Apple iPhone SE (2020) full review
Troubled times call for a different kind of technology, and - presumably through sheer luck rather than Nostradamus-like prediction - this spring Apple came up with exactly the kind of iPhone that the world was looking for.
The iPhone SE (2020) is a collection of compromises - an old design, a new processor, an old camera setup but new camera features - wrapped up in an appealing £419/$399 price tag. With the market the way it is right now, it's hard to see this device failing.
Commercially successful it almost certainly will be, but is it any good? In our in-depth review of the iPhone SE (using a review sample supplied by MobileFun) we run speed, battery and camera tests, try out its features and get a good feel for the design, and generally help you decide if this is the phone for you.
Design & build: Recycle path
A bunch of people who owned the last iPhone SE from 2016 would have really liked it if Apple had taken that old device and put new components inside. The 4in screen and petite chassis were the SE's USP, representing a design philosophy that's pretty much disappeared from both the iOS and Android sides of the aisle. Smartphone buyers with small hands don't have many options.
The new SE is not a straight copy of the old SE, but it is a recycling of a different sort. It reuses the design of the slightly more recent iPhone 8, which first went on sale in 2017 and almost overlapped with this launch - the 8 is actually replaced by the SE in Apple's lineup. So we've still got a Home button and some reasonably chunky bezels, but we're now looking at a 4.7in screen and a 148g chassis. (The old SE was just 113g.)
While it won't fit in the pocket as discreetly as the previous model, this remains a sleek phone that feels smooth and light in the hand. The curved edges are in this reviewer's opinion nicer to hold than the iPad Pro-style squared-off edges which were a feature of the old SE and are expected to reappear in the iPhone 12.
The new SE also shares the iPhone 8's ability to charge wirelessly, and its IP67 rating for water and dust resistance. That's weaker on the liquid side of things than the iPhone XS and upwards, which are rated at IP68, but should still be good for immersion in a metre of water for up to 30 minutes. (The old SE had no IP rating at all, and Apple made no claims about its water resistance.)
So overall this is an update, design-wise, but not a terribly radical one. We said earlier that the iPhone 8, whose design this copies, came out in 2017. But perhaps it's worth mentioning that the iPhone 8 was itself largely a copy (with some small tweaks) of the iPhone 6 from back in 2014. The new SE looks pretty old-fashioned for the newest iPhone on the market - which isn't necessarily a problem, but is worth mentioning for those who want to stand out from the crowd.
Let's talk a bit more about that 4.7in display - a display that will feel large to owners of the old SE but is tiny in comparison with any of Apple's all-screen handsets.
It's the standard Apple 'Retina HD' LCD offering. Which means a pixel density of 326ppi (the resolution is 1334x750), 625 nits brightness, 1400:1 contrast ratio and True Tone. You'll get far higher pixel density on any number of Android phones - the Sony Xperia XZ Premium currently holds the record with 807ppi but 400 or above is pretty much standard even on budget models - and the more expensive iPhones with a 'Super Retina' 458ppi.
There was this business a few years back where Apple claimed that 326ppi was the sharpest screen the human eye could appreciate at smartphone-holding range, and later developments - namely the fact that the company itself has given in and made phones with higher ratings - have made that claim look pretty sketchy. Nevertheless, don't get any ideas about the SE's display being anything less than sharp, bright and vividly colourful. It's an excellent screen, it just isn't quite up there with the very best.
It's also not an OLED. That's one of the more predictable compromises, since Apple doesn't even include an OLED with the iPhone 11 which starts at £729/$699. OLED screens offer deeper blacks, higher contrast and more vibrant colours than LCD, as well as consuming less power; but for now they are limited, at least in Apple's smartphone range, to the very upper end.
Speed testing: Power comes at a (low) price
So much for the parts that are old, or old-fashioned. Here's the part that's much newer: the processor.
The new SE comes with an A13 chip. That isn't brand-new, since it debuted with the iPhone 11 series in autumn 2019, but at time of writing it's Apple's most powerful mobile processor and an amazingly fast chip for such a cheap phone. On paper, even the most expensive Android phones haven't got anything to match it.
Before you get too excited, bear in mind that the A13 is here paired with only 3GB of RAM. (Apple doesn't reveal RAM figures publicly, but the secret got out as soon as the first teardown happened.) The other A13 iPhones all have 4GB of RAM.
We ran the SE through the Geekbench 5 general-speed test and found that it was well ahead of the (still available, and considerably more expensive) iPhone XR and all the other X-series iPhones, but noticeably slower than the 11-series models. That's the extra gig of RAM making itself felt.
If we switch to the older (and less demanding) Geekbench 4 app we can compare with older benchmarks and see the extent to which the new SE outclasses the iPhone 8:
In 3DMark graphics tests run by our colleagues on Macworld US, too, the SE demonstrates close to market-leading performance.
The SE's power will stand you in good stead for demanding apps and games, and means it will be capable of handling iOS updates and new features long into the future; on a subjective level, too, you'll simply find it an incredibly slick and fast phone to use. But the A13's Neural Engine has influence over other things: namely photography.
Cameras & photography: Bonus bokeh
The SE has a single 12Mp (f/1.8) lens on the rear capable of 4K video, and a 7Mp (f/2.2) lens on the front. Those specs are the same as the iPhone 8, which might seem like a disappointment. Given the importance of the camera to smartphone buyers, maybe this is why the price is so low.
But cameras are about a lot more than specs - or, sometimes, they are about specs you weren't expecting to be important. And the A13 chip and its Neural Engine make the new SE capable of far more demanding image-processing tasks than the 8.
For a start, the new iPhone SE gets Portrait Mode - Apple's name for the bokeh effect where the subject is in focus but the background is blurred - even though this is traditionally reliant on multiple lenses. As on the iPhone XR (which also has a single rear-facing camera lens), this software-based version of Portrait Mode is limited to human subjects only, so bear in mind that arty shots of vases of flowers/abstract sculptures/pets will not be possible in this way.
In testing it proved to be slightly less accurate than glassware-based versions of the effect.
The shot below has both kids nicely in focus, with potentially tricky feathery hair mostly handled well (except for one lock at the back right that's dropped completely into the background) and a good strong blur on the background, but one scooter handle is starting to drift out of focus; the iPhone 11 Pro recognised that the lock and scooter handle were part of the subject and kept them in focus.
An unexpected side effect of the two phones' glassware setup is that you have to get much closer to do Portrait Mode on the iPhone SE, presumably because of its lack of a telephoto lens. This was actually a bit inconvenient, and makes it much harder to do arty candid shots of your kids without turning it into a "Let's take a portrait!" moment.
We would add, however, that the accuracy of the SE's Portrait Mode was still very good overall. Funnily enough it's a lot better in the finished shot than when lining up the shot: the live rendering of the effect is afflicted by blurred edges that mostly clean up in processing.
Selfie Portrait Mode
Portrait Mode using the selfie camera was less impressive. The feathery hair that the rear-facing camera coped with well was rendered messily - not disastrously so, but visibly. It looks just a little unreal, like it's been created using special effects. Which, in a way, it has.
In this regard, however, the SE is on more even ground with rival handsets. No iPhone has twin lenses on the front (at time of writing!) so they all rely on software interpolation to create the bokeh effect.
Subjectively I would say I prefer the way the 11 Pro handled bokeh selfies, but it's a close-run thing. The blurring does feel messier on the SE; the 11 Pro just seems a bit more decisive about drawing a line between subject and background, and cutting things off at that point.
The shots below have been cropped in, so the messiness is more pronounced:
The A13's Neural Engine also allows for what Apple calls "Next-generation Smart HDR", an AI-based image-processing tech that is vastly more sophisticated than the Auto HDR in the iPhone 8 and plain HDR in the old iPhone SE. This is designed to deal with difficult scenarios such as complex or variable lighting conditions by scanning the image and intelligently finding the best settings for each area.
We did our best to fox the Smart HDR by taking shots of subjects against bright lighting, or of mixed light and shade, but it managed to handle everything we threw at it. Have a look at the following shot, for instance, where the brightly sunlit leaves in the foreground and the shaded soil and undergrowth are all rendered with good detail. Our only quibble is that a couple of flower clusters have come out a touch too luminous, like they're glowing.
Unfortunately timed weather conditions mean we haven't had a chance to use the SE's camera in offensively bright conditions, which is where Smart HDR will really earn its corn. But our experiences with the feature in the iPhone 11 Pro (which is based on the same processor, albeit with more RAM) suggest it will produce consistently high-quality results.
Night Mode and low-light performance
It's a bit of a surprise to discover (given that they share the A13 processor) that the iPhone SE doesn't get Night Mode, the feature in the 11-series iPhones where the handset detects the conditions and gets you to hold the exposure for longer. Night Mode is awkward to use but can produce good results in very challenging conditions.
Why do we miss out? The SE may well be up to it, but Apple wants to keep a few things exclusive to its flagship phones.
Regardless of the reason, the lack of Night Mode meant the SE couldn't compete with the 11 Pro for low-light photography. Its efforts aren't terrible, but (for understandable reasons) they are much murkier and slightly noisier.
Here's the iPhone SE's attempt to shoot some books in a room in late afternoon with the curtains closed:
And here's the 11 Pro, under exactly the same conditions but with Night Mode, showing how it's done:
The SE seems subjectively slightly worse for noise, but the 11 Pro suffers from the blurring that comes from shooting without a tripod. It's hard to avoid some degree of shake when using Night Mode freehand.
Battery performance: Standard issue
The SE's battery is specced at 1,821 mAh, same as the iPhone 8. That compares with some other models as follows:
- iPhone SE (2016): 1,624 mAh
- iPhone 8: 1,821 mAh
- iPhone 8 Plus: 2,691 mAh
- iPhone SE (2020): 1,821 mAh
- iPhone XR: 2,942 mAh
- iPhone 11: 3,110 mAh
Don't assume that those numbers equate directly to battery life; the larger battery units generally have larger or higher-resolution screens to power. But all iPhones are not created equal, and whereas Apple claims the iPhone SE (2020) is good for around 13 hours of video playback, the XR is rated at 16 and the iPhone 11 is predicted to last 17.
My subjective experience of the SE's battery performance was okay: fine, but not brilliant. It was reliably able to last a day of moderate usage away from the mains, which is the benchmark for a lot of users, but you could guarantee it would ask me about Low Power Mode at some point in the evening.
I will add, too, that my colleagues on Tech Advisor did not find the battery to be fine; they found it to be bad. This may be because they are used to the bigger batteries of Europe's mid-range Android handsets, or they could have got a bad sample, but they're not the only reviewers to be disappointed by battery performance.
Prolonged gaming could certainly be an issue. A solid two hours of Apple Arcade games (such as Beyond Blue, above) sliced the SE's reserves from 50 to 13%; at that rate you'd be out of power a mere five and a half hours after unplugging, so gamers should bring a spare battery pack or plan to take a break from time to time.
Gaming is an unusually demanding activity for a phone, however, and those following more commonplace usage patterns (some apps, some games, some email, some web browsing, and some time where it's sitting on the table doing nothing) can expect the SE to last a lot longer.
In Macworld US's Geekbench 4 battery rundown tests - another test that's far more demanding that 'normal' everyday usage, but is useful for comparisons - the iPhone SE's performance was only a little better than the 8, which is absolutely to be expected given its specs, price tag and size, and Apple's own claims. But don't expect a huge leap forward.
The SE is capable of both wireless and fast charging, same as the iPhone 8, but it's important to emphasise that neither technology is supported by the bundled accessories. You don't get a wireless charging pad as standard (one may be included in a carrier bundle) and the supplied charger is only 5W; the SE's fast-charging feature supports up to 18W, so it's worth getting at least a 12W iPad charger so you're seeing some of the benefit.
We drained the SE's battery and charged from zero using the bundled 5W adapter. After 30 minutes it had got to 29%; when we repeated the test it managed 30%.
That's not terrible for a 5W adapter. Something like 30-40% would be considered respectable for an Android handset using its (more powerful) bundled charger, and the old X-series iPhones would fall short of 20%. But if we're realistic this is a case of the SE's battery simply being small and not taking all that long to fill, even at a low rate of charge.
Price/where to buy
The iPhone SE (2020) starts at £419 in the UK, and $399 in the US. Here's the full pricing:
- iPhone SE (2020, 64GB): £419/$399
- iPhone SE (2020, 128GB): £469/$449
- iPhone SE (2020, 256GB): £569/$549
We regard this as an excellent deal. In iOS land, certainly, there's nothing to touch it. The nearest for price is the iPhone XR, which (at £629/$599) costs an extra £210/$200 and has a processor that's a year older - although its screen is a lot bigger. The iPhone 11 is genuinely out of the SE's league (read our iPhone SE vs iPhone 11 comparison for more information) but at £729/$699 it's a lot more expensive.
It generally takes a while for prices on Apple products to drop significantly. For all the latest discounts as they appear, read our roundup of the best iPhone SE deals.
The iPhone SE (2020) comes in at a price tag that in Apple world has to count as a bargain; to be honest, if an Android offered this performance for £419/$399 we'd be calling it superb value for money.
Processing and graphics performance are close to market-leading, which comes as little surprise considering the quality of the SE's A13 Bionic chip. Only the 11-series iPhones, which combine the A13 with 33 percent more RAM, do better in these tests.
The cameras don't look like much on paper, with single lenses front and back and uninspiring megapixel counts, but the A13 works wonders here too, delivering good-quality bokeh (albeit slightly less accurate than the glassware-based Portrait Mode on the 11-series iPhones) and the ability to handle complex lighting conditions.
Battery performance is a trifle disappointing, but Apple has been completely straight about that: you're getting the iPhone 8 battery, pretty much, and it outlasted that device by roughly 20 minutes in a demanding test. It's fine. It's not brilliant, it won't last multiple days, but it's fine.
So the real compromise is the design. It feels like Apple has been making this phone over and over again for about a hundred years - or, in reality, since 2014.
I could tell you the design is a classic (it is) and that the phone looks great and feels good (it does) but there's really no denying that this is an old-fashioned handset. The bezels are thick, space is wasted above and below the display, a 16:9 aspect ratio feels dated, and the screen-to-body ratio is woeful for a smartphone in 2020.
If you're unwilling to part with the Home button, though, this is perfection.