The best Apple Watch may be pretty cut and dry for some, with Apple fans coveting the latest Apple Watch Series 6. However, there are other options available that may offer all you need for less cash. The Apple Watch SE, for instance, offers a more affordable proposition and last year's Series 5 is still an excellent watch.
Even if you do choose the Series 6, there's still a choice of finishes as well as some great special editions, such as the sports-minded Nike+ edition and premium fashion-focused Hermès edition.
We get it. It sounds easier to just get the highest model to make sure that you’re getting the best of the best smartwatches around. After all, choosing the right model for you is a tougher decision. But here’s the thing: just because the Series 6 has the most features, that doesn’t mean that it’s the best value for your money – especially if you don't need those extra features.
The best Apple Watch 2021 (ranked)
The Apple Watch Series 6 is not only the best Apple Watch available, it's the best smartwatch on the market. It takes everything that was great about the Series 5 – stylish looks, great fitness features, potentially life-saving health tools, slick notifications and apps – and manages to improve on it. For iPhone owners with the money to spend, it's unquestionably the Apple Watch you should buy.
If you already have the Apple Watch Series 5, however, you can feel free to skip this model. The Series 6 is better than the Series 5, naturally, but the new features aren't transformative enough for us to recommend the update. Read our comparison of Apple Watch Series 6 vs Apple Watch Series 5. If you have an Apple Watch Series 3 or Series 2, however, you might want to consider upgrading.
So what’s new in the Apple Watch Series 6? Fresh stand-out options include four new colorways: Graphite stainless steel, (PRODUCT) RED aluminum, gold stainless steel, and the blue aluminum we have been using.
Then, in terms of features, you’ve now got a blood oxygen monitoring option – otherwise known as SpO2 tech. This makes use of a new red light sensor that monitors the color of the blood being reflected back, and thus the level of oxygen in it. These readings will automatically be uploaded to the Apple Health app and in doing so, could help make you aware of any potential health issues such as sleep apnea, asthma and heart disease.
The Series 6 also boasts Apple’s all-new sixth-generation S6 chip, which unlocks a bunch of performance features. The main one being that it’s now 20% faster than that in the Series 5 watch, bringing a 2.5x boost in always-on display brightness in daylight and an 18-hour battery, even with the demands of nightly SpO2 readings.
Lastly, there's also a new always-on altimeter, which will keep tabs of the altitude at which you’re walking or running, or if you’re climbing some nasty stairs, for instance. It helps to work out your real activity level more accurately.
Read our full Apple Watch Series 6 review
The Apple Watch SE is a truly excellent smartwatch, there's no doubt about it. Where Apple has cut back for the more budget price, you won't notice it significantly in general use. It feels like a full Apple Watch experience, with all the advantages that brings for iPhone users, like convenience, fitness tracking, and health and safety features. As ever, though, Android users need not apply.
If you're looking at your first Apple Watch, the SE gets a really strong recommendation from us. For those who can spend the extra over the cost of the Apple Watch Series 3, you'll be very glad you did – it's better in every way, from screen to design to sensors to being more future-proofed thanks to its faster processor. It's also important to note that these translate into better health features, including more accurate heart sensing (important for detecting irregularities) and fall detection, which the Series 3 doesn't have.
If you're looking at upgrading an older Watch, the SE makes a great replacement for anything from the Series 3 (if you bought it at launch, especially) or earlier. Though the core of the experience is the same, it will still feel like a worthy upgrade, thanks to all the things we mentioned above.
For those on Apple Watch Series 4 or later, the SE doesn't represent a desirable replacement, but that's not who it's designed for.
Read our full Apple Watch SE review
The Apple Watch Series 5 was another step of Apple's relentless pace at the head of the smartwatch pack. The model takes everything that made the Apple Watch Series 4 so good, sprinkles on a few extra features, and then replaces the previous model with this superior one.
The stand-out new feature is an always-on screen, which means you don't have to raise your wrist for the screen to show something: it will still show your watch face or workout at all times, just dimmed.
And with a few other features to hand, plus new software, it's a small but notable upgrade over last year's watch.
It's no longer the most recent smartwatch from Apple, but the updates to the Series 6 are incremental, so, if you can get the Apple Watch Series 5 at a discount we'd thoroughly recommend it.
