I lied. Okay, not exactly, but my very first smartwatch was a ZTE Quartz which I briefly paired with my old OnePlus 5t. It was so slow, so unresponsive, so unusable that I returned it the very same day. Now, more Android smartwatches are shipping with the requisite gig of RAM they so desperately needed, better chips, and a more competent software suite. However, the experience put me off of full-featured smartwatches so much that I trudged along with my trusty Xiaomi Mi Band 3 for the next 2 years, right up until I couldn’t use the inaccessible companion app anymore. Then a bunch of other stuff happened, and now I’m happily sailing along on an iPhone 11 and my very first smartwatch that I’ve owned for more than 24 hours.
First impressions and setup
I was not happy with my Apple Watch. I purchased the Watch SE 44mm with cellular in a silver case paired with a charcoal sport loop. The trouble began as soon as I got home from the Apple Store. Actually, I want to briefly talk about my purchasing experience. The process of buying an Apple Watch online using Firefox and NVDA is not quite as seamless as buying an iPhone. Not all the form fields are immediately visible and picking the watch you want to buy after applying all of the filter criteria isn’t exactly obvious, but once you pick the watch and move on to selecting options, it’s more straightforward. It would have taken nearly 2 weeks to ship to my house, so I decided to pick it up at my local Apple Store. I was very impressed by the measures taken to maintain safety. I had to pick an appointment time. Then I waited at the store. The staff were all helpful and pointed me in the right direction. I showed them the card with the relevant info on the wallet app, and I was promptly given my watch. Everybody wore masks, and temperatures were taken with no contact. Nice job.
So, the watch. The carton containing the two boxes was easy enough to open, but I was thwarted by the adhesive tabs holding the contents inside together. It took me several minutes to open the upper box containing the little tech sandwich I had paid so many hundreds of dollars for, and I ended up opening the other box the wrong way around. Naturally, I figured out how to open it properly after I had demolished the opposite end. Ignoring my blunder, I carefully extracted the precious little square from its package. I pulled on the tab to remove the little paper pouch thingy… and it tore right off. I proceeded to shred the pouch and extract the watch. The rest of the package contents were easy to extract with no further destruction. It finally came time to set it up. Long story short, I tried installing the band upside down several times, I somehow set Voiceover to Chinese and then locked it up, and I was never informed that it doesn’t actually support 5GHz Wi-Fi, so when I finally did manually connect it, everything had somehow gotten a little scrambled and made updating the thing from watchOS 7 to 7.0.2 a 17-hour exercise in frustration and loud swearing. I was so upset that I was a few hours from returning it to the store, but after 3 factory resets, it just… kind of worked. I’m no slouch when it comes to computers. I used to be an avid PC gamer. I built my own rigs. I’ve played with Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Heck, I’m in school for a computer science degree. I don’t know what happened here. Maybe a stray neutron slammed into the CPU during setup or something. Maybe my phone being on 5GHz tripped it up. Maybe a butterfly flapped its wings in Peru. I have absolutely no clue. The point is it works now, but that was totally unnecessary and uncalled for.
So, what about my first impressions after that small nightmare? Well, the fitness tracking is excellent. Mind you, it’s far from perfect. I was lying in bed one night, Listening to Dance With The Dead, when the watch bugged me to stand up. I didn’t, but I did raise my hands and rest them underneath my head. Not long later, the watch congratulated me on achieving my daily stand goal. Still, those bad measurements are small enough that I don’t need to worry about them much. Another feature which initially gave me trouble was Taptic time. Try as I might, I simply could not make it function. I pressed and pressed and pressed my two fingers against the watch. I double tapped, just like the instructions said for Voiceover users. After a search on YouTube, I discovered that I should only be tapping with one finger. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that this is what the instructions told me to do, but the problem is that they were immediately preceded by instructions to use two fingers, so it caused confusion. It took me another week or so to figure out that I had to deliberately slow down my taps. Try after try was met with Voiceover chattering the time. I had assumed the feature was simply poorly implemented, but rather than quickly tapping twice or thrice, you must tap, wait, and then tap either once or twice. With that knowledge in mind, thanks to Applevis users, Taptic time works nearly perfectly now. Putting those aside, I was very impressed by the Apple Watch. I’ve been most impressed by that haptic motor which drives everything from the gentle taps letting me know that someone just sent me a meme on Discord to the subtle clicks of the digital crown. Seriously, I can’t get over how good it feels. I’ve occasionally sat there for minutes at a time rotating and flicking it with my fingers because of how satisfying the clicks feel.
