iPhone SE (5G) Review — Classic… With a Catch!

A few years ago I was waiting to go into an event, to see the new iPhone, hear Apple’s pitch, go hands-on, the whole thing. And… behind me, this person was blustering away about how they’re were going to absolutely trash it in their review, sight unseen, this iPhone, that hadn’t even been announced yet, that none of us had so much as touched yet. Whatever it turned out to be, what it absolutely wasn’t going to be was a worthy upgrade, they’d decided. And wouldn’t you know it, 2 weeks later, that’s exactly what they did — trash it in their review as an unworthy upgrade. Even though it ended up being the second best selling phone of that year. Not iPhone. Phone. Period. Whatever.

Point being, Apple and the whole entire market understood something many of us in the tech bubble forget so damn always. That it’s not about us. It’s not about getting a new phone in every 3 to 5 weeks and still somehow finding them all boring. It’s about getting a single new phone every 3 to 5 years and sometimes very much wanting it to be familiar.

And that seems to be Apple’s strategy for all their lowest priced, highest value products, from the MacBook Air, to the iPad nothing, to the iPhone SE. The device you know, maybe even love, just a new version, an updated version, that you can keep on loving for a few or many more years to come.

And that’s exactly what the new iPhone SE is. Classic design. Classic display. Classic Home button. For every one of you with an iPhone 6 or 6s, 7 or 8, who doesn’t care one whit about chonky bezels or high dynamic range or spending second one learning gesture navigation. Who finds the pulse width modulation of OLED annoying or uncomfortable, considers Touch ID a feature not a bug, and is 100% fine with a single camera system being more than enough to capture some memories, scan some docs, maybe even Tik some Toks.

So, does that mean you — or someone you care about — should buy the new iPhone SE, rather than say take a leap to an iPhone 13 or… maybe just a step to the iPhone 11? Well, I’ve been using the midnight version on loan from Apple for the last four days, and I’m here to tell you there are some pros and cons, and the answer is going to come down to how you personally feel about a few very specific things.

First off, there’s no new design. There is tougher, more shatter-resistant glass, and new midnight and starlight colors to go alongside product RED, but it’s all in the exact same shape as the previous SE and every iPhone going back to the 6. Now, It’s really hard to base patterns on only two data points, but there was four years between the 2016 SE, based on the iPhone 5s, and the 2020 SE, based on the iPhone 8. And if Apple had waiting four years again, maybe we would have gotten a 2024 SE based on the iPhone 12. Who knows? Maybe we still will? But, instead, Apple only waited two years this time, and kept the 2022 SE based on that same iPhone 8. And I’ll get into why in a minute. But, you know what? I’m actually kind of super happy they did.

Because, yes, it really does give everyone who still loves that classic Home button and Touch ID design an updated model to keep loving for at least a generation longer. But also because it gives anyone who would’ve paid full price for a 2020 iPhone SE this year, and gotten iOS updates for 3 or 4 more years, a new 2022 model, for the same price — almost, more on that in a minute as well! — but that’ll now get those updates for the full 5 or 6 years we’ve come to expect from Apple. And that’s… terrific. Fantastic. Shway. Because not everyone buys fresh bread every day, but any day you do buy bread you expect it, you deserve it to be fresh, not already racing the expiry date. And I feel the exact same way about electronics. If I ran God Mode over at Apple, I’d make sure every device got update every year a new chip was available for it, so that anyone buying a new device any year always gets a fresh device regardless of the year.

Because those updates really do add up. This SE is going to get two more years than the previous SE, five more years than the iPhone 8, seven more than the iPhone 6s or OG SE. More maybe?

And that’s part of the whole value prop of the iPhone SE to begin with. I mean, if you bought the original SE for $400 when it first came out with iOS 9 in 2016, you got updated to iOS 15 just last fall, in 2021. So, all other things being equal, this $430 iPhone SE with iOS 15 in 2022 should see you through… what… iOS 21 in 2027. At least. Especially with the extra gigabyte of RAM, which will let you keep more, and eventually more demanding apps, and browser tabs alive in memory for longer.

