Money’s tight right now. If you’re hurting for a new iPhone, there’s a good chance that the budget-minded iPhone SE is on your radar. But unless you get a ridiculously good deal, the iPhone SE just isn’t worth buying anymore.
Note: Bear in mind that the fourth-generation iPhone SE (2023) could resolve some of the complaints mentioned in this article—assuming that we get a new iPhone SE in 2023, of course.
The original iPhone SE launched in 2016, bridging the two-year gap between Apple’s iPhone 6 and iPhone 7 releases. And the concept made a lot of sense; the 2016 iPhone SE contained the same internal hardware as the iPhone 6S, but it utilized the iPhone 5S’s old and inexpensive design.
Apple resurrected this pitch in 2020—the second-gen iPhone SE matched the power of the iPhone 11, but it carried a price tag of just $400. Sure, this device reused the iPhone 8’s design, but it was significantly cheaper than an iPhone X or iPhone 11. And, at the time, it offered arguably the best camera quality of any sub-$500 smartphone.
Yes, critics complained about the second-gen iPhone SE’s design. The small screen, limited camera selection, and giant “Home” button were outdated. But these design cues were only two years out of date. People were still buying the iPhone 8, the iPhone 7, and older devices in 2020. For real budget-minded Apple fans, the iPhone SE’s design wasn’t a big problem.
But things have changed. The 2022 iPhone SE launched to little fanfare and performed modestly in our review. We’re not surprised; a rehashed version of the iPhone 8 doesn’t make sense in 2022.
The iPhone SE is held back by its design. And I’m not calling the phone ugly—in fact, I think it looks better than any modern iPhone. But the 4.7-inch screen isn’t made for today’s apps, and the small camera sensors don’t cut it in 2022.
Even if you want a small phone, the iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch screen is difficult to use. Modern apps, such as Instagram, need to cut off a ton of content in order to fit on an iPhone SE display (and good luck navigating modern websites on such a small screen). Plus, the most demanding mobile games are intended for a fairly large screen, so it’s hard to get any use out of the iPhone SE’s powerful A15 Bionic chipset.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not complaining about the quality of the iPhone SE’s display. It’s an LCD panel, it only has a 750 x 1334 resolution, and it runs at 60Hz. These specs aren’t “modern,” but they’re appropriate for a small 4.7-inch display, especially one with such a high color accuracy. It’s just that the iPhone SE’s screen is too small.
The camera sensors are also too small. After nearly a decade of use, Apple’s 12MP rear camera is really showing its age. It produces decent photos, but it doesn’t match the quality of similarly-priced Android devices (previous-gen Samsung and Google phones blow this sucker out of the water). The 7MP selfie camera is also a bit weak, though the rear camera is obviously the big disappointment here.
These problems don’t exist in modern iPhones. The iPhone Mini is about the same size as the iPhone SE, yet it has a larger (and much more usable) 5.42-inch display. Plus, today’s iPhone cameras are massive and produce incredible photos.
I should also point out that the iPhone SE has a middling battery life. Plus, it fails to match the durability of recent iPhones, which use Ceramic Shield technology for increased drop and scratch protection. The iPhone can last for half a decade, and I’m not sure why you’d tolerate all these problems for five years.
The current-generation iPhone SE is a relic of the Steve Jobs era. While it uses an attractive design, it isn’t suited for modern apps or users. But Apple could make the iPhone SE a compelling device in 2023—it just needs to leave the past behind.
Leaks and rumors suggest that the fourth-generation iPhone SE, launching in 2023, will be an upgraded version of the iPhone XR. It will ditch the “Home” button, gain a 6.1-inch display, and inherit a modern selfie camera with support for Face ID. (Presumably, it will also use the A15 Bionic chipset, as Apple reused this chipset for the base-model iPhone 13.)
Now, to be clear, I’m not entirely confident in this rumor. We heard people make these same claims in 2021 ahead of the third-gen iPhone SE launch. (To be fair, supply chain problems could’ve prevented Apple from upgrading the 2022 iPhone SE’s design.)
But there’s no guarantee that Apple will even sell a fourth-gen iPhone SE in 2023—this is all just speculation. In the meantime, I suggest avoiding the iPhone SE and buying something else.
If you’re on a budget, skip the iPhone SE and buy an iPhone 11. It’s a simple proposition; the iPhone 11 costs just $50 more than the iPhone SE but packs a larger 6.1-inch display, improved cameras (with the addition of an ultra-wide lens), and a killer battery life. These upgrades are hard to ignore.
Now, to be fair, the iPhone 11 is already a few years old. It runs a slightly-slower chipset than the iPhone SE, it doesn’t support 5G, and its LCD screen has a pixel density of 326 PPI—so, while the screens are different sizes, they’re technically identical in terms of quality.
Perhaps the iPhone 12 Mini is a better choice. This phone is about the same size as the iPhone SE, but it uses a larger 5.4-inch OLED display with an improved pixel density and Ceramic Shield glass. It also supports MagSafe and 5G connectivity.
Unfortunately, the iPhone 12 Mini doesn’t have an amazing battery life. It isn’t a great option for people who use their phone all day, and its screen (while bigger than that of the iPhone SE) is still a bit small for normal tasks. But you can find an iPhone 12 Mini for under $500, so it’s a compelling alternative to the iPhone SE or iPhone 11.
Again, iPhones can last a very long time. I strongly suggest buying an iPhone that you’re excited to own, as you’ll probably be stuck with it for a while. Unless you need a phone today, you may want to hold off on your purchase, save some money, and try to find an iPhone that you’ll enjoy using for several years.
Apple iPhone 11
The iPhone 11 packs a 6.1-inch display, two rear cameras, a killer battery life, and support for Face ID. It's a steal, though it's a few years old, so you have to buy it renewed or pre-owned.
Apple iPhone 12 Mini
Despite its small form factor, the iPhone 12 Mini packs a powerful A15 Bionic chipset, supports 5G connectivity, and works with MagSafe accessories. It also uses an OLED screen, offering higher-quality visuals than the iPhone 11 or iPhone SE.