Apple Watch SE vs Apple Watch Series 3: What should you buy?

Although the Series 3 is the cheapest, you'd rather want to look out for the upgrade!

Apple recently launched a new low-cost upgrade to the Apple Watch Series 3—dubbed the Apple Watch SE. I thought Apple would discontinue selling the Series 3 after it announces new watches. However, in a surprise move, it seems Apple is continuing to sell it alongside the new budget Apple Watch SE.

Both Apple Watches are great options for people who want a smartwatch. The new Apple Watch SE has the same form factor as the premium Series 6 and costs $120 less. The Apple Watch Series 3 is a relatively old watch and has an outdated design, but offers most of the features you would look for in a basic smartwatch at $200 less than the Series 6.

Having said that, if you are confused as to what Apple Watch you should get your hands on, read along as I compare both watches in-depth.

Apple Watch SE vs Apple Watch Series 3: Design

When it comes to choosing what goes on your wrist, design matters a lot. Apple Watches have always had a distinctive pebble-shaped design that sets them apart from the rest of the industry. While companies like Samsung and Fossil stick to rounded dials for their smartwatches, Apple prefers to gain market dominance by following a curved square design.

It’s interesting as to why smartwatches with a square-like design fare much better than rounded options, especially since watches with rounded dials have been the norm since the very advent of wristwatches. It has to do with how much you can fit in a smartwatch. Square-like smartwatches can fit hardware components inside more efficiently than rounded ones. Plus, it’s just easier to interact with a smartwatch’s interface when it features more screen real estate, which is physically only possible with squared displays.

Left: Apple Watch SE. Right: Apple Watch Series 3

These considerations also apply to our comparison here. The Apple Watch SE and the Series 3 both have a similar form factor. However, the SE stretches the display a bit up to the corners, which means that you get more screen real-estate. And it accounts for all the difference. The SE, since it has the same design as the Series 4, which I own, is much more fun as well as convenient to use as opposed to the Series 3.

The little stuff matters here. When I try tapping on various interface elements on my Apple Watch Series 3, I sometimes miss and it gets quite frustrating after repetitive errors. By contrast, the bigger screen on the Apple Watch SE will register taps more efficiently. A bigger screen is also useful while playing games on the Apple Watch. Now, you likely won’t spend the time on your Apple Watch playing games, but it’s worth noting that a bigger screen will make it more enjoyable.

Moreover, it’s not just about the screen. A watch is also seen as a fashion accessory apart from a mere utility. That’s why people tend to spend thousands of dollars on premium watches like Cartier and Rolex. So, when you’re choosing an Apple Watch, it’s important to consider how it might end up looking on your wrist before buying it.

First off, both Apple Watch SE and Series 3 come in two different sizes respectively. Apple ships the Series 3 in 42mm and 38mm sizes while the Apple Watch SE will ship in 44mm and 40mm sizes. Speaking in general terms, the 38mm size of the Apple Watch Series 3 is often too small for a lot of people, while the 42mm is a decent option. The 44mm of the Apple Watch SE looks good on larger wrists, while the 40mm is the more common choice.

Thanks to Apple, nearly all the bands that fit the SE will also fit the Series 3, except for the new Solo Loop and the Braided Solo Loop options. This is because Apple sells these according to the size of your wrist. And an option for Series 3 doesn’t exist in the size options while checking out for these bands at Apple’s website. However, you can technically attach a Solo Loop to a Series 3, but you will likely struggle with size.

All other band options work just as fine with both watch models.

Apple’s new Solo Loop band on the Apple Watch SE

One other thing that acts as a recognizable factor for an Apple Watch on your wrist is its color and finish. The Apple Watch Series 3 is offered in two colors—Silver, and Space Gray—while the Apple Watch SE is offered in three colors—Gold, Silver, and Space Gray. Both watches have the same Aluminum finish.

If you want a Gold Apple Watch, you’ve got no option than to go buy the Apple Watch SE. Now, I can’t objectively recommend a fit and finish for you. But speaking for myself, I prefer the overall appearance of the Apple Watch SE over the Series 3; only because of its larger display and its bigger size that not only makes it look good on my wrist but also is much easier to interact with.

Apple Watch SE vs Apple Watch Series 3: Features

What makes a smartwatch smart is the extended functionalities it offers apart from simply showing time. It’s supposed to decrease your interactivity with your phone and make it easy to respond to messages and notifications when it’s not within imminent reach.

That said, the features in a smartwatch are all that matter. And the Apple Watch has all the features you’d expect in a smartwatch. It lets you respond to messages quickly from your wrist, track your heart rate and exercises, listen to music, and use any essential service that you’d use on your phone without even accessing it.

