Apple Watch comparison: Which one is right for you?
When you’re choosing an Apple Watch, comparison shopping is your friend to get the style and generation that’s right for you.
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The Apple Watch is still far and away the most popular line of wearable devices in the world. According to analyst Counterpoint Research, it accounted for more than 30 percent of all smartwatches sold in 2021. The wider range of Apple Watches also contains the best overall smartwatches you can get right now, particularly if you’re looking for a “lifestyle” watch that blends fitness tracking, health features, and a secondary interface for notifications, texts, and calls from your phone.
In 2022, Apple completely overhauled the Apple Watch line with a wave of three new models: the standard Apple Watch Series 8, the budget-friendly second-generation Apple Watch SE, and a new high-end sports watch, the Apple Watch Ultra. Between those three and all of the past models, which you can still find at Amazon and other retailers, you have a lot of options if you’re thinking about trying an Apple Watch or upgrading from an older design. Before you commit to putting a new computer on your wrist, let’s figure out how to pick the right Apple Watch for you.
Apple Watch Series 8 vs Apple Watch SE 2 vs Apple Watch Ultra
For the most part, we think it’s prudent to focus on Apple’s current set of Watches. They have the latest and greatest tech inside—perfect to pair with that new iPhone 14 Pro Max. All three 2022 watches—even the relatively affordable SE—feature the same processor and motion sensors that enable car crash detection. The 2022 models will also get more watchOS software updates down the road, which means you can hold onto one (or more) longer before your Watch needs replacing. From cheapest to most expensive, here are the three current options and why you may or may not want them:
Apple Watch SE 2
The newly remodeled Apple Watch SE is the budget-conscious choice. Starting at $249 for GPS or $299 for a cellular model, it offers much of the core functionality of the standard Apple Watch line, but it’s slightly smaller than the other recent Apple Watches. Its 40mm and 44mm face options match the Apple Watch 6. It also lacks some of the line’s more advanced sensors and features, including a blood oxygen sensor, temperature sensors, or an “always-on” display that keeps the screen partially lit even when it isn’t in use. It also cuts corners in other small ways compared to the standard Apple Watch, like ditching fast-charging.
At the same time, the second-generation SE comes closer to parity with the standard Apple Watch than the last generation. It features the same chipset inside and offers the same battery life. It offers the power and features to work effectively as a fitness tracker, sleep tracker, and iPhone companion device for most people. And it costs substantially less. If you just want an Apple Watch that works, and you don’t necessarily care about getting every kind of data, the SE 2 is probably the move.
Apple Watch Series 8
In my mind, the Apple Watch Series 8 is the best smartwatch for most people. It offers a wide array of features, including nuanced tracking features for fitness and your overall health. Its upgraded sensor array allows it to track ECG-based heart rate readings, blood oxygen levels, and skin temperature as a means to monitor ovulation and provide enhanced menstrual cycle tracking. It also features a constellation of quality-of-life advantages over the SE 2, like a bigger case size—41mm and 45mm—with a larger, always-on display, which makes it easier to type on and check at a glance.
Starting at $399 for GPS or $499 for Cellular, the Apple Watch Series 8 is the definitive Apple Watch experience. If you plan to use the Apple Watch to monitor your health, the advanced sensors will make a notable difference in what you can track. Even on its most basic level, though, the improved screen, fast-charging, and other small improvements over the SE makes the Watch Series 8 more effective as a half-step for monitoring activity on your phone without actually stopping to pull it out.
Apple Watch Ultra
The Apple Watch Ultra is the most powerful Apple Watch and, frankly, will be overkill for most people. The $799 Apple Watch Ultra is an outdoor-focused “sport” watch, similar to many of Garmin’s high-end wearables. Unlike the other Apple Watches, it’s only in one size—a huge 49mm case—with cellular support and dual-frequency GPS built in. It features a thicker, more durable build with a redesigned digital crown and an extra “Action” button to quickly start workouts and toggle other functions.
The Ultra gets double the battery life of the other 2022 Apple Watches—36 hours versus 18 hours on the Series 8 and SE—which is great for everyone, but many of its features are designed for athletes and outdoorsy folk dealing with harsh conditions. Its powerful built-in speakers enable a loud SOS siren in case you get lost in the woods. Improved waterproofing, certifications, and a dedicated app qualify it as a diving computer. The three-microphone array is burlier than normal to improve call clarity in situations with power interference from blizzards and powerful winds. It even has specialty bands that are tailor-made for specific activities like diving and endurance training.
Given the difference in price and specificity of its feature set, you should only consider getting the Apple Watch Ultra if you are either a serious athlete or a fan of outdoor activities that require specialized equipment like climbing, off-trail hiking, and diving. If that sounds like your speed, you’re better off comparing the Apple Watch Ultra to the best Garmin smartwatches, as well as top picks from other brands like Suunto.
