iPhone SE (2020) review: What's old is new again

Apple iPhone SE (2020)
  • Apple iPhone SE (2020)
  • Apple iPhone SE (2020)
  • Apple iPhone SE (2020)
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Slick software
  • Surprisingly good camera
  • Water resistance and wireless charging

Cons

  • Small screen
  • Poor battery life
  • No headphone jack

Bottom Line

The new iPhone SE is an indulgent return to what was but a sobering reminder that even what’s old is new again has limits.

Would you buy this?

  • Price

    $ 749.00 (AUD)

Should You Buy The iPhone SE?

If you’ve traditionally been an iPhone person but haven’t got the money for Apple’s more pricey handsets or don’t want to deal with the potential hassle of changing to Android, the iPhone SE is going to be the obvious choice. 

Chances are, you probably already know whether this phone is for you. If you’re willing to spend a little more though, the iPhone 11 is going to provide a lot more bang for buck when it comes to features and battery life. If those are thrills you’re willing to live without, the new iPhone SE is probably the best mid-tier phone you’re gonna find. 

It’s the affordable, modern and essential iPhone you’ve always wanted - but that doesn't mean it's perfect.

Price when reviewed

In Australia, The iPhone SE is currently priced at AU$749.

Apple iPhone SE (2020) full review

Price

In Australia, the Apple iPhone SE  is priced at AU$749. 

You can grab it through any of Australia’s three major carriers on a variety of plans. Check out the widget below for the best iPhone SE plans through Telstra, Optus and Vodafone: 

Design - Look, Feel, Features and Camera

Apple’s new iPhone SE looks and feels like a blast from the past. 

Even if it runs on the same processor that powers last year’s iPhone 11, it’s difficult to keep that detail in mind when you gaze upon the vintage visage here. This thing doesn’t look like the first iPhone ever but it probably has a lot in common with your last iPhone than it does the last year’s iPhone 11 Pro

With the 4.8-inch Retina HD display as a centerpiece, the iPhone SE inevitably seems either dated or miniature compared to most of the modern Android and Apple smartphones out there. Take your pick. Are you dismayed by the rise of larger and larger screens? If so, the new iPhone SE's old-school form is probably going to thrill you.

iphone-se-2020-colors-100838694-orig.jpgCredit: Apple
iphone-se-2020-colors-100838694-orig.jpg

Personally, I found the smaller display cute at first but quickly found myself longing for the more generous screens on other smartphones. 

Where the design is unashamedly throwback, the spec-sheet here sits closer to the cutting edge than you might expect. In terms of features, the new iPhone SE genuinely raises the stakes for what a a sub-$800 phone can look like. It's got IP67 water resistance and wireless charging. Up until now, these things have been reserved for flagship and premium devices. In breaking that mold, the new iPhone SE does something that not even last year's Google Pixel 3a could accomplish.

The other big thing that the iPhone SE nets mid-tier buyers is an all-access pass to the iOS ecosystem. As with Apple's more expensive iPhones, the new SE can be used to set up and use an Apple Watch. You can sign up for iOS-specific services like Apple TV+ and Apple News. On their own, none of these are game-changers. However, taken together, they do add up to provide something of a unique software advantage that no Android phone can match. 

iphone-se-2020-100838919-orig.jpgCredit: Apple
iphone-se-2020-100838919-orig.jpg

Of course, there are some drawbacks to choosing Apple’s cheapest iPhone over their more expensive ones. Specifically when it comes to biometrics. The iPhone 11 supports Apple's FaceID tech. The new iPhone SE doesn't. Instead, it relies on Apple's older TouchID system through a fingerprint sensor. This is about as functional as you remember. 

It’s cute to have a home button again but, from both a security and ease of use perspective, this ends up feeling like something of a step backward. Still, if you find the idea of your phone scanning your face to be a little uncomfortable, it's unlikely to be a deal-breaker for you.

The other potential omission here is the absence of a headphone jack. Most smartphones playing in this price-range still have one and the new iPhone SE is undoubtedly hurt by Apple’s brand-wide approach of omitting the once-standard audio connector. 

Still, like the Google Pixel 3a, the camera is a big part of the pitch here. One of the big selling points for the new iPhone SE is that it’s a mid-tier phone with a flagship-quality camera.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Like Google, Apple’s strategy around smartphone photography hasn't just involved stacking more lenses on the back of their phones but developing machine learning algorithms that let you get better results out of more modest hardware. In plain language: the idea here is that your camera is smart and capable enough that taking a bad picture becomes more difficult than taking a good one.

