Apple iPhone SE (2020) full review
It’s a topsy turvy world when the new iPhone costs half as much as the new OnePlus phone, but 2020 is just full of surprises. At its best the iPhone SE is the best value iPhone in years, at its worst it feels like a phone out of time, and either way it represents a very serious departure from Apple.
Design - Dated from day one
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: the iPhone SE may have launched in 2020, but it was designed in 2014. And you can tell.
Apple has reused parts from the 2017 iPhone 8 to make the new SE - it’s essentially an iPhone 8 with a new processor, truth be told - but the 8 itself was the last gasp of a design language introduced with the iPhone 6 three years earlier. That makes this a design that’s almost seven years old.
The SE gets away with it from behind, where a simple glass finish - available in black, white, or red - is dominated by a central Apple logo and a single camera lens. Familiar curved edges wrap around the metal frame, leaving space for a few buttons, the alert slider, and a Lightning port for charging - though no room for a headphone jack, which helps it achieve IP67 water-resistance.
It’s small too, which is very welcome in the age of bloated flagship builds. At 7.3mm thick and just 148g this feels lightweight, compact, and comfortable, which is perhaps the best thing it has going for it.
It’s on the front that things get bad. Inch-high black bezels sit above and below the display, hiding within them the speaker, selfie camera, and the once-iconic Apple Home button. That gives you Touch ID for security, but in turn you miss out on Face ID.
The screen itself is a slightly cramped feeling 4.7in LCD, and with a resolution of 1334x750 it’s some way short of Full HD. Colour range and brightness are decent, and with a screen this size it can get away with the lower resolution for the most part, though you’ll notice the difference if you watch much video from your phone.
I’ll be blunt: the iPhone 8 looked dated when it used this design, and three years later the SE looks like a relic. If you’re coming from an older iPhone and are used to it, or really desperately don't want to give up the Home button, then it’s fine.
But cheap as the SE may be by Apple standards, you could spend half this - or even less - and get an Android device with a bigger, brighter, better display that wraps right to the edges of the front of the device.
There are other reasons to opt for the SE of course, but it is - quite literally - hard to look past the design and display. I love having a compact iPhone again, but after using phones with full screen displays I just can’t imagine sticking with a phone with bezels this bad, and you shouldn’t have to either.
Specs & performance - A-grade
If the iPhone SE’s exterior is dated, the interior is anything but. The most exciting part of the phone by far is its processor: the A13 Bionic, the exact same chip you’ll find inside the flagship iPhone 11 range.
That’s Apple’s fastest chipset yet, and it’s really unexpected to find it powering the otherwise mid-range SE. This is definitely an area where Apple’s near-complete control of its component chain gives it an edge - there’s no way an Android manufacturer would be able to fit the equivalent Snapdragon 865 chip inside a comparably priced handset.
The result is a phone that’s almost - almost - as fast as the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, and capable of handling just about anything you might want a phone to do. Games run smoothly, multitasking is fluid, and this thing should keep running nicely for a few years yet - including updates to the latest iOS versions for a while yet.
Teardowns suggest slightly less RAM here, which impacts multitasking a touch, though thermals have a bigger impact. The smaller design has clearly had an impact on the SE’s cooling, and so it gets hotter faster than its bigger siblings, which then forces the A13 to slow down.
That means the SE is as powerful as the 11 in short bursts, but loses steam in the long haul, so you will see slowdown in longer gaming sessions. It also means it just gets toasty - even 20 minutes of Instagram and WhatsApp, or a simply phone call, is enough to leave the corner of the phone uncomfortably hot to the touch - which does give me some concern when it comes to the long term performance of the phone, especially since I've experienced a few app crashes or shutdowns already.
Camera - Point-and-shoot
The camera is where that A13 Bionic really comes into its own. The iPhone SE actually packs the exact same 12Mp, f/1.7 rear camera as the old iPhone 8, but pairing it with a faster processor and improved software unlocks a whole lot more potential from it.
That’s because half of smartphone photography these days comes down to image processing, and the A13 is pretty darn good at that. Shots out of the main lens here are crisp, colourful, and honestly almost as good as what the iPhone 11 can put out.
The small 12Mp sensor inevitably limits dynamic range, but other than that photos out of the SE look fantastic, with a balanced colour profile - perhaps slightly on the cooler side - and some really pleasing shots, even at macro range.
There are, of course, caveats. The obvious one is versatility - with only one rear lens you don’t get a telephoto or wide angle. Most of the time that’s fine, but every now and then I did miss the option. Still, given the choice I’d absolutely rather take one great lens over three middling ones, and Apple was wise to follow in the footsteps of the Pixel 3a in prioritising a single lens at this price.
The other limitations are - oddly enough - computational, which is confusing given that the processor is the star here. For one there is a portrait mode, but much like the iPhone XR it’s limited to people only, so can’t handle the depth effect for animals or objects.
