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Review Roundup: The iPhone SE Offers Premium Performance at the Expense of Design

A photo of the 2020 iPhone SE.

Apple’s new iPhone SE may be the most interesting device of the year. Not because it’s innovative or flashy, but it sets a new standard for “budget” phones. At just $400, you get the performance and lifespan of Apple’s premium phones at an affordable price.

This isn’t to say that the new iPhone SE is a perfect product. It lacks the modern design and flashy features of similarly priced Google and Samsung devices. Its battery life isn’t amazing, it doesn’t have Face ID, and its single-camera setup, while punching far above its weight, doesn’t work well in low-light conditions. But if you’re an iPhone fan or you’re tired of replacing your budget Android phone every year, then you should consider buying an SE. At least, that’s the consensus among reviewers who set aside their fancy $1,200 devices to spend some time with the $400 iPhone.

Before we start looking at reviews, here are the 2020 iPhone SE’s raw specs:

  • Display: 4.7-inch Retina HD display @ 1334×750
  • Main Camera: A single 12-megapixel camera, 4K 60 FPS and 4K 30 FPS video options
  • Selfie Camera: 7-megapixel camera (with no depth sensors)
  • Processor and RAM: A13 Bionic processor and 3GB of RAM
  • Storage: 64GB, 12GB, and 256GB configurations; no expandable storage
  • Charging: 18-watt charging via Lightning cable and 7.5-watt wireless charging
  • Additional Features: An IP67 water-resistance rating; Dual-SIM capabilities; Touch ID (no Face ID)

Alright, let’s jump into it. Here’s what trusted reviewers have to say about the new iPhone SE.

Untouchable Performance, 5-Year Lifespan, Decent Battery

A photo showing the iPhone SE 2 in-game.
With its A13 Bionic chip, the SE can play the same demanding games as the iPhone 11. Apple

Unlike other phone companies, Apple manufactures its own mobile processors to reduce costs and increase device performance. And, the company is really good at designing processors. Apple’s A13 Bionic chip, which powers the iPhone 11, is the fastest processor in any phone on the market. And guess what? That same chip, the A13 Bionic, is also in the $400 iPhone SE.

I know that processor mumbo-jumbo can get a bit confusing, so I’ll refer to Dieter Bohn at The Verge, who does a great job of explaining why this processor is significant. In his words:

The processor is important because it ensures that the iPhone SE will get OS updates for many years to come. I still have the original iPhone SE, released in March 2016, and Apple supported it with the latest iOS update last year. Four years later, and that iPhone has the most up-to-date software.

Dieter goes on to explain that most Android phones “top out at two years of updates.” At this price, you won’t find a phone that’ll last as long as the iPhone SE. It’s guaranteed support for as long as the iPhone 11, as both phones run on the A13 chip. I’d also like to add that, while Android phones tend to slow down with each update, new iOS updates have the benefit of speeding up old phones (you can thank the people who hit Apple with a planned-obsolescence suit in 2017).

The iPhone SE will last long enough that, come 2023, you may find yourself replacing its aging battery. In the meantime, you’ll experience a battery life that Lauren Goode at Wired calls “middling.” As Lauren puts it, the SE “has essentially the same size battery as the iPhone 8,” although it lasts a little longer than the iPhone 8 “thanks to a much more efficient processor.”

Most reviewers agree with Lauren—the SE’s battery isn’t mind-blowing, it isn’t the best at this price, but it’ll last a full day with regular use. For most people, that’s fine. And, even if battery life is one of those things that you can’t help but obsess over, you could always use wireless chargers, a battery case, or a compact power bank to extend the SE’s battery life. The phone is only 5.44-inches tall, you gotta do something with that extra pocket space!

Small Retina HD Display, Mostly Impressive Camera

From here on out, we’re going to see a lot of comparisons between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 8. Maybe “comparison” is the wrong word—the new SE is the exact same size as the iPhone 8, and contains many of the same components. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

You’d think that the SE’s 4.7-inch Retina HD display, the same display as the old iPhone 8, would look a little dated in 2020. But the old Retina HD display was, arguably, ahead of its time. I think that Patrick Holland at CNET describes it best:

The screen on the SE is similar to the one on the iPhone 11, especially in terms of quality and resolution. Text looks sharp, colors are accurate, and it’s bright in sunny conditions.

What more could you ask for? Bohn wishes that the SE had smaller bezels, and spends a few paragraphs discussing how the SE could “fit a bigger screen” if it weren’t for that thick black outline. Other reviewers mention the bezels in passing, but Dieter is hinting at something that may turn off a lot of people, especially Android users. The iPhone SE’s retro design is still functional, but it isn’t flashy. It isn’t ugly, but it isn’t inspirational either.