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

To that end, the new iPhone SE only features a 12-megapixel (f/1.8) camera on the back but augments that hardware with the promise of the image signal processor and Neural Engine found in the A13 Bionic processor. It’s a good pitch and one that’s neatly reflected by the reality of the iPhone SE’s capabilities. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Despite what might seem like four year old hardware on paper, the new iPhone SE offers a fully-featured and generally-decent Portrait mode. Personally, I wouldn’t say it gets quite all the way to flagship in terms of camera quality but it gets far closer than arguably any other phone playing in the same price-range. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday | IDG

Sometimes, shots taken with the iPhone SE genuinely threw me in terms of how vividly colored and detailed they turned out. It definitely lagged behind more expensive devices and the Google Pixel 3a when it came to areas like low-light and zoom but for everyday, daylight situations, the iPhone SE’s camera lives up to the hype (even if it doesn’t quite live up to the high bar set by last year’s iPhone 11 Pro).

Performance - Specs, Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life

Specs

  • Processor:  A13

  • Operating System:  iOS

  • RAM: 3GB

  • Storage: 64GB

  • MicroSD slot: No 

  • Headphone Jack: No 

  • Fingerprint sensor: Yes

  • SIM: Single

  • Battery: 1821mAh

  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, 4G, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS

  • Rear Camera: 12-megapixel (f/1.8)

  • Front-Facing Camera: 7-megapixel (f/1.2)

  • Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm

  • Weight: 148g

Software 

The iPhone SE runs on the same version of iOS you’ll find on the more expensive iPhones with one key difference: it uses the older home button-centric navigation system. 

Rather than swipe upwards or sideways to swap apps, everything is controlled by the home button. It took a minute to remember how these user interface solutions worked. It took a couple of days before I found myself missing the more modern alternative available on other iPhones and Android devices.  

iphone-se-android-stacked-100842565-orig.jpgCredit: Michael Simon/IDG
iphone-se-android-stacked-100842565-orig.jpg

Nevertheless, the iPhone SE definitely benefits from a sense of future-proofing. It’s powered by a processor designed for a much more intensive device and so everything runs blisteringly fast here. 

Games like Call of Duty: Mobile and Legends of Runeterra ran incredibly smoothly on the hardware here - though the tall and chunky bezels on the screen often made the action feel a little cramped.

Benchmarks

  • 3DMark SlingShot Extreme (Metal): 4057

  • Geekbench (Single Core): 1329

  • Geekbench (Multi Core): 3003

  • Geekbench (Compute): 6469

Battery Life

Unfortunately, when it comes to battery life, the iPhone SE struggled. 

If you’re coming from something older like an iPhone 6, it won’t feel like too much of an improvement but if you’re used to the day and a half offered by many modern Android devices, it feels like a huge step backwards. Despite loving almost everything about this phone and what it represents, the battery life involved can’t help but feel like the iPhone SE’s Achilles heel.

iphone-se-2020-white-100838693-orig.jpgCredit: Apple
iphone-se-2020-white-100838693-orig.jpg

Even in the comfort of self-isolation and social distancing, the iPhone SE struggled to make it through a full day’s use. Run down with streaming video over Youtube, it took just 7 hours and 37 minutes for the phone to run down from 100% to zero. This is a worse result than other cheaper Android devices we’ve tested using the same method. 

The iPhone SE supports wireless charging via the Qi standard. 

The Bottom Line

It’s deliciously easy to break Apple’s latest flirtation with budget buyers down into straightforward math. An iPhone 11 processor plus an iPhone 8 design plus AI camera magic is probably going to equal a good time for those who don’t expect anything more.

Unfortunately, in 2020, I do expect more from a modern smartphone. As screens got bigger and battery life grew longer, the way that I used my phone expanded to make use of it. 

Relying on a device that runs against the grain of those trends chafed in a way I didn’t expect. If we’re talking smartphone essentials, the new iPhone SE hits almost every note. However, after a few weeks to sit with my thoughts on it, I suspect that many consumers care more about having more than just the necessities than they might care to admit.

I found myself more fascinated by what the iPhone SE represents than the experience it actually delivers.The iPhone SE is a sub-$800 phone that delivers in ways that no other sub-$800 phone can but its shortcomings leave it feeling a little outgunned. It’s an exceptional small-screen phone in a big-screen world. 

If that’s a caveat you’re willing - or thrilled - to pay in order for clean, future-proof access to the iOS ecosystem, the iPhone SE simply cannot be beaten. But for all its premium perks, the iPhone SE rarely satisfied my needs and expectations. It could do all the things I needed my phone to do but it couldn’t do all the things I wanted my phone to do.

The new iPhone SE is an indulgent return to what was but a sobering reminder that even what’s old is new again has limits. 

iphone-se-2020-hero02-100839861-orig.jpegCredit: Willis Lai/IDG
iphone-se-2020-hero02-100839861-orig.jpeg

 

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Read more on these topics: Apple, iPhone, iPhone SE
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