October 19, 2020

Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: Old is new, again!

The iPhone SE makes old new again with Apple's fastest processor and newest software.

In 2020, it’s common to see two, sometimes three models of a phone in the same family. Usually, you’ll find a standard model joined by a Plus or a Pro, and occasionally you’ll see a Lite, or, more recently, an Ultra. But the iPhone SE isn’t any of these.

Officially, the “SE� in iPhone SE stands for Special Edition. Maybe more logically, though, it should stand for Small Edition, since it is currently the smallest iPhone you can buy. While it isn’t terribly smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro, the big bezels and large home button give it much less screen real estate.

What does make the SE special, though, is the fact that it’s running Apple’s latest processor, the A13 Bionic. This gives the SE many of the same capabilities as the much more expensive iPhone 11 Pro, all for $399.

That’s a tough price to beat, even in the Android space. A phone with a flagship processor now costs closer to $700, so Apple of all companies selling a phone with a new processor for $400 puts us firmly in a brave new world.

But what exactly are you getting for $400, and what other options should you consider?

This is Android Authority’s iPhone SE (2020) review.

About this iPhone SE review: I used an iPhone SE purchased by Android Authority over a period of seven days. It was running iOS version 13.4.1.

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A familiar face

iPhone SE in hand

  • 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm
  • 148g
  • 4.7-inch IPS LCD display
  • Touch ID fingerprint sensor
  • IP67 water and dust resistance
  • Lightning charging port

As you may have noticed, the iPhone SE looks a hell of a lot like the iPhone 8. And that’s because the shell of this phone nearly is an iPhone 8. The only way to tell the difference between the two devices is the Apple logo, which has been shifted from the top of the rear panel to the center, and the removal of the iPhone wordmark. Otherwise, the iPhone SE uses the same single camera, same 4.7-inch LCD, same Touch ID-enabled home button, and same IP67 aluminum chassis as the iPhone 8.

The smallish, 4.7-inch screen with monster bezels is no doubt going to be a polarizing factor for a lot of people. If you’re obsessed with huge, nearly borderless OLED panels, perhaps opt for the iPhone 11 Pro. But if you’re someone who actually wants a smaller screen — and doesn’t mind LCDs — the iPhone SE is the most compact option from Apple. Even with those massive bezels, you can still fit the entire phone within the display of the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

The small display and big bezels are sure to polarize users.

Speaking of that LCD: this one is very good, but certainly doesn’t match the incredible contrast levels of modern OLED displays. Because of the low maximum brightness, it was fairly difficult to see the screen when working on the roof on a sunny day. At the same time, the minimum brightness level is still too bright. OLEDs can physically turn off pixels and therefor get incredibly dim — something I missed while reading Reddit on the iPhone SE before bed.

Instead of Face ID, which is available to Apple’s iPhone 11 family, the iPhone SE sticks to the tried and true Touch ID-enabled home button. While I certainly miss Face ID, Touch ID works just as well in my opinion. This is especially true in a world where we need to wear masks every time we leave home. Fingerprint biometric authentication can be more useful than facial recognition under these circumstances.

iPhone SE lightning port 2

And that fingerprint sensor is very, very good. It didn’t fail on me once during the review period. Moreover, it makes things like app sign-in and online purchases a breeze. The home button also isn’t really a button — rather, it’s a sensor with incredibly good haptics that makes it feel like you’re pressing a button. This is some crazy good tech. I hope Android manufacturers can eventually get their vibration motors to be this good.

There’s no headphone jack in the iPhone SE, just like the iPhone 8. Instead, there are two sets of speakers on the bottom of the device. Overall, the speakers weren’t great. They got fairly loud but lacked separation and depth.

Overall, Apple’s industrial design for the iPhone SE remains impressive, even in 2020. The small display and massive bezels definitely look outdated at this point, but it makes up for it at least a bit with its tight tolerances and quality materials. The phone just feels good in your hand, despite how cliche’ that phrase may be.

Old body, new brains

iPhone SE back crop

  • Apple A13 Bionic processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 64 – 256GB storage
  • 1,821 mAh battery

While it probably seems like Apple is just rebranding old iPhone 8 stock, the SE is packed with Apple’s latest A13 Bionic processor. This makes it just as fast as the pricier iPhone 11 series and gives the SE access to features such as AI-enabled portrait mode and 18W charging. It also means the device will be supported via software updates for several years to come. The original iPhone SE from 2016, for example, is currently on the latest version of iOS 13. We’re confident the new SE will be supported for another four to five years at least. That’s an important factor when buying a modern smartphone.

That being said, if you were hoping for cutting-edge specs in any other department, you’re set to be disappointed. Because the iPhone SE is mostly a rehashed iPhone 8 with a new processor, it’s still got 3GB of RAM, 64GB of base storage, and a measly 1,821 mAh battery. I never found the RAM to be a problem due to the excellent RAM management of iOS, but 64GB is a bit tight on the storage side for me. I personally download a lot of music from Spotify and videos from YouTube. I would spend the $50 and upgrade to the 128GB model if you can afford it.

Since those other specs don’t make an incredibly impactful difference, the A13 Bionic Processor can really shine. It ran any app I threw at it without chugging, and I had no issues with performance. My friend Ryne Hager from Android Police even won his first game of Fortnite on this device and said the game felt smooth on this phone.

Just okay battery

iPhone SE back straight on

  • 1,821 mAh
  • 18W charging capable (5W brick in box)
  • Wireless charging

While Apple’s A13 Bionic processor undoubtedly helps the iPhone SE be more power-efficient than the iPhone 8, it’s hard to deny that it has a small battery. In fact, it’s the same as the iPhone 8, coming in at 1,821mAh. That’s less than half the capacity of many modern Android devices. Thankfully, iOS and the new processor together help the SE get through a full day.

iPhone SE battery life 2
iPhone SE battery life 1

On average, I got about four and a half hours of screen-on time per day, which, for my usage, translated to about 8:30am to 1:00am every single day. While consistent, it was certainly a bit lacking. Compared to phones such as the LG V60 and OnePlus 8 Pro, it’s hard to return to a battery this small. The larger iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max have killer battery life, but they come in at 3,046mAh and 3,969mAh, respectively. Those devices trade thickness and weight (and cost!) for that longevity.

The iPhone SE’s A13 Bionic chip gives it access to 18W charging — if you have the right brick. At 18W, it charges pretty rapidly — Apple rates it 50% in 30 minutes. With the included 5W charger, however, it takes a lot longer. It’s hard to stomach slow charging speeds when it’s becoming common to find Android phones with 25, 30, 50, and even 65W charging.

One thing I am exceedingly happy to see on this device is wireless charging. While it’s certainly not the 30 or 40W wireless speeds on high-end Android devices, just having wireless charging means I can set it on my charging pad overnight and be good in the morning.

iOS is iOS

iPhone SE screen vs iPhone 11 Pro

  • iOS 13

When choosing a smartphone, you have two options when it comes to operating systems: Android and iOS. Android undoubtedly allows for more customization and a variety of hardware, while iOS has tight integration with other Apple products and services and arguably better app support. Both interfaces primarily operate in the same way, with small quirks that set them apart.

For example, iOS forces you to keep all apps on your home screen. There is no app drawer. This is pretty annoying to me personally since I like to keep my home screen simple and uncluttered. Most iOS users store apps in folders, but I think folders look tacky.

iOS also doesn’t group notifications well, which can lead to a cluttered notification shade. You have to find and press the settings app if you want to access the settings in iOS. In Android, there are shortcuts to almost everything. For example, you can jump to the settings via an icon in the notification shade, which is available within most apps. Android also allows you to create widgets and shortcuts to your favorite apps. On iOS, everything feels like it takes a few extra taps.

If you’re coming from another iPhone, the SE will be extremely familiar.

That said, iOS has a lot going for it. For one, there is no third-party bloatware on iPhones. Apple is the only phone maker that sells its devices sans carrier and partner apps, such as MyVerizon, Netflix, or Facebook. The app ecosystem is rich, though there are some apps that are exclusive to Android. (I really, really miss Relay for Reddit.)

If you’re someone who’s used iOS and other Apple products in the past, switching to Android may be difficult. iMessage and FaceTime are killer messaging and video conferencing services that work seamlessly across iPhones, Macbooks, and iPads. Moreover, the massive popularity of accessories such as the Apple Watch and AirPods keep people locked in Apple’s closed garden.

But there’s one major thing that keeps people on the iPhone, and that’s the fact that no matter what iPhone you’re on, iOS is iOS. As long as your product is still supported by Apple, it will operate almost exactly the same as every other iOS device you’ve used, save extra features like more cameras, bigger batteries, etc. It’s familiar, settings are in the same place, and it works with all the other devices you already own.

This is why the iPhone SE is such an important product. While you won’t get the full-screen OLED panel, Face ID, multi-camera setup, and more that comes with the more expensive iPhones, you still get the exact same interface, app support, and accessory ecosystem. If you’ve been on an iPhone for years and want to stay with Apple but can’t afford an 11 Pro, the $399 iPhone SE gives you the exact same ecosystem as the 11 Pro.

Further still, the iPhone SE takes familiarity to the next level for people that feel comfortable with the iPhone 8 form factor. People like my own mother have expressed dismay at the idea of being forced to adapt to the gestures of the iPhone 11 series. This gives users an option to hard refresh their existing iPhones and keeps the user interface on their device truly consistent.

A surprisingly good camera

iPhone SE camera macro 2

  • 12MP rear camera
  • 7MP selfie camera
  • Rear video up to 4k 60fps
  • Front video up to 1080p 30fps
  • Portrait mode
  • No night mode

Cellphones have undisputedly been the biggest driving force behind the democratization of photography. The cameras in our phones get more advanced generation over generation, and camera quality has become a leading factor when choosing a smartphone.

Because the iPhone 8 came out three years ago, some were worried the SE would be three years behind in camera tech. After all, it does have the same 12MP sensor and lens setup as the iPhone 8. Fortunately, software and image signal processors (ISPs) play an enormous role in camera quality and can make even a mediocre sensor perform well. This is most notably shown with Google’s Pixel phones, which use the same sensors as everyone else but deliver superior results.

iPhone SE photo sample 5
iPhone SE photo sample 6
iPhone SE photo sample 7

The iPhone SE takes advantage of the A13’s ISP to capture great photos. Dynamic range seems to be very good on this device, though it can sometimes crush blacks a bit. Color and white balance were very accurate. In general, the white balance shifted more towards magenta, while the iPhone 11 Pro produced more of a green cast. The iPhone SE doesn’t oversaturate colors like a lot of phones we’ve tested, and nothing feels overly sharpened. That said, you can tell it’s a bit lower resolution once you start to zoom in.

iPhone SE photo sample 3
iPhone SE photo sample 1

One of the most notable updates to the camera is the addition of portrait mode. The SE can shoot portraits with artificial blur thanks to the neural cores in the A13, which have been trained to interpret depth in 2D images. While this is similar to how Google achieves portrait mode in its Pixel phones, it’s still slightly different. The iPhone SE doesn’t have dual-pixel autofocus — something that allows the Pixel 1-3 to see in stereo without two cameras. This means all segmentation is purely based on AI. This feature only works on humans in the default camera app.

iPhone SE camera sample selfie 3
iPhone SE photo sample 13

If you have a third-party app, however, you can use the neural cores to simulate depth in any 2D image. This doesn’t work as well on things like animals since the phone hasn’t been trained on them, but the tech is cool nevertheless. Because this is mostly software, it works with the 7MP front-facing camera as well. Selfies looked well-balanced in terms of color, albeit a bit soft when it comes to focus.

iPhone SE low light sample
iPhone 11 Pro low light sample

The one glaring issue with the iPhone SE’s photo capabilities is the lack of night mode. On the iPhone 11 series, night mode is built-in, bringing out detail in low light scenes. But with the SE, you’re stuck using the flash if you need to illuminate a scene.

The reason behind dropping night mode is a questionable one, since this is mainly dictated by the A13’a ISP. The SE even has optical image stabilization, so that shouldn’t be a reason to not include the feature. Regardless, you’ll have to upgrade if you want to see in the dark with your iPhone.

iPhones have always had some of the best video capabilities in any smartphone, and that remains true, even in the iPhone SE (2020). The A13 Bionic enables up to 4K 60fps capture to the phone. Alongside its great stabilization, the footage looks consistently great. I’m impressed.

What are you missing?

iPhone SE vs iPhone 11 Pro back

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about the new iPhone SE is what you’re missing by buying a $400 iPhone. The most obvious answer would be multiple cameras, Face ID, a bigger battery, and an OLED display if you’re comparing it to more expensive iPhones.

Put it up against modern Android flagships, and there are a few more differences. You won’t get super high-res cameras, you won’t get fast wired or fast wireless charging, you’re stuck with a 60Hz display, and you won’t get tight integration with Google Assistant.

iPhone owners can download Google Assistant from the iTunes App Store, but you have to activate Siri and then say “OK Google� to get it working. This is an awkward workaround. Given how much better Google Assistant is than Siri, it’s nice to have Assistant baked into the platform. Further, some smart home systems (including mine) are based on Google Assistant, which makes it hard to switch.

If you’re into customization, you’ll also be robbed of launchers and icon packs. Android is just more customizable in general, where iOS only really allows you to change your wallpaper.

In terms of power and performance, though, you’re not missing a lot. Sure, the iPhone SE doesn’t have as much RAM as a lot of Android phones, but it is much better at RAM management than Android is. Where Android needs about 6GB to skirt by without issue, the iPhone SE gets along fine with 3GB. And the iPhone 11 series gets much better battery life than the iPhone SE, primarily due to the larger, physically more massive batteries.

iPhone SE (2020) specs

  iPhone SE (2020)
Display 4.7-inch Retina HD
1,334 x 750
Touch ID via home button
Processor A13 Bionic
Storage 64GB/128GB/256GB
Battery Capacity TBA
Wireless charging
Cameras Rear:
12MP sensor with f/1.8 aperture

Front:
7MP sensor

IP Rating IP67
Software iOS 13
Colors Black, White, Product Red
Dimensions and weight 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm
148g

Apple iPhone SE review (2020): Should you buy it?

iPhone SE back slight angle

For $399, it’s hard not to recommend the iPhone SE. It has fantastic build quality, great cameras, and one of the fastest processors currently available. But this all comes with the caveat that you like iOS, and don’t mind the restrictions that come with it. If you do buy this device, I would suggest spending the extra $50 to upgrade to the 128GB storage option, as 64GB is a bit low, especially for a phone slated to last you three to five years.

While I would absolutely recommend this phone to iOS fans, it’s no secret that the Google Pixel 4a is expected to release soon. Considering the Pixel 3a launched with the same $399 price tag, the 4a will likely be a competitive option for those who want the best of Android for cheap. The $399 Galaxy A51 from Samsung is another great alternative that gives you a nicer screen and better battery.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, the OnePlus 7T is only $500 and offers a variety of cameras, great UI, and a fast 90Hz display. Or you can pick up a Google Pixel 4, which has just dropped to the same $500 price tag.

Spend a bit more, and you can pick up the OnePlus 8 for $700, which adds 5G connectivity and the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 865. A bit more still, and you could get the LG V60 for $800. And if you want to ball out, there are a plethora of great phones in the $900 plus range, like the Samsung Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8 Pro, and more.

You can buy the iPhone SE at major retailers and carriers, such as Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T.