Read our full Apple Watch Series 5 review
The Apple Watch Series 3 may not be as exciting as the newest counterpart, but it offers some serious bang for its buck, with any of the ‘essential’ features covered for a lot less money. Yes, it’s slightly chunkier with a smaller screen (42mm or 38mm), but it still has the ‘digital crown’ for easy and unobscured navigation, the same capacity level of water resistance and optical heart sensor. This means that it can be used for all the main exercise and health functions, but may not support the latest apps that make use of the Series 4’s electrical heart sensor, for example.
The watch has Apple’s ‘Activity Rings’, which show the ways you move each day at a glance and lets you track your exercise easily, while the sensors monitor your heart rate and the Breathe app can help you manage stress. You can download a choice of health apps too.
If you plump for the cellular version of the Series 3 you can make a call without your phone, just as with the Series 4. And you can also ask Siri to send a message, stream your favorite songs and uses emergency SOS if you need it – just like with the newer watch.
Of course, there are some drawbacks of buying an older model. For example, it as Apple’s S3 processor, which isn’t as fast as the S4 but this won’t a problem for people using it as an ‘extra’ device or as a fitness aid. And for fashion fanatics, its face isn’t as complex and there is no gold hardware option. The watch is also only available in aluminum, but on the upside, that keeps the cost down. And the screen isn’t quite as clear or as efficient as the Series 4’s, which takes its toll on battery life.
In short, the Series 3 offers a lot of the most important features, but is slightly more sluggish and lackluster, with the possibility that some high tech health apps using the electrical sensor, may not work. But, if you’re looking for a smartwatch that looks great and offers all the main capabilities at a good price point – the Series 3 might be for you.
Read our full Apple Watch Series 3 review
On the outside, the Apple Watch Series 4 is sexier than the Series 3, with 30% more screen and nicely curved edges that make for a more rounded appearance, which allows imagery and the watch’s touch surface to go right to the edge of the screen. This means, for example, the new ‘Infograph’ watch face can accommodate up to ‘eight complications’, so you can see more and do more at a glance, including clicking on a photo of a friend to give them a call, or checking out some fitness stats. And it’s thinner too.
Like all Apple Watches, the Series 4 has a Digital Crown, allowing users to scroll without obstructing the display, only the new one has haptic feedback to deliver a pleasing ‘precise, click-like feel as you scroll’. But there are bigger changes beneath the watch’s shiny exterior. The Series 4 is the most powerful Apple Watch yet thanks to the new S4 chip, which makes it twice as fast as its predecessor, while an inbuilt speaker is 50% louder, providing better audio quality for Siri and Walkie-Talkie functions. All these little changes, including a more efficient display, means the watch has up to 18-hours of battery life on a single charge, according to the company (although, we've found this is an underestimation).
As well as its looks and hi-tech spec, Apple is boasting about the Series 4’s new health and fitness capabilities. On the back, the optical heart sensor present on the first three iterations has been upgraded. It can now even do ECGs thanks to the new electrical heart sensor. It lets you check your heart rate and notifies you if it’s above or below your specified threshold and there’s Fall Detection and Emergency SOS, which could prove handy for more vulnerable users. All your heart data, as well as information from health and fitness apps, is collected in your iPhone Health app. Activity, sleep, mindfulness and nutrition are highlighted there in one snapshot too.
While the Apple Watch has always been pretty handy for runners, it now includes yoga and hiking thanks to a more flexible Workout App, which automatically detects the type of exercise you’re doing. You can set individual goals, measure your calorie burn and track your progress over time in the Activity app too. For example, with a gentle tap, new pace alerts let you know whether you’re ahead of or behind where you want to be. You can also pair your watch with compatible gym equipment by tapping. Like the Series 3 before it, the new watch is water-resistant to 50 meters but it has a cool new function that allows it to eject water from the speaker with a burst of sound.
The Series 4 comes in two sizes: 44mm and 40mm. Read our full Apple Watch Series 4 review
If money is no object, then you might like to consider the Apple Watch Hermès. The ultimate high-tech fashion statement, the watch has specially designed faces and handcrafted leather straps. But under its stylish bonnet, the Apple Watch Hermès is the same as any other Series 6.
When it comes to straps, the choice is wide. The extra-long strap of the Double Tour wraps twice around the wrist and is available in four color-ways. Then there's the classic Hermès design with a buckle inspired by a horse's saddle, also available in four color-ways and there's a hidden deployment buckle version too. The strap, which is available in a choice of two colors, opens with a click of the two side buttons.
