Apple Watch Series 6 vs. SE: Thoughts From a 5-Year Wearer

apple watch series 6 vs SE

After three weeks of double-wristing Apple Watches (Series 6 and SE), and five years of wearing Apple Watch daily, I determined that Apple Watch SE is the best bet because it’s more affordable with just minor sacrifices.

Apple Watch Series 6 has a stainless steel option, Always-On display, ECG reader, and blood oxygen reader, but these aren’t essential features for most people.

If you’ve never owned an Apple Watch, I recommend my Apple Watch Basics post before reading this comparison to get you up to speed.

Want to learn how I reached this conclusion? Read on to see the detailed breakdown of hardware, unique features, and design that informed my overall impression.

TL;DR? Skip to the conclusion

Hardware

Series 6 A+
Series SE A

Screen: SE

Summary: The SE has the same large display as Series 6. The only difference is that the screen turns black when it’s not in use.

How the screen works:

  • The screen turns black when it isn’t in use.
  • Twist your wrist towards your eyes to wake the screen. It should happen naturally and not feel forced. During my first four years with Apple Watch, the twist to wake worked 98% of the time. But be aware that you’ll look goofy when you exaggerate your wrist twist on the second attempt after the first doesn’t wake the screen.
  • Tap on the display to light it up.
  • Twist the Digital Crown to light up the display slowly, then twist it back to make it go black.

Screen: Series 6

Summary: The Series 6 features an Always-On display, which will dim the display when it’s not in use, but still be bright enough to see the time and other complications. The Always-On is helpful during exercise, but it’s an extra distraction and drains the battery faster during the rest of the day.

Always-On benefits:

  • The display dims when your watch detects that it’s not in use, but stays bright enough to properly show the time.
  • The refresh rate of the screen switches from its usual 60Hz to 1Hz. The screen refreshes once per second, rather than the standard 60 times per second, which improves battery efficiency.
  • You’ll always have access to the time, like a traditional watch, without touching the screen or wrist movement.
  • Always-On is most useful when my full focus can’t be on my watch. During workouts, I can glance down to see my heart rate or pace without any thinking. It’s great for running, but it’s even better during timed ab workouts.
  • You can disable Always-On at any time and the screen will remain black while not in use.

Always-On downsides:

  • Always-On is battery efficient compared to the normal Apple Watch state, but it reduces the battery runtime by about six hours per charge cycle. The standard GPS Apple Watch models easily get through 24 hours with Always-On enabled, but battery life is more precious with the LTE models.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the watch is in Always-On mode. If you tap a button on Apple Watch when it’s in Always-On mode, the apps don’t work. Instead, tap to wake the screen, then tap the button you want.
  • It can be a distraction. Do you need to be locked into your tech at all times? When the Apple Watch screen is black, it looks like a regular watch. When the screen is on, it looks like a nerdy tech product and it is displayed to the world.

Personal experience: The importance of Always-On is overplayed because there are too many sacrifices and you can easily wake the screen with three different methods. I had Always-On enabled on my Apple Watch Series 5 for a year. But during testing for this post, I often found that I preferred the SE’s lack of Always-On. Going forward, I’ll probably disable Always-On to save battery, then just enable it during my workouts. Most tech pundits love the always-on, but maybe they got too wrapped up in the cool tech and didn’t consider all of the downsides.


Insides: SE

Summary: Apple Watch SE performs almost identically to Series 6 and has similar battery life. In a blind test, I wouldn’t be able to notice any hardware differences between the two watches.

Battery:

  • I averaged 35 hours of runtime with two hour-long workouts and eight hours of sleep tracking.

Processor:

  • It uses the same S5 chip found in Series 5.
  • I can’t tell the difference in the SE’s speed compared to Series 5 or Series 6.
  • As of now, there’s nothing wrong with the S5 chip found in the SE. It performs all actions and opens all apps with great speed.

Insides: Series 6

Summary: Series 6 is faster on paper than the SE, but it’s not noticeable. Series 6 has three minor hardware differences like a U1 chip, 5Ghz compatibility, and a third-generation heart rate sensor, but none of these add much to the everyday experience.

Battery:

  • I averaged 37 hours of runtime with Always-On disabled with two hour-long workouts and eight hours of sleep tracking.
  • I averaged 30 hours of runtime with Always-On enabled with two hour-long workouts and eight hours of sleep tracking.
  • In my testing, each hour my watch was connected to LTE, it lost two hours of runtime. For example, I’d get 24 hours of runtime with Always-On enabled, one hour-long workout, eight hours of sleep tracking, and three hours connected to LTE.
  • Series 6 has a faster recharging time. You can charge it from 0% to 80% in about an hour, get it to 100% with an additional 30 minutes. The SE gets to about 65% after an hour of charging.

Processor:

  • Series 6 has Apple’s S6 chip, which is up to 20% faster than the S5 chip found in the SE (on paper).
  • I can’t find any noticeable differences other than extra battery runtime.
  • Maybe the S6 will come in handy in the future:
    • The S6 chip may receive an extra watchOS software release, but the SE should be supported for at least three more major watchOS releases.
    • There may be a processor-intensive app in the future where the S6 chip would be more helpful.

Minor hardware differences:

  • Series 6 has a U1 chip used for spatial awareness. The U1 chip is in iPhone 11, iPhone 12, and HomePod mini. Unfortunately, Apple hasn’t revealed its entire plan for the U1 chip yet. 
    • It’ll help locate your Apple AirTags (once they’re released).
    • It’ll help with Apple’s Car Key feature that will unlock your car.
    • There may be cool integrations with HomePod mini. For example, your music moves to the nearest HomePod automatically as you move to a new room.
  • Series 6 has a third-generation optical heart sensor, but the Series 6 and SE heart rate readings were always similar and refreshed at the same rate when worn at the same time.
  • Series 6 works on the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz WiFi channels, while the SE works just on the 2.4GHz.

Features

Series 6 A+
Series SE A

Features: SE

Summary: The SE has a compass, always-on altimeter, fall detection, an option to add a cellular plan, and Family Setup just like the Series 6. If you’ve never owned an Apple Watch, read my Apple Watch Basics post where I list my favorite features found on all Apple Watch models.

Features: Series 6

Summary: Series 6 has two features that you won’t find on the SE. It has an ECG reader on the Digital Crown that works by holding a finger on the Digital Crown for thirty seconds. It has a blood oxygen reader that works by shining green, red, and infrared LEDs onto the blood vessels in your wrist. Both health features are potentially life-altering, but if you have certain conditions or you climb certain altitudes, you probably already know you need Series 6 before coming to my post.

Notes:

  • You have to keep your wrist still for 15 seconds while the watch faces upwards. I often received “unsuccessful measurement” readings while I was testing it.
  • Blood oxygen is typically taken from your finger. Getting a reading from your wrist may prove to be difficult or less accurate. A $20 pulse oximeter is probably a better bet if you’re looking to monitor blood oxygen.

Appearance

Series 6 A+
Series SE C

Looks: SE

Summary: Apple Watch SE comes in three aluminum case colors (space gray, silver, and gold) and there are 29 different band options, which gives you 87 combinations to choose from.

Finishes: 

  • Silver, space gray, and gold aluminum.
    • It uses an Ion-X glass display.
    • The glass feels fine if you’ve never used a sapphire glass Apple Watch model, but it SE feels like a toy in comparison.
    • I usually buy a stainless steel Apple Watch, but this year I wanted the blue aluminum because I thought it looked great. But I’ve concluded that I’ve spoiled with the stainless steel models and the aluminum lacks the premium feel that I’m used to. The glass on the aluminum models feels squishy. It’s the first year that I won’t keep the latest Apple Watch model.

Looks: Series 6

Summary: Apple Watch Series 6 has five aluminum colors, including blue and red that aren’t found on the SE. Series 6 is the only Apple Watch model that’s sold in stainless steel and titanium, making it a better bet for those who care more about the looks of the watch.

Finishes:

  • Aluminum: silver, space gray, gold, red, and blue.
    • The blue and red are exclusive to Series 6.
    • It has an Ion-X glass display. The screen feels hollow when you tap it, in comparison to the stainless steel.
    • It’s a matte finish so it’s naturally fingerprint-resistant.
    • It weighs 32 grams.
    • It feels lighter than the stainless steel model, but it’s not noticeable on the wrist.
  • Stainless Steel: silver, graphite, and gold.
    • It has a sapphire crystal display. The display is more scratch-resistant and feels stronger than the Iox-X glass.
    • It looks better than aluminum, but the sapphire glass is what separates it from the aluminum models. It feels more premium and robust.
    • It weighs 42 grams.
    • Stainless steel attracts more fingerprints.
  • Titanium: natural titanium and space black.
    • It has the same sapphire crystal display as the stainless steel models.

Which is best for you?

  • Hardware (A+)
  • Features (A+)
  • Appearance (A+)

Apple Watch Series 6

Get Apple Watch Series 6 if you want an Always-On display or a more premium look and feel. The Series 6 has stainless steel and titanium configurations that come with a premium sapphire glass display. The blood oxygen and ECG reader are great, but you need these features you’re probably already on your way to buying Series 6.

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  • Hardware (A)
  • Features (B)
  • Appearance (C)

Apple Watch SE

Get Apple Watch SE if you’re fine with the standard aluminum finish and the screen turning off when not in use. The SE is a fantastic value because it has almost identical speed, battery life, and features compared to Series 6. The substantial sacrifice is the lack of an Always-On display, which I found to be overrated after a year of testing.

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6 thoughts on “Apple Watch Series 6 vs. SE: Thoughts From a 5-Year Wearer”

  1. Very helpful! Thank you. Would love the band descriptions, especially with Covid and not wanting to go to store to try on a bunch of bands and fits. I’m coming from FitBit Vera and tired of watch only lasting outside of warranty! Finally switching to Apple – everything else is Apple, it’s about tilt time! Lol

  2. I have always been an iPhone user but never considered buying a watch because I am not fond of wearing them. However, with my new job as a nurse, I think it is important that I should get one. I am now considering to get an Apple watch. I just need an advice on which is more suitable or appropriate to my profession, between 6 or SE? Thanks.

  3. Because of your YouTube video on this before finding this article, I was compelled to get SE vs the 6 while the SE 44mm was on sale(I mean everything 6 and SE really)a week ago on BBuy. Thanks man!

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I’ve been obsessed with gadgets since I was eight years old. I buy each device reviewed with MY money and don’t have insider access. I’m just like you, the everyman.