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The best Apple Watches: Expert tested

ZDNET tested the best Apple Watch models including the Series 9, the Ultra, and the SE to help you choose the right one for tracking your health and accessing quick info and apps.
By Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Apple Watch Ultra 2 | Best Apple Watch overall
Apple Watch Ultra 2
Best Apple Watch overall
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Apple Watch Series 9 | Best Apple Watch for most people
Apple Watch Series 9
Best Apple Watch for most people
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Apple Watch SE (2nd generation) | Best Apple Watch for kids and first-time buyers
Apple Watch SE (2nd generation)
Best Apple Watch for kids and first-time buyers
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Apple Watch Series 7 | Best Apple Watch for unique colors
Apple Watch Series 7
Best Apple Watch for unique colors
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Apple Watch Hermès | Best Apple Watch for dressing up
Apple Watch Hermès
Best Apple Watch for dressing up
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Apple Watch has been the best-selling watch brand in the world for half a decade. Since it's now available in over five different variants, if you are buying one for the first time or upgrading, it can be a challenge to figure out which model is right for you. Based on my years of hands-on experience and testing, I'm going to help you sort through the different options to choose the best one for you. 

While the Apple Watch started out as a fitness tracker that was slightly more sophisticated than a Fitbit, it has steadily expanded to become an expansive health monitoring device and a handy tool for fast access to information and apps. It can now check your heart rate, carry your boarding pass for a flight, identify a song that's playing nearby, open your garage door, alert you when it's about to rain, and guide you to breathe when you get stressed. And those are just a few examples. 

Also: The best smartwatches you can buy: Apple, Samsung, Google, and more compared

What is the best Apple Watch right now?

I've been wearing an Apple Watch every day since the first model launched in April 2015, and I've tried nearly every version since then. I've used and tested the various Apple Watch models to manage text messages, hike long trails, run countless smart home apps, manage cooking timers in the kitchen, remind me of important tasks, and a lot more. Based on my years of testing, my pick for the best Apple Watch overall is the Apple Watch Ultra 2, thanks to its large screen, over 24-hour battery life, and emergency siren. Read on to find out which Apple Watch is best for you.

The best Apple Watches of 2024

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Larger, brighter, more useful screen
  • Over 24-hour battery life
  • Super durable
  • Emergency Siren
Cons
  • Too big for small wrists
  • Double the price of the base Apple Watch Series 9
More Details

Apple Watch Ultra 2 tech specs: Display Size: 49mm | Battery life: Up to 72 hours | Storage capacity: 64GB | Features: Sturdy titanium case and sapphire crystal face, enhanced safety features including a built-in siren, dual-frequency GPS, works up to 100 meters underwater

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 offers a list of more exclusive features than any other Apple Watch model. The most notable and useful difference between the Ultra and the other Apple Watch models is the larger, brighter, flatter screen that's covered by a sapphire crystal face and surrounded by a titanium case to considerably increase the amount of wear and tear it can handle. It's also IPX6 dust resistant, works underwater up to 100 meters (328 feet), and has military grade (MIL-STD 810H) certification for ruggedness. Plus, the Ultra 2 can now handle high altitudes, shocks, vibrations, and temperatures as low as 4 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Review: I spent a week with the Apple Watch Ultra 2 and here's what stood out the most

ZDNET contributing writer Matthew Miller also tried out the Apple Watch Ultra 2 when it was released last year, and said he enjoyed the watch "for its long battery life, brighter display, expanded connectivity, and new watch bands" while also being impressed by the improved mental health functionality via the Mindfulness app.

The Ultra 2 adds more exclusive features as well, including a programmable Action Button with a variety of workout and adventuring functions (it can also simply activate the flashlight), dual-frequency GPS that can overcome interference from mountains and skyscrapers, and dual integrated speakers that are much louder for taking phone calls, playing music, or interacting with Siri. 

Many Amazon reviewers who have bought this watch say that it's the best Apple Watch model they have ever used, calling out the watch's quality and large 49mm screen with 3000 nits of brightness in particular. Beyond that, the Ultra offers one key addition to the series 9 lineup: an emergency siren (activated by holding down the Action Button), which belts out an 86-decibel sound pattern that can be heard up to 600 feet (180 meters) away. This can help if you get lost or take a fall on a hike, to ward off wild animals, or to scare off attackers.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Brighter screen
  • Full array of health sensors
  • Hands-free double-tap gesture
  • More accurate Siri commands
Cons
  • Cellular connectivity costs extra
  • Not as durable as the Ultra 2
More Details

Apple Watch Series 9 tech specs: Display size: 41 or 45mm | Battery life: Up to 36 hours | Storage capacity: 64GB | Features: New features include a 2x brighter display, double-tap gesture, new pink color, robust S9 processor, all the best health sensors Apple has to offer

The Apple Watch Series 9 can track activity, steps, heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen (lung function), wrist temperature, sleep, and environmental sound levels (to protect your hearing), all of which customers who have reviewed the watch say "make day to day living so much easier." And it uses algorithms and machine learning (a.k.a. AI) to spot dangerous patterns and alert you to seek medical attention if needed. There are now many stories of people who've had life-saving experiences with health alerts from an Apple Watch.  