Just as inexplicably there’s no night mode at all. Combined with the fact that the sensor can’t handle low-light well at all on its own and this is really a daytime camera - even slightly dim light leads to a pretty startling loss of detail and colour fidelity.
The A13 comfortably handles portrait and night modes on other iPhones, so it’s hard to see why they’re not included here, unless Apple has intentionally hamstrung the SE camera to encourage more committed photographers to keep paying extra for the 11 series.
The end result is a camera that’s as good as any out there for basic shots in decent light during the day, but runs into trouble the rest of the time.
The 7Mp selfie camera does a pretty good job of things, and also supports portrait mode. It’s really about as good as you’ll find on any iPhone, so there’s not much to worry about here.
As for video, this remains one of Apple’s biggest strengths, and the SE is no exception. It offers 4K video recording at 60fps, with stabilisation, which you won’t find in many other phones at this price point, and the quality is as good as you’d expect from Apple right now.
Battery - Blast from the past
If the display is the obvious, in-your-face flaw in the SE’s design, then the battery is the subtler issue that might cause big problems in the long run. Apple says it lasts ‘about as long as the iPhone 8’, and trust me when I say that isn’t a compliment, especially considering it only has to power a 720p screen.
Brand-new, fresh out of the box, the iPhone SE will just about last a day if you’re a light user. If you’re a heavier user you’ll need to top it up during the afternoon. Either way you’ll probably want to carry a power bank with you wherever you go, just in case, and things will only get worse as you continue using the phone.
Again, over in Android-land this just isn’t the case, and most similarly priced phones will last a day comfortably, and often two. Apple was clearly limited by its decision to save money by re-using the slim iPhone 8 chassis, which simply doesn’t leave much space for battery.
This is back to the bad old days of short iPhone batteries, which is a real shame.
Things are better when it comes to charging at least. The SE supports up to 18W fast charging - which isn’t bad really - though in true Apple form it only ships with a slow 5W charger. You’ll have to pay extra to unlock the phone’s true charging capabilities.
There’s also support for Qi wireless charging, which is genuinely impressive for the price. This is about the same speed as the default wired charging, but the convenience is hard to resist so long as you have a wireless charger or two about the place.
Price - Good value (for an iPhone)
The compromises in the iPhone SE make more sense when you get to the price. Starting from £419/$399, this is either the cheapest iPhone yet or pretty damn close to it depending on which country you’re in.
It’s worth noting that this is for the base 64GB model. This isn’t really enough storage, so I would strongly recommend anyone to look instead at the £469/$449 128GB model - you’ll thank me later.
The £569/$549 model with 256GB is by contrast overpriced, so unless you’re planning to shoot a lot of 4K video there’s really no reason to spring for this capacity.
Unsurprisingly the SE is offered by pretty much every network and carrier. Our review unit was supplied by Vodafone, but you can also get it on contract from O2, EE, Carphone Warehouse and more in the UK, or Verizon, T-Mobile, or AT&T if you're in the US.
The next cheapest iPhone is the £629/$599 iPhone XR, which offers a slicker design but is powered by an older chipset. Next up is the £729/$699 iPhone 11, which pairs that same design with the A13 and an extra camera lens. Either way there’s a pretty steep price jump from the SE, which really is affordable by Apple standards.
The comparison gets a little murkier on the Android side. The £399/$399 Pixel 3a is a pretty similar offering to the SE all told, but the likes of the Xiaomi Mi Note 10, Samsung Galaxy A70, and Oppo Reno 2 offer upgraded battery, displays, designs and often even cameras, all for a comparable price.
The iPhone SE is a phone devoted to function over form, prioritising raw performance and camera capabilities over design or aesthetics (though battery life gets caught in the crossfire).
That makes it a very un-Apple iPhone, but that’s unlikely to help it win over Android users, who can still get a lot more for less by resisting the Apple allure - with the exception of the impressive inclusion of a top-tier processor at a mid-range price, along with luxuries like wireless charging and waterproofing.
It’s hard to entirely forgive the choice to save money on a budget display and dated design, and you’ll be committed to carrying a battery pack with you, just like in the bad old days. Still, if you want a reliable camera, fast performance, and guaranteed iOS updates for years to come without breaking the bank then this is the iPhone for you.
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Apple iPhone SE (2020): Specs
- A13 Bionic processor
- 3GB RAM
- 64GB/128GB/256GB of storage
- 4.7in (1334x750 at 326 ppi) display, 625 nits brightness, 1400:1 contrast, True Tone
- 12MP (f/1.8) rear-facing camera with flash, Portrait mode, 4K video
- 7MP (f/2.2) front-facing camera, Portrait mode
- IP67 water and dust resistance
- 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm