Apple gets a lot of flak for its $1000 smartphones and $1000 monitor stands, but the company really delivers when it rolls out a budget device. Just look back on the history of the plastic MacBook, iPhone 5C, and the original iPhone SE and you’ll find a history of celebrated devices.
So when I heard Apple finally brought back the iPhone SE I was elated. At $400, it’s $50 more expensive than the previous iPhone SE, but this handset offers up Apple’s latest mobile processor in the shell of an iPhone 8 that’s also been upgraded with water- and dust-resistance, plus wireless charging.
You’re limited to an old-school design and only one camera, but if you’re looking for an budget smartphone and just can’t quit iOS, the iPhone SE is a fantastic device.
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iPhone SE 2020 – Design and Features
Holding the new iPhone SE is like a trip back through time. Not only does it reuse the design of the previous iPhone 6, 7, and 8, it looks like it comes from a bygone age with its small (by relative terms) 4.7-inch screen and thick bezels. By comparison, most modern smartphones look gigantic with tall edge-to-edge displays and minimal bezel.
What’s even more of a throwback is once again navigating iOS with a physical home button. That’s not a knock either, I really missed the haptic feedback you get from physically pressing buttons to get back to the home screen and switching apps.
Another benefit of having a home button again is you can use Touch ID. It’s not as cool and futuristic as Face ID, but when we all have to wear facemasks to stay safe, it’s far more useful.
The only thing really holding back the iPhone SE is its small screen. Not only does it have thick bezels that look ancient by current standards, it’s a plain old LCD screen. Colors pop well enough off the iPhone SE’s display, but the blacks don’t look as dark as they should, which can be a bit distracting if you like viewing iOS, apps, and websites in dark mode. Viewed next to an OLED or AMOLED display, the norm today for flagship phones, it becomes readily apparent that the blacks displayed on the SE 2’s screen look more like they’re gray.
Although the screen is rated to produce 625-nits – a little more than half of the iPhone 11 Pro’s 1,200-nit maximum screen brightness – that’s still bright enough for me to clearly see everything on the screen, even with direct sunlight shining through my window.
The only other thing that feels a little stuck in time about the iPhone SE is it only has one camera. With 12MP of resolution and a wide-angle lens, you basically get the same main camera as seen on the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. Despite the lack of any additional telephoto or ultrawide cameras, you can still use a virtualized version of Apple’s portrait mode.
Otherwise, with a water and dust-resistance rating of IP67, built-in wireless charging, and no headphone jack where there used to be one, the iPhone SE feels like a modernized version of Apple’s classic smartphone. Oddly, those added features make this phone exactly what Apple users were hoping from the iPhone 7 in 2016.
iPhone SE 2020 – Gaming and Performance
The best thing the iPhone SE offers up at its $400 starting price is, of course, Apple’s latest and most powerful A13 Bionic processor. This chip already delivers more computational and graphical power than most smartphones (and even laptops) and now it’s in a device with a lower resolution display.
This means the iPhone SE just flies when it comes to everyday app switching, video streaming, and web browsing.
All that extra processing headroom also ensures this handset never hitches up with playing games – including complex 3D adventure games like Spyder. The iPhone SE also has no problems with rendering complex augmented reality games like Secret Oops! from the Apple Arcade. More surprisingly, the experience of seeing in-game characters overlaid with my apartment floor and dining room table was just as seamless on this phone as on my iPhone 11 Pro despite having fewer optical sensors to gauge depth.
While you do lose a little bit of screen real estate with the iPhone SE’s old school 16:9 display, it makes playing games like Scrappers that use virtual thumbsticks less cumbersome.
It might be small, but the iPhone SE packs a mighty little engine that can handle any game from the Apple Arcade library. The only downside of having all of this power on hand is it’s a real drain on battery life if you’re a power user, but we’ll get more into this soon.
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iPhone SE 2020 – Camera
With only one wide-angle camera on tap, the iPhone SE 2020 might not be as flexible as its bigger brothers but make no mistake, you can still take some gorgeous shots.
Because it uses Apple’s latest 12MP sensor and image processing software, you can capture photos with a stunning level of detail, color, and dynamic range. In fact, I could hardly tell the difference between a photo I took with the iPhone SE versus the iPhone 11 Pro.
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Of course, not everything is equal between all of Apple’s phones. On top of missing an ultrawide camera and telephoto camera, the handset lacks any form of night mode shooting for extremely low-light shots. The omission of this mode is a bit odd since all it requires is for the camera to take a longer exposure between one to three seconds.
Portrait mode on the iPhone SE works well enough, however, I wouldn’t suggest taking any photos up close with it since it only has a wide-angle optic to work with. Wide-angle lenses have a tendency to bowl out the subject in the center of the frame the closer you get to them, so taking a portrait shot up-close will end up stretching out faces in odd ways.
iPhone SE 2020 – Battery Life
The iPhone SE comes with a 1,821 mAh battery, the same exact battery found in the iPhone 8 that shares its chassis design. However, with a more powerful chip in tow, this smartphone can run a little short on battery life for extreme power users.
For example, on one day I stress tested the phone with nearly four hours of FaceTime calls with video, two hours of watching YouTube videos, three hours of podcast playing, and a smattering of gaming in between. All of this heavy usage easily put the phone out of commission by the end of an eight hour day – or exactly 5 hours and 21 minutes of screen on time.
With more casual usage of just looking at Facebook and Twitter throughout the day with some YouTube viewing and listening to music, the iPhone SE fared much better and easily lasted to the end of the day with just a little under 50% charge remaining.
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The iPhone SE can definitely get you through a day, but whether that’s just a workday or the full sunup to sundown is highly dependent on your level of usage.
The good news is this handset charges up quickly. Even with the basic charger included in the box, 30 minutes of charging gave me back 30% of the phone’s full battery life and within an hour I was back up to 58%. If you splurge on an 18W fast charger from Apple or a third-party brand, plugging in for 30 minutes will get you back up to 50% from a dead battery.
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The iPhone SE is available at a starting price of $399 for 64GB of storage and 4GB of memory. You can upgrade the storage to 128GB for $449 or 256GB for $549, but the 4GB of memory remains the same across all models.