Apple’s current smartwatch lineup consists of three models: the budget-friendly Apple Watch SE, the advanced Apple Watch Ultra 2, and the flagship Apple Watch Series 9. All three incorporate fitness tracking, safety features, Siri integration, and seamless compatibility with iPhones, with the added environmental benefit of being carbon-neutral. Despite these commonalities, there are notable distinctions, particularly in terms of pricing. The Apple Watch SE starts at a modest $250, while the Ultra 2 commands a higher price tag of $799. Variations in internal sensors, display features, and battery life further differentiate each model. In essence, determining the optimal Apple Watch for your needs may be more challenging than anticipated. To assist you in making an informed decision, we’ve compiled this guide to help navigate the differences and find the model that aligns best with your preferences.
What to look for in an Apple Watch
Chips and sensors
Recently, both the Series 9 and Ultra 2 received updates featuring Apple’s latest smartwatch processor, the S9 SiP (system-in-package). This chip not only facilitates on-device processing of Siri commands but also introduces a novel Double Tap gesture. This gesture allows users to answer calls or halt alarms by tapping their thumb and forefinger together twice. The S9 SiP further enhances machine learning performance, resulting in quicker processing of sensor data, speech recognition, and other cognitive tasks. On the other hand, the Apple Watch SE continues to utilize the S8 SiP, which is shared with the Series 8 and the original Ultra.
Both the Series 9 and Ultra 2 boast temperature sensors, offering the added capability of ovulation tracking. These top-tier models also feature blood oxygen sensors and the ability to perform an electrocardiogram (ECG). All three models are equipped with a compass, altimeter, and support fall- and crash-detection. Notably, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 distinguishes itself with an on-board SOS siren and specialized dive features, including a depth gauge.
Displays and case sizes
While the Apple Watch 9 and Ultra 2 feature always-on displays, the SE requires you to lift your wrist to view the time or read notifications. The SE’s maximum brightness is 1,000 nits, whereas the Series 9 can reach 2,000 nits, and the Ultra 2 impressively hits 3,000 nits. Notably, the higher-end screens can dim to a single nit, reducing distraction in dark environments. In terms of case sizes, the SE offers options in 40 or 44mm, the Series 9 is available in 41 or 45mm, and the Ultra 2 comes in a single case size of 49mm.
As the most substantial wearable in the lineup, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 features the largest battery, providing a claimed 36 hours of usage on a single charge. This duration extends to 72 hours when low power mode is activated. In comparison, both the Apple Watch 9 and the SE offer 18 hours of battery life on a charge, with the potential for longer usage when utilizing battery saver mode.
Surprisingly, all three Apple Watches share similar fitness capabilities. The Activity app employs three “rings” to monitor your daily movement: the Move ring tracks active calories, the Exercise ring monitors minutes spent on activities like walking, running, or yoga, and the Stand ring indicates the hours in a day you’ve stood up and moved for at least one minute.
Various internal sensors detect these activities, with the accelerometer distinguishing between movement and stillness, and the optical heart rate sensor assessing workout intensity and calorie expenditure. Personalized goals for each ring can be set, and achieving them earns badges and animations.
The Workout app facilitates the initiation and tracking of exercise sessions, with sensors capable of auto-detecting your workout, prompting you to track the activity. Apple Watches seamlessly integrate with Apple’s Fitness+ subscription, providing real-time heart rate and calorie burn data on your iPhone or iPad during classes. Fitness+ offers additional features such as audio-guided walks and runs using just your watch and Bluetooth earbuds. All three models support the Activity and Workout apps without additional cost, while Fitness+ is compatible with all Apple Watches, though it comes with a $10 per month subscription fee.
Simply by asking Siri, you can check the weather, initiate a workout, identify a song, or dictate a text. All Apple Watch models incorporate the Raise to Speak feature, eliminating the need to say “Hey Siri” and allowing the device to listen for your request when you raise your wrist near your mouth.
Both the Series 9 and the Ultra 2 employ on-device processing for Siri requests. This means that tasks such as starting workouts and timers are executed faster, as they don’t rely on external networks. However, for actions like sending texts or obtaining weather forecasts, communication with Wi-Fi or cellular networks is still necessary. If you own a GPS-only model, having your phone nearby is essential for these specific tasks.
The price range between the most affordable and the priciest Apple Watch amounts to $550. The entry-level option is the 40mm Apple Watch SE with GPS-only connectivity, priced at $250. The Apple Watch Series 9 starts at $399 for the 40mm model, with an additional $30 for the larger case size. If you opt for cellular connectivity, it adds $50 for the SE and $100 for the Series 9. The latter also offers a stainless steel case option with cellular and GPS, beginning at $699. As for the Apple Watch Ultra 2, it comes with a single price tag of $799, featuring a titanium 49mm case equipped with both GPS and cellular capabilities.
Best overall: Apple Watch Series 9
The Apple Watch Series 9 is a well-rounded watch with comprehensive health and fitness tracking and supports the new Double Tap feature.
- Supports the new Double Tap feature
- Seamlessly integrates with iPhones
- Comprehensive health and fitness tracking
- Raise to Speak feature doesn’t always work
The Apple Watch Series 9 has earned the title of our preferred smartwatch, marking a significant advancement from its predecessor. Introducing features like Double Tap, on-device Siri requests, a brighter display, and a new ultra-wideband (UWB) chip, this model enhances user experience, even aiding in locating a misplaced iPhone 15 through the FindMy app.
In the review by Engadget’s Cherlynn Low, the Double Tap feature garnered positive feedback. Although mastering the tapping rhythm took some practice, it proved to be a practical enhancement, enabling actions such as dismissing timers or alarms, playing music, and responding to messages. Additionally, Double Tap reveals the Smart Stack, a sequence of watchOS 10 widgets customizable through the latest software update. Users can tailor the gesture’s actions, including navigation within the Smart Stack and controlling music playback.
The Series 9 stands out with its on-device processing of Siri requests, allowing seamless interactions even when your phone is left behind. Notable improvements include the enhanced Raise to Speak feature, utilizing a two-second audio buffer from the always-on microphone to anticipate Siri commands more accurately. While the success rate was around 50%, the moments it worked were described as “almost magical.”
Beyond these new functionalities, the Apple Watch 9 continues to be a reliable companion for iPhones, providing quick access to notifications without the need to retrieve the handset. The array of sensors offers insights into overall health, and the fitness tracking tools, including Activity rings, are both dependable and motivating. The only notable drawback is the desire for a longer battery life, as a single day of use before recharging limits the effectiveness of the sleep-tracking functions.
Best budget: Apple Watch SE (2nd gen)
The most affordable Apple Watch makes surprisingly few compromises yet costs significantly less than the other two models.
- Affordable price
- Great health and fitness tracking
- Extends the utility of an iPhone
- Lacks blood oxygen and temperature sensors
- Doesn’t support Double Tap
- No always-on display
Despite not receiving a new generation alongside the updated wearables in September, the Apple Watch SE remains a compelling option at just $250, offering significant value. Cherlynn’s review from 2022 labeled it as “the best smartwatch for the money.” Utilizing the same chip as the original Ultra and Series 8, our recent Series 9 review found that performance differences were barely noticeable.
However, there are some compromises. The SE lacks an always-on display, blood oxygen monitoring, and a temperature sensor. It also does not support the new Double Tap feature and relies on the proximity of your phone for Siri requests (unless you have a cellular-enabled model). In terms of materials, the SE’s face is covered in Ion-X glass, which is not as durable as the sapphire crystal found on the stainless steel Series 9 or the Ultra 2.
Nevertheless, the SE shares several features with its pricier counterparts, such as crash detection, heart rate monitoring, emergency calling, and 50 meters of water resistance. Despite a slightly less bright screen compared to higher-end models, the SE’s display is crisp and easy to read, even in bright sunlight. Accurate fitness tracking, a lightweight and comfortable design, and a responsive processor make the SE an excellent choice for those seeking an entry-level smartwatch, particularly if the omitted features are not a significant concern.
Best for adventurers: Apple Watch Ultra 2
The second generation Ultra model builds on the outdoor-ready features of the first generation with a new processor and a brighter screen.
- Robust build
- Specialized features for outdoor activities
- Large screen displays a lot of info
- Large case can feel bulky on smaller wrists
Apple introduced the Ultra 2 alongside the Series 9 at the same event. Positioned as a sizable, feature-rich smartwatch tailored for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, the Ultra 2 is available in a single configuration: a 49mm titanium case equipped with both cellular and GPS connectivity. Notably, the latest model retains the $799 price point of its predecessor, although the older version is now enjoying substantial discounts.
During a hike, Engadget’s Cherlynn Low tested the original Ultra’s outdoor-specific features, with the Backtrack function proving particularly helpful in preventing an unintended detour. Nestled within the Compass app, Backtrack allows users to set waypoints, such as marking a parking lot before embarking on a journey. The Ultra 2 boasts an onboard siren capable of alerting passersby or emergency personnel to your location if necessary.
For water-related activities, the Ultra 2 incorporates diving features that measure water temperature, dive duration, and depth up to 40 meters. Closer to home, the dual-frequency GPS ensures more accurate route tracking and pace calculations for workouts. The action button is programmable for various functions, including starting a workout, controlling the stopwatch, activating the flashlight, setting a waypoint, and more. However, it’s worth noting that accidental triggering of the action button while attempting to press the crown may require some practice.
Similar to the Series 9, the new S9 SiP chip enables features like Double Tap and on-device Siri processing. The screen brightness has been elevated to 3,000 nits, enhancing visibility even in direct sunlight. While the review did not include a hike with the new model, the original Ultra’s 2,000 nits were deemed sufficiently bright. The new Modular Ultra watch face maximizes the use of the oversized screen, a feature also available on the original AWU. The battery life remains consistent at 36 hours, with the Ultra 2 lasting about three days with moderate use before requiring a recharge. The low power mode stands out for its impressive ability to extend usage significantly from a nearly depleted watch.