It used to be easy to pick an Apple Watch. All you had to do was choose whether you wanted the larger model or the smaller one. Then, the Series 3 introduced cellular connectivity in 2017, which added another factor. And then, in 2020, Apple introduced the more affordable Apple Watch SE. Last year, Apple premiered the rugged Apple Watch Ultra alongside the Series 8 and a second-generation SE. So, if you’re looking to buy an Apple Watch right now, what do you do?
Not to worry. I’ve tested every single version of the Apple Watch you can buy right now — in addition to basically every other fitness watch and smartwatch on the market— and can steer you in the right direction.
How to choose an Apple Watch
Should you get an Apple Watch?
The Apple Watch is the best overall smartwatch for iPhone users. Many smartwatches are better than the Apple Watch for hardcore athletes, even with the Ultra in the mix. However, they fall short when it comes to productivity, safety features, controlling your smart home, and interacting with other Apple devices and services. And the Apple Watch has the most robust third-party app ecosystem of any smartwatch on the market.
By their nature, wearables are incredibly personal devices — and you won’t get the benefits of an Apple Watch if you don’t wear it regularly. The last thing you want is to spend hundreds of dollars on a thing that ends up collecting dust in a drawer. The best way to avoid this is to stack the deck in your favor and prioritize comfort. Before you try to start mulling over which Apple Watch model you should get, take a second to figure out which size and strap material will best fit your wrist.
The SE and Series watches come in two sizes each. The SE comes in 40mm and 44mm, while the Series 8 options are 41mm and 45mm. The larger models are better for readability, while the smaller ones are more comfortable for those with petite wrists. Both the SE and the Series 8 have aluminum cases, but the Series 8 has a stainless steel option too. Most people will be fine with aluminum, but if you’re clumsy or very active, you’ll benefit from the extra durability of stainless steel models. You might also just like the look of stainless steel better — and that’s valid since watches are a personal piece of tech. Just be prepared to pay a few hundred bucks more for that.
As for straps, we recommend the nylon sport loop, as it’s the most breathable option, has the easiest clasp, and is less irritating than the silicone options, which is great for sensitive skin. If you want more fashionable options, we recommend checking out Amazon or Etsy for a wider variety of styles and more affordable pricing.
The Ultra comes in one size — 49mm — and with a titanium case. It introduces three new straps: the trail loop, alpine loop, and ocean loop. As their names suggest, they’re geared toward runners, hikers, and divers, but you can pick whichever one suits your fancy. We recommend the trail loop, as it’s the lightest and most versatile of the three. All the new straps work with any 44mm or 45mm watch, not just the Ultra, and the Ultra is compatible with any 44mm or 45mm Apple Watch strap.
And while the Apple Watch is the best smartwatch you can get as an iPhone user, you can also always check out our fitness tracker buying guide.
Apple Watch Series 8, SE, or Ultra?
All three of Apple’s current watches use the same S8-series processor. They also all have the new high-g accelerometer and improved gyroscope that power Apple’s Crash Detection feature. The Series 8 and Ultra also both have temperature sensors that enable advanced cycle tracking.
We recommend the Apple Watch SE for younger people and first-time smartwatch buyers. If you’re upgrading from an earlier Apple Watch, you want an always-on display, or you want more advanced health tracking, you should consider the Series 8. And if you want the biggest and brightest screen, the best durability and battery life, and even more advanced fitness features, we recommend the Ultra.
The Series 8 is Apple’s flagship smartwatch. Compared to earlier models, it’s going to get you the fastest processor, quick charging, a larger display, and all the latest sensors (at least until the Series 9 launches). Prices start at $399 for the 41mm version and $429 for the 45mm. Adding LTE connectivity will add $100 to the price, plus whatever your carrier charges for the service.
The second-gen SE has a new nylon composite back, which helps shave $30 off the original’s price. You can get a cellular version, and it supports many of the same advanced features as the Series 7, like fall detection, emergency calling, Fitness Plus, Apple Pay, and Family Setup. The biggest difference is that it lacks an always-on display, the EKG sensor, the temperature sensors, and the SpO2 sensor. The display is also slightly smaller on both sizes of the SE. It starts at $249 for the 40mm and $279 for the 44mm. Adding LTE will tack on an extra $50 in addition to your carrier’s fees.
To be perfectly honest, if you’re young and healthy, you do not need the Series 8 or Ultra’s advanced health sensors. This is especially true since the SE’s heart rate sensor is still capable of providing abnormal heart rate alerts. Right now, Apple’s SpO2 features are limited to spot checks. There’s not much you can do with that information, and unlike the EKGs, this is only cleared for general wellness purposes. It will not be able to replace a fingertip pulse oximeter, and you should never use it in this way.
Meanwhile, the main purpose of the EKG sensor is to enable atrial fibrillation detection — and if your doctor’s given you a clean bill of health, you will likely only use this feature once or twice. According to the American Heart Association, the biggest risk factors for AFib are advanced age, underlying heart conditions, high blood pressure, family history, and sleep apnea, among other lifestyle choices. If this doesn’t apply to you, the SE is still going to give you an excellent health tracking experience and all the same smart features. Young, first-time buyers may as well save the extra $150 — so long as the lack of an always-on display isn’t a deal-breaker.
There are some situations where opting for the Series 8 is the better choice, however, like if you want an always-on display or need to have the latest and greatest. The larger display also provides much better readability for anyone with bad eyesight. It’s also the better choice if you have a heart condition or are at a higher risk of developing AFib.