But, yeah, $430. That wasn’t a verbal typo. After holding the line last time at $400, this time Apple has raised it by $30. And my guess is that it’s for the same reason the regular iPhone went up by $30 18 months ago — 5G. Those Qualcomm modems don’t come cheap.

But the good news is, it’s a Qualcomm modem. So if you had an Intel modem in your previous iPhone, and you had issues in more remote or borderline areas, this alone could be a welcome improvement for you. But also, 5G. Especially, again, if you live in an area that just never had wide or fast enough 4G LTE for you. With older 3G networks being deprecated and newer 5G ones being built out, this might finally deliver on the promise of actual mobile broadband for a ton of people spread out between the bigger towns and cities. Which is also why I think Apple is doing this sort-of mid-cycle iPhone SE update to begin with. To get it on 5G.

Now, there are a couple caveats to consider. Unlike the iPhone 13, which has what’s called 4x4 multi-input, multi-output antennas, basically support for four data streams, the iPhone SE only has 2x2 antennas, or support for two data streams. Think of it like lanes of a highway. Speed limit is the same, but you can move more passengers at the same time… or packets in this case. Apple does a terrific job working, painstakingly, with carriers to ensure way better 5G than otherwise possible, so most people won’t even notice the difference, but if peak 5G is for some reason critically important to you, give the iPhone 13 some thought.

Also, in the U.S., the iPhone 13 supports both Frequency Range 1, which is the low and mid-bands, and Frequency Range 2, which is the high band, aka mmWave, but the iPhone SE only supports FR 1, the low and mid bands. And… I kinda don’t care about this… like at all. For years now, mmWave has struck me as WiMax 2.0. What’s WiMax? Exactly. Just not anything that would end up being at all relevant to consumers, especially as AT&T and Verizon have been catching up with mid-band. Which, granted, isn’t as fast, but also doesn’t get blocked by, you know… leaves, maybe rain. If you happen to live outside, on top of a mailbox, with perfect, uninterrupted line-of-site to a couple or few mmWave antennas and really want to download No Way Home in 3.2 nanoseconds, then, again, give the iPhone 13 some thought.

Same if you care desperately about the display, especially if you want to watch and create high-dynamic range, or HDR content, meaning pitch dark blacks, searing white highlights, and colors that punch you right in your eye cones. Or you just want a bigger-than-4.7-inch LCD screen. Which you may not if you’re coming from a regular sized iPhone 6s, 7, or 8. But if you’re coming from a 5.5-inch iPhone 6s, 7, or 8 Plus… the SE might seem comically… maybe adorably small. And, yeah, just beyond blazing fast on this A15 Bionic chipset.

But, since Apple still isn’t offering an SE Plus, if you want bigger, you have to give up your Home button an go with the full 6.1-inch screen LCD iPhone 11, or go better with the 5.4-inches of OLED on the iPhone 13 mini or 6.1-inches on the iPhone 13 non-mini. Like with 5G, Apple does a ton of stuff, including factory calibration and end-to-end color management to make their LCD displays the best they can be, and a lot of people, including a lot of pixel snobs, probably wouldn’t notice much if any difference without comparing them side-by-side, but if you do, and it matters to you, it’s one more thing to think about.

For the vast majority of you though, it all and always comes down to battery and camera. For battery, I’m using a fresh review unit and I’ve only had a few days to test it, but so far, so better. Apple claims the new A15 chipset, which isn’t just faster but also way more efficient, the new chemistry, the slightly higher battery capacity, and perpetual iOS updates all combine like Voltron to add an extra two hours of battery life over the previous, same sized models. That means not just the last iPhone SE but the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7 as well. Four more than the iPhone 6s. In other words, whatever it is you typically do on your iPhone, you should be able to typically do it for a couple hours or more than before. That’s nowhere nearly as long as the current battery champ iPhone 13, of course, but it can make a real difference in getting you through those tougher days.

