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Apple iPhone SE 2020 Review

In 2020 it is common to see two, sometimes three models of a phone in the same family. Usually, you’ll find a standard model with a Plus or a Pro, and occasionally you’ll see a Lite, or, more recently, an Ultra. But the iPhone SE is none of these. Officially, the “SE” in the iPhone SE stands for Special Edition. But maybe it makes more sense that it stands for Small Edition because it is currently the smallest iPhone you can buy although it is not smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro, the large bezels, and the large home button. This is our Apple iPhone SE 2020 Review.

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Last updated on August 7, 2020 1:02 am

What makes the SE special is the fact that it uses Apple’s latest chip, the A13 Bionic. This gives the iPhone SE many of the same features as the much more expensive 11 Pro, all for $399. That’s a price to beat, even in the Android space. A phone with an advanced processor now costs almost $700, so of all the companies that sell a phone with a new processor for $400, Apple puts us firmly in a brave new world.

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Specifications

iPhone SE 2020 Specs
Price:$399/£419
CPU:A13 Bionic
Storage:64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Display:4.7 inches (1334 x 750)
Rear camera:12MP (f/1.8)
Front camera:7MP (f/2.2)
Video recording:4K video up to 60 fps
Water resistance: IP67
Battery life:Up to 13 hours of video playback
Wireless charging:Yes (Qi)
Fast charging:Yes via optional 18W adapter
Size: 5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches
Weight: 5.22 ounces

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Design and Display

As you may have noticed, the Apple iPhone SE 2020 looks a lot like the iPhone 8. That’s because the shell of this phone is almost an iPhone 8. The only way to see the difference between the two devices is the Apple logo, which has shifted from the top of the back panel to the middle and removing the iPhone’s logo. Otherwise, the iPhone SE 2020 uses the same single camera, the same 4.7-inch LCD, the same Touch ID-enabled home button, and the same IP67 aluminum chassis as the iPhone 8.

The small, 4.7-inch screen with sample rings will undoubtedly be a polarizing factor for many people. If you’re obsessed with huge, almost borderless OLED panels, maybe choose the iPhone 11 Pro. But if you’re someone who wants a smaller screen – and doesn’t mind LCDs – then the iPhone SE is Apple’s most compact option. Even with those huge bezels, the whole phone still fits on the iPhone 11 Pro Max display.

Speaking of that LCD screen: this is very good but doesn’t match the incredible contrast levels of the latest OLED displays. Because of the low brightness, it was quite challenging to see the screen while working on a sunny day. At the same time, the min brightness level is still too bright. OLEDs can physically disable pixels, making them incredibly weak – something I missed reading Reddit on the iPhone SE before bedtime.

Instead of Face ID, which is available for Apple’s iPhone 11 family, the iPhone SE sticks to the tried and true Touch ID-activated home button. Although I miss Face ID, in my opinion, Touch ID works just as well. This is true in a world where we have to wear a mask every time we leave the house. Fingerprint biometric authentication is more useful than facial recognition during these circumstances.

And that fingerprint sensor is quite good. It didn’t fail me once during the evaluation period. Besides, it makes things like app sign-in and online purchases a breeze. The home button isn’t a button either – it’s more of a sensor with incredibly good haptics that makes you feel like you’re pressing a button. This is some crazy good technique. I hope Android manufacturers will eventually be able to make their vibration engines that good.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 Review

There’s no 3.5mm jack in the iPhone SE, just like in the iPhone 8. Instead, there are two sets of speakers at the bottom of the device. Overall, the speakers weren’t great. They became quite loud but had no separation and depth.

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

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Software

When choosing a phone, you have two options when it comes to OS: Android and iOS. Android undoubtedly provides more customization and a variety of hardware, while iOS has tight integration with other Apple products and services and demonstrably better app support. Both interfaces work mainly in the same way, with little peculiarities that distinguish them.

For example, iOS force you to keep all apps on your home screen. There’s no app tray. For me, this is pretty annoying, because I like to keep my home screen organized and straightforward. Most iOS users store apps in folders, but I think folders look tasteless.

iOS doesn’t group notifications well either, which can lead to a messy notification shadow. You need to find and press the Settings app to access the settings in iOS. Whereas, in Android, there are shortcuts to almost everything. Like, you can jump to the settings using an icon in the notification hue, which is available in most apps. Android also lets you create widgets and shortcuts to your favorite apps. On iOS, it feels like a few extra taps are needed.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 Review

Still, there’s a lot to do for iOS. First of all, there’s no third-party bloatware on iPhones. Apple is the only phone manufacturer that sells its devices without carrier and partner apps, like MyVerizon, Netflix, or Facebook. The app ecosystem is rich, although some apps are exclusive to Android.