Personally, I don’t mind the iPhone SE’s outdated exterior. I miss using a phone with physical buttons, and thick bezels make it easier to hold a phone without accidentally touching the screen. The only thing that concerned me about the SE’s design is the single rear camera, which looks eerily similar to the iPhone 8 camera and sports a small 12-megapixel sensor.

But after watching MKBHD’s review of the SE, my fears are (mostly) nonexistent. Let’s give him a quick quote:

[The iPhone SE uses] a single-camera system, and it’s a pretty good one. Photos from it definitely look like familiar iPhone photos. And when you give it enough light, it’s right up there with the best.

Even if the SE uses the same camera as the iPhone 8 (Apple hasn’t clarified, but this is unlikely), the phone processes its photos with Apple’s state-of-the-art software, and the end result is impressive. But as MKBHD notes, lighting is an issue. He says that “when you get into less favorable lighting, things get a little bit grainy.” And, because the SE doesn’t have Night Mode, you can probably imagine how photos look in the dark. The SE also lacks ultrawide features and doesn’t have any depth sensors for its 7-megapixel front-facing camera, which hampers your ability to shoot artsy wide shots or influencer-level selfies.

Still, the SE’s camera gives you a lot of fancy shooting options. iJustine is one of the few people who mentions it, but the SE features cinematic image stabilization, which helps you shoot stable video from the main camera or selfie camera. There are also options for slow-mo, time-lapse, and portrait mode. You can see a few real-world examples in her SE review.

Oh, and one last note about the camera: it’s capable of recording 4K video at 60 or 30 FPS. The 30 FPS option increases dynamic range, and MKBHD describes it as “the best on any phone at this price, hands down.” Those are some pretty strong words, and the iPhone SE video examples in his review look fantastic.

iPhone 8 Size, iPhone 8 Style, iPhone 8 Touch ID

A photo showing each color of the 2020 iPhone SE.
The iPhone SE comes in familiar white, black, and red color-schemes. Apple

We’ve covered the most important features of the iPhone SE, but I want to circle back to our conversation about the SE’s “outdated” design. You already know that the SE is the same size as the iPhone 8, that it has thick bezels, and that it relies on a single rear-facing camera. But ignoring aesthetics, how does an old design impact actual functionality?

The iPhone SE has a Home button, and unlike newer iPhones, it can scan fingerprints and unlock with Touch ID. But its front-facing camera doesn’t have depth sensors, so Face ID is gone. Most reviewers don’t seem to care about the lack of Face ID but instinctively knock off points for its absence. iJustine has a more nuanced opinion of how this change affects actual use, especially right now:

[The iPhone SE] also has touch ID, and that’s something that I never thought that I would really want back until I started to wear face masks every time I go outside. Cause guess what doesn’t work when you’re wearing a face mask? Face ID.

She makes a great point. iJustine also lauds the SE’s Touch ID for its use of haptic feedback, which is something we probably took for granted in older devices. All in all, Touch ID works well, it feels great, and it’s an example of how the iPhone SE’s “outdated” design is, to some people, a strength.

Another benefit that comes with the SE’s design is its compatibility with iPhone 8 accessories. The SE’s buttons, front-facing camera, and rear camera are in the same place as the iPhone 8’s, so you can use iPhone 8 cases and screen protectors without impacting the SE’s functionality.

And, just to clarify, the SE does not have a headphone jack. Neither did the iPhone 8. I wouldn’t normally bring this up while talking about the iPhone, but because Google and Samsung’s “budget” phones have headphone jacks, I figured it was necessary.

The Gist: It’s a Brand New iPhone for $400

A photo of the iPhone SE 2 on a black background.

All in all, the iPhone SE offers premium performance at an incredibly low price. It’s an obvious choice for Apple fans who don’t want to drop $1,000 on an iPhone X Series or 11, and an attractive option for Android users who are sick of replacing their phone every 2 years.

But I want to make one last comment about the SE that hasn’t come up in any reviews. Its design, which is nearly identical to the iPhone 8’s, is already dated. Over the next 4 or 5 years, the SE may start to look and feel like a dinosaur, especially if foldable phones move into the mainstream. If you get a kick out of using new flashy tech, then the comparatively shorter lifespan of a budget Android phone may be a small price to pay for modern design.

Of course, there’s a chance that Android manufacturers will follow in Apple’s lead. If that happens, then the outdated design will coexist with modern designs, and style will take a back seat to performance. If you’re interested in the SE but concerned about style, I’d suggest waiting a few months to see how things work out. Worse comes to worst, you end up buying SE later this year, perhaps at an even more reduced price.

Reviews Cited: CNET, iJustine, MKBHD The Verge, Wired

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »