Apple iPhone SE (2020) Review: You Don’t Need a Fancy Phone
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need the most expensive iPhone. You don’t need the most expensive iPad, either! (We’ve already covered this.) If Apple’s new iPhone SE proves anything, it’s that you can get an excellent mid-range iPhone, one with the processing power of a top-of-the-line smartphone, for $400.
I’ve been using the new iPhone SE since last Friday, instead of the iPhone 11 that I own. The iPhone 11 was part of Apple’s fall launch in 2019. At that time, Apple introduced the flagship iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, and then the “cheap one,” the $700 iPhone 11. The catch, of course, is that none of those iPhones are cheap. But now Apple has revived its low-cost model, the iPhone SE, which hasn’t been in the picture since 2018. And Apple has brought the SE back at a time when millions of people might not put “new iPhone” on the top of their purchasing lists right now. If you need a new iPhone right now, this one might be it.
Sure, the iPhone SE is not as advanced as flagship phones. Its drawbacks are obvious right away: The display isn’t as brilliant, its camera isn’t as remarkable, the phone’s battery sputters by the end of the day. But it’s still a good iPhone, and for a lot of people that means it’s good enough.
Apple first introduced the iPhone SE back in 2016. It had the body of the tiny iPhone 5S, from 2013, but with updated internals. Then Apple discontinued the iPhone SE two years later, leaving fans of small phones (and bargain lovers) without many iPhone options. Now the iPhone SE is back, but it’s not quite as small. It has the same external build as a 2017 iPhone 8, but has a much improved camera and, most notably, runs on Apple’s fastest phone chip yet.
The new iPhone SE starts at $400 for a model with 64 gigabytes of internal storage. You’ll likely want to buy more storage. An iPhone SE with 128 GB will run you $449, while a 256 GB model costs $549. The phone ships in a white, black, or red finish.
It looks like an iPhone, but an iPhone from the distant past, from The Before Times. It has an LCD screen. Apple calls this a “Retina HD” display. It’s quite nice—the same display on the iPhone 11, with the same color accuracy, tone-shifting features, and haptic feedback—it’s just not as nice as the OLED display you’ll find on the more expensive iPhones. There’s a wide bezel at the top, and a thick chin on the bottom. Nestled in that chin is a home button.
Remember this tactile relic? Maybe some of you still have a phone with one. I’ve realized I miss the home button. I’ve gotten very used to the nearly bezel-less build of the iPhone 11, and using Face ID to unlock the phone, to log into various apps, to buy something online. But the home button—which uses Touch ID for all of those tasks in the absence of Face ID—was never broken. The iPhone 11 is such a lineless black slab that I don’t know which way is up half the time. The iPhone SE reminded me that buttons are good. Gamers agree. So do proponents of accessible tech.
This iPhone SE is larger than the original iPhone SE: It has a 4.7-inch diagonal display, instead of a tiny four-inch one. And yet, the 4.7-inch display still felt too small to me.
The advantages of a small phone are obvious. It’s easier to use with one hand. It’s more pocketable, which is great for running errands and can’t be overlooked if your main source of activity these days is walking or running outside. A smaller phone makes you feel as though you have control over your phone, not the other way around. But it’s also less immersive, for watching videos, playing games, and reading. I read this entire WIRED essay on the iPhone SE early one morning, and it occurred to me halfway through that it wasn’t really a pleasant experience. I’d rather get lost in a phone screen closer to six inches in size.
A smaller phone body also means a smaller battery. This iPhone SE has essentially the same size battery as the iPhone 8; thanks to a much more efficient processor, the SE’s battery should perform better than the iPhone 8’s. And yet, relative to larger iPhones—the “Pro” or “Max” models, the iPhone XR, my iPhone 11—the iPhone SE’s battery life is middling.
My battery drain wasn’t as pronounced as it might have been before we were all sheltering in place. For example, I’m not using the iPhone SE’s GPS, or calling Lyfts, or streaming podcasts and videos during my commute. (Nor am I commuting.) On days when I used it for phone calls, scrolling Twitter and Instagram, checking email, and responding to messages, it just about made it to the end of the day before it hit the low battery mark. Streaming an hour-long yoga video on YouTube, which would reduce battery life by about 15 percent, meant I’d likely have to plug the phone in again before the day’s end. Streaming the same video on iPhone 11 drained the battery five percent.
