A new Apple Watch arrives every year like, well, clockwork and despite the growing choice of alternatives for other brands like Garmin, Oppo and Fitbit, if you own an iPhone and want a smartwatch, the Apple Watch remains your best bet.
The latest arrival – the Series 6 – offers just enough hardware and software improvements to stay ahead of the increasingly stiff competition. That includes snappier performance, a brighter always-on display and blood oxygen monitoring added to fall detection and ECG heart monitoring, to beef up the Watch’s wellbeing skills. All without sacrificing battery life.
At the latest launch, Apple also tossed a budget curveball into the mix, adding the more-affordable SE edition to its smartwatch line-up. The cheaper watch foregoes some flagship features but sures up Apple’s defences against the brands arriving into the budget smartwatch space. It also makes choosing the right Apple Watch a less clear-cut decision.
The choice on the Apple Store shelves now includes the Series 6, the SE, both with Nike editions, and the older, but bargain-friendly, Series 3. For those willing to hunt on third party retailers, the Series 5 and Series 4 are also still available.
When it comes to design, there’s not a huge amount to choose between the generations. Line them up side by side and they all look like Apple Watches, give or take a few millimeters on the screen size and casing thickness. So how do you choose between them all?
If you’re in the market for a new Apple Watch, the big questions are these: do you plump for the complete package of the Series 6 that offers Apple’s growing health-tracking smarts? Or would the lesser-featured SE or one of Apple’s older generation watches do the job and save you a few quid? If you’re considering an upgrade, is it really necessary? This guide is here to help you answer those questions and find the Apple Watch that’s right for you.
What’s the best Apple Watch in 2021?
The Apple Watch Series 6 (from £379) gets our vote as the best Apple Watch you can buy. Its snappy performance, improved always-on Retina screen and fast charging, makes it the clear leader on design and capability. Its suite of health tracking tools, improved GPS accuracy and more reliable heart rate performance are also the best we’ve seen yet on an Apple Watch.
If you already own a Series 5 (from £329), though, then unless you really care about blood oxygen, faster charging and a slightly speedier performance, stick with what you’ve got.
View the Apple Watch Series 6 from £379 on Amazon
For a long time, the Apple Watch Series 3 (from £199) was the best budget Apple Watch and at under £200, it’s still a bargain smartwatch that does a solid job.
But the hardware is starting to date and the Watch SE’s (from £269) performance, screen and more future-proof hardware, give this newcomer the edge on value. If your budget can stretch, invest the extra and you get a watch that’ll serve you better now and into the future.
View the Apple Watch SE from £269 on Amazon
Apple Watch Series 6
WIRED Recommends: The Apple Watch Series 6 is the best Apple Watch – and the best smartwatch – you can buy right now
OS: watchOS 7 | Battery life: Up to 18hr | Water resistance: Up to 50m | Wi-Fi: Yes | 4G/LTE: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | NFC: Yes | GPS: Yes | Heart rate: Yes (ECG) | Size(s): 40mm / 44mm | Storage: 32GBThe Series 6 (from £379) is the complete Apple Watch experience. If budget isn’t a factor, this is the watch to buy. Though one caveat: if you own a Series 5 (from £329) already, there probably aren’t enough exciting improvements here to trigger an upgrade.
The Retina display offers the same screen real estate as the Series 5 and the SE, but is 2.5 times brighter – 500 nits instead of 200 on the Series 5. And though it sounds like a small thing, the Series 6’s always-on display makes for a much better experience over the SE. It’s great for using the Apple Watch as an actual watch – things like reading exercise metrics at-a-glance on the move, without having to raise your arm, add up.
The Series 6 is speedier, thanks to a new dual-core processor S6 chip, based on the A13 Bionic in the iPhone 11. In practice it’s not that huge a leap forward but it’s welcome all the same. You can also squeeze more usage from a single charge, even though the listed battery life remains at 18-hours, and like every Apple Watch, it still needs charging daily.
The addition of a blood oxygen sensor is a big headline feature that is only available on the Series 6. It joins ECG heart monitoring and fall detection in Apple’s growing suite of health monitoring tools and makes this latest edition an even more potent wellbeing tool.
The built-in SpO2 sensor tracks blood oxygen levels and can help detect sleep apnea, offer guidance on your readiness to workout and spot abnormal drops in blood oxygenation – very timely, considering that’s a potential sign of worsening COVID symptoms.
To make the most of the Series 6’s new 24-7 sleep tracking and health monitoring tools, you’ll need to wear it in bed overnight and that means changing your charging habits. An improved fast charge meets that need. The Series 6 takes just 60 minutes to rejuice from flat to 80 per cent, or 90 minutes up to full charge. That’s about a third faster than the Series 5 and you can just about top up while you’re going about your morning ablutions.
Under the hood, an always-on barometric altimeter provides more accurate elevation tracking to improve your activity and workout stats. Crucially for future-proofing, there’s also a U1 chip and Ultra Wideband antennas to provide short-range wireless location. Right now applications of this tech are limited but eventually it will power new tools, such as next-generation digital car keys. You won’t find that on the SE or older models.
With regards to design, the Series 6 offers the broadest selection of finishes with aluminium, stainless steel and titanium. The same goes for colours with eight different looks, including WIRED’s favourite RED edition (£509).
The Series 6 starts at £379, the cellular version (from £479) will set you back an extra £100 and if you really want to go lux, you can splash as much as £1,449 on the Hermès editions
Pros: Better battery; brighter screen; faster charging; blood O2 tracking, U1 and S6 chipsCons: Fiddly song and podcast management; no radical redesign
Price: From £379 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | John Lewis
Apple Watch SE
Don’t need ECG and SpO2 health monitoring? The SE is your best wallet-friendly Apple Watch
OS: watchOS 7 | Battery life: Up to 18hr | Water resistance: Up to 50m | Wi-Fi: Yes | 4G/LTE: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | NFC: Yes | GPS: Yes | Heart rate: Yes | Size(s): 40mm / 44mm | Storage: 32GBIf you don’t want to spend top whack on a watch or you’re on a tighter budget, you have three main options: invest in the new Apple Watch SE (from £269) that starts £110 cheaper than the flagship Series 6 and is basically a Series 5 minus the latest health features; hunt down an actual Series 5 from a third party retailer at a similar price; or buy a sub-£200 Series 3 (below) that’s long been the best bargain Apple Watch but is now starting to age. Here’s why the Watch SE is our top recommendation.
Like the iPhone SE, the Watch SE delivers a big helping of what Apple does best but at a bargain price. You can still use it to track workouts and sleep, make calls, listen to music phone-free, set reminders for meetings, practice stress-relieving breathing techniques and enjoy plenty of other skills that make the Apple Watch great.
But you will have to make sacrifices. For a start, the SE lacks the newer ECG heart and blood oxygen monitoring skills. You can wave goodbye to the convenience of an always-on screen and any potential future skills that the U1 chip might bring. You’ll also miss out on rapid charging and there’s no tougher sapphire crystal display option.
But if you can live without those features, the SE delivers a really strong Apple Watch experience. We did miss the always-on screen in day-to-day use but on the bright side, it helped eke the most out of that 18-hour battery life.
Performance is snappy-enough, powered by the same S5 chip, with a 64-bit dual-core processor and W3 wireless chip, that you find on the Series 5. The SE also features a Retina display that’s bright, crisp and improves on the Series 3, plus 32GB storage, Bluetooth 5.0 and 50m water resistance that matches the pricier Series 6.
You also get fall detection, the same louder speaker that comes on the Series 6 to help with calls on the move and double the memory of that older Series 3. If you plan to use Family Sharing, the SE beats the Series 5 too. The latter doesn’t offer this.
Design choices are limited compared to the Series 6. The SE only comes in an aluminium case in silver, space grey and gold. There are no stainless steel or titanium finishes, though if you’re hunting a bargain, it’s unlikely you’d be in the market to spend the premium for these anyway.
