The new iPhone SE is all the phone most people need, especially right now. It wasn’t planned for the COVID-19 era, but it appears right on time. With a blazing-fast processor, a high-quality body, and solid connectivity, the 2020 iPhone SE sets a benchmark for midrange phones. It uses a (popular) older iPhone body and a smaller screen to cut prices while giving you a super speedy experience and Apple’s latest apps. It’s a terrific and perfectly timed phone, easily worthy of our Editors’ Choice.
A Classic Body
The iPhone SE is in an iPhone 8 body. It’s so clearly the iPhone 8 body that it fits into iPhone 8 (but not iPhone 7) cases. While it isn’t nearly as petite as the previous iPhone 5-based SE model, it’s still the smallest high-quality phone on the market.
It’s smaller than the Galaxy S10 eand the Google Pixel 4 at 5.45 by 2.65 by 0.29 inches (HWD) and 5.22 ounces, making it manageable in just one hand for most people. The phone’s 4.7-inch, 1,334-by-750-pixel screen isn’t as bold as the iPhone 11 Pro’s new OLED panel, but it looks great for the price.
It seems a little silly to describe a form factor that’s been popular for the past three years, but like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE has rounded corners, big bezels around the screen, a mute switch, a slight camera bump, a Lightning port, and no headphone jack. The body is the typical iPhone glass sandwich; grippy enough in your hand, but slippery on a table, so you’ll want to put it in a case. Like other recent iPhones, it’s rateIP67 for water resistance.
The phone comes in black, red, or white.
Apple’s A13 processor is, according to Geekbench, the fastest on the market. The iPhone SE gets faster single-core CPU scores, and about the same multi-core CPU and web browsing scores as the R25 000 Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra running the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 chipset. This is a glorious amount of horsepower to go into a R8000 phone, far faster than any other $400 phone on the US market, and it will run iOS applications very well for years to come. The iPhone SE has, almost certainly, a longer functional life ahead of it than any other phone of its price in SA
Like all current iPhones, the SE runs iOS 13 and comes with a free year of Apple TV+. iOS 13 has a dark mode, a keyboard you can swipe on, and various other improvements from earlier versions. It’s still iOS; the home screen is as much a relatively inflexible grid of icons as ever.
There are a lot of people who prefer a physical fingerprint scanner to Face ID, and Apple’s scanner in the iPhone SE is fast and accurate. I definitely find it more reliable than the in-display fingerprint scanners on recent flagship phones. The old-school Touch ID scanner works for Apple Pay, as well as other systems that need a fingerprint.
Nope, there’s no headphone jack
Battery life is fine, but not a step forward from previous iPhones. I got 5 hours, 57 minutes in our video rundown test. That’s just about the same as I got on the iPhone 11 and the iPhone XR, although it’s shorter than the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. The SE has a smaller battery than the iPhone 11 and XR, but it also has a smaller screen, so those balance out if you’re a heavy screen-on user. You’ll want to charge the phone nightly, and you have options. While the SE comes with a slow 5-watt charger, it supports fast charging just like the iPhone 11 does , as well as Qi wireless charging (I have it sitting on a wireless charger right now).
The iPhone’s LTE speeds can be amazing
Depending on how old the iPhone you’re upgrading from is, you’ll potentially get much better connectivity and call quality with the SE than with an older device. Call-quality wise, the iPhone 8 was the first iPhone to support EVS, a high-quality calling system you’re most likely to see in calls to other people on the same network (it usually pops up as HD+ in the dialer). EVS calls are much richer and more textured than non-HD calls, with better background noise cancellation.
Data-wise, the iPhone XR/XS generations were the first models to support band 71, which greatly improves T-Mobile’s LTE range in rural areas, and the XS was the first with band 46, which really juices speeds in dense urban centers like parks and university campuses. The iPhone 11 generation introduced band 48, which primarily Verizon uses in a similar way to band 46. So compared with anything older than the XR, the iPhone SE has better range in the countryside and better speeds in some parts of cities.
The iPhone SE also has Apple’s eSIM-based dual-SIM solution, which lets you select a second mobile subscription from an on-device menu if you want a home line and a work line, or if you’re roaming.
For Wi-Fi it supports Wi–Fi 6, which also comes in the iPhone 11 series. Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t make a difference for most people right now, because relatively few people have Wi-Fi 6 routers, but it will improve Wi-Fi performance in crowded situations like public hotspots in future years. I didn’t find any real difference in Wi-Fi performance between the SE and the iPhone 11, and that’s a good thing.