That power-efficient processor, though, is one of the biggest selling points of the iPhone SE. It’s what future-proofs the phone—to a point, since the iPhone SE won’t be able to connect to 5G networks when they’re more widespread. Apple has equipped the iPhone SE with the same chip system that powers the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. It has a six-core CPU, a four-core GPU, and an eight-core neural engine, all of which are involved in a delicate dance of task handoffs, depending on the intensity of the task at hand. Switching between apps was fluid in my testing. Videos launched and streamed smoothly on a stable Wi-Fi connection. Downloading, installing, and launching heavy apps—like the eight-gigabyte Fornite—took around six minutes.
Of course, this “A13 Bionic” chip may soon enough become the second-most performant mobile chip Apple makes, depending on what’s in the devices that launch this fall. But for now, the iPhone SE’s chip is in the same class as the flagships.
The A13 Bionic also helps the iPhone SE process remarkably good photos, despite its very limited physical camera system. Its rear camera is a single-lens, 12-megapixel system—that means no ultrawide-angle mode and no telephoto zoom. Apple is relying heavily on software to offer features like Portrait mode and various stage lighting settings with this camera; even then, Portrait mode is limited in that it works on photos of people, but not objects and pets. By far the feature I’ve missed the most over the past few days is the ultra-wide camera mode (tapping the .5x in other iPhones).
And yet, the iPhone SE’s camera is very good. It doesn’t have the same night mode as the newer iPhones, but it still captured decent photos of food plates assembled in dim lighting at home, or flowers captured at dusk. In some cases, the iPhone SE was better at shooting the basics than even the iPhone 8 Plus, which I happened to have at home and which has a dual-camera system. When I compared photos of my cat, a willing (OK, sleeping) model, across the iPhone 8 Plus, the iPhone 11, and the new iPhone SE, the new iPhone SE captured more fur detail. Same with shooting photos of candles, or environments with high-contrast: The iPhone SE did a better job than the old 8 Plus.
The front-facing camera module on the iPhone SE lacks the TrueDepth camera that not only supports Apple’s facial recognition technology but also enhances photos. That means portrait-style selfies are the result of a lot of software processing, not because the camera is capturing depth data. To be honest, neither the iPhone 11’s Portrait mode nor the iPhone SE’s Portrait mode does a spectacular job framing around things like flyaway hairs or the edges of clothing. And the iPhone 11’s front-facing camera captures more detail, in general. But the iPhone SE’s selfie camera still does a respectable job. (Photos I snapped on an iPhone 11 Pro loaner last fall suggest to me that the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera is still better than all of the above.)
Both the iPhone 11 line of phones and the iPhone SE capture 4K video at a maximum rate of 60 frames per second. However, the audio features on a phone like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which include multiple microphones, stereo speakers, and spatial audio playback, are obviously superior to the audio specs on the smaller iPhone SE. I also take a lot of phone calls on speakerphone when I’m working from home, and the iPhone SE’s speakers were sufficient but noticeably weaker than those on my iPhone 11.
Should You Buy It?
I’ve spent a lot of this review comparing this iPhone SE to both the 2019 flagship iPhones, and the older iPhone 8 that the 2020 iPhone SE now embodies. Some people are going to be asking themselves whether they should buy a $400 to $500 iPhone, or an Android phone of the same price—and it’s a really good question. Some mid-range Android phones these days offer excellent performance, extra-long battery life, and even headphone jacks! Google’s $400 Pixel 3a looks and feels premium, has a decent processor, and a spectacularly good camera. Samsung is even bringing some of its mid-range Galaxy A line phones, which are popular in India, to the US this year.
WIRED has reviewed many of these, and we have our favorites, like the Google Pixel 3a. However, making a smartphone purchasing decision isn’t just about screens and silicon and camera lenses. It’s effectively deciding which ecosystem you want to live in, a decision that feels more timely than ever in the era of social distancing. It’s determining whether you and your family and closest friends all use Messages, or whether WhatsApp is your jam. It’s whether you also have a MacBook or iPad and you want everything to sync up across your devices; or whether a Gmail address that logs you into everything is your idea of “continuity.” It’s whether your Apple Watch is the thing that’s keeping you moving right now, or … not. Can’t live without AirPlay at home? Could care less about AirPlay? It’s deciding that too.
For some portion of the population, that decision is easily iPhone. And if you happen to need a new iPhone, and think spending $1,000 on one is ludicrous, well, the iPhone SE might be a tiny slab of good news for you right now.