What do you look for in a new iPhone? The top of the list likely includes battery life and camera quality. There are a bunch of other specs and features you’d probably put down lower on the list: speed, screen quality, size, extra cameras, and so on.
But the most important thing for that list comes not from the specs, but from the fact that you’re looking for an iPhone — something with access to iMessage, FaceTime, a huge library of great apps, reliable software updates, and more. You could cross-shop with Android phones, but the switching cost is getting higher every year.
That’s why I’m glad Apple has resurrected an old idea and released another iPhone SE. It starts at $399 for a model with 64GB of storage. For people who want an iPhone, it makes buying a brand-new phone for less than $700 a whole lot easier. Before this week, you’d be choosing between refurbs or switching over to Android.
Pointing out that the iPhone SE is an iPhone is redundant, but it’s important for people who don’t want to switch. It’s also a guarantee of a base level of quality. That makes this review simple: how much are you giving up when you’re only paying $399?
Less than you might guess.
If you have ever held an iPhone 8, iPhone 7, iPhone 6S, or iPhone 6, then you already know the basic shape of the 2020 iPhone SE. It has a 4.7-inch screen with big bezels above and below, a big circular home button on the bottom with a fingerprint sensor embedded in it, and nicely curved corners and edges.
It’s what you probably still think of as the canonical iPhone, even though the new ones have bigger screens, Face ID, and those notches. Apple’s had this design since 2014, and it’s sticking with it. Keeping that design is likely a big reason for the low cost. There’s no need for Apple to retool its factories to build it.
I get all of that, but I also get that this design looks tired in 2020. There are many comparably priced Android phones that have managed to reduce their bezels. That’s not just an aesthetic consideration, either. Smaller bezels mean you can fit a bigger screen in a smaller phone body.
The bezels are a bother, but the build quality is not. Apple’s long history with this phone design means that it’s rock-solid. There’s no flex, no gross seams, no gaps. The 4.7-inch LCD display is as good as ever, with True Tone to help color-match your surroundings.
It’s an iPhone, and there’s a comforting sense of familiarity to it.
For those of you hanging on to the original iPhone SE in the hopes that Apple would make another small phone: I acknowledge you and your sadness. This is simply the way phones are these days. I will say it’s a very common experience for people to resist bigger screens and then love them when they finally give in, but that may not be yours. If it helps (it won’t), there aren’t any good tiny Android phones right now either.
As with the iPhone 7 and 8, the home button isn’t a physical button, but simply a spot on the bottom that gives you a tactile tapback when you press it. I’m happy to say that Apple hasn’t skimped on the haptics on this phone: they feel great.
It’s only IP67 water resistant, so it’s okay to get wet, but don’t leave it in water for too long. It’s glass on the back, too, to enable wireless charging. Both are relative rarities at this price point.
The last hardware thing I’ll note is there is no headphone jack. It’s only worth pointing out because most inexpensive Android phones still do offer a headphone jack. Apple includes Lightning EarPods in the box but not an adapter. It also has Apple’s standard dinky 5W charger, so while the iPhone SE supports fast-charging, the included charger doesn’t.
Inside that familiar shell, there are two major upgrades to the iPhone SE: the processor and the camera. Let’s talk processor first.
It has the A13 Bionic, which is impressive because it’s the same processor as the iPhone 11 Pro. There is no faster processor in a smartphone for any price. So yes, the iPhone SE is fast, but that’s not why the processor matters.
The processor is important because it ensures that the iPhone SE will get OS updates for many years to come. I still have the original iPhone SE, released in March 2016, and Apple supported it with the latest iOS update last year. Four years later, and that iPhone has the most up-to-date software.
Most Android phones — from the cheapest to the most expensive — top out at two years of updates. Even the best, Google’s Pixel line, are only guaranteed updates for three years. As I said last week, it’s not just about the $399 cost; it’s about how often you have to spend it. No other phone at this price will last as long as the iPhone SE will in terms of software support.
Speaking of longevity, battery life on the iPhone SE is all right but not stellar. I’m getting through a full day, averaging between four and five hours of screen-on time. I was hoping the A13 Bionic processor would unlock the longer battery life we got with the iPhone 11, but it seems that was mostly about battery size, and the SE has the same size battery as the iPhone 8.