If you’re someone who’s used to the iOS and other Apple products in the past, it can be challenging to switch to Android. iMessage and FaceTime are the best messaging and video conferencing services that work seamlessly on iPhones, Macbooks, and iPads. What’s more, the enormous popularity of accessories such as the Apple Watch and AirPods keeps people trapped in Apple’s closed garden.

But there’s one crucial thing that keeps people on the iPhone, and that’s the fact that iOS is iOS, no matter which iPhone you’re on. As long as Apple supports your product, it works almost the same as any other iOS device you’ve used, allowing you to store additional features like more cameras, larger batteries, and more. It’s familiar, settings are in the same place, and it works with all the other devices you already own.

That’s why the iPhone SE is such an outstanding product. Although you don’t get the full OLED panel, Face ID, multi-cameras, and more that comes with the more expensive iPhone models, you still get the same interface, app support, and accessory ecosystem. If you’ve been on an Apple iPhone for years and want to stay with Apple, but you can’t afford an 11 Pro, the $399 iPhone SE gives you precisely the same ecosystem as the 11 Pro.

What’s more, the iPhone SE raises awareness to a higher level for people who feel comfortable with the iPhone 8 form factor. People like my mother have expressed displeasure at the idea of being forced to adapt to the gestures of the iPhone 11 Series. This allows users to refresh their existing iPhone hard and keeps the user interface on their device truly consistent.

Hardware and Performance

While it probably looks like Apple is renaming the old iPhone 8 stock, the SE is packed with Apple’s latest A13 Bionic processor. This makes it as fast as the more expensive iPhone 11 series and gives the SE access to features such as AI-enabled portrait mode and 18W fast charging. It also means that the device will be supported via software updates for several years to come. The original 2016 iPhone SE, for example, is currently on the latest version of iOS 13.

We are confident that the new SE will be supported for at least another four to five years. This is an essential factor when buying a smartphone. That said, if you were hoping for advanced specifications in another department, you would be disappointed. Because the iPhone SE is primarily a remanufactured iPhone 8 with a new processor, it still has 3GB of RAM, 64GB of base storage, and a drizzly 1,821 mAh battery.

I’ve never found RAM a problem because of iOS’s excellent RAM management, but 64GB is a little tight on the storage side for me. I 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 specifications don’t make an incredible difference, the A13 Bionic Processor can shine.

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Camera

Mobile phones have undeniably been the most significant driving force behind the democratization of photography. The cameras in our phones are becoming more sophisticated generation after generation, and the quality of the cameras has become an essential factor in the choice of a smartphone.

Because the Apple iPhone 8 came out three years ago, some feared that the SE would be three years behind in camera technology. After all, it has the same 12MP camera and lens setup as the iPhone 8. Fortunately, software and image signal processors (ISPs) play an enormous role in the quality of the camera and can even make a mediocre sensor perform well. This is especially noticeable on Google’s Pixel phones, which use the same sensors as all the others but deliver superior results.

The iPhone SE uses A13’s ISP to take great photos. The dynamic range seems to be very good on this device, although it can sometimes crush blacks a bit. The color and white balance were very accurate. In general, the white balance shifted more to magenta, while the iPhone 11 Pro produced more of a green hue. The iPhone SE doesn’t have oversaturated colors like many phones we’ve tested, and nothing feels overly sharp. That said, you can see that the resolution is a bit lower once you start zooming in.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 Review

One of the most notable camera updates is the addition of portrait mode. The SE can create portraits with artificial blurring thanks to the neural cores in the A13, which are trained to interpret depth in 2D images. While this is similar to the way Google achieves portrait mode in its Pixel phones, it’s something else. The iPhone SE doesn’t have dual-pixel autofocus – something the Pixel 1-3 can see in stereo without using two cameras. This means all segmentation is based purely on AI. This feature only works on people in the standard camera app.

However, if you have a third-party app, you can use the neural cores to simulate depth in any 2D image. This doesn’t work as well on things like animals, because the phone isn’t trained for that, but the technique is cool anyway. Because this is mainly software, it also works with the 7MP front-facing camera. Selfies looked well balanced in color, albeit a bit soft when it comes to focusing.