The camera systems, depending on what you’re upgrading from, might be more of a mixed bag. They’re similar if not the same optics as the previous SE, iPhone 8, even iPhone 7. Which I get. Apple is working on a $430 retail budget here… like… XP in a role playing game. And they’re not choosing to spend that XP on a new design or new optics, but on a new radio and chipset. Totally get it. Overall, I think it’s a way better choice than companies that do the reverse, a way better value. But it means the biggest difference will be for anyone coming from an iPhone 6s or original SE. Because, wider aperture, optical stabilization, 4K60 video and HD 240 slo-mo, plus 7 megapixels and 1080p on the selfie cam.

For anyone upgrading from an iPhone 7 or 8, it mostly comes down to the Image Signal Processor, or ISP in the A15 Bionic chipset. Basically, latest generation computational photography that lets the bits do far more than the atoms would otherwise be capable of. In other words, big chip to make up for small sensor and lens. And that means all of Apple’s latest, greatest algorithms to properly capture the full dynamic range, skin tones, movement, and textures of everything from bright outdoor shots to darker, indoor scenes. Also Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting to get that blurry, bokeh, big camera effect for head shots and the like. If you’re coming from the previous SE, you’re also getting Photographic Styles now, which let you burn in extra contrast, vibrance, or warmth, you know, for the Gram. FaceTime HD over 5G. And thanks to the new neural engine, one of my favorite features in years — the legit sci-fi level Live Text. Literally copying real world words right out of the camera or photos.

There’s no Night Mode, though, which debuted with the iPhone 11 in 2019 and is a real bummer to still be missing in 2022. Maybe the optics just don’t capture enough light for it, but it’s truly useful and I really miss not having it. Even more than I miss not having Dolby Vision video, at least on a phone that doesn’t even have a Dolby Vision display.

Also, if you’re coming from an iPhone Plus, you won’t be getting that second camera. You still get Portrait Mode, so it’s not a huge deal. And Apple switched from telephoto to ultra wide angle with the iPhone 11 anyway. But if you really want that telephoto, if you really want to be able to punch in like that, and I do, so I absolutely feel you, you’ll have to look at an iPhone Pro. But, if the camera really matters to you, if you can never go back in time and take better photos or videos of your family or adventures, you’re going to want to look at the iPhone 13 Pro, which is just best in class.

But also a whopping almost $600 more. $700 for the Pro Max. $400 even for the standard iPhone 13 and $300 for the mini. So, yeah, a lot more phone but for a lot more money. And that means you really have to think about what’s truly important to you. Some other phones in the iPhone SE price range have a lot of fancy features — and so many 2 megapixel macros… so many — but don’t have anywhere nearly the build quality, and certainly not the chipset power. So while some people will stress how well their discount silicon scrolls on day one, how well will it scroll on day 1500 and one? In the types of apps and updates we’ll all be using four years from now, if they even get updates four years from now, or two. One? Because price and value are very different things, especially when it comes to how long the hardware lasts, how many updates you get, what kind of accessibility features are available, privacy policies, security, what kind of accessories, how important having an Apple Store nearby is to you for support and free classes? How much is that $430 over 3 to 5 years, up front or with trade in or on installments, if you keep it the whole time, resell it… hand it down?

Full disclosure, it’s not the iPhone for me. I’m basically Nerd Prime. I carry an iPhone 13 Pro Max. But like I said at the beginning, it isn’t about me. The phone market is broad and deep. That’s literally why Apple offers a range of iPhones, so there’s something for everybody. Including people who just want to buy the same type of car or watch or, yes, phone, year after year. The same, only new. Only fresh. And I will admit, I’ve had an absolute blast using the SE this week. I’m just smiling all the time. Like a Porsche 911 lover who finally got a new Singer.

But, real talk, if you need a better display or camera system or any of that, maybe the extra few hundred bucks will be worth it to you for the iPhone 13, but if you don’t want to pay one dollar more, or you simply prefer, even love the comfort of that classic Home button design, than the iPhone SE delivers exactly what it’s meant to — a less expensive iPhone for you to keep on loving for many more years to come.