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Which Apple Watch is the best? Our Apple Watch buyer's guide

Apple Watch 7
(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The Apple Watch is the undisputed champion of the smartwatch world and for iPhone users, it is the clear choice (unless you need multi-day battery life). But that leaves open the question of which Apple Watch is the best for you?

The Apple Watch 7 just launched and includes the largest ever display, which makes for an overall better experience. However, discounts on Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 3 make it tempting to sacrifice some features for a deal. Finally, the Apple Watch SE gives you an affordable option without giving up too many features.

Our Apple Watch buying guide will show you all of the differences and similarities across these four models and help you find which Apple Watch is the best for your needs and budget.

Black Friday 2021 Apple Watch deals

Black Friday 2021 falls on November 26 and we expect to see tons of excellent holiday deals on Apple Watch. Be sure to bookmark our Apple Watch Black Friday deals hub for the best discounts. 

Which Apple Watch is the best: Specs

Apple currently has three Apple Watch models available for purchase on its site: Apple Watch 3, Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch 7. For this buying guide, I’m including the Apple Watch 6, which remains available at many other retailers. And since we expect to see plenty of Black Friday Apple Watch deals for that model, you should know what the trade-offs are when you consider picking up last year’s Apple Watch on sale. 

Here’s a basic specs breakdown of the four Apple Watch models we are covering.

Apple Watch 312.9-inchApple Watch SEApple Watch 6Apple Watch 7
Starting Price$199$279$399*$399
Screen (sq. inch)0.87, 1.151.18, 1.511.18, 1.511.4, 1.77
Case size (mm)38, 4240, 4440, 4441, 45
CPUApple S3Apple S5Apple S6Apple S7
Storage8GB (16GB with LTE model)32GB32GB32GB
Battery life (claimed)Up to 18 hoursUp to 18 hoursUp to 18 hoursUp to 18 hours
Swim proofYesYesYesYes
Size1.52 x 1.31 x 0.45 inches1.57 x 1.34 x 0.42 inches1.57 x 1.34 x 0.42 inches1.61 x 1.38 x 0.42 inches
Weight0.94 ounces1.08 ounces1.08 ounces1.13 ounces
ColorsSilver or Space GraySilver, Space Gray or GoldSilver, Space Gray, Gold, Black, Blue or RedSilver, Space Black, Gold, Midnight, Starlight, Blue, Green, Graphite, Red, Titanium

*Apple Watch 6 is no longer officially available from Apple, so while the starting retail price technically remains $399, buyers should expect to get it for less. 

Common Features

I’ll dig into the differences for each Apple Watch, but first, let’s take a look at what all four of these models share. Somewhat surprisingly, the battery life claims have remained the same over the years with all four Apple Watch models at “up to 18 hours,” according to Apple. Each hovers a bit above and below that mark, but it’s roughly accurate, so battery life alone won’t be a deciding factor.

Basic fitness features are also identical across these models with GPS allowing for multi-sport tracking regardless of the activity. All four models are also “swim-proof” as Apple puts it, so there is no need to worry about getting your Apple Watch wet or tracking laps in the pool with it.

Apple Watch 7

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

While the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 7 introduce some more advanced health monitoring, all four models have heart rate sensors that can potentially identify an irregular heartbeat, a feature that some have said saved their lives.

Finally, while a couple of software features are exclusive to the newer Apple Watch models, all four still run the latest watchOS 8 operating system. Just as we’ve seen on the iPhone, Apple is the unquestioned leader in the smartwatch world when it comes to software support for its devices. 

Apple Watch SE features

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch SE

The best Apple Watch for most people

Reasons to buy
+Affordably priced+Excellent software support+Swim proof+Solid fitness tracking
Reasons to avoid
-Only 18 hours of battery life-Lacks always-on display

At $279, the Apple Watch SE is the best Apple Watch for most people. With the same processor as the Apple Watch 5, it offers a considerable performance boost over the Apple Watch 3, along with the increased display size and form factor introduced with the Apple Watch 4.

Apple has stuck to the same "up to 18-hours of battery life" claims for all four of the Apple Watches we’re comparing, but the truth is that they do differ slightly. Despite the lack of an always-on display like the Apple Watch 6 and 7, the Apple Watch SE typically comes in shy of the flagship watches, but should outlast the Apple Watch 3.

From a health-tracking perspective, you lose the ECG monitor that was introduced with the Apple Watch 6, so if heart health is a concern for you then that is worth considering. Fitness tracking is virtually identical to the pricier models, though and it supports the latest watchOS 8, meaning you aren’t losing out on any major new features. 

While $279 is still expensive when compared to most fitness trackers, it’s a solid entry-level for a full-blown smartwatch like the Apple Watch and a much better buy than the Apple Watch 3 from both a hardware and software support standpoint. 

Best for: Anyone who wants to get into the Apple Watch ecosystem but can’t afford or doesn’t want to spend the money for one of the flagship Apple Watch models. The Apple Watch SE still outperforms the vast majority of smartwatches on the market and given Apple’s track record you can be sure that it will remain supported for years to come. 

