Review: iPhone SE is the definition of affordable smartphone power

Posted:
in iPhone edited January 21
Apple's iPhone SE is the new kid on the iPhone block, a neighborhood that now runs from $399 to well over $1000. But, no matter where you pick on that map, you're going to get a very powerful phone.

The new 2020 iPhone SE second-generation
The new 2020 iPhone SE second-generation


From a technological standpoint, the iPhone SE is everything that was predicted. If you have an iPhone 8, or even an iPhone 7, you already know what you're getting into in every regard except speed.

The 2020 iPhone SE is and isn't an "iPhone SE 2"

Reception for the iPhone SE since launch day in actuality or in theory has been pretty good -- except for the device size. From a size standpoint, this is not the 2016 iPhone SE. Instead of the cult-favorite 4-inch display, it now has the iPhone 8's 4.7 inch LCD.






The days of four-inch iPhones, like the screen in the original iPhone SE from 2016, are likely at an end. Apple's services are best experienced on a larger screen -- Apple knows it, and they have made that clear with the new iPhone SE.

And, as such, the hand-feel is different than the original SE. Whether or not the 2020 iPhone SE is a one-handed iPhone depends very much on individual biology, but the 2020 iPhone SE will certainly only be that for a smaller cross-section of the populace than the original was, and no less so than the iPhone 7 or iPhone 8 was.

The new iPhone SE next to AirPods Pro and the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro
The new iPhone SE next to AirPods Pro and the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro


If you absolutely must have that four-inch screen, buy an iPod touch, and hope Wi-Fi is ubiquitous where you're using it. That's what business does when they need the smallest device possible, after all.

Beyond size, the PRODUCT(RED) iPhone SE is the second-slipperiest iPhone we've ever used, just behind the jet black iPhone 7 in disaster potential. Get a case for it -- you won't be sorry.

2020 iPhone SE performance

The iPhone SE has that A13 processor, and scores just a bit under the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, and we mean just a bit.

With all benchmarks, there is variance and little control over background tasks that may also be running. We run the benchmarks over and over while testing, and we did get a few numbers below the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max, but more consistently got numbers that were very, very close.

Multi-core Geekbench results for the iPhone SE and iPhone 11 Pro Max
Multi-core Geekbench results for the iPhone SE and iPhone 11 Pro Max


As an example, our iPhone SE scored 1334 and 3305 in single-core and multi-core scores. It also earned a 6400 in the Metal GPU test. Our iPhone 11 Pro Max earned a 6406 in the compute GPU test, 1330 on the single-core test, and 3324 on the multi-core.

The A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE isn't an under-clock, and doesn't suggest a sub-par version of the processor in the flagship. The benchmarks are theoretically impacted by less RAM on the iPhone SE versus the iPhone 11 Pro -- and that's really about all that can make a difference in this case.

2020 iPhone SE Wi-Fi and wireless speeds

The new iPhone SE supports 802.11ax WiFi 6 with 2x2 MIMO, same as with the iPhone 11 line. In repeated Wi-Fi 6 tests we saw similar speeds of 293 megabits per second on our SE as our iPhone 11 Pro Max which pulled 303 megabits per second. This is entirely variable and depends on your own network's condition which can be impacted by the number of users and the number of devices connected, but it did show similar performance in our studio and home.

Reading AppleInsider on our iPhone SE
Reading AppleInsider on our iPhone SE


Cellular speeds will be similar, though not quite the same. The iPhone SE only supports 2x2 MIMO for LTE versus 4x4 MIMO on the iPhone 11 Pro. In our testing with AT&T models with medium signal strength in a residential neighborhood, we pulled down about 190 megabits per second on the iPhone SE, and 280 megabits per second on the iPhone 11 Pro. Depending on your network, you should see slightly better performance if opting for the higher-priced handsets.

iPhone SE LCD display isn't OLED -- and that's fine

One of the price-cutting measures Apple took for the iPhone SE is the use of a LCD screen. Resolution at 1334 x 750 pixels is lower than the iPhone 11 solely because of the 4.7-inch screen -- the 326 ppi is unchanged between the pair. True Tone is included, as is the Wide color (P3) display. The iPhone 8 had 3D Touch, where the iPhone SE has the Haptic Touch.

