Apple's new $400 iPhone SE is a tiny but powerful device that's perfect for people who hate large phones and just want the basics
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- Apple's $400 iPhone SE is powered by the same processor inside the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, making it a compelling option for those on a budget that don't want to sacrifice performance.
- It has largely the same design as
Apple's iPhone 8 from 2017, meaning it's the only iPhone to come with a Touch ID home button and a smaller 4.7-inch screen.
- It's a great value for Apple loyalists who just want a phone that feels fast and new and don't necessarily care about having all of the latest features.
- That being said, there are plenty of similarly-priced Android competitors that have more to offer when it comes to camera features, screen size, and quality.
The iPhone SE may look very familiar to anyone who has purchased an iPhone in 2016 or 2017, but there are plenty of characteristics that make it feel much different than any ordinary iPhone launch.
For starters, at $400 it's significantly cheaper than any other iPhones Apple currently sells. It also debuted in April even though Apple typically releases new iPhones in the fall. Plus, it lacks the edge-to-edge screen design that's become a hallmark of Apple's
And, while Apple typically holds flashy press events to introduce new products, especially iPhones, it rolled out the
That's all fitting for the iPhone SE, which after all is designed to be a "special edition" smartphone from Apple. Unlike last year's iPhone 11 family and the rumored upcoming iPhone 12, the iPhone SE isn't meant to introduce attention-grabbing new features and technological advancements. Rather, it's designed to carry the message that there's a new iPhone for everyone, even those who can't afford to spend $700 or more on a new smartphone.
The iPhone SE's biggest asset is its A13 Bionic processor, the same powerful chip that drives the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. That comes wrapped in a 4.7-inch design that looks and feels much like the iPhone 8, meaning yes, the iPhone SE is the first new iPhone to come with a Touch ID home button since 2017's iPhone 8.
While the iPhone SE certainly has a lot going for it, the phone is launching at a time when there's more competition than ever in the market for affordable smartphones. Some of those devices are even more feature-rich than the iPhone SE, particularly when it comes to the camera and display, even if they may not be quite as powerful.
Here's a closer look at what it's been like to use the iPhone SE after spending several days with the device.
iPhone SE 2020 specs
- Display size and resolution: 4.7 inches, 1,334 x 750
- Processor: A13 Bionic
- Rear camera: 12-megapixel with f/1.8 aperture
- Front camera: 7-megapixel with f/2.2 aperture
- Storage: 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB
- Biometric authentication: Touch ID home button
- Durability: IP67 water and dust resistance (1 meter up to 30 minutes)
Design and display
Compared to the iPhone 11 and 2018's iPhone XS, the iPhone SE looks vintage. It's the most compact iPhone in years, and after spending the last several months using the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, it's a welcome throwback.
In terms of its size, weight, and appearance, the iPhone SE is nearly identical to the iPhone 8. The biggest differences are in the iPhone SE's color choices and the positioning of the Apple logo on the back of the device.
It's an aesthetic that those in need of an upgrade who are reluctant to give up their iPhone 6S or iPhone 7 will surely appreciate. At a time when smartphones have become increasingly large and at times unwieldy, the iPhone SE is refreshingly simple. It feels much easier to manage with one hand, and legacy iPhone owners also won't have to worry about learning new swipe gestures to replace the home button.
As much as I enjoy unlocking my iPhone just by looking at it, I've really come to appreciate having Touch ID again. Being able to rest my finger on the iPhone's home button to unlock it sometimes felt more convenient than using Face ID.
For example, Touch ID allows me to quickly unlock my phone to see more details about a notification without picking it up, unlike Face ID. At a time when many people like myself are wearing protective masks and coverings over their face before leaving the house, being able to quickly access my phone without facial recognition has been very helpful.
My only complaint about the iPhone SE's design is that it feels a bit antiquated. I love the convenience of having a smaller iPhone with Touch ID, but the chunky bezels above and below the SE's display do feel a bit outdated. Other smartphone makers, like Samsung, have launched devices around the same price as the iPhone SE that have larger, borderless screens.
The iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch screen with a 1,344 x 750 resolution and Apple's True Tone for adjusting colors based on surrounding lighting just like the iPhone 8. Like every other iPhone that Apple currently sells except for the 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, the iPhone SE's screen is made from an LCD panel rather than an OLED display. OLED screens typically offer better contrast and deeper black tones, but they're usually found on more expensive devices.
Apple's iPhone SE may be tiny, but it packs a lot of power. The phone runs on Apple's A13 Bionic processor, the same chip found inside the $700 iPhone 11, $1,000 iPhone 11 Pro, and $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max. Apple says the chipset is built for real-time video and photo analysis and can perform 1 trillion operations per second.
The A13 Bionic is the biggest part of what makes the iPhone SE so appealing. It means the iPhone SE is equipped to handle almost everything the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro can, except for the features and applications that take advantage of the multi-lens cameras on those pricier iPhones. That's important because it suggests the iPhone SE won't quickly feel outdated since it runs on Apple's newest mobile processor.
This is what gives the iPhone SE a big advantage over some well-received Android rivals.
The iPhone SE certainly offered snappy performance during my experience with it. It is able to render a 4K one-minute video clip in iMovie in about 18 seconds, unsurprisingly beating the more than 2-year-old iPhone 8, which takes roughly 45 seconds. What does surprise me though, is that the iPhone SE manages to render this clip even faster than the $1,400 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra does when exporting a 4K clip of the same length. Samsung's phone, by comparison, takes about 31 seconds.
