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iPhone SE (2020) Review: Real Value for Real People

Apple has a brand new iPhone for 2020. A $399 U.S. brand new iPhone SE, which is the least expensive we’ve seen since… well, since the original iPhone SE back in 2016.

Like the original, the new iPhone SE features a classic design, including the Home button and Touch ID, an industry-leading processor, and what Apple rightly claims is their best single camera system ever.

Its the retro-future of iPhones, but should it be your next iPhone?

Design

The new iPhone SE looks… a lot like the old iPhone 8. There are a few design differences, and I’ll get to those in a hot-take minute, but overall it’s the same basic size, shape, and configuration. It’ll even work with almost all existing iPhone 8 cases and attachments.

For tech nerds like me, who obsess over screen to bezel ratio and debate the relative glory and villainy of notches, hole punches, and mechanical choochers what try to avoid both, that’s the a huge drawback. Give me my modern iPhone every day of the week and twice on… yeah, every day of the week.

For hundreds of millions of other people, though, the ones still using iPhones from the 6 to the 8, including the original SE, the ones that like that classic design, that feel comfortable with it, and just want more of the same. At least for a while still. I think it’ll prove to be a huge feature.

Just like the original SE gave one last hurrah to the smaller, boxier, more chamfer-edged iPhone 5s design, the new iPhone SE gives everyone who loved the iPhones 6 through iPhone 8, a new and improved version to keep on loving for several more years to come.

It’s smaller and lighter than the more modern looking iPhone 11, and even the roughly same-sized but stainless-steel bound iPhone 11 Pro. Enough that you can feel it.

Holding the new iPhone SE, I immediately flashed back to my first experience with the original four years ago: Remembering again just how small and light an iPhone can feel.

Sure, this SE isn’t as small as the previous one. The truth is, once you move into a bigger apartment you accumulate more stuff and it becomes hard to move back into a smaller one again.

Same with the iPhone SE. Over time, everything from iOS to the amount of power and thermal envelop Apple’s chipsets needed outgrew that old SE size. So, if Apple ever wants to make a 4-inch iPhone again, they’ll need new parts to do it, and that means it wouldn’t come in at $399. Which is what Apple wanted this iPhone SE to do. Especially now that the iPhone 8 design is fully paid down.

The new SE is made of Apple’s 7000-series aluminum and chemically hardened glass, just like the iPhone 8. That’s technically not as strong as more recent iPhones but I’ve scratched all of those and quickly and this one is still holding up fine. I’ll keep an eye on that, though, and report back in a few weeks because I have a feeling it will change. For the last few years, Apple’s glass has been way better at resisting breaks than it has been scratches, at least for me.

And that’s a good thing, because the iPhone SE is also every bit slippery as the iPhone 8 and other recent iPhones. I really do wish Apple would find someway to increase the friction on these glass backs because every time I hear one fall off an even slightly angled table or sofa, my not-yet-cybernetic heart just skips a beat. I haven’t lost one yet, but I don’t want to keep risking it.

On the back, Apple has dropped the word iPhone and centered their logo, which I really like. The more minimal the branding, the stronger the brand.

The colors are also great: White, black, and Product RED. I’m a sucker for RED phones, especially with black face plates. And that’s all the iPhone SE offers for face plates. Black. And it’s terrific.

It does contrast more with bright apps, especially reading books or the web in light mode, but for movies, TV, and anything in dark mode, it just melts that forehead and chin right away.

Again, anathema to the full screen, waterfall, wrap around crowd, but for the non-trivial amount of people who enjoy having a place to rest their fingers that won’t trigger an unintentional touch event, it just feels like home.

Speaking of which…

Touch ID

The classic design of the iPhone SE means there’s plenty of room for a now-classic Home button front and bottom center. It’s not a mechanical Home button like the original, but the virtual kind Apple introduced with the iPhone 7.

And, I prefer them. By a long shot. Once you get used to them, they just feel better. You can even customize the pressure level if you really want to. But, especially because it never gets loose or stops registering clicks over time, it’s one less potential failure point to worry about.

The new SE also has Touch ID, which is Apple’s biometric fingerprint sensor. The faster, second generation version. Which is just a fancy way of saying if you touch the Home button with a registered finger, it’ll recognize you and unlock your iPhone, or authenticate you for Apple Pay, App Store purchases, banking apps, and stuff like that.

