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iPhone SE review: Apple’s cut-price smartphone king

Apple’s latest iPhone SE is a surprise cut-price marvel that revives a classic iPhone design and trounces every other mid-range phone in the process.

The GBP419 iPhone SE takes the important bits of the iPhone 11 – the processor and software – and shoehorns them into the body of an iPhone 8 from 2017. You get a phone design largely unchanged from the iPhone 6 of 2014, with traditional home button, but the performance and longevity of a brand new Apple phone for GBP310 less than an iPhone 11.

It’s a tantalising proposition, competing on price with a load of mid-range Android smartphones, including Google’s Pixel 3a, but with top-level iPhone performance and service.

2020 iphone se review

The iPhone 8’s design was tired in 2018 and it is no different today. The 2020 iPhone SE’s 4.7in screen is tiny by today’s standards but the phone’s body isn’t, because it eschews the modern all-screen design in favour of the old large bezels and chunky chin and forehead.

Simply put, there’s a lot more phone than the small screen suggests. Those looking for a truly small phone such as the previous generation 4in iPhone SE will be disappointed.

The dimensions and materials are an exact match for the iPhone 8. Glass front and back, aluminium sides, a Touch ID fingerprint scanner in the home button, a Lightning connector in the bottom but no headphone socket nor Face ID.

At just 148g, the iPhone SE is super light – only 1g heavier than chief rival the Pixel 3a – and small by most modern metrics. The iPhone 11 is considerably bigger, at a full 12.5mm longer and 8.4mm wider, and weighing 194g.

Still the iPhone SE feels as solid and well made as other iPhones, and I can comfortably use it with one hand.

The iPhone SE doesn’t support 5G.

Specifications

  • Screen: 4.7in Retina HD (LCD) (326ppi)

  • Processor: Apple A13 Bionic

  • RAM: 3GB

  • Storage: 64, 128 or 256GB

  • Operating system: iOS 13

  • Camera: 12MP rear camera with OIS, 7MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: esim, LTE, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5, Lightning, and GPS

  • Water resistance: IP67 (1m up to 30 minutes)

  • Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm

  • Weight: 148g

Same top performance as an iPhone 11

2020 iphone se review

The iPhone SE has the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11 and performs similarly in day-to-day usage, which is a very good thing. It means that the iPhone SE should be a top-performer for years to come.

This iPhone may only cost GBP419, but it will beat practically everything else in raw processing power. Sadly that performance comes at the price of battery life.

The iPhone SE lasts 27 hours between charges, making it from 7am on day one until 10am on day two – enough to reliably see the phone reach bedtime before needing to be plugged in. That’s one hour longer than the iPhone 8, but eight hours short of the iPhone 11.

Three hours of the 27 was spent on 4G, the rest connected to wifi. The screen was on for three hours, including 30 minutes of video, plus four hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones and about 20 photos.

Charging the iPhone SE with the included 5W charger is seriously slow, reaching just 55% in 60 minutes and taking two hours 45 minutes to hit 100% from zero. With the GBP29 18W USB-C charger and GBP19 USB-C to Lightning cable that ships in the box with the iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone SE hits 80% in an hour and a full charge in two hours 15 minutes. Any USB-C power delivery chargers of 18W or higher will achieve the same results and can be had for one-third of the cost. The phone has standard Qi wireless charging too.

Apple slows charging to a crawl above 90% meaning that it’s probably not worth trying to charge the iPhone SE much beyond. It’s also worth noting that iOS 13 includes a battery optimisation feature, which is designed to learn your habits and only charge the battery past 80% just before you need it helping to preserve it in the process.

Sustainability

2020 iphone se review

Apple does not give a rated lifecycle for the iPhone SE’s battery, typically 500 full-charge cycles, but it can be replaced for GBP49. The phone is generally repairable, with the out-of-warranty service cost being GBP136.44 for the screen or GBP276.44 for other damage. Repair specialists iFixit gave the phone a repairability score of six out of 10.

The iPhone SE has 100% recycled tin in the solder of its main logic board, 100% recycled rare earth elements in is vibration motor and at least 35% recycled plastic in multiple components. Apple is also using renewable energy for final assembly of the phone, and breaks down the iPhone SE’s environmental impact in its report.