Another area in which I noticed the iPhone SE's more powerful performance was when running certain augmented reality apps. While I don't notice much of a difference between the iPhone SE and iPhone 8 with some apps, like the AR storytelling app Wonderscope or the science education app Atlas, the iPhone SE is much faster while functioning as a digital tape measure. The iPhone SE is able to detect new surfaces and adapt instantly when using Apple's Measure app, whereas the iPhone 8 sometimes struggles to adjust immediately as I pan the phone's camera around my apartment.
The iPhone SE seems more powerful on paper as well. It earned higher scores on the Geekbench 5 benchmark than the iPhone 8 and Google Pixel 4. Geekbench runs a series of tests that claim to measure a processor's single-core and multi-core performance to evaluate how they hold up during real-world, everyday tasks like checking email and streaming music.
After running the app's CPU test multiple times, the iPhone SE scored between 1,326 and 1,332 on Geekbench's test of a single processing core, and between 3,102 and 3,331 on a test that evaluates how multiple processing cores perform. The iPhone 8, by comparison, scored between 921 and 931 on the single core test and between 2,248 and 2,328 on the multi-core test, while the Pixel 4 scored 730 on the single core test and 2,445 on the multi-core version.
The OnePlus 8 Pro and Galaxy S20 Ultra performed roughly the same as and in some cases better than the iPhone SE when it came to the multi-core test. The S20 Ultra, for example, scored between 886 and 907 on the single core test and between 3,301 and 3,282 on the multi-core test, while the OnePlus 8 Pro scored 894 on the single core test and 3,322 on the multi-core test.
But, the iPhone SE still scored the highest of all the devices on Geekbench's single core test.
The iPhone SE's camera system is similar to that of the iPhone XR; it has a single 12-megapixel camera and a 7-megapixel selfie camera. The biggest differences between the iPhone SE's camera and the iPhone XR's is that the former comes with more lighting effects for Portrait Mode (six versus the XR's three effects) and a newer version of Apple's high dynamic range technology.
The iPhone 8 also has a single 12-megapixel camera and a 7-megapixel front camera, but lacks Portrait Mode and Apple's Smart HDR, a technology that should be better at capturing details, highlights, and shadows.
The iPhone SE takes crisp, colorful photos that in some cases looked superior to those taken with the iPhone 8 and in others seemed about the same. Apple's top-of-the-line camera on the iPhone 11 Pro, which features a triple-lens 12-megapixel setup, sometimes appears to capture images with better contrast, color, and detail compared to the iPhone SE. But, in other instances, such as when photographing colorful flowers, all three phones capture similar images.
Take a look at the images below, which were shot on the iPhone SE, iPhone 8, and iPhone 11 Pro. You'll notice the photos taken with the SE and 8 are fairly similar, while the iPhone 11 Pro's offer a bit more detail, contrast, and slightly bolder colors.
iPhone 11 Pro
Other than the additional lenses on the iPhone 11 — which features both a wide and ultra-wide lens, and the iPhone 11 Pro — which has wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto lenses —the biggest feature missing from the iPhone SE is Night Mode. As its name implies, this means the iPhone SE isn't as well equipped to take photos in the dark as the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, as shown below.
iPhone 11 Pro
The iPhone SE may not have all the bells and whistles of the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro's camera. But, it's more than capable enough for those who just want a phone that can take high-quality photos and don't necessarily care about the extra flexibility that the 11 and 11 Pro offer.
Still, some low-cost Android phones have more to offer when it comes to camera functionality, like the Pixel 3a, which has Google's Night Sight technology for taking photos in the dark. Samsung's $400 Galaxy A51 also has a quad-lens camera with depth, ultra-wide, and macro lenses in addition to the standard wide lens.
You can probably expect to get about a day's worth of battery life out of the iPhone SE, depending on how you use your device.
During most work days — which entails frequently checking notifications, leaving the screen on for long periods of time, making phone calls, and recording audio on my phone — the iPhone SE lasts from the early morning until the late afternoon or early evening before I have to plug it in. But, on the weekend, when I'm mostly using my phone to occasionally check email and social media, I am able to get through an entire day without having to charge it.
Comparatively, most flagship smartphones I've tested, like the iPhone 11 Pro, typically last for more than a day on a single charge. As always, it's worth noting that the apps you use and the settings you implement on your phone can impact battery life, so results may vary.
The bottom line
The $400 iPhone SE is an ideal choice for Apple devotees looking for a reliable smartphone that won't break the bank. Since it runs on Apple's A13 Bionic chip, you won't have to worry about sacrificing performance or purchasing a smartphone that will soon feel out of date compared to the latest flagship models.
Those who prefer smaller phones, don't want to spend a lot of money, and aren't thrilled about giving up their aging iPhone's Touch ID home button will probably love the SE.
That being said, the budget smartphone market has become increasingly competitive over the last year. Those who aren't partial to Apple have plenty of compelling Android alternatives at their disposal, some of which offer more camera features and modern edge-to-edge screen designs even if they run on chips that may not be as powerful or new as the A13 Bionic. Google's Pixel 3a and Samsung's Galaxy A51 are two such examples.
The iPhone SE doesn't have a lot of the extras I've come to appreciate on Apple's newer iPhones, like the 11 and 11 Pro's ultra-wide-angle camera or a borderless screen. But, at $400, it has just about everything you would want from a quality smartphone: a solid camera with Portrait Mode, decent battery life, and compact, attractive design.
Pros: Powerful A13 Bionic processor, compact size, only iPhone with a home button and fingerprint sensor, effective camera for the price
Cons: Design feels a bit old, lacking some camera features compared to similarly priced Android phones
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