Which wearable is best for you? Ars Technica

Apple Watch buying guide: Which wearable is best for you?

Corey Gaskin

If youre an iPhone user who wants a smartwatch, the Apple Watch should be at the top of your list. Unless youre a serious athlete who needs more robust tracking, the Apple Watch can satisfy most moderate exercisers’ needs with a growing list of health and fitness tracking features and improvements. It’s also a great companion for controlling smart home devices, contactless payments with Apple Pay, and a wealth of third-party app integrations. And, of course, it can receive all your iPhone notifications.

Apple currently offers three models in stores: the Series 8, the second-gen SE, and the new Apple Watch Ultra. Among those, there are multiple variants that differ in size, connectivity, design, and price. Then there are older-but-still-updated generations you can dig up from third-party retailers like Best Buy and Amazon, as well as options to buy refurbished devices. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to choose from.

Apple is expected to launch new models in the fall, but for those wanting to take the plunge today, weve sifted through the market of old, new, and refurbished Apple Watches and tested the current options to help determine the best one for you. If you’d like to upgrade from an older model or hop aboard for the first time, allow us to do your research for you.

The best Apple Watch for most people

Apple Watch Series 8.
Enlarge / Apple Watch Series 8.

Corey Gaskin

Apple Watch Series 8

Buy: From $329 at Amazon, Apple,Target

The Apple Watch Series 8 is the best smartwatch you can buy right now. Its the most well-equipped, well-supported wearable on the market, making it the truest extension of your phone available. The number of apps and integrations is unparalleled, allowing you to do everything from opening your garage door to checking the ocean tides right from your wrist. Its not the most decked-out fitness accessorywe recommend a Garmin smartwatch for serious athletes, but the Series 8 is closing some ground here, too.

The Series 8 introduced features that improve battery life, period and workout tracking, and safety. It also does all of this at half the price of the more ruggedized and robust Apple Watch Ultra, which is meant for outdoors enthusiasts. It hits the top-tier trifecta with health sensors for ECG monitoring, blood-oxygen readings, and heart rate and adds a temperature sensor for better period tracking. Throw in GPS, a compass, an always-on altimeter, built-in fall detection, 50-meter water resistance, and the option for cellular capability, and you have a fitness companion you can bring with you anywhere for both tracking and safety purposes.

The Series 8 also has a more sensitive G-force accelerometer thats capable of detecting up to 256 Gs of forceeight times more than the Series 7 and the highest range on any smartwatch, Apple says. Thats for a new feature called Crash Detection, which enables your Series 8 to alert emergency services when it detects a severe car crash.

Many new features came to the Series 8 through Apples latest wearable OS, watchOS 9. Therefore, the following features arent exclusive to the Series 8, but some may work better due to hardware differences.

Backtrack is a new feature in the revamped Compass app that helps you retrace your steps if you get lost. Its rudimentary in its implementation, but it still allows you to drop waypoints, customize them with icons, and point you in the general direction of the path you just traveled. Its better than nothing when youre in a jam, but Apple certainly has room to improve.

Low-power mode can effectively extend your battery life to 36 hours (about two days of usage) versus the 18-hour limit (one day) all Apple Watches have, and fast charging are among the top power features of the latest model. The Series 8 (and second-gen SE and Ultra) can also take less frequent GPS and heart rate readings during a workout. Otherwise, the low power mode works the same as on any other watchOS 9-compatible Watch, disabling the always-on display, blood oxygen and heart rate sensors, and limiting notifications.

The Series 8 charged from 0 to 100 percent in just over an hour in our testing. Thats about half the time it takes to charge any other Apple Watch model older than the Series 7.

watchOS 9 brings new features for runners.
Enlarge / watchOS 9 brings new features for runners.

The Series 8 enjoys all the new features of watchOS 9 that compatible Apple Watches do. That includes Afib history (only for diagnosed individuals), sleep stages, customizable workout screens, heart rate zones, the ability to run against your previously logged running route times, and more in-depth running dynamics. That includes running cadence, vertical oscillation, stride length, ground contact time, and power (in watts).

Apple could stand to do some work on contextualizing what all these metrics mean for the user, but if you already have an idea or are willing to do some research, this data can be helpful. Apples running dynamics are impressive for what the Watch tracks, especially without the aid of a secondary device, as is needed with competitor devices.

Even if youre a non-fitness user, the Apple Watch can still open your garage door, unlock your phone or Mac computer, use Apple Pay, control music, and, of course, deliver timely notifications so you wont have to keep taking your phone out of your pocket.

And yes, Apple Watches are still iPhone-only, and that will likely never change. But taken as a whole, and especially for iPhone owners, the Apple Watch is the most well-rounded wearable platform on the marketand right now, the Series 8 is the most complete offering for most people. Plus, if style is a concern, you can opt for different colors or a stainless steel case rather than aluminum, or you can swap in one of the many replacement band styles (including those from Herms) from a seemingly endless market of them.

Whos it for: Those who want the latest in health and fitness features

Worth the upgrade for: Series 5 and below

The next best thing

The second generation Apple Watch SE is the best Apple Watch to save some change but lose some sensors.
Enlarge / The second generation Apple Watch SE is the best Apple Watch to save some change but lose some sensors.


Apple Watch SE

Buy: From $240 at Amazon, Apple,Target

If you want the core features of the Series 8 but dont want to splurge, the Apple Watch SE is worth considering. The SE uses the same S8 processing chip as the latest Series 8, and the biggest design trade-off is the lack of an always-on display. It also has a slightly smaller screen than the Series 8.

The main selling point for the SE is that it saves you a decent chunk of change over buying the Series 8 without sacrificing most of the latter’s core features. The SE’s biggest health-related omissions are the ECG sensor, blood oxygen monitoring, and skin temperature sensor. Otherwise, you still have the requisite heart rate sensor, an always-on altimeter, a compass, and fall detection for fitness and safety purposes. This makes it a particularly compelling option for kids and teens who are typically less concerned with checking for heart conditions or monitoring blood oxygen levels. The SE also supports all the latest features of watchOS 9, including advanced running dynamics, backtrack’s breadcrumb trails, and crash detection.

It charges at the slower speed of Series 6 and older generations, with a full charge taking around two-and-a-half hours, compared to the Series 8, which charges from 0 to 100 in just over an hour.

That about does it for differences from the Series 8, though. To sweeten the deal, we’ve regularly seen the SE on sale for $230 or even less in recent months. Thats about $100 less than the lowest prices we typically see on the Series 8.

Whos it for: Budget-conscious iPhone owners who are unconcerned with having quicker charging, an always-on display, ECG, temperature sensing (for better period tracking), or blood oxygen monitoring

Worth the upgrade for: Series 4 and below

The best Apple Watch for outdoor explorers, hikers, and divers

The Apple Watch Ultra using the Backtrack breadcrumb feature within the compass.
Enlarge / The Apple Watch Ultra using the Backtrack breadcrumb feature within the compass.

Corey Gaskin

Apple Watch Ultra

Buy: From $780 at Amazon, Apple,Target

For explorers of the highest mountains and deepest seas, the Apple Watch Ultra is the only Apple Watch that can hang with your extreme lifestyleand track it, too. Its almost double the price of an Apple Watch Series 8, so youll have to make sure youll appreciate all it has to offer.

Starting with the design, the Ultra is the largest Apple Watch on offer, with a 49 mm MIL-STD 810H-tested titanium case. That means its rated to withstand a wide range of environmental conditions, including freezing, wind-blown rain, and sand, as well as shock absorption and extreme temperatures. It also has a max screen brightness of 2,000 nits, which is twice as high as the Series 8.

For better structural rigidity, the screen is also flat and set level with the case, as opposed to the rounded edges found on all other Apple Watches. Using titanium for the watch case allows for a bigger, more robust frame than the largest Series 8 while also keeping weight down with the stronger material. The more ruggedized case also has a larger digital crown with bigger notches for easy grip with gloves or in tough environments. On the other side of the Ultra is a new action button to activate an 86 dB siren that Apple says is audible at up to 600 feet away.

Users can also map the same buttons short press function to start a workout, open the stopwatch, measure a dive, turn on the watch flashlight (make the screen very bright using a plain white background), execute a Siri shortcut, drop a waypoint, or start a Backtrack breadcrumb retrace route.

Under the hood is a more accurate GPS that uses L1 and L5 signals for better performance in challenging environments. The Ultra also functions as a dive computer with EN13319 certification that tells you depth and water temperature.

Its very evident that the Apple Watch Ultra is targeting specific, adventurous users. But there are also a few perks we more reserved folk can enjoy. Battery life, for instance, is 36 hourstwice that of the Series 8. Cellular connectivity also comes standard (youll still need to attach it to a plan), and the speaker is louder than any other Apple Watch’s.

If you’re looking for the most rugged Apple Watch for divers and explorers, look no further. But if you’re not tethered to Apple, we’d recommend checking out more highly equipped watches from Garmin, like the Epix 2 or Descent Mk2, which improve upon the Ultra’s features and offer weeks of battery life.

Whos it for: Anyone who will use diving features and/or traverse extreme climates and conditions

Worth the upgrade for: Only those looking for an Apple Watch that can track dives and handle extreme conditions

Skip refurbished Apple Watches

Apple Watches as old as the Series 4 can run the latest watchOS software, but that doesn't mean you should buy one.
Enlarge / Apple Watches as old as the Series 4 can run the latest watchOS software, but that doesn’t mean you should buy one.

Valentina Palladino

You can save money on major retailers by choosing an older-generation Apple Watch or a refurbished model, but wed recommend avoiding this route, as there are risks. Although you may not need the latest and greatest, we recommend saving money by purchasing a new Apple Watch SE instead.

If you’re intent on buying refurbished, there are things to keep in mind that can help lessen your risk. Each retailer has its own standards for a buyer to know when purchasing a refurbished Apple Watch.

Apple says any refurbished Apple Watches sold directly from these retailersnot third-party resellers on their websites, as youll often find on Walmart and Amazonwill carry a one-year manufacturers warranty. Best Buy is an exception, and Best Buys Certified Refurbished Watches are 100 percent covered by the same warranty as a new Apple Watch. You can even add AppleCare service to them within 90 days, just as you can with new Apple products.

Since Amazon and Walmart outsource the refurbishment and sale of these watches, theyre not covered under Apples one-year warranty, nor are they eligible for AppleCare. Amazon offers an extended 90-day return policy on refurbished Apple Watches for all of its sellers, though. The retailer also states the terms of buying a refurbished Apple Watches right in the product description, so be sure to review those carefully.

Lastly, Amazon notes that refurbished phones are not guaranteed to be waterproof. Although it says this in reference to phones, the same applies to Apple Watch devices due to their chassis being compromised during the refurbishment process. Only the 90-day return/replacement policy will applyno warranty. Generally, we’d tread carefully if you want to take this route; be sure to review the terms and conditions and be ready to accept a level of risk.

As for refurbished Apple Watches on Apples website, the current stock is nonexistent and typically scarce. The discounts offered for them arent significant. If you find one for a lower price, though, the condition of Apple’s refurbs is hard to beat and, like Best Buy’s refurbs, you can return them within 14 days or add Apple Care to them for added security.

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