Apple also offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products.

iOS 13

2020 iphone se review

The iPhone SE comes out of the box with iOS 13.4.1, the same version of iOS running on Apple’s more expensive iPhone 11 series and every other currently-supported phone.

The main differences between iOS on Apple’s more expensive phones and the iPhone SE is simply the lack of gesture controls. Instead the iPhone SE has the same button-based controls as older phones with Touch ID. It’s quite jarring and slow moving from gesture controls used on practically every modern smartphone back to a home button, but it will immediately be familiar to all those with an Apple smartphone pre-iPhone X.

You get the same dark mode, enhanced quick settings and enhanced privacy options as the iPhone 11.

What’s particularly notable in this mid-range price bracket is that Apple provides software support for its smartphones for far longer than most, averaging around five years from release. The best of even high-end rivals cap out at about four years, but phones in this price bracket are often supported for far less. It means you can safely use the iPhone SE for longer as you will continue to get important security updates as well as new features via iOS version updates.

Camera

2020 iphone se review

The iPhone SE has a single 12-megapixel rear camera that is essentially identical to that used in the iPhone 8, but with the processing and smarts of the iPhone 11. The combination is really quite good.

In good light it’s very difficult to tell the difference between photos shot on the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 Pro – a phone costing more than twice as much. Images are well balanced, with good detail and colour accuracy. In middle-to-low light, noise and grain are more prevalent and images can be fairly dark. The iPhone SE lacks Apple’s Night Mode, which is a shame, but has the firm’s portrait mode for people only. Video at up to 4K at 60fps is also very good, particularly at this price point.

Overall the rear camera is arguably only beaten by Google’s amazing Pixel 3a at anywhere near this price point for still shots, and you have to spend a considerable amount of money to beat either one.

The selfie camera is very good too, producing highly detailed and well-exposed shots in reasonable lighting, only getting a bit soft and dark in poor light.

Observations

2020 iphone se review
  • The haptics on the iPhone SE are simply fantastic

  • There’s no headphone adapter in the box, but there is a set of Lightning EarPods

  • The stereo speakers are surprisingly good

  • You can’t expand notifications through a long-press on the lockscreen like you can with every other iPhone, which is annoying (you can on notification pop-ups though)

  • The iPhone SE is too short for some wireless charging stands

Price

The iPhone SE is available in black, white or red costing GBP419 with 64GB of storage, GBP469 with 128GB and GBP569 with 256GB.

For comparison, the iPhone 11 costs GBP729, Google’s Pixel 3a costs GBP299, the OnePlus 8 costs GBP599 and Samsung’s Galaxy S20 costs GBP799.

Verdict

We don’t typically associate Apple with tremendous value, but that’s what the iPhone SE is.

What was tired in 2017 with the iPhone 8 has been revitalised in 2020 with a dramatic price cut and top-of-the-line processor. The combination is extremely potent.

You get an iPhone for a much more palatable GBP419. The tried and trusted design is dated, but perfectly functional and easy to manage at this size. You get a good screen, OK battery life, a camera that’s hard to beat at this price, wireless charging, water resistance and a build quality second to none.

But the icing on the cake is the A13 processor and industry-leading software support that should see the iPhone SE receive at least five years of software updates. That means you can buy the iPhone SE and still be safely using it five years later. Not even Google’s Pixel 3a will manage that.

It’s not perfect, of course: the battery life could be longer, the screen could be bigger or the body smaller, there’s no headphone socket, no Face ID and it takes ages to charge. Lovers of tiny 4in iPhones such as the previous iPhone SE will be disappointed by the size. But these issues are very easy to overlook at this price.

The 2020 iPhone SE is the phone to buy for people who don’t care about phones, who just want a phone to work well, not be too big and last a long time. At GBP419, the cheapest iPhone totally crushes the competition. If you don’t want to spend GBP600-plus, this is the phone to buy. Period.

Pros: lowest-cost new iPhone, five-year-plus software support, A13 Bionic, wireless charging, good camera, top performance, easy to handle, water resistance, Touch ID, amazing value

Cons: battery life could be better, no headphone socket, no zoom camera, no Face ID, dated design, very slow charging

2020 iphone se review

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