The Watch Se feels like the Series 6 which feels like the Series 5 which feels like the Series 4. That is to say, there’s nothing new under the sun here. It’s the same rectangle with an aluminium frame, a sensor dome on the underside, speaker slit on the left, crown and mic and side button on the right, watch strap slots on the upper and lower portions of the case, and it’s all topped by an RGB OLED display which is probably very pleasant to look at. I can tell you that it gets fairly bright, but that’s about it. While I’ve heard that the watch uses an RGB stripe rather than a traditional PenTile matrix, I can’t find any trustworthy sources to verify this. On the back of the case, the sensor dome is as prominent as ever. I thought it might take some getting used to, but once you strap it on, you don’t even feel it. As a bonus, it appears to be coated in some type of plastic which adds a little friction and keeps it from sliding around on your wrist as long as you have it tightened properly. Speaking of tightening the band, the sport loop is excellent. As a child, I always looked forward to buying digital watches. I’d spent hours looking through the Timex selection and picking out just the right one. I’m familiar with nylon bands that close via Velcro. I know all about how they age and how eventually the bit with the Velcro at the end just falls off, but this one is totally different. As its “loop” name implies, it’s one continuous strip that you have to slide your wrist through to put it on. Once in place, you pull on the end to tighten it and press it down to lock the Velcro in place. The entire outer surface is made of nylon loops, so the band is infinitely adjustable, and it feels oh so soft. If you haven’t experienced the sport loop, then know it’s several cuts above your typical Velcro patch. I’m seriously in love with the sport loop. It feels and works brilliantly. Sizing is also not a problem. I have 165mm wrists, and I tighten the band to a little over halfway on my 44mm case.
Let’s get back to the sensors on the back of the case. That’s also where the magnetic charging puck slaps into place. It requires very little effort to align and equally little effort to pull off afterward. For the price, I feel that Apple should have included some sort of charging cradle. Using such an easy charging solution on such a nice watch, only to unceremoniously dump it on your bed or nightstand feels just a little barbaric. I was worried about the battery life of the watch. “Another thing to charge,” I thought, but between keeping my watch in airplane mode and rarely disabling screen curtain, I’ve managed to regularly eke out battery life in the mid 30-hour range. Once, I got up to 48.5 hours, but that was a day with very light usage. Besides checking the time, I think I sent two texts and did no workouts. That long battery life for Voiceover users is excellent, considering that it takes well over two hours to charge the miniscule battery inside. I’ve found the best way to keep your watch from dying is to take it off when it gets below 40% or so and give it a charge while you’re in the shower. Oh, right. I should explain why I’m in airplane mode. I bought this watch with the idea that cellular would come in handy after we can all get vaccinated. Ever try to keep your phone on you while wearing dresses? Most of them have no pockets. Sadly, I do not have a use for the LTE modem at the moment, so I can’t give you battery performance metrics there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the GPS-only model got less battery. So far, all of that hardware has held up nicely. The glass doesn’t seem to have any scratches on it, but glass is glass, and glass breaks. I initially covered it up with a protective plastic shell, but the ridge around the display edge, the muffling of the mic during calls, the reduced sensitivity when performing touch gestures, and the fact that I had to peel it off every time the watch got wet meant it didn’t stay on for long. My advice? Be a little careful with your watch, let it go naked, save your pennies, and buy the warranty. These protectors and cases are finnicky at best thanks to that curved glass a la Samsung. While an iPhone locked away in a cheap TPU case and clad with a glass screen protector can be excused by being in your pocket most of the time, the watch is visible on your wrist. It’s just as much a fashion accessory as it is a tool and a shiny toy.
The software experience
WatchOS 7 is good, but it’s not without its problems. I’ll come right out and put the two most annoying issues front and center. First, Voiceover has trouble shifting focus. Pull up the control or notification center, and Voiceover routinely thinks that you’re still at the watch face. This happens almost everywhere throughout the interface, including apps. It’s not a dealbreaker (just tap on an element to get it to switch over), but this is something that I shouldn’t have to deal with, especially after paying enough to have gotten an iPhone SE instead. It also features some of the focus bugs that many users have experienced in iOS 14. They’re most notable when navigating around controls in apps or when the permissions dialogue pops up. Second, the watch still rings when in silent mode. Every single time I receive a call, my watch starts chiming. It hasn’t left silent mode for weeks, yet every call plays that little tune. I don’t understand how a bug like this even exists. Turn off Voiceover and it functions as expected, but VI users will have to take more care to not disturb others in a meeting, it seems. Other problems include the typical total lack of self-awareness on Voiceover’s part. Listen, when I’m in a call, or when I put my watch down, or when Siri is speaking, I expect Voiceover to shut up. “As in close your mouth and stop talking.” That doesn’t always happen. I’m also disappointed that I’m limited to either Samantha, Siri’s voice, or nothing at all. I’m not a fan of Samantha’s questionable pronunciation, and Siri just doesn’t sound good at exceptionally high speaking rates. I’ve never gone below 85%, save for the comfort of any sighted friends who I might be showing my toys off to. I’d like to have at least a few more choices here, but I understand if it’s a limitation in computing power.