OLED is a great technology. It is a good choice for the flagship iPhone 11 Pro. But, as proven by the iPhone 11, Apple's high-resolution LCD is still more than bright enough, and the blacks are black enough.

It is, quite literally, the same display on the iPhone 8, minus 3D Touch, and, like we saw on the iPhone XR at first, the inability to use Haptic Touch on some notifications. In fact, the parts between the iPhone 8 and iPhone SE are interchangeable.

iPhone SE photography overview

We talked about the power of the A13 Bionic processor found in the SE. Aside from raw speed, it makes a huge difference for photography. As part of that balance of features and price, Apple stuck a 12MP camera on the back of this phone that isn't much different than the one in the iPhone 8. Apple opted to skip the tele lens found on the Pro models, or the ultra-wide found on all of the iPhone 11 lineup.

Taking a photo on the iPhone SE
Taking a photo on the iPhone SE


But that doesn't detract from how solid the 12MP camera paired with software and the A13 Bionic is. Thanks to this processor you can use QuickTake to jump into a video or burst mode from photo mode. It also launches the app very quickly to ensure you never miss a moment.

A 1080P still from a slow motion video captured on the iPhone SE
A 1080P still from a slow motion video captured on the iPhone SE


The iPhone SE can shoot full 4K video at 60 frames per second as well as slow motion video at 240 frames per second. We recorded quite a bit of 4K and slow motion footage for our review and were happy with how great it all looked. And yes, this is all included in the video above.

Portrait mode, as Apple implements it on a single-lens camera, is another computationally intensive task. Apple is relying solely on computational photography to create portrait mode images, rather than two lenses and a stereoscopic image as the phones with two or three cameras do. It has no way to make that depth map without relying on that software.

We were also impressed with how good the still images came out, especially compared to our iPhone 11 Pro Max. Sometimes, it actually did better. At times we still saw issues with oddly-shaped objects protruding into shot, such as the palm leaves in our sample shots.

Editing a portrait mode image shot on the iPhone SE
Editing a portrait mode image shot on the iPhone SE


These portrait shots are fully editable including multiple lighting effects and the adjustable aperture. Opening up the aperture creates more background bokeh and shrinking it and increasing the f-value will sharpen it. Apple's portrait mode is an incredibly well done technique we've seen from other iPhones -- and it still impresses us.

Pet portraits work thanks to the help of third-party apps such as Halide
Pet portraits work thanks to the help of third-party apps such as Halide


One downside to this is that the camera app can only detect people. Animals and objects are omitted from this computational portrait mode so if you want a great portrait of your pup, you're out of luck with the stock camera app. Third-party apps such as Halide are able to shoot portrait depth shots as well and work with both objects, and pets.

There is only so much you can do with a single lens. Apple has done what it can with the single lens and the A13, and what you get is an incredibly capable smartphone camera for a bit more than half the price of the iPhone 11, and much less than half of the iPhone 11 Pro.

iPhone SE battery life

Battery life is a tricky topic to touch on, because general standardized tests can only be so relevant to any given user. Some are better than others, but unless we know what you are doing, we can't predict exactly how your battery life will fare.

What we can do, or anybody can do, is use the phone for several days and report on how well the battery holds up. We've been using it since launch and have consistently ended the day after normal use with more than 20 percent of our battery remaining.

Apple says it will achieve 13 hours of video playback and 40 hours of audio playback. That is below what the iPhone 11 can pull off, which Apple says is 17 hours of video playback and 65 hours of audio playback.

This is a matter of physics. The iPhone SE has a smaller volume than the iPhone 11 or iPhone 11 Pro Max does, and as such, it holds less charge. That trade-off is just a part of the compromise of this device to hit that price point that Apple wanted to hit.

The new iPhone SE on the Nomad wireless charging Base Station
The new iPhone SE on the Nomad wireless charging Base Station


Apple does make it easy to top off though by including wireless charging. Proper planning makes heavy use and a less capacious battery a bit less of an issue.

Worthy successor to both the iPhone 8, and 2016 iPhone SE

Prior to my starting here at AppleInsider in the summer of 2016, I was using an iPhone SE. It was great as a telephony device, but as a computing and internet device, even then, the screen size left something to be desired.