What about the older Apple Watches?
Though Apple’s lineup is limited to those three watches, there are still plenty of ways to get your hands on an older-model Apple Watch. If you aren’t concerned with getting a handful of new features in the Series 8, such as low-power mode, Car Crash Detection, and temperature sensors for ovulation tracking, the Apple Watch Series 7 is still a very appealing, very viable option. Likewise, the Apple Watch Series 6 gives you most of the same functionality as the Series 7 and Series 8, though you’ll be stuck with a smaller display, which makes a bigger difference than you think.
Personally, I would not recommend going further back than the Series 6 at this point. Independent of the features you’ll lose access to model by model, the older Apple Watches inevitably offer shorter lifespans. With every new version of watchOS, the Apple Watch’s operating system, the company will inevitably shut off support for each older watch, leaving you without access to new software-enabled features and security updates. It may be cheaper, but we can’t recommend you buy an Apple Watch Series 4, knowing that it will likely become obsolete in less than 12 months. And if you’re using an Apple Watch Series 3, which Apple sold until earlier this year but stopped supporting with watchOS 9, you should consider upgrading soon to ensure your watch remains secure, especially if you use it for Apple Pay.
What size watch face should you get?
The new Apple Watch SE offers two case sizes, 40mm and 44mm. Series 8 features a larger size range at 41mm and 45mm. The Apple Watch Ultra comes in a single, extra large 49mm size. Though it sounds small, even a 1mm difference can feel quite striking on your wrist and looks substantially larger.
If you’re unsure what size would feel right, we recommend going to an Apple store or other retailer and trying all of the sizes on to see what feels right. If one Watch feels noticeably better than the others, go with it. A bigger screen is an upgrade, but it won’t matter if the Watch feels bulky or uncomfortable on your wrist.
Which Apple smartwatch is the best fitness tracker?
The Apple Watch Ultra has special features that make it the best fitness tracker for certain kinds of athletes and workouts. The action button on the side of the watch makes it easier to switch between legs of a race or training if you’re in the middle of a multi-phase workout, for example. It also offers superior GPS for more accurate tracking while using the Apple Watch’s “Race Route” feature to create and follow a work routine.
That said, in terms of heart tracking and data collection, the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra feature the same sensors for tracking your heart rate and movement. If you’re looking for a watch to bring to the gym or track your outdoor runs, the Series 8 is probably the right call.
Is the stainless steel upgrade worth it?
In addition to the standard recycled aluminum body, you can pay extra for an Apple Watch Series 8 made from stainless steel. The Apple Watch Ultra features a highly durable titanium body. Both metals are tougher than aluminum and won’t scratch or dent as easily. Perhaps more importantly, however, both the stainless steel Series 8 and the Ultra come with an extra-hard sapphire crystal over the display. Having worn both models extensively, I can say that the sapphire crystal upgrade clearly resists scratches and damage better than the Ion-X glass used in the standard Series 8 and SE 2 displays. We haven’t had any problems with scratches or breakage with the Ion-X glass, though, so it isn’t a huge concern if you’re not putting it in harm’s way regularly.
Of course, that extra durability—and the additional colorways—will cost you. The stainless steel case models start at $699, and the Apple Watch Ultra costs $799. If you plan to keep one watch for a long time, the additional durability may be worth it. That said, you shouldn’t worry about your watch being highly fragile if you don’t.
Do you need cellular data on the Apple Watch?
When making your own Apple Watch comparison, whether or not you need cellular data is a major feature difference between models. The Watch itself costs more with cellular built-in: it’s a $50 premium for the SE and an extra $100 on the Series 8. Then you’ll have to factor in the cost of the data itself. Most carriers will charge you about $10 per month extra to add basic data to your Watch. Definitely check with your carrier for compatibility before making a purchase.
That extra expense may be worth it for some people because it allows them to use many Apple Watch features without having to lug around an iPhone. So, if you go running without a phone, you can still make calls and listen to music from streaming services.
So, which Apple Watch should you buy?
I can think of a lot of very specific reasons to pick each of the 2022 Apple Watches. The Apple Watch SE 2 is cost-effective and does most of the things you really need. The Apple Watch Series 8 feels like the best compliment to everyday life and offers all kinds of sensors for advanced health and fitness tracking. For the right kind of hiker/athlete/diver/outdoorsman who wants the very best Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Ultra delivers incredible utility and best-in-class versions of core functions like GPS and battery life.
Without any information about you, dear reader, we think the Apple Watch Series 8 offers the best balance between price and functionality. If that doesn’t ring true, if there are things you really want (or don’t want) that steer you to another watch, we totally get it. The important thing is that you find the Apple Watch that fits your life.