Speaking of power, the Watch SE is powered by last year’s s5 system in package, though it’s lacking a few features that its older sibling, the Series 6 carries. Most notably absent are the ECG monitor and always-on display. Personally, I’ve been connected to an ECG in the hospital more than enough times to know that my heart is fine, and I really could not care less about keeping my watch face visible 24/7. As for pulse oximetry, I do not care in the slightest, especially with reports of its questionable accuracy. This watch does bring the always-on altimeter from the Series 6 though. I don’t find it all that useful, but it is interesting to see the change in elevation after finishing an outdoor walk. One feature that I truly wish had made the leap down from the Series 6 is 5GHz Wi-Fi. I have a dual band router, and I do my best to keep user clients on the higher band and IoT devices (like smart bulbs or appliances like printers) on the slower, further reaching 2.4GHz band. The watch takes my wishes and throws them right out the window. Oh well. Next upgrade cycle, I guess. When I was manually connecting to a Wi-Fi network, I also found input to be a challenge. Dictation is available when messaging, but sometimes your only options are scribble and the continuity keyboard. Scribble sucks. If you want to write more than 4 or 5 letters, and one or more happens to be an o or a 0, it’s best to not bother. It’s finnicky. You can cancel out of it super easily, and it’s simply awful. The continuity keyboard is much better, though typing on your iPhone and receiving no confirmation of input on the watch also feels strange.
Let’s leave the complaints behind for a moment. As many frustrations as I have, I’m also seriously impressed. As I said earlier, fitness tracking is excellent. The watch will quietly keep track of your daily activity as you work. Like your mother, it’ll regularly remind you to stand, work on your activity goal, take a minute to breathe, and it’ll even time your hand washings. However, unlike your mother, you can completely ignore its suggestions and disable them completely. If you’re doing that though, you might as well take the watch back to the store. Hot take of the day right there. So, how do you work out? Well, you ask Siri! Yes, yes, Siri is a bit slow compared to Google Assistant and Alexa, but she’s no slouch. Since I’ve disabled raise to wake, I have to long press the crown (or use my voice if the watch is awake) to hail her. You can do this either on the watch or on your phone. Just ask her to start an indoor walk or an outdoor run or whatever type of exercise you’re going to do. It will keep track for you until you ask it to pause or stop your workout. If you forget to start or stop, the watch will do its best to guess when you begin or finish in order to keep track of your activity. You can also easily monitor your progress through the activity app. You can check the progress of your rings, see your awards, see how many steps you’ve taken, and you can also take a look at your weekly progress. You can access even more info through the health and fitness apps on your iPhone. If clicking the crown and swiping is too much effort for you, you can also configure a complication to show you your activity right on the watch face, or you can ask Siri. Long story short, fitness tracking is fantastic, and you will not be disappointed. Oh yeah, your workout stats are prominently displayed after you finish exercising; everything from average heartrate to altitude gained is right there.
While I haven’t gone out much, I did go out for a bit on my birthday. California’s been… struggling, but a few places are still open, including the Starbucks where I finally got to use my watch to pay for something. I’ve never been one for mobile payments. Google Pay was always easy to use, but something about it just made me not want to use it. Apple Pay, on the other hand, coupled with the watch, is something I could get used to. Once I added a PIN and set up my Amazon Rewards card, all I had to do was double tap the side button and hold my watch against the payment terminal. In case the deafening beep of the piece of- I mean, the point of sale machine isn’t enough for you, the watch gives you a gentle tap to confirm your transaction went through. You also receive a notification of how much you just spent; this is a feature all too welcome, especially because of how easy it is to spend more money with plastic instead of paper (yeah, we use paper money here in the states. It’s weird). I had my oversweetened coffee, and I was happy.