However, there are little differences in features between the Apple Watch SE and Series 3. Because the Series 3 is now three years old, it doesn’t have some features that the SE has. Having said that, the Apple Watch SE itself doesn’t offer all the features that the latest Apple Watch should have.

The Apple Watch SE, when compared to the Apple Watch Series 6, doesn’t support blood oxygen tracking or ECG. It also doesn’t have an Always-on Display, Apple’s proprietary U1 Chip, and 5GHz WiFi. However, it does support fall detection, international emergency calling, noise monitoring, and a compass.

The Series 3, however, has none of the above features. Internally, the Apple Watch SE sports an S5 processor which is the same chip used in the Series 5 while the Series 3 sports an S3 processor. Apple says the Apple Watch SE is 2x faster than the Series 3. For reference, my Series 3 has started to show its age already as it sometimes lags and takes time to process applications, while my Series 5 works just as new.

Both Apple watches, however, offer up to 50 meters of water resistance, meaning you can wear your watch into a swimming pool or while surfing or even in the shower.

Software is just as important as hardware when it comes to using an Apple Watch. That said, both watches support watchOS 7—the latest Apple Watch operating system. watchOS 7 brings a lot of new cool features including Sleep Tracking, the ability to share Watch Faces, new workouts within the Workouts app, and much more. While the Apple Watch SE supports all of the new features that watchOS 7 introduces, the Series 3 does not.

It does not get new Watch Faces that are occasionally added to newer watch models. For instance, the Series 3 does not support any new watch faces that were announced in the Apple Watch unveiling except for the Artist Watch Face.

This is because of the Series 3’s screen size. None of the newly designed Watch Faces would fit within the Series 3’s display, so Apple simply can’t offer support for those. Moreover, Apple also doesn’t push many new Watch Faces specifically for the Series 3’s screen size as it’s gotten too old to care that much about.

The Apple Watch Series 3 also doesn’t support the new Handwashing feature in watchOS 7. How it works is this way: when you start washing your hands, the Apple Watch hears for the sound of the running water and detects your hand movements to commence a 20-second timer that’s animated using bubbles. It also alerts you if you stop washing your hands before the timer ends.

Both Apples Watches, moreover, come in a GPS + Cellular configuration that lets you use your watch normally even when you are away from your phone.

Apple Watch SE vs Apple Watch Series 3: Longevity

When it comes to buying new Apple products, longevity is almost never a problem. Apple is popularly known for offering years of software updates and support for its devices. And that holds true even for the Apple Watch.

Having said that, since the Apple Watch SE is new, it has years before Apple ends support. However, the Apple Watch Series 3 launched back in 2017 and so it’s likely that Apple may end support for it in a year or two. Unlike an iPhone, an Apple Watch renders completely useless once Apple stops supporting it with its latest operating system since the watch needs to be on an equivalent operating system as the iPhone to stay paired.

Apple Watch SE vs Apple Watch Series 3: Pricing

Both Apple Watches fall into the low-cost smartwatch category. While they cost cheap as compared to flagship Apple Watches, they aren’t the cheapest smartwatches in the market. The Apple Watch SE costs starting $279 for the GPS-only version while the Series 3 costs $199. Both models offer a GPS + Cellular version at an additional cost of $50. The new Apple Watch SE is also available to preorder through Apple and BestBuy.

Final Thoughts: Should you buy an Apple Watch SE or an Apple Watch Series 3?

If you’re looking for a straightforward answer, I’d say buy the Apple Watch SE as opposed to the Apple Watch Series 3.

While the Series 3 is $200 cheaper than the Apple Watch Series 6, it’s also as much incapable of supporting updates in the future. Not only in terms of futureproofing, but Series 3 also has a slower processor than the Apple Watch SE, which ultimately leads to missing out on a lot of new features like the compass, noise monitoring, and handwashing detection.

At the same time, the Apple Watch SE offers a larger screen, which is a Godsend when it comes to interacting with your Apple Watch, fall detection, and much more atop basic workout tracking features.

So, the only valid explanation for buying a Series 3 right now is that it’s cheap and a decent option for people who simply want to view and respond to messages and track basic workouts from their wrist. If you don’t care about the added health features, the new watch faces, and faster performance, and instead just want a functioning smartwatch, Series 3 will be your bud.

Lastly, I would like to add that if you’ve got the amount of money to spare on a new Apple Watch SE ($279), buy it. But if you can’t spend that much and want an Apple Watch anyway, you can opt for the Series 3.

Note: This story contains affiliate links that may earn The 8-Bit commissions on successful purchases to help keep the site running.