Pros: Good bang-for-buck value; no compromise on design; Family SharingCons: No ECG or blood oxygen monitors; no always-on display; no rapid charging
Price: From £269 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | John Lewis
Apple Watch Nike Series 6 and SE
The best choice if you want more Swoosh in your life
OS: watchOS 7 | Battery life: Up to 18hr | Water resistance: Up to 50m | Wi-Fi: Yes | 4G/LTE: Yes | Bluetooth: 5.0 | NFC: Yes | GPS: Yes | Heart rate: Yes (ECG on Series 6) | Size(s): 40mm / 44mm | Storage: 32GBThere’s an Apple Watch Nike edition (from £269) available for both the Series 6 and the SE. What you’re buying here is basically the same hardware, performance and features those two watches offer but with some extra Swoosh flourishes.
In terms of design, the Nike editions only come in a lightweight aluminium case made from 100 per cent recycled aerospace-grade alloy and there are only two colour options, space grey and silver. You can jazz things up with a selection of bands, including the now-familiar Swoosh-emblazoned perforated fluoroelastomer strap and a nylon weave Nike Sport Loop. The nylon strap is one of the most comfortable straps we’ve ever tested during sweatier workouts.
Beyond those Nike design tweaks, the other major differences are really targeted at Nike fans. The pre-loaded Nike running app offers some unique tricks, like quick launch for workouts, customisable watch faces to Swoosh up your screens, plus complications and shortcuts to streamline the Nike run-tracking experience.
In all honesty, you’re only really going to want to invest in this if you like the Nike Run Club app and/or the sportier Nike styling floats your boat. Like the standard Series 6 and SE, the Nike editions start at £379 but if you want the phone-free experience of cellular, you’ll have to pay more.
Pros: Quick start running workouts; comfortable sport-friendly strapsCons: Fiddly song and podcast management
Apple Watch Nike SE: From £269 | Check price on Apple | Argos | John Lewis
Apple Watch Nike Series 6: From £379 | Check price on Apple | Nike | Argos | John Lewis
Apple Watch Series 3
Still a viable entry level option (just about)
OS: watchOS 7 | Works with: iOS | Battery life: Up to 18hr | Water resistance: Up to 50m | Wi-Fi: Yes | 4G/LTE: Yes | Bluetooth: 4.2 | NFC: Yes | GPS: Yes | Heart rate: Yes | Size(s): 38mm / 42mm | Storage: 8GBEven though it launched way back in 2017, when it comes to value for money, the Series 3 (from £199) has stood the test of time better than any other Apple Watch. After the year or so as Apple’s flagship watch passed, the Series 3 became the default fewer-frills option for accessing Apple’s fitness and smartwatch features on a budget. At £199 – or even cheaper if you shop around – it’s not entirely dead yet but it is entering its autumn years.
It’s not so much the looks that have dated, it’s still a good looking smartwatch. But behind its smaller 1,000 nits display, the Series 3 hardware is starting to age. It packs the important specs like built-in GPS and optical heart rate – though these have improved on later devices. It has a barometric altimeter that’s quite a rarity in fitness trackers at this price point – though this isn’t always on like it is now in the later models. You also don’t get those big-hitting health tracking tools like ECG, fall detection and the new blood oxygen monitoring. You get the idea.
With an S3 chip with dual-core processor and W2 chip, performance isn’t a match for the newer watches, though you can happily run WatchOS 7 and even though it’s not the best on battery and snappiness, it still does a good enough job based on what you’re paying. And that’s the crucial thing to understand about the Series 3, it offers just enough to offer value for money, but you are buying a lesser version of the watch.
It’s exactly the kind of device you might buy if you want a casual fitness tracker you wear occasionally, for a young teen or older family member. That makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t work with Apple’s new Family Sharing feature that lets you manage watches for family members without them needing their own iPhone. If you want that, you’ll have to go Series 4 (from £259) or above.
Pros: Good at the basics; very affordableCons: No Family Sharing; no ECG or blood monitoring; fewer extras than the Watch SE
Price: From £199 | Check price on Amazon | Apple | Argos | John Lewis