The phone doesn’t have 5G, but 5G isn’t making a huge difference to a lot of people right now, and the least expensive 5G phone on the US market, the OnePlus 8, costs $300 more than the iPhone SE.
The iPhone SE has a single camera compared with the iPhone 11’s two
The camera is the biggest difference between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 series (or other flagships). These are the iPhone 8 cameras, paired with some A13 software tricks. That means a 12-megapixel main camera and a 7-megapixel front-facing camera, with stabilized 4K video on the main sensor and 1080p video on the front-facing unit. The A13 adds better HDR, Apple says, as well as portrait (bokeh) mode.
It’s hard to tell the iPhone 11 (left) from the iPhone SE (right) here
In good light, it’s very difficult to tell the difference between shots taken with the iPhone SE and iPhone 11 cameras. Of course, the SE doesn’t have the iPhone 11’s wide-angle camera, or the iPhone 11 Pro’s 2x zoom camera. But at your standard 1x, the results are just fine.
Ignoring my fogged glasses, the iPhone 11 (left) definitely has a better front-facing camera than the iPhone SE (right)
Video recording is impeccable, the way it is on most recent iPhones. You get 4K video on the main camera, as well as 1080p on the front-facing camera. The main camera has optical image stabilization for video.
The front-facing camera is a step behind the iPhone 11 at 7 megapixels rather than 12. Front-facing shots taken with the iPhone 11 are a bit sharper, with better overall focus.
The iPhone 11 (left) performs better at outdoor night shots than the iPhone SE (right)
It’s indoor night mode where the iPhone 11 (left) really beats the iPhone SE (right)
Night mode is the biggest missing thing missing in the iPhone SE. The iPhone 11 introduced a multi-frame night mode that seriously brightens up shots by taking multiple exposures over a three-second period. It’s dramatic, and one of the top reasons to buy an 11—it puts the iPhone 11 on par with the Google Pixel 4, and a bit ahead of Samsung’s latest when it comes to night shots. The SE doesn’t have this night mode, and as a result, super-low-light photos are noticeably dimmer and muddier, just like they were on the iPhone 8.
Now, I have to set expectations here: These shots are still considerably better than you’ll get on an iPhone 6, and probably better than you’ll get on another midrange phone today. But if you want to know why you’d buy an iPhone 11 instead of an iPhone SE, this is a big reason.
The iPhone SE only does bokeh on human faces
The SE’s software-based portrait mode also isn’t as flexible as the mode on dual-camera iPhones or Samsung phones. While those other phones can bokeh anything—like a person, a pet, or a flower—the SE demands a human face to kick it into portrait mode.
Should You Buy the iPhone SE?
A few months ago, our economy looked capable of supporting R25 000 smartphones, from both Apple and Samsung; now, we have an unemployment rate of over 20 percent. A few months ago, I recommended phones as an investment for the next three years; now, I know many people are worried about feeding their families next month. This has all happened far too fast for electronics companies, which plan their products 12 to 18 months in advance, to adapt.
The iPhone SE couldn’t have come at a better time—it’s a knockout value for $399. If you’re looking for an iPhone, the only real reasons to pay more are if you really want a bigger screen and night mode. This is a terrific upgrade for anyone with an iPhone 7 or lower.
The SE also competes compellingly with any Android phone under $699. Go to that price level, and you get features like multiple high-quality cameras and 5G in the $699 OnePlus 8. You may want to go to midrange Android phones instead if you need to spend even less money, or demand a much larger screen, both of which you get in the $249 Motorola Moto G Power. But the Moto G Power isn’t nearly as pocketable or as fast as the iPhone SE.
With tens of millions of Americans out of work, our nation needs an affordable, speedy smartphone to help us stay connected, with a long life ahead of it. That’s the iPhone SE. It’s an Editors’ Choice, and a phone that I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people over the coming months.
Apple iPhone SE (2020) Specs
|Operating System||iOS 13|
|CPU||Apple A13 Bionic|
|Processor Speed||2.66 GHz|
|Dimensions||5.45 by 2.65 by 0.29 inches|
|Screen Size||4.7 inches|
|Screen Resolution||1,334 by 750 pixels|
|Camera Resolution (Rear; Front-Facing)||12MP; 7MP|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||5 hours, 57 minutes (Wi-Fi video streaming)|