Apple may be known for many things, but being budget-conscious has never been one of them. While the previous iPhone SE felt like a corner-cutting exercise, this 2020 revision offers an incredible amount of bang for your buck. But how does it stack up against the other budget options in our best smartphones (opens in new tab) guide?
At $300 cheaper than the standard iPhone 11 (opens in new tab), it’s the kind of device many will be able to add to existing payment plans with minimal charge, while also entering the realms of an impulse buy for those looking for a phone that supports iOS. Despite that price gap, the iPhone SE 2020 offers the same excellent A13 Bionic chip that powers both the iPhone 11 and its premium brother, the iPhone 11 Pro (opens in new tab), making it a future-proofed device that can run anything you can throw at it – all for under $400.
iPhone SE review: Design and styling
- Available in White, Black, and Red
- Classic design
If you’ve used an iPhone with a home button before now, you’ll feel right at home. Formerly the trademark of an iPhone, it returns here and that’s not surprising – much of the iPhone SE’s design is an exact copy of the older iPhone 8 (opens in new tab). That means the classic home button is also a TouchID sensor for fingerprint unlocking, and it’s a haptic button too – so it doesn’t click, and offers a subtle vibration instead. That should help it last longer.
With a glass and aluminum design, the iPhone SE is surprisingly light. In fact, if you’re used to one of the more expensive iPhones, you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll have to check your pockets to make sure it’s still there.
That’s backed up by the phone’s size. By limiting the display to a 4.7-inch size, it’s now the smallest iPhone you can buy. Finally, the iPhone SE is water-resistant to 1 meter for 30 minutes, as well as dust resistant. If you knock a glass of water over it, it’ll keep on running.
iPhone SE review: Battery Life
- Fast charging offers 50% of battery life in 30 minutes but requires an extra adapter
- Smaller chassis means a smaller battery
While the iPhone 11 offered a staggering increase in battery life, the iPhone SE returns to business as usual. You’ll still get a day’s worth of usage out of the phone, while it won’t be gasping for a charger by the end of the day with casual use, playing games through Apple Arcade or taking plenty of photos or videos could see you needing to switch on.
Much of that is due to the smaller profile of the phone meaning there’s less space for a battery, but it’s a little disappointing that the A13 Bionic chip doesn’t help the phone run more efficiently – although we’d argue that the undoubted power it brings is a fair trade-off.
iPhone SE review: Screen and audio
- 4.7-inch display
- No headphone jack, but good stereo speakers
The iPhone SE shares the iPhone 8’s display, and it does feel small in comparison to the more edge-to-edge displays found on the iPhone 11 range. Whether that appeals to you is likely to be a matter of taste, but it does make the device much easier to use with one hand.
It’s still a Retina display with a pixel density of 336ppi, the same as the iPhone XR, and it offers decent brightness and continues Apple’s excellent track record of color accuracy. That means if you’re looking to watch YouTube, Netflix, or Disney Plus, it’ll be more than up to the task as long as you aren’t watching in direct sunlight.
In terms of sound, the iPhone SE’s aren’t the loudest you’ll find, and once again there’s no headphone jack. A pair of EarPods are included in the box that connect to the phone’s lightning port, but Apple would much rather you plump for a pair of AirPods instead.
iPhone SE review: Camera
- One 12MP lens on the back, one 17MP lens on the front
- No Night Mode
The iPhone SE’s camera module is formed of just one lens, losing the multiple choices for photos that iPhone 11 and 11 Pro owners enjoy, but it holds its own by offering plenty of features.
For one, the 12MP sensor offers Smart HDR, optical image stabilization, and portrait mode with multiple lighting options built-in. It’s also capable of recording 4K video, and slo-mo video, too.
The biggest disappointment here is the lack of Night Mode, a feature that made its debut on the iPhone 11. Its absence here makes taking a photo in low-light conditions a gamble and feels bizarre given early reports suggest this is an iOS-based restriction. Here’s hoping a firmware update eventually unlocks this functionality.
The 7MP front-facing camera also offers portrait mode and multiple lighting modes, as well as HDR. If you’re currently in the midst of endless Zoom and FaceTime meetings, it’ll more than do the trick.
iPhone SE review: Software and assistant features
- iOS remains secure and stable
- Siri lags behind many assistants
As we noted in our iPhone 11 review, iOS 13 has grown into a solid release for Apple, and when it runs on the A13 Bionic chip in the iPhone SE, it feels buttery smooth.
iOS 13 adds a dark mode, revamped photos and reminders apps, a swipe-based keyboard, and comes preinstalled on the iPhone SE.
As solid as iOS 13 is, Siri continues to feel increasingly adrift of other smart assistants. With limited responses to many seemingly standard questions and a penchant for spending a fair amount of time looking something up only to ask you to repeat your question, Siri pales in comparison to Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.
Here’s hoping iOS 14 brings a much-needed facelift to Apple’s assistant – especially given they were one of the first to jump on the emerging trend.
iPhone SE review: Security
- TouchID works well
- Sign in with Apple prevents websites from accessing your data
While other Apple phones (and some tablets) have moved to FaceID technology to unlock them, the iPhone SE returns to the classic TouchID.
Embedded in the home button, unlocking the phone is as easy as resting your thumb or finger on the home button. Don’t worry, if you’re wearing gloves you can still opt for your passcode instead.
Setting up TouchID is simple when booting up the phone for the first time, and even though it’s been a few years since the technology debuted, it remains strangely magical.
As an added bonus, iOS 13 lets you sign in to websites using your Apple ID to prevent them from harvesting your data or pestering you with emails. In fact, it’ll even create a ‘spoof’ address that those nuisance emails go to so that your actual inbox remains clear.
Should you buy the iPhone SE?
If you’re not likely to take plenty of photos and are after a small device, the iPhone SE (2020) is an easy recommendation. In fact, at the price point, it blows similarly affordable Android phones out of the water in terms of both performance and compatibility. It's also super easy to use, which makes it one of the best smartphones for seniors (opens in new tab).
If you’re looking for a larger screen and a better camera, as well as a much more current design, however, we’d have to plump for the iPhone 11.