Apple’s more recent iPhones have Face ID, which does something similar using the camera to scan your facial geometry. That’s better if you can’t touch your iPhone because it’s propped up for Insta live or whatever, or you’re wearing gloves.

Touch ID, though, is great if you need to register multiple fingers, you’re wearing glasses or goggles that block infrared light, or, at the time of this review, so many of us have to wear face masks that cover our noses. So often.

It’s not so great with variances in moisture, so if you’re washing you hands a lot — and you should be! — make sure you dry them well before trying to use Touch ID.

Personally, I prefer the new gesture navigation system to the Home button system. I just find it faster and more fluid. But I recognize that for other people, what they can see beats what they can’t, and the Home button is just so easy to see and feel. Like a giant neon exit sign right there on the front of the phone.

So, yeah, both Face ID and Touch ID have advantages and disadvantages, and different people will just prefer one over the other.

I still want a passive, threshold-based, multi-factor system that’s always taking snippets of face, touch, voice, gait, and other signals so it’s never dependent on actively challenging any specific one… but, for now, it’s terrific that Apple is offering an up-to-date Touch ID iPhone again.

Display

The iPhone SE display is, again, the same as the iPhone 8: 4.7-inches and 16:9. That’s not as big or as tall as any of Apple’s more recent, fuller-screen displays, but it’s the same ratio as HD TV so most videos look fine. Just with a lot of bezel on both sides.

Unlike the iPhone 8, which had Apple’s pressure sensitive 3D Touch technology, the new iPhone SE has Haptic Touch like the iPhone XR and iPhones 11. It uses time rather than pressure. A long press rather than a firm press.

I still prefer 3D Touch, because of how fast and tactile it felt. Haptic Touch has improved, but I hope Apple can make it better still with future machine learning updates, like Google’s been doing recently.

The iPhone SE display is LCD, not OLED, which means it can’t display HDR, high-dynamic range, video on-screen. It does do DCI-P3 wide gamut, so greens look deep, reds rich, and colors precise. And it can send HDR to an HDR TV if you hook one up. But it doesn’t look anywhere nearly as cinematic as the iPhone 11 Pro.

Now, I really like Apple’s LCD displays. I personally prefer the OLED, because I personally love everything HDR and Dolby Vision, and the deeper blacks and higher peek brightness levels. But, Apple’s color calibration at the factory and color management throughout the entire imaging pipeline make the LCD’s so good I still don’t think most people can or will care about the differences, at least not most of the time.

And, for people who don’t like OLED’s off-access color shifting or pulse width modulation, I think it’s great Apple is still providing LCD as an option. Fight me.

Performance

The iPhone SE has the exact same Apple A13 Bionic system-on-a-chip as the iPhones 11. That means the same industry-leading processor, graphics, neural engine, accelerators, controllers, and all the other custom components Apple provides its top-of-the-line devices.

Not slowed down, not cut down — exactly the same. Which makes the iPhone SE tied with the iPhone 11 for best performance in any phone.

Sure, that might not sound that important. At least not right now. Most of us never red-line the processors in our phones, just like we never red-line the engines in our cars. But, the difference with phones is, over time, as new, more demanding versions of the operating system, features, and apps come out, the higher processor overhead means the iPhone SE will stay feeling snappy, responsive, and powerful for longer. It’s like if the speed limit kept getting raised every year, a few years from now you’ll appreciate all that extra power.

And, since Apple typically provides software updates for 4 or more years, having that extra power means your phone retains its value for those 4 or more years. Which is probably why iPhone trade in and resale remains so high.

So, while good meaning people can argue about which parts of a less expensive phone you can compromise on — screen, camera, processor — I think the value of Apple not compromising on the chipset is really only going to be more and more apparent as time goes on.

Radios

The iPhone SE has the latest, greatest Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, so it’ll work with all the latest, greatest wi-fi routers and accessories, with the highest reliability and range available.

There’s also dual SIM, one real, one eSIM, for people who move between carriers a lot, maybe not so much right now, but in general.

There’s no 5G, which is fine because there remains very little 5G in most of the world. Some might argue that getting 5G now will better proof you for the future but I’d argue 5G technology is still in its infancy and the longer you wait to buy a 5G phone, the better a 5G modem you’ll get in your phone.

I do think sub-6 5G will be a benefit to people in rural and other areas who still don’t get good LTE, but even that kind of coverage is going to take a while to roll out.