There's been a lot of tech-chatter about how this is a great phone for the masses, but not for any given tech reviewer. That's an interesting topic of discussion, in how much the difference between "techie" and those who don't identify as such actually matters, but that's one to be had another day.

Likewise, there's a lot of talk about how the iPhone SE was borne from the coronavirus crisis. That's also not correct, as even Apple can't just turn on a dime and deliver a phone in one or two months in response to a crisis -- and the iPhone SE in this size has been rumored for about a year.

As with the iPhone SE, any given piece of technology is a series of exchanges, the most common one being speed for price. Apple instead chose to pare down expensive technologies like multi-lens cameras and Face ID to meet a price target that it set probably six to nine months ago.

The new iPhone SE comes in white, black, and Product(RED)
The new iPhone SE comes in white, black, and Product(RED)


It is perfect for anybody who wants a telephony device. It is perfect for anybody who needs a speedy internet access point. It is an inexpensive gateway to Apple's services.

The only box it doesn't check is the best photography possible in a handheld package. But it comes pretty close with the computational photography made possible by the A13.

The new iPhone SE is the best iPhone Apple could make and sell for $399. Apple will sell millions of them not just in the US, but in markets otherwise constrained by an $650+ lowest-end iPhone also bearing the company's fastest processor. And, it will be supported by Apple for years to come.

It isn't just the general populace that can buy the iPhone SE without fear, it is ideal for the technorati too.

iPhone SE pros

  • Powerful A13 Bionic processor

  • Camera is great and aided by iOS 13

  • Portrait mode looks great for a single lens setup

  • Wi-Fi 6 support

  • Wireless charging support

  • Great size that isn't too big or too small

  • Sleek iPhone 8 body

iPhone SE cons

  • Only 2x2 MIMO for LTE

  • Limited to a single wide-angle camera

  • Haptic Touch has limitations

  • Battery life is only OK

Rating

This is tricky. If you're looking for the most you can possibly get out of an iPhone, and price is no object, the iPhone SE is a 4 out of 5. But, that $399 price, and what you get for that price is incredibly compelling and the feature shortcomings versus more expensive models can easily be overlooked -- so if that's the case, it is clearly a 5 out of 5 phone. So, overall, we'll give it a 4.5 out of 5 because no one iPhone is perfect for everybody.

Save on Apple's iPhone SE

Wireless carriers are offering aggressive discounts on the new iPhone SE, from $200 off the new device to free with trade offers. We've rounded up the best iPhone SE deals in our savings roundup.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 17
    Fred257Fred257 Posts: 104member
    Most people are excited beyond belief and they’re coming from iPhone 11.  I will be getting it, I’m typing on an original iPhone SE.  Newer iPhones require 2 hands to operate and you might as well own an iPad mini.
    cornchiphenrybaypulseimages
  • Reply 2 of 17
    Yeah, I get that it’s “a good deal” but you get (or don’t get in this case) what you pay for. Sorry, but Touch ID/home button, no Face ID, small battery, and large top/bottom bezels among other things are ancient history, and should be retired. Not all of us have the eyesight of a teenager anymore. My XS max fits my pocket fine. And if it didn’t, the X/Xs would. The best part is that we won’t be hearing the nauseating SE rumors for another 4 yrs again.
    lkrupp
  • Reply 3 of 17
    M68000M68000 Posts: 373member
    Yeah, I get that it’s “a good deal” but you get (or don’t get in this case) what you pay for. Sorry, but Touch ID/home button, no Face ID, small battery, and large top/bottom bezels among other things are ancient history, and should be retired. Not all of us have the eyesight of a teenager anymore. My XS max fits my pocket fine. And if it didn’t, the X/Xs would. The best part is that we won’t be hearing the nauseating SE rumors for another 4 yrs again.
    @captain,  you are entitled to your opinion.  But I disagree that this style of phone which is only a few years old can be called "ancient".  There are also people who prefer Touch ID and\or home button instead of what passes as the user interface of the "non ancient" iPhones.  As for the battery, given that this has a "non ancient" CPU, perhaps it will do better than the "ancient" 8 series.
    Fidonet127tenchi211pulseimages
  • Reply 4 of 17
    New SE here. Love it! TouchID is one of the main selling points for me. The others is better processor and camera than my old 6S Plus and I get many years of OS updates. Yes it would like a bigger phone. When it comes time, I hope they have a newer version of the SE. I would of loved night photos and multi cameras but they have to cut somewhere. 
    raybopulseimages
  • Reply 5 of 17
    Yeah, I get that it’s “a good deal” but you get (or don’t get in this case) what you pay for. Sorry, but Touch ID/home button, no Face ID, small battery, and large top/bottom bezels among other things are ancient history, and should be retired. Not all of us have the eyesight of a teenager anymore. My XS max fits my pocket fine. And if it didn’t, the X/Xs would. The best part is that we won’t be hearing the nauseating SE rumors for another 4 yrs again.
    Maybe it fits your pocket, but it certainly doesn’t fit most people’s pocketbooks, and that is one of the reasons why so many people stayed away from Jony’s boondoggle of the X-series iPhones - the damn pricing and the lack of TouchID and Home Button - if you feel that’s ancient technology’s, get ready to eat crow by the time the iPhone 13 rolls around.
    Beatspulseimages
  • Reply 6 of 17
    henrybayhenrybay Posts: 144member
    You should have added TouchID to the list of Pros. A lot of people, including myself, love TouchID and will keep buying new iPhones for as long as this great tactile feature is included. 


