If you’re buying a gift for someone with an iPhone, it’s likely they have an Apple Watch on their list (if they don’t own one already). Apple Watch is the most popular smartwatch in the world; the only problem is, there are quite a few of them to choose from. Between the Series 3, Series 7, SE, and others, how do you know which one you should buy as a gift this holiday season?
Before we get into the watches themselves, let’s talk a bit about a couple of Apple Watch quirks. While other Apple products have their variations, Apple Watches get a little more complicated:
GPS vs. GPS + Cellular
Many Apple Watch models come in two versions; GPS and GPS + Cellular. The only difference here is that the latter enables you to subscribe to a cellular plan for your Apple Watch, should you choose to. It’s definitely a consideration, since you can’t add cellular to a GPS Apple Watch. If you know the person you’re buying the watch for wants that cellular connectivity, you’ll need to buy that particular model, which comes with a slight extra cost.
Apple Watch sizes
All Apple Watches also come in two sizes. Those particular sizes depend on the model of watch, but you can think of them essentially as “small” and “large.” It can be difficult to know which watch is best for the person you’re buying for, but it helps if you know what style watch they already like wearing (if they wear small watches normally, the smaller Apple Watch is likely the best for them).
Apple Watch materials
Not all Apple Watches are made the same. The least expensive Apple Watches are made out of aluminum, and are the most common models you’ll see out and about. Of the three Apple Watch models that Apple currently sells, two of them are exclusively aluminum (the Series 3 and SE).
Apple’s main line of Apple Watches, however, always come in three variants; the aforementioned aluminum, stainless steel, and titanium. Stainless steel is the second most expensive (the Stainless Steel Series 7 starts at $749), while titanium is the most expensive (a Titanium Series 7 starts at $849). These materials not only look more premium, but they are also more durable; the stainless steel and titanium options sport a stronger glass on the display, which results in fewer scratches over time.
That said, the price difference is big, so you’ll need to weigh whether the premium builds are worth it.
Apple Watch Studio
Traditionally, Apple has sold Apple Watches as an all-in-one package; that meant that certain colors watches were tied to certain colored watch bands, and you bought what Apple offered. It wasn’t ideal, and made choosing a watch on Apple’s site a confusing mess.
While things are still this way, Apple now lets you “build” your own Apple Watch using a feature called Apple Watch Studio. If you’re going to buy an Apple Watch through Apple, this is the way to go. Once you read our piece and identify the Apple Watch you want to buy for the holidays, you can choose it here, then begin selecting things like size, case, and band.
Instead of swimming through a sea of differentiating colors, bands, and prices, you’ll now see exactly how much your particular Apple Watch costs. If the end result is more expensive than you thought, you can mix and match options to see what brings the cost down. Again, use this feature once you know which Apple Watch you want to buy, if you are going to buy through Apple. The nightmare that is buying an Apple Watch using Apple’s basic store just isn’t worth it.
Now, let’s get into the watches themselves, starting with:
If you’re buying an Apple Watch for someone who has never owned one before, you might be tempted by Apple’s most affordable option. After all, the watch starts at only $199 for the 38mm, and $229 for the 42mm, and with Black Friday deals upon us, you might find the Series 3 at a true steal; why spend the extra cash on a fancier, more expensive Apple Watch, when you don’t even know how your recipient will like it? Surely, the Series 3 is the best watch for beginners and bargain hunters, right?
No. Wrong. Sorry. Nope.
Almost every Apple product now has a “budget” device that offers a lot of value for the money. The iPhone SE is likely enough iPhone for the average user, and it costs half as much as an iPhone 13; the iPad (9th generation) is only $329, but would fit most people’s needs; even the MacBook Air, while not cheap, offers most people the computer power they’re looking for at a great price for the performance.
The Apple Watch Series 3, however, is not one of these devices. Instead, it serves more as a motivator to buy the next watch up. The Series 3 came out in 2017, making the it the oldest Apple Watch the company has ever continued to sell. A four-year-old smartwatch is going to struggle to keep up in 2021, but performance isn’t the main concern here. Sure, the Series 3 is going to be much slower than Apple’s latest and greatest, but it actually holds up well enough, considering its age.
There are two major knocks to the Series 3; the first, which is undoubtedly the worst, concerns updates. Miraculously, the Series 3 still supports the latest version of watchOS, albeit without some features. However, updating the Series 3 is a nightmare. Because the storage space on the watch is so limited, you are forced to completely erase the watch every time you want to perform an update.
It’s a giant pain, and something that no other supported Apple product has to deal with. Before you had to erase your watch to update, the Series 3 was an arguably good watch for beginners. Now, I really can’t recommend it.
The second knock? It’s only $80 more to upgrade to the next watch. That can be quite an extra sum, obviously, but that $80 makes a huge difference. I can’t stop you from buying a Series 3, but I can implore you not to. Hell, if you use Apple Watch Studio, the Series 3 isn’t an option. Even Apple knows it shouldn’t sell you one of these things.
The Apple Watch SE has the perfect name, and should be Apple’s most affordable wearable. At a starting price of $279 for the 40mm and $309 for the 44mm, it’s $80 more than the Series 3, but worth every penny. The watch comes with bigger screens in almost the same form factor; ships with more modern watch features like an updated heart sensor, fall detection, compass, always-on altimeter, and family set-up support; and, believe it or not, you don’t need to erase your watch every time you want to update it.
Plus, you get the dual-core S5 SiP chip, which, compared with the Series 3’s dual-core S3 SiP chip, brings a huge performance update to make virtually all processes faster. Apple claims the S5 SiP is up to two times faster than the S3 SiP.
You also have the option to go with the Apple Watch SE Nike; this watch is virtually identical to the standard SE, but comes with a variety of Nike band choices as well as exclusive Nike watch faces.
Like the iPad 9, iPhone SE, or MacBook Air, the Apple Watch SE is the one for most people. It gives you nearly everything you could need in an iPhone companion, for a great value. If you’re eyeing the Series 3, we strongly recommend you consider the SE instead.
The Apple Watch Series 7 is Apple’s latest iteration of the smartwatch. It’s also its most prestigious, offering the most features and the most aesthetic options compared to the SE or the Series 3. But is the person you’re buying the device for looking for all that “watch?” Let’s see.
The Series 7 starts at $399 (41mm) or $429 (45mm). Those displays sizes are 1mm larger than the SE, which doesn’t seem like much on paper. However, the bigger difference is the Series 7’s display design, which pushes the display even closer to the edges than the SE. Apple claims you get nearly 20% more screen area than on the SE. You might not notice the difference individually, but hold the watches together and you’ll feel like the Series 7 looks a bit more modern. This display is also, according to Apple, up to 70% brighter indoors.
What the Series 7 can give you over the SE is a blood oxygen sensor, a reading many of us have kept an eye on throughout COVID; an ECG sensor, which lets you check your heart for signs of A-fib; Apple’s third-generation heart sensor; the dual-core S7 SiP chip, which is up to 20% faster than the SE’s chip; and faster charging, up to 33% quicker than the SE.
The Series 7 comes in the standard aluminum, but also stainless steel and titanium, for the premium prices we discussed earlier. You can also choose to go with the Nike aluminum variant, just like the SE, but Apple also offers a special Hermès option, which features a stainless steel watch with a variety of fine leather bands. The Series 7 Hermès ranges from $1349 to $1499, so it’s not the budget option by any means.
Now, that’s what Apple is willing to sell you. If you venture outside of Apple’s stores, however, you’ll see you have other Apple Watch options.
If you’re wondering why you don’t see the Series 6 on Apple’s website, it’s because the company discontinued the watch upon the release of the Series 7. Which is a bummer! Depending on where you find one, the Series 6 might be the watch to beat, especially if you’re looking for a GPS + Cellular option.
On Amazon, aluminum Series 6 watches run anywhere from $385 to $420. For the price (or just under the price) of a GPS Series 7, you could get a Series 6 with cellular connectivity. But what would you be giving up?
The Series 7’s exclusives are its slightly larger and brighter display, the blood oxygen sensor, improved durability (according to Apple, anyway), and quick charging. If you think your recipient can live without those features, a Series 6 might be the winner here. It has all the rest of the Series 7’s features, but, since it’s a “discontinued model,” you could find a great deal on it.
Previous Apple Watch models
While Apple has discontinued them on their end, the Series 4 and Series 5 are also out there in the wild. If you’re looking to buy a watch brand new, never-before-purchased or used, however, your best bet is to stick with the Series 6 or newer. If you look on Amazon, the Series 4 and Series 5 are almost all labeled “Renewed” or “Refurbished,” which indicates a product that was open box, pre-owned, or even repaired. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, you might be looking for something new for a holiday present. Plus, you’re likely to find good deals on a Series 6, SE (or even a Series 7) this year.
If you do find Series 4s and Series 5s in your shopping, know that they’re very similar watches. The Series 5 adds the now standard Always On Display, which allows you to have a subtle watch face always enabled throughout the day, plus the addition of a compass, slightly improved ambient light sensor, and 32 GB of storage.