The iPhone SE 2020 is built around one goal: to create a new iPhone for less money than ever, and it achieves that well. Starting from £419 for the 64GB variant you can have a brand-new handset from Apple – it’s one of the cheapest iPhones ever created and you can now get your hands on one.
The design of the phone is going to be familiar to anyone that’s used an iPhone recently – used in its original form of the iPhone 6 in 2013 but with iterative updates, the SE uses the iPhone 8’s body so you’ll have seen this 4.7-inch frame before, complete with bezels top and bottom and a home button with fingerprint scanner built in. It’s now seen as the ‘smaller’ iPhone form factor given the all-screen designs of the more recent models, and it’s both more lightweight and pocketable than anything from the iPhone 11 range.
It’s pleasingly water resistant, but does have some drawbacks thanks to the older design: it lacks a headphone jack at the bottom, and because the display technology is slightly dated it can suffer in bright light when you’re trying to watch videos or the like.
Apple might have stuck with the same design as the iPhone 8, but the innards are much improved – notably the new A13 Bionic chipset inside, which adds speed nearly everywhere and really does improve the performance over the older 4.7-inch models. It’s not quite at the level of the iPhones launched last year, but it’s not far off. That A13 chipset has improved the camera performance too, despite no discernible change to the specs of the sensor since the iPhone 8 (there’s just a single lens on the iPhone SE 2020).
It takes decent, bright photos that will please most people, although it doesn’t quite offer the same color reproduction or clarity as the iPhone 11 Pro Max, for example.
The portrait mode doesn’t work as well as on phones that pack a second, depth-sensing sensor for precise bokeh effects , and as a result you can be left with some odd-looking fringing around the edges of subjects. But overall the camera – and especially for the price – takes impressive pictures in most scenarios.
Battery life is probably one of the biggest issues I found with the iPhone SE 2020 – its OK for its size, it will probably get you a full day but you do have the option of wireless charging if it needs a top up.
One way of alleviating this issue is to invest in a fast charger. Anything with USB-C or 18W power delivery (such as the charger that comes in the box with the iPhone 11 Pro and is available for an extra £29 will charge the phone rapidly – we’re talking getting you from empty to over 50% in around 30 minutes.
However, don’t let that detract from the fact that the iPhone SE 2020 follows on from its predecessor by bringing you a new iPhone, with not a lot of compromise, for less money than you might expect.
While it doesn’t hit many heights in terms of power or performance, it more than offsets that by being the cheapest iPhone Apple has ever launched while still packing refined and useful hardware, making the new iPhone SE a splendid option for those either on a budget or just wanting to find an easy route into the Apple ecosystem.
Picking up the new iPhone SE , the first thing you’ll notice is how lightweight it is. Again, some might not notice the change if they’re coming from a smaller phone from 2016/17, but trust me: it could have been a lot worse, as the devices in the newer all-screen iPhone ranges are a lot heavier.
While the iPhone 8’s design might feel like an archaic choice for a new iPhone, it makes a lot of sense in the iPhone SE 2020 – and for some who don’t particularly care for the latest features, this more familiar design will be a lot more desirable. Lets take a closer look.
DESIGN & DISPLAY
The display on the iPhone SE 2020 might not be the most feature-rich, but it’s fine. Given the target market this phone is aimed at – those who want a new iPhone, but don’t want to spend a huge amount of money on one – there’s not really an expectation of a fancy OLED display here, you get a perfectly adequate LCD panel instead. The resolution of the iPhone SE screen might not be top-end (it’s far less sharp than more recent iPhones, around 720p), but it’s not something that’s really that obvious in most use-cases.
The only thing that I would like to see improved is the brightness of the display: in the years since the iPhone 8 launch the color and vividity of the screens on phones has improved hugely, and they appear brighter at default settings – and forcing the brightness right up has a strong (and negative) effect on the battery life.
PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE
The big change with the iPhone SE 2020 is the upgraded engine from the iPhone 8. While the external design is nigh-on identical, Apple has supercharged the insides, with an improved chipset running the show.
That extra power is designed to allow the new iPhone SE to rival the iPhone 11 range in terms of speed when flipping between apps, and editing snaps and video, and should also improve the camera performance (thanks to upgraded computational power from the new chipset).
Apple looks to have implemented some serious performance improvements while keeping the cost of this phone down, and that impression has been borne out in my experience with the iPhone SE: it matched the iPhone 11 Pro Max – the most powerful phone from Apple on the market – for speed when exporting an iMovie, and actually compressed a 1080p four-and-a- half minute video at an almost identical speed.
I compared it to the older iPhone 8 Plus with the same test, and when compressing and exporting a movie down to a smaller size, the iPhone SE 2020 managed the task so much quicker.
If you’re going to tax the phone to its limits, then the iPhone 11 Pro handsets are more able to handle graphically intensive tasks and apps – but even when playing more powerful games like Call of Duty Mobile, I didn’t feel the new iPhone SE losing any performance. The average user will notice little difference unless intentionally trying to tax the SE 2020.
What’s interesting is the way that the iPhone SE has been ‘angled’ by Apple in terms of power output. My benchmark testing showed that the newest iPhone doesn’t quite have the raw grunt or speed of the iPhone 11 range, suggesting that Apple is balancing power output with battery performance.
You can see the same thing on the iPhone 11 vs the iPhone 11 Pro – small differences in benchmark scores, likely in a bid to make sure each experience is tailored to different target users.
Those interested in the Pro model will want the absolute max power (which is why there’s a larger battery to compensate) but the more ‘regular’ user might be fine with more of a balance – the new iPhone SE also appears to have 3GB of RAM, rather than the 4GB the iPhone 11 is packing, again minimizing costs.
One very important thing to take note of is that the presence of the A13 processor means the iPhone SE will see software support for a few years which is great for the longevity of the device.
I experienced very little in the way of slowdown during my time with the new iPhone SE – apart from in the camera, where the phone occasionally took a second or two to process each image we took. That’s not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, but if you want to instantly check out a snap you’ve taken it takes the shine off somewhat.
In my view, the make-or-break feature for the iPhone SE – and so the key focus of this review – isnt so much the iPhone SE camera and how well it performs in day to day use – its more the value you get from the camera at the £400 price point compared to other phones. Given that there’s ‘old’ hardware on offer here, Apple has taken a bit of a gamble that it can improve photo quality using image processing powered by processor and software alone.
Before I go into more detail about the camera’s performance, let’s look at the hardware: the iPhone SE camera is basically using the same set of lenses, and megapixel count, as the iPhone 8, with a 12MP camera, a six-element lens and a sapphire glass cover.
Apple still haven’t confirmed the exact sensor that’s being used – so we do not know whether it had upgraded the hardware anywhere – but the same 12MP camera and f/1.8 aperture remains, so it seems that there’s very little change to the sensor.
|The iPhone SE also pulls off good Macro shots|
However, Apple has kept the same hardware specs for the ‘normal’ wide-angle lens on the iPhone range since the iPhone 8, but hugely improved the quality of the pics – which suggests the processor is doing a lot of the heavy lifting. So just how much difference does imbuing the iPhone SE with the same A13 Bionic chipset, complete with that improved image signal processor inside, make?
The short answer is: a lot. Put photos from the iPhone SE 2020 next to snaps taken with the iPhone 8 Plus, for example, and you can instantly see improved sharpness, more accurate color reproduction, and an overall ‘better’ photo whether taken in brighter or darker conditions.
Apple’s ‘tuning’ of images from the new iPhone SE – the way it thinks a photo should look – is interesting, with the processing appearing to follow in the footsteps of that in the iPhone 11 range, favoring a cooler-looking scene.
However, in a direct comparison with the best iPhone on the market, there wasn’t as much of a difference as the massive gulf in terms of price tag would suggest. You don’t get things like night mode (which is superb, and worth looking into if you’re considering the iPhone 11) or the additional ultra-wide and 2x zoom cameras.
In terms of the image quality you do get, the differences are small, but still there to see. Not all the tricks have come off – for instance, the depth of field capabilities on the iPhone SE aren’t as strong (due to the aforementioned lack of a depth-sensing lens). This means portrait mode doesn’t always quite work out the edges of the subject (and it can only manage to use the background defocusing on humans, not on objects).
The new iPhone SE camera will blur around the edges of a subject at times, meaning using one of the smart effects, like Stage Light Mono, look quite strange, with parts of the hair missing at the sides. It’s not terrible, but it’s not easy to get the smart-looking snaps Apple uses in its marketing.
While any phone that can algorithmically work out a subject using machine smarts alone is impressive, there’s a gulf in quality between a portrait mode photo taken with a phone with two-cameras compared to a single sensor.
Elsewhere, the low-light detail isn’t as robust, and the color reproduction is behind that of the behemothic iPhone 11 Pro Max
But when you consider the relative cost of the phones, and the fact that the new iPhone SE is about a third of the price of the 11 Pro Max, it’s easy to forgive some of these mild deficiencies, and instead be impressed that Apple has managed to improve things so well just by putting a new engine inside what is in many respects an old handset.
The front-facing camera, a 7MP affair, has also been given smarter capabilities: you’re able to take the aforementioned portrait mode pictures, meaning the background blurs away and you can arrest the world with only your dazzling features. There’s no ‘slofie’ (slow-motion selfie video) option here, and I can’t say we miss it – although that may just be because Im still slightly sickened by the invention of the word ‘slofie’.
The quality of the images is good – they’re sharp and clean, and even look decent in low-light too. Apple has applied its photography algorithms well here, and improved the capability of the front-facing camera to take smooth, well-lit photos.
In terms of video too, the overall power of the iPhone SE 2020 is as good as anything Apple is offering elsewhere in its lineup: you can shoot 4K video at up to 60 frames per second (fps).
The 60fps option should only be used in good light though, as movies will look dark in lower light. The slickness of the footage looks a bit odd – it almost looks too slick – but it gives a nicer look for fast-moving scenes. Putting it bluntly, the iPhone SE will give you the best video recording you can find on pretty much any phone for £400. Thats great.