Apple Watch 3

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 3

The cheap Apple Watch you probably shouldn’t buy

Reasons to buy
+Inexpensive+Still runs watchOS 8+Solid app support
Reasons to avoid
-Small display-Only 18 hours of battery life-No LTE option-OS support may end soon

The most affordable Apple Watch the company still sells is the Apple Watch 3, and while the $199 price point is enticing, I would strongly advise you to steer clear of this model. At $80 more, the Apple Watch SE is a much better value.

The Apple Watch 3 was originally released in 2017 and Apple has done an admirable job supporting the hardware to this point. But the 3 is already struggling to keep up and may be on its last update with watchOS 8. The 8GB internal memory in the GPS model (which is the only model officially for sale in 2021) is a prime concern as it makes updates difficult.

While battery life, fitness tracking, and basic app support are all fine, the smaller form factor and display of the Apple Watch 3 compared to the other three on this list all make for a less friendly user experience. The Apple Watch 3 remains a component smartwatch today, but with the Apple Watch SE available for $80 more (and often less on sale), there’s almost no reason to choose it in 2021.

Best for: If you find an aggressive discount ($149 or less) on the Apple Watch 3 and are unsure if a smartwatch is something you will actually use then, by all means, it’s worth a shot. However, if your budget allows, the Apple Watch SE gives you a much more modern Apple Watch that will be supported far longer, making it the better value. 

Apple Watch 6

(Image credit: Apple)

Apple Watch 6

The best Apple Watch to buy on sale

Reasons to buy
+Unbeatable software support+Solid deals available+Excellent health monitoring+Brighter always-on display
Reasons to avoid
-Only 18 hours of battery life-Lacks larger display of Apple Watch 7

The Apple Watch 6 remains an excellent smartwatch in 2021, but it must be on sale to justify purchasing it over the Apple Watch 7. At the time of publication, you can find it for roughly $50 less than Apple Watch 7 and we anticipate even deeper discounts for Black Friday 2021, making it a compelling option for those who don’t need the absolute latest and greatest.

Apple Watch 6 represents a solid upgrade from the Apple Watch SE. It offers an always-on display that is also considerably brighter than the Apple Watch SE and the new ECG monitor and SpO2 sensors. How much you value the latter two depends on whether you are leaning into the Apple Watch for health monitoring or as more of a general fitness and notification triage device. But the display improvements are something every user will appreciate.

I’ll address the primary upgrades that you get with the Apple Watch 7 in the next section so read on if you are on the fence. But overall, the experience with Apple Watch 6 is largely the same and with the right deal remains the better buy.

Best for: Apple Watch buyers who want all of the latest health and fitness features without having to spend top dollar. If you can find the Apple Watch 6 for at least 10-15% under the price of the comparable Apple Watch 7 then it is a solid value and worth considering if budget is a concern or you simply aren’t swayed by the Apple Watch 7’s updates. 

Apple Watch 7

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The best Apple Watch

Reasons to buy
+Bigger brighter always-on display+Excellent health monitoring+Unbeatable software support+Robust app library+Extensive color and band options
Reasons to avoid
-Only 18 hours of battery life-Expensive

The Apple Watch 7 is the current pinnacle of Apple Watch hardware, and while it didn’t get the massive rumored redesign, it does get one very meaningful upgrade from last year’s Apple Watch 6 that may be enough to win you over. That is the new larger display. 

While the form factor remains nearly identical this year, increasing by a mere 0.04 inches in length and width, the bezels were almost entirely eliminated, allowing for a 0.22 and 0.26-inch increase in display size on the two models. That may sound minor, but it’s an aesthetic and usability improvement that should impact just about everything you do with Apple Watch. It even enabled some features that remain exclusive to Apple Watch 7 like the full QWERTY keyboard.

The one other upgrade worth noting is the increased charging speeds with the new USB-C magnetic charger. It reduces the full charging time to about an hour, roughly 33% faster than Apple Watch 6 according to Apple. For a device that needs to be charged daily for most users that is a very helpful update. 

Best for: Upgrading Apple Watch owners who know they are bought into the system and will make full use of the Apple Watch 7’s new features or new buyers who aren’t concerned with budget and just want the best. The Apple Watch 7 isn’t a transformational update over the previous generation, but the new display feels like the best version of this Apple Watch design, so it’s not a purchase you’ll regret.  

See our Apple Watch 7 review

Apple Watch 7

(Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

Apple Watch tips and tricks

Sean Riley

Sean Riley has been covering tech professionally for over a decade now. Most of that time was as a freelancer covering varied topics including phones, wearables, tablets, smart home devices, laptops, AR, VR, mobile payments, fintech, and more.  Sean is the resident mobile expert at Laptop Mag, specializing in phones and wearables, you'll find plenty of news, reviews, how-to, and opinion pieces on these subjects from him here. But Laptop Mag has also proven a perfect fit for that broad range of interests with reviews and news on the latest laptops, VR games, and computer accessories along with coverage on everything from NFTs to cybersecurity and more.