    edited April 2020 Fidonet127cgWerkspulseimages
  • Reply 7 of 17
    Probably a great phone, but I need to get accustomed to this new design after iPhone6, 6S, 7, 8, iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPod Touch, iPad Air, iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 1, iPad Mini 2, iPad Mini 3, iPad Mini4, iPad Mini 5. This design evolution is going so wicked fast.
  • Reply 8 of 17
    I think you mean "iPhone SE is the *epitome* of affordable smartphone power" which, based on the specs and that price, I would agree it is. Great review and the assessment of trade offs, who this phone is good for, etc. is very useful.
  • Reply 9 of 17
    Hank2.0Hank2.0 Posts: 134member
    Other than people who really need a new iPhone (damage, loss, etc.) and those who just have to have the newest model, I can't see the reason to buy the iPhone SE (or what I like to call it, the iPhone 8SE) since it doesn't have 5G. The 5G network is rapidly spreading across the country and Apple's 5G models are coming out in 5-6 months. Seems to me it's worth the wait.
  • Reply 10 of 17
    Hank2.0 said:
    Other than people who really need a new iPhone (damage, loss, etc.) and those who just have to have the newest model, I can't see the reason to buy the iPhone SE (or what I like to call it, the iPhone 8SE) since it doesn't have 5G. The 5G network is rapidly spreading across the country and Apple's 5G models are coming out in 5-6 months. Seems to me it's worth the wait.
    5G is not worth it. If you can afford 5G data and flagship phones, enjoy. Cost is a big factor in things. 
    StrangeDaysBeatspulseimages
  • Reply 11 of 17
    cescocesco Posts: 47member
    I realize it’s subjective but no reviews (at least the ones I’ve read) mention quality of phone call; it is a phone after all. Both my trusted original SE and my niece’s 8 have  slight lower and muffled (yes the ear piece is clear of lint) sound while my mom’a Samsung S4 is louder and clearer.
    This said, I await my new SE!
  • Reply 12 of 17
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 11,675member
    Yeah, I get that it’s “a good deal” but you get (or don’t get in this case) what you pay for. Sorry, but Touch ID/home button, no Face ID, small battery, and large top/bottom bezels among other things are ancient history, and should be retired. Not all of us have the eyesight of a teenager anymore. My XS max fits my pocket fine. And if it didn’t, the X/Xs would. The best part is that we won’t be hearing the nauseating SE rumors for another 4 yrs again.
    Maybe it fits your pocket, but it certainly doesn’t fit most people’s pocketbooks, and that is one of the reasons why so many people stayed away from Jony’s boondoggle of the X-series iPhones - the damn pricing and the lack of TouchID and Home Button - if you feel that’s ancient technology’s, get ready to eat crow by the time the iPhone 13 rolls around.
    Errrnnt! The X outsold the 8 the entire time it was available. The opposite of a boondoggle; people like me love a larger screen in about the same shell size. 1000 bucks over two-years for my most portable computing device is well worth it. Especially since Apple bought it back for $400, making it only $600 over two years. 
  • Reply 13 of 17
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 11,675member