In the meantime, the iPhone SE does Gigabit LTE really, really well. I’m getting speeds as good as the iPhone 11, and I’ve placed a ton of regular and FaceTime calls on the Rogers network in Montreal, and they’ve all sounded crisp and clear to both sides of the conversation.

That’s with the earpiece, the speakers — which, are stereo and not Dolby Atmos like the iPhones 11, fyi, and with AirPods.

All that without the added cost in money or power that comes with 5G. To wit…

Battery Life

I’ve only been using the iPhone SE as my main phone for around a week, so it’s impossible to give a realistic assessment of battery life just yet.

Apple pegs the new SE around the same as the old 7 and 8, and original SE — up to 13 hours of video playback. That compares to up to 16 hours for the iPhone XR and 17 hours for the iPhone 11.

I’m more interested in how long it lasts for instagram and TikTok, texting and gaming, which is a much wider range, but also things I think most of do most of the time.

For my usual stress test, I loaded up the Pokemon Go Incense event this weekend on the iPhone SE, an original iPhone SE, and iPhone XR, and an iPhone 11, and just let them run. All with 100% battery health. All at max brightness.

I use Pokemon Go for my stress tests because it’s something real people do in the real world now… and I’ve never found anything that hits a battery as hard, with simultaneous GPS, data, screen, radios, basically everything. Between that and Apple’s video numbers, I think it gives a good indication of battery life range.

So, the original iPhone SE died first, within two hours. The new iPhone SE died second, within 3 hours. The iPhone XR went next, within 4 hours. At which point the iPhone 11 still had 12% power left. All of which are pretty much in line with expectations.

In general use, the new iPhone SE lasted me most of the way through the day, albeit in low power mode towards the end. The iPhones XR and 11, by contrast, can go all day and over night. The Max, a day and half, easily.

Like the iPhone 8, you can charge wirelessly on any Qi-compatible pad, but it’s still not as efficient as plugging in to the Lightning port.

And, yeah, because it’s Lightning it will work with all your existing iPhone cables and accessories going back more than half a decade now.

Sadly, Apple only includes the tiny, 5 watt, USB-A charger in the box, like the iPhone 11, and not the bigger USB-C charger, like the iPhone 11 Plus. But you can buy the bigger one if you want to charge faster.

I know some people will say the smaller charger is better for overall battery health or that it fits more easily into pockets and fanny packs, or that it keeps costs down, but I still think it’s beyond time for all the adapters to get an upgrade.

For tethering, it works great, but it also doesn’t have the bigger battery reserve of the more recent iPhones, including the similarly-sized iPhone 11 Pro, so you’ll chew through power faster if that’s something you do a lot.

I’ve also charged the SE and left it unplugged over night, just to see what the standby drain looked like. And it’s been at 97 to 99% each morning. So far, so great.

But, I’ll keep testing and give you more results in my follow up.

Cameras

The iPhone SE’s main camera is a hybrid, a chimera. It has the same sensor and lens system as the iPhone 8 but uses the image signal processor, the ISP, of the A13. That means it can turn out images much closer to the iPhone 11 than the atoms alone would allow.

Apple calls it their best single-camera system ever. So, on paper, it should shoot better than an iPhone 8 and even an iPhone XR, which has better physical hardware.

To test it out, I shot a series of comparisons between the original iPhone SE, iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, iPhone 8, iPhone XR, and iPhone 11. A few times with the 11 Pro as well. And, as a control, also with the Pixel 4, which I assume will have a similar if not the same main cameras the upcoming, less-expensive Pixel 4A as well.

And, yeah, the new iPhone SE more than holds its own. Almost any camera can do well in full daylight, so I focused on more challenging situations. Backlight. Close up back light. Sunset. Indoor low light. See the video above for the samples, but…

The new iPhone SE really does shoot better photos than any other single camera system Apple has ever made and, side-by-side, I prefer the new iPhone SE captures more than the Pixel 4 captures in almost every instance.

I think it’s because, to get the results the Pixel 4 does, Google establishes the same baseline look for every photo, cool and contrasty, and then resolves the hell out of it. So, almost every photo ends up looking good, but very much like a Pixel photo. With Apple and the iPhone, including the iPhone 4, there’s more of a warmth, more of a character, and photos can end up looking different from shot to shot more like I’d expect from a real camera. Your photographic mileage, of course, may well vary.