There's also a rubbery Sport Band in signature Hermès orange and a more luxurious 'Single Tour Rallye' strap in Fauve grained Barenia calfskin, which references the design of a classic Hermes driving glove - i.e. it has holes in it.
But these designer straps come at a hefty price, with the watches costing between $1249 and $1499. It’s worth remembering that for the same price you could splash out on a Series 4 and a seriously luxurious handbag or holdall for the same price, making this watch one for collectors.
This watch has all the standard Series 6 software features, including the sports and health ones, but is a sporty iteration designed for gym enthusiasts and athletes. The big differences are the straps available and onboard apps.
The Watch is described as 'the perfect running partner' for the Nike Run Club app, and the Nike Training Club app is optimized for the watch too. They include all the usual tracking features as well as a new audio-guided run every week with a curated soundtrack and 'custom cheers', while the training app has over 180 free workouts and notifications to provide workout recommendations to close your 'Exercise ring' (the colorful tracker) for the day. There are also special Nike watch face designs
There are two types of straps – one rubbery ‘particle’ design with air holes to keep your sweaty wrists cool, and another fabric version - the Nike Sport Loop - with reflective thread for those who like to run in the dark.
It's a great option for those who like the latest fitness gadgets.
Moving back even further still is the Apple Watch Series 2. This model was released in September 2016, so it's getting on a bit now, but, if you're looking for the cheapest (but still good) Apple Watch model, then this is it.
The Series 2 still has all of the main features covered, such as notifications on your wrist, a selection of apps, fitness features, and compatibility with all stands, docks, chargers, straps and accessories.
It even has built-in GPS, but no option for cellular.
The aging Apple Watch also falls slightly short when it comes to processing power, battery life, and durability (this one isn't waterproof, so you can't use it to track swimming).
You might be able to pick up a used model now. It's ideal if you're still unsure whether you'll like a smartwatch. It'll quickly become outdated though, and will make you wonder why you didn't just by a Series 4 in the first place.
Read our full Apple Watch Series 2 review
Buying advice: how to choose the best Apple Watch for you
As we mentioned before, the latest, greatest, and therefore best Apple Watch is the Apple Watch Series 6. It features a stunning design and a brighter always-on display. It's not the biggest update over the Series 5, but the small things make a difference.
Apple also still sells the Series 3, and despite looking pretty similar, there are lots of differences between the Series 3 and Series 6 watches - not least the price, as the Apple Watch Series 3 can now be picked up for a very reasonable price, making it one of the very best Apple Watch deals around.
Aesthetically, the Series 6 and 5 are considered to be better looking. They have a 30% larger screen and are thinner, with more metallic color options, a louder speaker, a ceramic backplate that’s meant to boost reception and the new digital crown with haptic feedback, which is used to navigate the watch's features.
One other big difference is what's inside the watches. The Series 6 one has an S6 64-bit dual-core processor and is massively faster than the S3 processor in the Series 3 Apple Watch. It also comes with a second-generation optical heart sensor, an electrical heart sensor and blood oxygen monitor, allowing it to do a whole lot more health monitoring including ECG tests.
However, there are lots of similarities too, which are worth considering if you are not hell-bent on having the latest model and are looking for extra value for money.
Once you’ve chosen between the two available models (Series 1 and 2 have been discontinued) you’ll need to consider which size of watch face you prefer (there are two choices) and whether you want it to have the ability to make calls via your phone network, as cellular connectivity comes at a price.
The standard GPS Watches are cheaper (although not as cheap as the best cheap smartwatches), while the cellular equivalents are $100 more expensive in all cases. So just what do you get for the money? The cool ability to make phone calls from your watch, thanks to an electronic SIM card inside the GPS + Cellular models.
As well as the higher price of the watch itself, you'll incur extra running costs for data usage and network fees, so it’s worthwhile thinking about whether you really want this feature.
But if you’re someone who has their phone with them all the time, you’ll probably want to plump for the cheaper GPS versions and save your pennies.
Last but not least, you’ll want your watch to look good, and there are a lot of decisions to make. The watch’s body comes in aluminum, which is the cheapest option, or stainless steel, with lots of colors and materials to choose from for straps. The most expensive options are made from titanium, There are even offerings from Nike and luxury fashion house Hermès. Read our guide to the best Apple Watch case material.
Oh, and if you're thinking about waiting for the Apple Watch Series 7, then you can read our guide to find out the release date, price, and new features to expect.