The Ultra now sits atop the lineup as Apple’s premium smartwatch. It’s visually distinct from both the Series 8 and SE — and at 49mm, it’s the biggest of them all. Not only that, it has increased durability, water resistance, and a raised lip to protect the flat display. Compared to the Series 8, it has an additional water temperature and depth sensor for divers, three microphones, and two speakers, which enable the Siren. It’s also got the brand new Action button, which can be programmed for various activities, pause workouts, and trigger the Siren. At $799, this is the most expensive Apple Watch, but every model comes equipped with LTE capability.
If battery life is your highest priority, the Ultra is the best choice. In testing, we got up to 60 hours without Low Power Mode enabled. However, if you use about one hour of GPS tracking a day or take calls, you’re more likely to get around two days. The Ultra is also the better choice if you frequently hike, dive, or run trails. It’s marketed as a hardcore watch for explorers, but in our opinion, it’s more of an aspirational watch for weekend warriors and intermediate athletes — or anyone who wants to be at that level.
You’re not going to beat the Ultra on battery life, but you can stretch out the battery life on the Series 4 or later with watchOS 9’s new Low Power Mode. You can even sleep track with Low Power Mode on, though it’ll turn off background health sensors.
If you have smaller wrists, you may want to opt for the Series 8 as it has fast charging and is more comfortable to wear long-term. Faster charging comes in clutch when you’re about to head to bed and you’ve only got 15 percent battery. Also, if you’re the type that values futureproofing, the Series 8’s hardware will be able to support newer features for a longer period of time thanks to its newer processor. This is why folks who love their watch and are looking to upgrade from a Series 4 or older should also pick the Series 8. If you’re already in the habit of wearing the watch daily, you’ll get more mileage out of a Series 8, as the SE is more of a gateway device, and the Ultra is overkill for the average joe.
The best Apple Watch if you’re on a budget
Apple Watch SE or refurbished Series 7
The new Watch SE is the way to go for people who want to futureproof their hardware without breaking the bank (so long as you’re okay forgoing a larger display). You’re getting the same processor as the Series 8 and Ultra, plus Crash Detection. You’ll be able to hold onto it for longer, and it’ll get you a better trade-in value if next year you decide you want to upgrade to a Series model.
While the new SE is an excellent watch, it’s not always the right choice. It’s meant to be a gateway watch, so it’s best suited to folks who are completely new to the Apple Watch and want to spend as little as possible. If you’re looking to upgrade from an older watch but don’t want to pony up for the Series 8, there’s another option: buying a used or refurbished Apple Watch.
Buying secondhand devices is also better for the environment and a more affordable way to get more expensive materials. Materials like sapphire glass, stainless steel, or titanium can add hundreds to the price of a new watch. It’s also a good way to save money if you’re just not excited by the Series 8’s features but want more than what the new SE offers.
It’ll take some patience to find the best price and the model you want. After all, you’re limited by what’s available. However, there are several sites that offer older models. Sometimes you can also find deals and sales as well. If you’re worried about getting scammed, look for deals recommended by sources you trust (cough, cough, Verge Deals). Apple also sells its own refurbished models, which come with a full Apple warranty and are generally in a “like new” condition, though the selection can be limited, and you likely won’t pay less than a new SE. Sites like BackMarket will also let you sort by condition and obtain a 12-month warranty.
If you’re considering a used or refurbished model, we recommend the Series 6 or Series 7, especially if you want all the new compass features in watchOS 9. We also recommend that you use $250 as a benchmark since that’s the price of a new base model Watch SE. With that said, if you’re getting premium materials, such as a stainless steel model, going a little higher is fine. Do not get a refurbished Series 3 or older. Although you can find them for about $100, they struggle to run newer software, and you’ll have to replace them sooner.
The best Apple Watch for kids
Apple Watch SE or refurbished cellular model
If you want your child to have an Apple Watch, we recommend picking a cellular Apple Watch SE or, if you can find one, a refurbished Series 4, 5, or 6 with cellular. All of these watches come in smaller sizes than the Series 7 and 8, which will likely better fit their wrist. Also, the lower price will give you better peace of mind if you have a rambunctious kid.
Since you’re buying for children, you’ll likely want to use Family Setup, as it will give you greater parental controls. (You can read our review of the feature here.) However, there are technical specifications that you’ll need to match in order to use it. You’ll need a cellular version of the device, and it must at least support watchOS 7. Again, do not get a Series 3, even if you find it floating around for less than $100. Although it supports watchOS 8, Apple’s support page states that you need a Series 4 or later or an Apple Watch SE for Family Setup.
If you opt for the Family Setup route, not every feature will be available. While you can get Apple Pay and certain health features, you will not get the following: health data sharing, respiratory rate, irregular heart rhythm notifications, EKG, Cycle Tracking, Sleep, Blood Oxygen, Podcasts, Remote, News, Home, and Shortcuts.
The best Apple Watch for older relatives
Apple Watch Series 7 or Series 8 (with LTE)
This can be a tricky one, but we recommend a cellular Series 7 or 8.
For starters, the larger screen is much easier on the eyes. You can also increase the text size to be larger than on the SE or older Apple Watches. The always-on display aids accessibility, especially if arm mobility is a consideration. You’ll also get the full suite of health features, including irregular heartbeat alerts, walking steadiness, EKGs, fall detection, and emergency calling.
You can use the Ultra, but you should keep its size and weight in mind. Depending on your loved one’s wrist size and health, it may not make sense. The 45mm Series 7 or 8 isn’t that much smaller, but it is much lighter.
If your older relative has an iPhone and you’re hoping to use this for health reasons, we also don’t recommend Family Setup. That’s because you cannot use features like irregular heart rhythm notifications, EKG, and health data sharing. If your relative doesn’t have an iPhone, however, Family Setup is a fine option. You’ll still get high and low heart rate notifications, walking steadiness, and fall detection.