It’s especially fascinating to see the new iPhone SE out-shoot the iPhone XR, which has a slightly bigger sensor. That’s all part of the transition from big glass and big sensor to big compute.

In almost every case, the results between the last two generations of iPhones is so close that I’d have to pixel peep to see differences in most situations, which is not something normal humans do.

With bright light, second generation Smart HDR on the iPhone SE does a great job resolving highlights without overexposing shadows, something the previous version used by the iPhone XR had trouble with. I still find faces a tad warm for my tastes, though.

Apple is using semantic rendering, which means the ISP can understand not just faces but parts of faces, also rocks, ropes, clouds, and other aspects of a scene, and then do its best to preserve accurate colors and textures for each.

The obvious area where the iPhone SE is lacking is Night Mode. That’s still exclusive to the iPhones 11, which have both the latest image signal process and the latest camera hardware, which it requires.

The new iPhone SE still shoots in low-light far, far better than all previous generations of iPhones, with the possible exception of the iPhone XR, it’s just not the same as the as the someone-turned-a-light-on results of Night Mode. And flash just isn’t the same.

I’m hoping Apple can figure out a more software-centric solution for that, though, like Google’s did in the past. And like Apple themselves have now done for Portrait Mode on the front facing camera.

Ironically, I do find Apple’s software-only Portrait Mode a little too much like the Pixel’s now. The segmentation masking, which means cutting the subject out from the background before you blur it, has gotten much much better. But, for me, it’s a little too cardboard cutout, instead of the subtler effect you more often get with multi-camera iPhones.

The new monocular version on the front-facing camera works far better than I expected it to. And even though you can’t use face tracking Animoji and Memoji, because no real depth data, you can still play around with them as sticker effects.

The nice thing about Portrait Mode is that you can adjust it using depth control, even long after you’ve taken it. So, if it looks too strong, you can soften it out or even turn it off entirely. You can also switch between all the Portrait Lighting effects, including High Key Mono, which is something the XR couldn’t do.

Editing in general has gotten much better in the current version of iOS as well, especially the video editing which has many of the same features as photos.

And Apple is still doing video better than just about anyone on the planet, and the new iPhone SE is no exception. You can shoot up to 4K at 60 frames per second, though you can only do 4K at 30 frames per second with extended dynamic range. The iPhones 11 can do extended dynamic range all the way up to 4K at 60 frames per second.

That’s a lot of jargon to say it takes very crisp video, with excellent color consistency even as you move in and out of bright areas and shadows, in a way that still makes it apparent you’re moving without making anyone seasick at the same time.

It’ll even do quick video for those times when you decide your Live Photo should really be a TikTok.

So, sure, it’s not the iPhone 11 camera, and Night Mode is still the biggest miss for me, but it’s also not $699. It’s just $399.

And that brings me to..

Pricing

I know the international prices are higher, which sucks. Though, sometimes that includes taxes like VAT or surcharges for bringing them into the country. Still, even with currencies fluctuating all over the place, it’d be nice to see everything track closer to the U.S. cost more often.

But, at $399 for 64GB in the U.S., if you’re in the U.S., and just $50 more for 128GB. With AppleCare+ for just $79… And all the free-as-in-free, not as in your-data apps like iWork, iMovie, GarageBand, and free services like Today at Apple at Home, which is taking the place of the excellent, also free, in-store training Apple’s offered for years…

Yes, there are absolutely compromises here. The older design, the older camera hardware, the smaller display… You can find individual specs that are much better, sometimes even for less, from other phones. But…

In terms of the total package, from what you get now to the updates Apple provides year-after-year, the iPhone SE is absolutely jam-packed with real value for real people.

Who should buy

If you have an older iPhone SE or 5S or 6 or 6s, even 7, maybe 8, and you need a new one, even with everything else that’s going on right now, and you like the Home button and Touch ID, the iPhone SE will be a compelling upgrade for you.

If you want most of the cutting edge tech in current gen iPhone, but you want it as a secondary phone for development or to test out the iOS waters, or just to use for content creation because photo, video, and social apps just run better on iOS, the iPhone SE will also be a compelling backup phone for you.

Or, if you — or your parents — just won’t pay more than $399 for a phone — or $449, which is the model I personally recommend — but you still want an iPhone with killer performance and a really good camera, and don’t care one wit about the rest, wow but the iPhone SE is priced for you.