iPhone SE 2020 review: The mid-range iPhone we've been waiting for
The iPhone SE is back, though it's still just called the iPhone SE – there's no model number or "2.0" suffix here. Four years after the first "Special Edition" made its debut, Apple has once again shaken up the market with a cut-price iPhone, and we've been testing it out to see exactly where it sits in the smartphone market in 2020.
If you've avoided the iPhone SE 2020 news so far, this phone has much more in common with the iPhone 8 from 2017 than the original iPhone SE from 2016. Many of the parts are very similar to the iPhone 8 (as confirmed by iFixit), and the design is more or less identical, which is by no means a problem.
What has changed is the addition of the Apple A13 Bionic chip, the same super-fast, top-of-the-line processor in the iPhone 11 handsets launched in September. This is essentially an iPhone 8 with seriously upgraded internals, and a reduced price – the 64 GB iPhone SE will set you back US$399 while the 64 GB iPhone 8 was available for $449 just before the new iPhone SE appeared.
It's a smart move from Apple, there are a few reasons not to buy an iPhone, but the price of admission is a major one, with the cheapest iPhone 11 starting at $699. The iPhone SE isn't a rock-bottom budget model by any means, but it's affordable enough for a gadget that you'll be using daily for a couple of years at least.
Factor in the still-on-sale iPhone XR ($599 and up), and Apple has a lot more price points covered with its iPhones than it did a few years ago. The iPhone XR debuted in 2018, and does give you a bigger screen and Face ID (which we must admit we now generally prefer over the fingerprint-based alternative).
That A13 Bionic processor upgrade really shows. This phone flies along no matter what you're doing, from video editing to gaming (remember it has fewer pixels to push as well, with a smaller screen). This is a phone that will last you for years in the performance department, and be eligible for years of iOS updates as well.
As the cheapest iPhone in 2020, the iPhone SE does of course make compromises, chief among them that rather dated look: thick bezels and a Touch ID Home button. Sure, this is a well-built, fine-looking smartphone, but it doesn't have the wow factor of an iPhone 11 or a Samsung Galaxy S20, even if that's probably a trade-off most people are willing to make for the substantial saving in cost.
The screen is LCD rather than the OLED found in the premium iPhones, which doesn't make a massive difference but is noticeable at times with movies and games. The brightness and contrast are just a touch inferior compared with the iPhone 11 screens, and getting the best displays in the business are one of the reasons you might prefer to pay top dollar instead.
The screen is also small by 2020 standards. The small-handed and the price-conscious will no doubt fully embrace the 4.7-inch display, but a word of warning – if you're used to the 6-inch and above screens that are common on today's phones, it can take some time to readjust. Videos, webpages, text chats and documents feel cramped, especially at first.
Again, quite possibly a compromise you're willing to make for a $399 iPhone, but it is a compromise nonetheless. If you're already using a small-ish phone, or indeed an iPhone 8, then of course the jump will be much less jarring. The iPhone SE does offer True Tone, so the warmth of the screen can automatically adjust to match the ambient lighting.
As for the camera, again it's essentially the same module that we saw in the iPhone 8, a single-lens, 12-MP camera with optical image stabilization but no optical zoom. It's maybe here that you're making the biggest sacrifice by going budget with your iPhone choice. You would expect a triple-lens, top-end iPhone to take better pictures on the whole, and indeed that's the case.
We weren't too discouraged by the snaps that the iPhone SE managed to take in our time with it, however. iPhones have always scored highly in the camera department, and the iPhone SE rear camera is perfectly capable of getting some fine shots, especially when the lighting is good. The days of truly disappointing phone cameras, whether from Apple or anyone else, are fortunately well and truly behind us (more sample shots can be found in the gallery).
Thanks to that faster processor, the iPhone SE can do some fancy photo effects, including augmented reality filters, background blur for Portrait mode, and enhanced HDR. It's also more comfortable shooting 4K video than the iPhone 8 was, and it's actually an excellent little video camera.
As the lighting dims, the camera starts to struggle and show some noise in its photos, though we still got some usable pictures, just not outstanding ones. It's perhaps here that the Pixel 4a (and presumably Night Sight) might still have an advantage at this price point, if Google releases it as expected at some point over the next few months.
Battery life is a key concern for most of us, and Apple says the iPhone SE will play video for 13 hours straight before it runs out of juice. After an hour of watching Netflix, we noticed the battery drop from a full charge to 90 percent, at full brightness and medium volume, which suggests something closer to 10 hours.
As for regular use, the iPhone SE usually had plenty of battery life left in the tank at the end of a typical day – as much as 30-40 percent sometimes – though brand new phones tend to have very good battery life across the board. Whether that will start to drop as the months go by remains to be seen, as there's just a 1,821-mAh battery packed in here.
Other points to note are the IP67 waterproofing, so it'll take a few splashes but only a brief full submersion, and the support for wireless charging. Fast charging is supported, but not with the 5-W charger you get in the box, so you'll need to upgrade your charger for the speediest charging times. There's no 5G here, but the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard is supported.
Every smartphone is a balance between price and everything else. It's fair to say the iPhone SE will feel like a downgrade for anyone used to carrying a flagship phone in their pocket. It's also fair to say that if you've got $400 to spend on a phone, then the iPhone SE is one of the best ways to spend it in 2020.
Few phones at this price can match the polish and certainly the performance of the iPhone SE, though whether it can win over users committed to Android is another matter, and that's the other big factor here: the operating system. Switching between Android and iOS isn't exactly easy, so the iPhone SE is going to have a lot more appeal for those who want to replace an obsolete iPhone than someone currently using an Android handset.
Taken on its own though, the iPhone SE offers a fantastically well made, fantastically capable phone for $400, with some compromises that we can definitely live with. Unless you're wedded to Android, it's just about the best there is at this price.
The iPhone SE is on sale direct from Apple now, for $399 (64 GB of storage), $449 (128 GB of storage), or $549 (256 GB of storage). Your color options are black, white and red.
Product page: iPhone SE