There’s more to love from the watch. Messages and phone calls work as you’d expect. Once I took off the protector, people on the other end of a phone call couldn’t even tell that I was on a watch, and the speaker is loud enough to hold a conversation comfortably. Yes, it’s tinny, but it’s a tiny watch. You can’t expect much. I’ve also never lowered the volume below 50%. Most of the time it stays at 70% or higher. I’m not sure how sighted people change the volume, but you can easily change it via the rotor. Back to calls. Their voices also come through loud and clear. The absolute insistence of cheap Bluetooth headsets to switch into a hyper-bitcrushed codec for voice calls has always driven me up the wall, but that’s not the case here. Everything is crystal clear. Dictation on messages is also about as competent as you’d expect. In the world of short, quick bits of information shot off rapidly, it’s perfectly adequate. I’ve had one message fail to send with no recourse other than to redo it (there was no resend button on the notification), but that was it. Other issues include the usual affair with Apple’s voice typing. My latest gripe is the fact that it types “Chito’s” instead of “Cheetos”. I have no comment on this. The watch does feature period tracking for anyone with a uterus, or cycle tracking as Apple puts it, but thanks to a number of medical conditions, I don’t get those. I can’t comment on how reliable it is. The stopwatch works as you’d expect, complete with laps. Really, most apps do. The timer offers you a preset choice of times, but you can ask Siri to set a time that’s not available. Speaking of timing, alarms are simply the best thing on the Apple Watch. Waking up, reaching the end of a timer, or just activating a regular alarm with nothing but taps is far more pleasant than any sound any of my smartphones have ever made. I’m no statistician, but I’m willing to bet that people who wake up to a watch tapping their wrist live longer than those who use an old school piezo alarm clock. There are a lot more apps, but I’ll only cover a few more. I strongly advise you stay away from the camera viewfinder. It’s slow, buggy, and it will absolutely murder your battery life. I’d like to focus on the compass for a bit, since that was formerly an advertised feature. It works as expected. Put your fingers on the watch, and you’ll feel subtle clicks as you spin around. Voice feedback is useful, albeit somewhat delayed to avoid overloading your brain. The focus issues are ever present here as well. Okay, I’m going to say this one last time. Apple, fix it. This is ridiculous. I am a paying customer. If I were sighted, and these issues were present, I would return the watch immediately and assume it’s defective. Alright? Alright. I’ve got that out of my system now. Let’s move on. The feature I’m most mystified by is handwash detection. Once enabled, the watch will automatically detect when you wash your hands (using the accelerometer and microphone) and display a 20-second countdown. Sometimes it takes a bit for it to show up, but it will compensate by starting at a lower number. If the fact that it usually starts at 15 bugs you, you can just keep washing for a bit longer afterward. Siri reads out the countdown, and the watch will give you a gentle tap once done. I think the tap should be stronger, as it’s easy to miss in the chaos of scrubbing your hands, but it’s still an amazing feature to have. It’s also taught me that washing my hands properly really isn’t that big a deal. Despite all the negativity up there, one of the other features I love love love is the fact that I now have my mobile authenticator on my wrist. Authy isn’t perfect with Voiceover, but it sure is convenient to not have to pull out my phone and manually open an app (because Siri thinks I’m saying “Aussie” with a lisp). That goes for every app. Er, the convenience bit. Not the Aussie thing.
If you use Voiceover on the regular, buy the bigger model. I struggle to perform the screen curtain gesture on a good day. I can’t imagine trying to do it with a smaller face. With my wrists (165mm), the watch occupies about ¾ of my wrist. It’s on the big side, but seriously unless your wrists are tiny, get the bigger model.
Of course, you can change which watch face you use. There are many to choose from, but I settled on Pride Digital. “Of course you did,” is probably what my girlfriend would say about that. It’s fairly basic, featuring a digital clock and only two complications, similar to the Meridian face that comes set out of the box, but it’s enough for me. I’m not a fan of swiping through a bunch of elements anyway. I’ll likely explore more faces in the future, but for me it’s not so much about the looks since I can’t see it anyway.
Other complaints I have relate to the notifications and other bits and are annoying, but they’re far from deal breakers. The actions you can take with them aren’t always consistent. Want to listen to the WhatsApp voice message your Android-toting family members just sent you. Pull out your phone, bud. Did you mark that Outlook email notification as read? Not as far as your iPhone is concerned. Did you accidentally tap another element after opening the mic for dictation? Good luck closing the mic again. Taptic time gets triggered inadvertently on occasion. Flicking the crown up to hear the time will sometimes cause Voiceover to speak the same thing twice. Sometimes the watch taps or buzzes you for a notification, but when you tap the display to wake it up, there’s nothing there. Sometimes an alarm will sound on your phone but not on your watch. Oh yeah, and I just cannot get over the atrocious setup experience I had. Lastly, my AirPods Pro will not switch over to the watch for Voiceover speech. As far as I can tell, this is intentional. It’s fine, for the most part, but getting a buzz on your wrist while working out or otherwise listening to music can be stressful. Speaking of music, the now playing controls are useful only if you don’t have headphones in your ears. Otherwise, it’s easier to just reach for your iPhone. I did hear that Braille support was coming to watchOS 7, but I have yet to find it. That’s okay though. I really cannot imagine connecting my Focus 40 to this tiny thing.
Apple Watch is not a smartphone replacement
While the watch hasn’t ever felt sluggish, it’s definitely not fast enough to take over as my primary mobile computer. Even if it was, the software just isn’t there. For starters, it’s tethered to an iPhone. It might not be your iPhone if it’s been set up for you by a family member, but it is tied to an iPhone via the Watch app. Further, many iPhone apps simply don’t have Apple Watch counterparts available, and that screen is so tiny that the ones that do are massively reduced in scope. Yes, the cellular models allow you to leave your watch behind, but don’t expect that convenience beyond a quick run to the store or an emergency where you forgot your iPhone at home. Beside that, there’s no biometric authentication, and the few times I have to enter my PIN are already too many. Thankfully, Apple allows you to unlock your watch via biometrics on your iPhone, provided that your watch is strapped to a wrist, but it’s still clear that it’s not ready to take the iPhone’s (or any other smartphone’s) job. This was best exemplified during the watchOS 7 public beta. If you upgraded your watch and then decided you wanted to go back, or if you encountered a bug that bricked your device, you had to send it to Apple to repair it. If you thought plugging in to restore was annoying, imagine dealing with that. I have no doubts that the watch will one day be ready to fill the role of a smartphone, but today is not that day. Right now, the Apple Watch is a companion device. That’s okay though. It’s a pretty darn good one.
Congrats! You’ve made it to the end of my longest hardware review yet! If you read my previous thread about my difficulties in setting up the watch, you should now know that I fell in love despite the awful first date. I absolutely recommend this device. Do you need one? No. No. Good lord, no. It’s expensive, and it’s purely a quality of life device. That said, I’ve yet to find any wearable with accessibility as competent as the Apple Watch, so for now, this is really the only option. I hear that new WearOS watches with 1 gigabyte of memory are much better than the ZTE Quartz I fumbled with, but I don’t have any experience with anything newer, so you’re on your own there.
Yes, I am fully aware of the podcasts available on Applevis related to the Apple Watch. Should I have used them? Probably. I’m happy that they exist, but I’m one of those silly stubborn types that insists on figuring everything out herself. I’m working on it, guys. It’s a hard habit to break. For those of you more willing to seek help, there are tons of tutorials right here on Applevis.
Apple has put together a really competent product which brings most of the features of the high-end model at a more affordable price. So far, the Watch SE is shaping up to be the one that people don’t seem to care about, and I think that’s a shame. It’s good for the money, at least in Apple land. I bought a fully specked unit with AppleCare + for the same price as the 44mm Series 6. Before I wrap this up, if you’re on the fence between the SE and the Series 6, the s5 chip is more than fast enough. Yes, setup is faster on the flagship watch, but that’s an experience you’ll seldom revisit. 5GHz Wi-Fi would be nice, but it’s not that necessary since your watch will be on Bluetooth most of the time. If the always-on display or the ECG are important features for you, I suggest looking for a Series 5 from other retailers. Day-to-day tasks on the SE are reasonably snappy, though it does take a second or two for apps to load. If that bothers you, or if you really want pulse oximetry, the new Pacific Blue color, slightly faster charging, the 2.5x brighter always-on display (compared to the Series 5), or if you just really care about the new altimeter and also want one of the other aforementioned features, then buy a Series 6. Personally, not even the nicer Wi-Fi is worth the nearly two extra Benjamins to me. Remember, cellular costs twice as much on the Series 6. I was conflicted before buying, but I have no regrets when it comes to saving that money. If what you’re after is an excellent fitness tracker, a great smartwatch, and the perfect companion for your iPhone that doesn’t look dated and doesn’t break the bank, the Apple Watch SE is an excellent choice.
This review was written entirely by me. The product reviewed was an Apple Watch SE, initially running watchOS 7, but later updated to 7.0.2 and then 7.1. I purchased it with my own money and didn’t accept any offers from anyone. No company was given editing or early viewing rights, save for some friends (that don’t own Apple Watches) for help with proofreading. I wrote this up, showed it to some friends to make sure the spelling was good, and then I posted it here. I’m not a journalist or anything. I’m just some idiot on the internet who loves tech and wanted to review a product.