Tech & Wearables

Apple Watch SE Smartwatch Review

This new fewer-frills budget-friendly version of the ubiquitous Apple Watch has some hits and some misses when it comes to multisport training.

Review Rating


Basics

A smartwatch that still sets the bar for lifestyle functions but still works for basic training with built-in features and more advanced stuff with the help of available apps.


Pros

Huge, excellent app library
Beautiful, near-perfect touchscreen
For iPhone users, the best lifestyle connectivity
Open-water swim mode

Cons

Horrifying battery life
Very basic data for built-in sport modes
Poor external device connectivity for non-native apps
Odd quirks for serious training


Weight

45g

Price

$280

Brand

Apple, available at amazon.com


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It should be no surprise that the Apple Watch is probably the best “lifestyle” watch out there. Particularly if you are a part of the Apple universe and own an iPhone, there’s literally nothing available that mirrors a full-function smartphone closer than the Apple Watch. That said, as you’ll see in our Apple Watch SE review, there are some very big weaknesses in the Apple Watch system when it comes to tri training, but there are also a few surprises that make it a better choice than you might think for multisports. 

Related: Smartwatch Reviews From a Triathlete’s Perspective

Apple Watch SE Review: Basic Basics

First off, for fans of the Apple Watch, the SE version is simply a full-sized, updated version of the Watch series with the potential for a cellular upgrade and some processing boosts. The next step up in the Watch world is the Series 6, that starts at $400, but gives you way more heart functions and a few extras we won’t get into here. For under $300, the SE will get training basics like pool and open-water swimming, basic cycling (indoor and outdoor), and basic running (indoor and outdoor, no track) built in. You also get some singular smartphone functions like the ability to respond to messages, make calls, and a lot more—as of this writing there is literally no other smartwatch that allows text/app responses on the iPhone, so if that’s important to you, this is it. All of the Apple sport data analysis is super basic, the GPS and heart-rate sensors are just ok, and there is no multisport sport mode (triathlon or otherwise). Most of the features and functions focus on more all around health—things like steps, wellness, etc. These are great for those who are trying to go from a moderately sedentary life to a more active one, but probably only annoying (and inaccurate) distractions for most triathletes who are already quite active.

Apple Watch SE Review: Above The Basics

Before you completely toss the Apple Watch SE aside as totally useless for triathlon training, there are a few important things to know. First, there are a few very useful third-party apps that can save you from the pitfalls of the simplicity persent Apple Workouts. Most notably, Stryd has an app that allows for realtime running power and very dense run analysis. FORM heads-up display goggles also surprisingly connects to the Apple Watch via their app to give you realtime open-water swimming stats like pace, distance, and more. There are a few other key apps that can help make your training experience better (Strava, for instance, and a host of mapping apps), so all is not lost if you want to train for multisport with an Apple Watch, it just takes a little more app shopping to get it done in a meaningful way.

Apple Watch SE Review: Quirks And Misses

Of course, the Apple Watch is not really built for serious training, but it does make due. For instance, there’s not a great way to get realtime cycling power from an external power meter without the help of a smartphone, and the lack of a good triathlon/multisport/brick mode could be a dealbreaker for a lot of triathletes who love that function for training and racing. But the biggest caveats for this watch are ones that kind of sneak under the radar until you buy it and use it. First, the battery life on this watch is a real issue. With six hours of GPS training—less if you’ve got other apps/things going on—you could be right up against the ceiling of a long ride or even two moderately long workouts in a day. Charging your Apple Watch at night is kind of annoying, but charging it midway through the day is nearly untenable for most. Of course it makes sense that the battery is so fleeting when you take into account everything that this watch is doing, but it doesn’t make you feel any better when you lose your run halfway through. On that note, the lack of an always-on screen in the SE (the Series 6 does have this function, but expect it to chew through battery) is a big pain for running. Also, the starting countdown for runs (skip it with a tap!) and the awkward touch-only pause/stop/lap features make the SE a little bit of a lift for those who are used to something more solid while doing run training. None are a dealbreaker, but those quirks can add up.

Apple Watch SE Review: Dare To Conclude

So while we won’t say, “This watch isn’t for triathletes,” there are a lot of caveats and a little bit of deep diving you might want to consider before making the Apple Watch SE your only smartwatch for everyday use and tri training. Some triathletes who don’t need native data analytics might not care about how basic the Apple Workout info is; some triathletes don’t and never will use cycling power on their smartwatch anyway. The good news is that this watch does about 80% of the things that most triathletes use for training—between what’s built in and what you can get as an app add-on. There’s a good chance a beginner to intermediate (but tech/data light) triathlete won’t notice anything missing, but might feel compelled to add a really really good training smartwatch (like the well-priced COROS Pace 2) later down the line. In terms of lifestyle uses, there’s really nothing better out there, and if you simply become familiar with the training workarounds, you’ll probably be ok with the SE. That said, just be sure you’ve come to grips with the big issues, like battery life and no always-on screen, before you jump in and feel disappointed.