Read the full review: Apple Watch Series 9: Why you shouldn't settle for the less expensive models this year

In my hands-on testing, there are two big upgrades in the Apple Watch Series 9. The first is a 2000 nit display that is double the brightness of last year's S8.The second is the new S9 SiP processor, which has a 30% faster GPU and processes machine learning twice as fast. This makes everything quicker, makes the animations smoother, and enables features like the new double-tap gesture and faster and more accurate Siri commands.

Also: Apple Watch Series 9 vs. Apple Watch Series 8: Should you upgrade?

If you want the latest health sensors and safety features, great battery life (especially if you want to do sleep tracking), and you don't need the extreme features in the Ultra 2, then you can save a lot of money by going with the aluminum model of the Apple Watch Series 9 starting at $399. However, if you decide you want the tougher stainless steel finish (starting at $699) then I'd say skip that and go straight to the Ultra, because for $100 more you get a lot of extra features. The one exception to that might be if you have a smaller wrist.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Family Setup for kids and older adults
  • Health and location tracking
  • Fall and crash detection
  • Very affordable
Cons
  • Not as durable as other Apple Watch models
  • Cellular connection requires monthly fee
More Details

Apple Watch SE tech specs: Display size: 40 or 44mm | Battery life: Up to 18 hours | Storage capacity: 32GB | Features: Most affordable Apple Watch, family setup for kids and older adults, health and location tracking, fall and crash detection

Starting at $249, what I found amazing about the Apple Watch SE (2nd gen) is how many of the same health and safety features from the Series 8 and the Ultra it actually includes. It's easier to talk about what's not included in the SE -- it doesn't track blood oxygen, do ECG heart checks, or check your temperature. And while the face looks just like the Series 8, the screen is actually about 20% smaller, and it also doesn't have an always-on display.

But it includes nearly everything else, and the cellular connectivity is only a $50 add-on for the SE (compared to a $100 add-on for the Series 8). Like the Ultra and the Series 8, adding a cellular connection will also cost you about $10/month with your wireless carrier. But even if you go with the cellular version and opt for the larger 44mm Apple Watch SE over the smaller 40mm version, you'll still only top out at $329 for SE.

Also: Apple Watch SE (2022) vs Apple Watch SE (2020): Should you upgrade?

That makes it a great smartwatch to give to someone who doesn't have an iPhone, such as a child or an elderly family member, using Apple's Family Setup. With cellular connectivity, they can use the Apple Watch to send and receive phone calls, get text messages, dictate replies to texts, and connect to online info like the weather. 

And you can set it up from your iPhone, as long as they are in your Apple family group. If you are connecting an elderly relative who has health issues, the added health sensors in the Series 8 might make it worth the peace of mind to upgrade. Customers who have reviewed the watch also agree that it offers excellent value for the price, especially if you are new to the Apple Watch family. 

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • Comes in unique blue and green colors
  • Good deal if you buy used or refurbished
  • Has most of the latest health features
  • Water, dust, and crack resistant
Cons
  • Shorter battery life than Series 8 or 9
  • Display isn't as bright as Series 9
More Details

Apple Watch Series 7 tech specs: Display size: 41mm or 45mm | Battery life: Up to 18 hours | Storage: 32GB | Features: Large display, fast charging, health-focused features, more durable than SE

When it first launched in fall 2021, the Apple Watch Series 7 brought key upgrades including a 20% larger screen, fast charging (0 to 80% in 45 minutes with a USB-C cable), a more durable face that's made out of crystal and is 50% thicker than the previous model, and IPX6 dust resistance. Those are features that still aren't available on the Apple Watch SE 2nd Gen. 

Review: Apple Watch Series 7 review: Bigger really is better

With the SE now holding down the entry-level Apple Watch market, it's best to think about buying the Series 7 in comparison to the SE. If you just want a low-cost entry into the Apple Watch ecosystem and an easy purchase, then you can buy a new SE and quickly get started. A new Apple Watch Series 7 costs nearly the same price as the Series 8, so it's much better to get the Series 8. However, you can find a refurbished Series 7 for $200-$250 on places like BackMarket and RefurbMe. Amazon also sells refurbished models, and the overall reviews from customers who bought a previously owned Apple Watch Series 7 were positive with no complaints on battery life or the condition of the watch.

There are really only a few great reasons to buy the Series 7 at this point. The first is if you want the additional health features (heart and lung tracking) for an Apple Watch you're giving to an elderly relative, or if you want the extra durability for an Apple Watch you're giving to a kid. The other big reason to buy the Series 7 is because it comes in two really nice colors -- green and blue -- that Apple no longer offers for the Series 8. But again, if you're going to get a Series 7, I'd recommend getting a refurbished one.

Pros & Cons
Pros
  • High-quality, stylish bands
  • Exclusive Hermès watch faces
  • Includes adds an extra Sports Band in the box
Cons
  • Expensive for what you get
  • Same features as regular Series 9
More Details

Apple Watch Hermès tech specs: Display size: 41mm or 45mm | Battery life: Up to 36 hours | Storage: 64GB | Features: Stylish and quality bands, exclusive Hermès watch faces, and case etchings on display

If you're looking to splurge on a designer smartwatch, the Apple Watch Hermès is a chic option for fashionistas. The watch itself is an Apple Watch Series 9, but you'll get exclusive Hermès watch faces and different case etchings. 

What you're really paying for, however, are the Hermès bands, like Rouge H Bridon Double Tour that wraps around your wrist twice. There are plenty of stylish bands to choose from, like the Noir/Gold Twill Jump Single Tour band or the Kilim Single Tour in signature orange.

The versions of this watch that Apple sells no longer include options for the classic Hermès leather bands, now that Apple has eliminated leather from the product. However, Hermès sells leather bands for its edition of the Apple Watch on its site.

As you might expect, the price range for this Apple Watch model will cost you a lot more for the designer brand name. This model ranges from $1,249 to $1,349. All models include cellular (activation and monthly plan not included) and Apple's higher-end stainless steel casings that are also offered on the Apple Watch Series 9. 

What is the best Apple Watch model?

The Apple Watch Ultra 2 is the model with the most cutting edge features, while the Apple Watch Series 9 is the one that has all the latest health features at a mainstream price ($399). There are a few other options as well, so here's a chart that breaks down the features of each model.  

Apple Watch model

Price

Where to buy

Display size

Battery life

Storage capacity

Chip

Apple Watch Ultra 2

$799

Apple, Amazon, Best Buy

49 mm

72 hours

64GB

S9 SiP

Apple Watch Series 9 

$399

Apple, Amazon, Best Buy

41mm or 45mm

36 hours

64GB

S9 SiP

Apple Watch SE

$249

Apple, Amazon, Best Buy

40 or 44mm

18 hours

32GB

S8 SiP

Apple Watch Series 7

$275

Apple, BackMarket

41 or 45mm

18 hours

32GB

S7 SiP

Apple Watch Hermès

$1,249

Apple, Hermès

41 or 45mm

36 hours

64GB

S9 SiP

Which Apple Watch model is right for you?

Having trouble deciding between Apple Watch models? Here's a quick summary of the primary reason to buy each one.

Choose this Apple Watch...

If you want...

Apple Watch Ultra 2

All the best smartwatch features Apple has to offer. While the Ultra 2 is especially loaded with fitness and durability features for athletes and adventurers, its larger and brighter display, better battery life, and emergency siren will appeal to lots of others as well.

Apple Watch Series 9

All the latest health and fitness features at an approachable price. It tracks heart health, breathing, temperature, sleep, and, of course, activity and fitness. The Apple Watch keeps getting smarter and this is the best-selling model.

Apple Watch SE

A more budget-friendly Apple Watch. This includes all the basic features at a lower price and is a great pick for first-time Apple Watch buyers or to give to a kid or an elderly family member, since you can configure it using Family Setup even if they don't have an iPhone.

Apple Watch Series 7

An Apple Watch in unique blue or green colors. The Apple Watch Series 7 is for sale in many places and you can get a refurbished model for $200-$275. The best reason to get it is the fact that it comes in two unique colors you can't get in the Series 9.

Apple Watch Hermès

An Apple Watch for dressing up as well as working out. For those who love the French luxury brand, this special edition of the Apple Watch features premium bands and exclusive watch faces for those for those who view their timepiece as a fashion accessory.