The only noticeable problem with the photo capabilities of the iPhone SE is the lack of night mode. Night mode is built into the iPhone 11 series, bringing out details in low light. But with the SE, you’re stuck with the flash when you need to illuminate a scene. The reason for dropping night mode is questionable, as the A13’a ISP mainly dictates this. The SE even has OIS, so that should not be a reason not to record the function. Anyway, 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 a smartphone, and that remains true, even in the iPhone SE (2020). The A13 Bionic makes it possible to capture up to 4K 60fps on the phone. Besides the excellent stabilization, the footage also looks attractive. I am impressed.

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Battery Life

While Apple’s A13 Bionic processor undoubtedly helps make the iPhone SE more energy efficient than the iPhone 8, it’s hard to deny that it has a small battery. It’s the same as the iPhone 8, with a capacity of 1,821mAh. That’s less than half the capacity of many modern Android devices. Fortunately, iOS and the new processor together help the SE for a whole day. On average, I have about four and a half hours of screen-on time a day, which translates to about 8:30 to 1:00 a day for my use.

Although consistent, it was a bit missing. Compared to phones like the LG V60 and OnePlus 8 Pro, it’s hard to return to a battery that’s so small. The larger Apple iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max have longer battery life, but they come to 3,046mAh and 3,969mAh, respectively. Those devices trade thickness and weight for that long life. The iPhone SE’s latest A13 Bionic chip gives it access to 18W charging – if you’ve got the right brick. At 18W, it charges pretty fast – Apple rates it 50% in 30 minutes.

With the 5W charger included in the box, however, it takes much longer. It’s hard to swallow slow charging speeds when it’s common to find Android phones with 25, 30, 50, and even 65W charging. One thing I am particularly happy to see on this device is wireless charging. While it certainly isn’t the 30 or 40W wireless speeds on high-end Android devices, the mere fact that I can charge wirelessly means I can put it on my charging pad overnight and be fine in the morning.

Price and Configuration Options

The release date for the iPhone SE 2020 was Friday, April 24 (with pre-orders going live the week before), so now you can get your hands on Apple’s latest handset if you fancy some low-priced iPhone action. It’s for sale in the US, UK, Australia, and several other markets around the world. The price of the iPhone SE starts at $399/£419/AU$749/Rs 42,500, which means it’s the same price in the US as the original iPhone SE (but higher in the UK).

The base model of the iPhone SE 2020 comes with 64GB storage, with 128GB and 256GB of models also available at a higher price. The 128GB costs $449/£469/AU$829, while the 256GB costs $549/£569/AU$999. In the US, Apple is offering the new iPhone SE at $16.62/month through the financial plan or, if you trade in something like iPhone 8, just $9.54/mo or $229 – although if you upgrade the original iPhone SE or iPhone 6, you only get $30 for the full price of the device.

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Conclusion

For $399, it’s quite hard not to recommend Apple’s latest offering, the iPhone SE. It has excellent build quality, great cameras, and one of the fastest processors currently available. But all of this comes with the caveats that you like iOS, and don’t pay attention to the limitations that come with it. If you buy this device, I suggest you spend the extra $50 upgrading to the 128GB storage option, because 64GB is a bit low, especially for a phone that will last three to five years.

While I would recommend this phone to iOS fans, it’s no secret that the Google Pixel 4a is expected to be released soon. Given that Pixel 3a launched with the same $399 price tag, the 4a will probably be a competitive alternative for those who want the best of Android for cheap. Samsung’s $399 Galaxy A51 is another excellent alternative that gives you a more excellent screen and a better battery. If you can spend a little more, the OnePlus 7T is only $500 and provides a variety of cameras, great UI, and a faster 90Hz display. Or you can pick up a Google’s Pixel 4, which has just dropped to the same $500 price tag.

Spend a little more, and you can get the OnePlus 8 for $700, which adds 5G connectivity and Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 865. Spend a bit more, and you could get the LG V60 for $800. And if you want something more premium, you can go for the Samsung Galaxy S20, OnePlus 8 Pro, and more.

That’s it for our iPhone SE 2020 review.

9 Total Score
Our Verdict

Apple's 2020 iPhone SE is one of the best values in smartphones today. With great performance, a surprisingly capable camera set, and years of software updates, it's hard not to like Apple's most affordable offering.

PROS
  • Super-fast performance
  • Great build quality
  • Affordable price
CONS
  • Battery life could be better
  • Old screen technology
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