    Hank2.0 said:
    Other than people who really need a new iPhone (damage, loss, etc.) and those who just have to have the newest model, I can't see the reason to buy the iPhone SE (or what I like to call it, the iPhone 8SE) since it doesn't have 5G. The 5G network is rapidly spreading across the country and Apple's 5G models are coming out in 5-6 months. Seems to me it's worth the wait.
    Most people don’t care and won’t need 5G. What good is faster email or webpages on the bus? So far the public hasn’t been told a compelling narrative on why we should want it. 
    Fidonet127cgWerkspulseimages
  • Reply 14 of 17
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,747member
    Hmm, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about the 'not to big, not too small' aspect. But, I do wonder about the pricing (re: Covid-19). Yes, they certainly started this project pre-Covid, but I wonder if that bumped the price down $100 or something like that? Apple can certainly afford to cut their margins to keep their market position (or improve it) through this crisis.

    re: battery life - I suppose if you're comparing to the other new models, but anything over 10 hours if fine in my book. While I don't know what it would have been if they'd stuffed these components into the original SE design, I'm sure I'd have been quite happy with it.

    StrangeDays said:
    Most people don’t care and won’t need 5G. What good is faster email or webpages on the bus? So far the public hasn’t been told a compelling narrative on why we should want it. 
    Yeah, though I'm not sure about the don't care aspect. Do most people even understand it well enough to know they shouldn't care in light of the marketing?
  • Reply 15 of 17
    BeatsBeats Posts: 2,552member
    Probably a great phone, but I need to get accustomed to this new design after iPhone6, 6S, 7, 8, iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPod Touch, iPad Air, iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 1, iPad Mini 2, iPad Mini 3, iPad Mini4, iPad Mini 5. This design evolution is going so wicked fast.

    huh? It's an iPhone 6-8 design.


    Yeah, I get that it’s “a good deal” but you get (or don’t get in this case) what you pay for. Sorry, but Touch ID/home button, no Face ID, small battery, and large top/bottom bezels among other things are ancient history, and should be retired. Not all of us have the eyesight of a teenager anymore. My XS max fits my pocket fine. And if it didn’t, the X/Xs would. The best part is that we won’t be hearing the nauseating SE rumors for another 4 yrs again.

    Not sure how much bigger the battery can be but it could have had a newer design or at least been a small iPhone 8. People will tell you it's impossible because it's price while missing the fact this iPhone has expensive components that many people would have compromised. Oh well, should have been named iPhone 9.

  • Reply 16 of 17
    jcs2305jcs2305 Posts: 1,220member
    Hank2.0 said:
    Other than people who really need a new iPhone (damage, loss, etc.) and those who just have to have the newest model, I can't see the reason to buy the iPhone SE (or what I like to call it, the iPhone 8SE) since it doesn't have 5G. The 5G network is rapidly spreading across the country and Apple's 5G models are coming out in 5-6 months. Seems to me it's worth the wait.

    Did you consider the original SE the iPhone5SSE ? Since they did the same thing back then using the 5S chassis?

    If you are concerned and waiting for 5G before making a purchase you are definitely not in the SE demographic.You also won't get a 5G equipped phone for $399.00 so I guess it;s what is important to you and what you want to spend your money on. This phone will fit a lot of folks needs with price and functionality, just not yours.

    I will be with you anxiously waiting for the September releases.  B)
    cgWerks
  • Reply 17 of 17
    cgWerkscgWerks Posts: 2,747member
    jcs2305 said:
    If you are concerned and waiting for 5G before making a purchase you are definitely not in the SE demographic.You also won't get a 5G equipped phone for $399.00 so I guess it;s what is important to you and what you want to spend your money on. This phone will fit a lot of folks needs with price and functionality, just not yours. 

    I will be with you anxiously waiting for the September releases.  B)
    Me too... just not because of 5G. I'm *hoping* one of the models is smaller and that even though bigger than the original SE, maybe the 'design language' will help. I hate the design of the 6,7,8 in terms of feel, let alone size.
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