Factors to consider when choosing the best Apple Watch

While all of the Apple Watches on this list have a slew of health-tracking features and other useful apps, their differences are what you need to consider before buying one, including: 

  • Display size: Apple Watch displays now come in essentially three different sizes (40/41, 44/45, and 49). Depending on the size of your wrist and how much you want to interact with the watch for quick actions, the display size will be a big factor in determining which model makes the most sense.
  • Features: Apple methodically adds more and more new features to the Apple Watch each year, so we compared safety features, health sensors, band options, battery life, and other useful options.
  • Pricing: Each Apple Watch has a number of different variations, so pricing can vary widely -- especially based on which band you pick. We included budget-worthy options below $250, as well as the more premium options that are over $1,000.

How did I choose these Apple Watch models?

I have used an Apple Watch every day since the product first launched in April 2015 and have upgraded nearly every year. I have helped family, friends, and neighbors decide if the Apple Watch was right for them, bought Apple Watch models for my kids and aging relatives, and recommended the best times to buy and places to purchase from. I am thoroughly familiar with the current lineup of Apple Watches and made the recommendations in this list based on the factors listed above. 

I also paid attention to real customer reviews (both good and bad) as well as the differences in Apple Watch generations. 

Do you need an iPhone to use an Apple Watch?

Yes, you need an iPhone to set up an Apple Watch. However, with all of the models on this list, you can use the Family Setup option to have one iPhone set up watches for multiple members in your Apple family group -- even if they don't have an iPhone. You cannot use an iPad, a Mac, or a non-Apple smartphone to set up an Apple Watch.

What does the Apple Watch do?

Fundamentally, all Apple Watches can track your steps and fitness data, display notifications from your iPhone, show basic information like weather, start timers, send and receive text messages, answer phone calls, and download useful apps. The latest versions have additional features and functionality, including sleep tracking, advanced health monitoring, car crash detection, and international emergency calling.

Are older versions of the Apple Watch still worth buying?

Yes, many older Apple Watch are available to buy refurbished at places like BackMarket and are still some of the best smartwatches on the market. Just keep in mind that Apple releases a new Apple Watch each year, so a refurbished model that is already dated could end up being four or five generations behind the latest innovations during the time you own it.

What are some features to look for in the best Apple Watch models?

The most important features to look for in the best Apple Watch models include advanced health sensors (ECG, blood oxygen, wrist temperature, etc.), connectivity options (is cellular included or extra, if you want the watch to work when an iPhone isn't nearby), battery life, and durability (water resistance, dust resistance, crystal face to resist cracking).

Which is the best Apple Watch for fitness tracking?

The best Apple Watch for fitness tracking is the Apple Watch Series 9 or the Apple Watch Ultra 2, which both come equipped with the widest variety of health sensors, including ECG, sleep tracking, heart and breathing functions, wrist temperature, and more.

What is the difference between the Apple Watch Series 9, Series 8, and Series 7?

The Apple Watch Series 9 brings a 2000-nit display (twice as bright as Series 8), a new hands-free double-tap gesture, and is powered by the new S9 SiP, which makes any parts of the watch run faster and smoother. The Apple Watch Series 8 introduced a more scratch-resistant crystal face, a temperature sensor, next-gen motion tracking, crash detection, and emergency SOS (all of which are also include in the Series 9). These are all features that the Series 7 doesn't include, but it features two unique colors -- blue and green -- no longer available on either the Series 9 or the Series 8.

Is the Apple Watch Ultra 2 worth the extra cost for outdoor enthusiasts?

If you're someone who spends time hiking, doing triathlons, and involved in outdoor activities in extreme temperatures, rugged conditions, and lots of dust and water, the Apple Watch Ultra 2 may be worth the extra cost. Its design makes it more durable and water-resistant (up to 100m) than the other Apple Watch models and it includes an Action Button for fine-tuning workouts and hikes.

Is the Apple Watch SE a good option for budget-conscious buyers?

Yes, the Apple Watch SE (2nd generation) is a solid option for buyers who don't want to spend over $300 and still want access to the basic health tracking and standard features of the Apple Watch. It's great for first-time Apple Watch owners and as a watch to give to kids or elderly relatives -- especially using the Family Setup option if they don't have an iPhone. 

Does Apple Watch work with Android?

You cannot use an Android phone to setup and pair with an Apple Watch and there are no good workarounds for that. However, if you have an Android phone then there are several smartwatches you can choose from that offer most of the same features as an Apple Watch. The ones below are smartwatches that ZDNET has reviewed and have rated well in our testing.

More: The best Android smart watches of 2023

Other Apple Watch alternatives we have tested:

If you're on the fence about getting an Apple Watch, or want to stay in the Android ecosystem, there are some great options for you to consider. Our picks for best Apple Watch alternatives are based on ZDNET's extensive testing.

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