and the Series 6 offers a Hermes edition in silver and space black stainless steel.
Around the back, you’re getting a composite cover with the Series 3 and an upgraded ceramic and sapphire crystal back on the SE and Series 6.
Our pick: While the silver and space gray are very nice classic Apple Watch hues, we’re very intrigued by the blue and red colors on the Series 6 and, if you can afford one, the graphite stainless steel.
Read more about the Apple Watch SE and Series 6
6 surprising reasons to buy Apple Watch SE
The new Apple Watch Series 6 is a bigger upgrade than you think
Apple Watch Series 6 hands-ons
Apple Watch SE first impressions
watchOS 7 FAQ
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Performance and chips
Performance isn’t nearly as important on the Apple Watch as it is on the iPhone or iPad, but with so much going on inside your Apple Watch, speed does matter. And with each of these watches you’re getting different chips:
- Series 3: S3
- SE: S5
- Series 6: S6
As you might expect, the S6 is about 20 percent faster than the S5, which is about twice as fast as the S3. That’s because the S5 and S6 processors have a 64-bit dual-core architecture while the S3 is 32-bit. Additionally, you also get the newer W3 wireless chip, which brings support for Bluetooth 5.
The Series 6 watch also brings Apple’s U1 Ultra Wideband chip to the Apple Watch for the first time. First introduced in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, the chip allows for greater spatial awareness, which according to Apple allows the device to understand its precise location relative to other nearby U1‑equipped Apple devices. Right now that doesn’t mean a whole lot—especially since Apple Watch doesn’t do AirDrop yet—but once the long-rumored AppleTags make an appearance that will change.
Our pick: If you want it all, the Series 6 is obviously the only choice, but we think the SE will be plenty fast for most people. The Series 3 won’t be terrible, but it probably feel a little pokey at times.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Connectivity
Apple might have launched the cellular LTE option with the Series 3 Apple Watch, but now it’s gone. If you want to use your watch outdoors and leave your phone behind, you’ll need to get either the Apple Watch SE or Series 6, both of which are available in either GPS or GPS+Cellular varieties. That’s particularly important if you plan on using Family Setup, which requires a cellular connection.
Our pick: We’ve never been huge fans of the monthly fee for the Apple Watch’s cellular connection, but the new Family Setup feature is intriguing. After all it’s cheaper to buy our tweens an Apple Watch than an iPhone. But if you’re buying a watch just for you, cellular probably isn’t all that necessary.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Sensors and features
Here’s where the watches really set themselves apart. First, let’s start with what all three watches have:
- Optical heart sensor
- Ambient light sensor
- 50M water resistance
- Emergency SOS
Notably, the SE and Series 6 have a second-gen heart sensor for greater accuracy as well as an always-in altimeter for all-day tracking. Additionally, the microphone will track decibels in the Noise app and the accelerometer is used to detect falls, both of which aren’t available on the Series 3 watch. You also get 32GB of storage on the SE and Series 6, versus just 8GB on the Series 3.
If you upgrade to the SE, you’ll get a compass and international emergency calling, but to get the latest sensors you’ll need to spring for the Series 6. Most notably, it has a SpO2 blood oxygen sensor that works with a custom algorithm to use light to measure the oxygen saturation of blood both on-demand and throughout the day. Oxygen saturation can help manage heart failure and asthma, as well as early respiratory issues stemming from the flu or coronavirus. It’s also the only watch Apple sells that has the electrical heart sensor that was introduced with the Series 5 last year.
Our pick: Health and fitness buffs will definitely want to spring for the Series 6 and the blood-oxygen sensor, but the SE has a healthy array of sensors and features for its price.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Price
There’s a wide gap between the cheapest Apple Watch and the most expensive (that would be the $1,400 Hermes Silver Stainless Steel Case with Single Tour Deployment Buckle, but the starting prices aren’t nearly as outlandish:
- Series 3: $199/$229
- SE: $279/$309
- Series 6: $399/$429
Granted, the Series 6 costs twice as much as the Series 3 and $120 more than the SE, and it only goes up from there. Here are the prices for the cellular models:
- SE: $329/$359
- Series 6: $499/$529
Somehow, the cellular Apple Watch SE is an even greater value than the GPS-only model. With a $50 premium versus $100 on the Series 6, the cellular Apple Watch SE is only $30 more than last year’s Series 3, which has far fewer features.
Apple Watch Series 3 vs SE vs Series 6: Conclusion
Unless you only have $200 to spend or simply can’t live without the very best features and sensors, we’d recommend the 40mm Apple Watch SE with LTE for $329 in our favorite color, gold (though if you want silver or space gray we won’t complain). Yes, you’re spending $130 more than the Series 3, but you’re getting so much more for your money: a bigger display, better sensors, faster chip, and more storage. Plus you’re obviously getting cellular connectivity, which is far more useful this year thanks to Family Setup.
Even buyers leaning toward the Series 6 might want to consider this model. It’s $160 cheaper than the comparable Series 6 watch and while you’re not getting next-gen blood-oxygen and ECG sensors, but the rest of the SE matches up extremely well with the flagship model at a fraction of the price.
Update 10:20am ET: The Conclusion section has been updated for accuracy and clarity.
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Michael Simon covers all things mobile for PCWorld and Macworld. You can usually find him with his nose buried in a screen. The best way to yell at him is on Twitter.