It’s enough for today, but in a few years, you may be turning to a battery case on the regular or seeking out a repair shop to replace your battery.
The iPhone SE has just one 12-megapixel camera on the back and a 7-megapixel selfie camera on the front. There are two ways of looking at these cameras, both valid.
The first is, for a $399 phone, the cameras are absolutely great, and any complaints or gripes should be promptly dismissed given that price. The second is that they’re quite good but have some baffling shortcomings that Apple could have overcome, even at this price point.
In any sort of bright lighting conditions, the iPhone SE takes absolutely lovely photos. They’re clean in the details, color-accurate, and just the right amount of sharp. Dynamic range is also quite good. In fact, in daylight conditions, it can be hard to tell the difference between this $400 phone and a $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro.
Apple says that this iPhone SE is able to do more than it otherwise would because of that A13 Bionic processor. It allows for portrait mode (or, more specifically, more kinds of portrait modes) on both cameras, for example. Apple has given this capability a very Apple-esque technical name: “monocular depth estimation.” But unlike the single-lens portrait mode on Pixel phones, the iPhone SE isn’t taking advantage of sub-pixel calculations. It’s using machine learning models to estimate depth of field.
I think that the iPhone 11 Pro manages portraits slightly better than the SE. But I also think that, by and large, portrait modes on phones all break down when you look closely.
The A13 Bionic also enables Apple’s enhanced HDR and semantic rendering features. The former ensures the background doesn’t get too blown out, and the latter knows what you’re taking a photo of and works to light it better. I particularly noticed both when taking photos with a bright sky in the background — a photo that would have tripped up any iPhone before the XR (and maybe would have done a number on the XR, too).
This is all great, but the disappointment comes with low-light photography. The iPhone SE simply doesn’t do as well there as it does in other situations. There’s no night mode, and in dim light, there’s just too much noise. It’s almost like the whole camera stack panics and overcorrects, especially on portraits.
I’m not sure why the A13 Bionic allows the iPhone SE to gain all of those other benefits but not better night shots. I’m not going to say that night mode is a solved problem by any stretch, but Google has been doing it on cut-rate hardware for a couple of years now, so it’s certainly possible. And Apple’s camera would, in theory, be up to it, given the processor is the same as its more expensive phones.
But before you put a crown on the Pixel 3A or the upcoming Pixel 4A, I want to point you to the iPhone SE’s video capabilities. It absolutely punches above its weight class, with 4K stabilized both optically and with software, extended dynamic range, and the option to go as high as 4K at 60fps. If you can get better video performance out of any phone that costs less than $500, I’d like to see it.
Bottom line: if you’re upgrading from any iPhone older than the XR, I think you’ll see a marked improvement. If you’ve been hanging on to anything as old as the original SE, 6, or 6S, the improvement will be dramatic.
The iPhone SE shines a bright, clarifying light on the entire smartphone industry, putting even Apple’s own top-end phones in sharp relief. What are you paying for when you spend $800 or $1,000 or even more for a phone? The list turns out to be more about niceties than necessities.
As I write this, I have an iPhone 11 Pro, Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8 Pro, and Pixel 4 XL within arm’s reach. Each has a multicamera system, an advanced biometric identification system, and a big, nearly bezel-less OLED display. In the case of the Android phones, they also have high refresh rate screens that make everything look radically smoother.
Is all of that worth the cost? Sure, for a lot of people. Is any of it necessary? Other than low-light photography, there’s virtually nothing that I do on those $1,000 phones that I can’t do equally well on the iPhone SE. It is fast, capable, reliable, and familiar. I’d miss those advanced features and more expansive displays, but not as much as you might think.
If I were buying the iPhone SE, I’d seriously consider spending the extra $50 to upgrade the storage to 128GB, just in case I’d want it three or five years down the road. That timespan is the reason the iPhone SE is a big deal. No other phone that costs less than $500 can claim to be this good, nor last that long.
The iPhone SE is not just a good deal. It’s also a really good smartphone.
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