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The new iPhone SE is tricky to review not because it incorporates a lot of interesting new technology to test and explain, but because it does the opposite.
Literally nothing here is new. One could write a fairly comprehensive and accurate review in a single short sentence: Apple took an iPhone 8, gave it the iPhone 11’s processor, and is charging only $399 for it.
And yet it’s that last part, the affordable price, that makes it so interesting. For many millions of potential customers, a brand-new iPhone has remained out of reach. For so many others, their years-old iPhone is overdue for an upgrade but the new iPhones give them sticker shock.
This phone offers nothing at all to anyone who has an iPhone released in the last couple of years, but for its intended audience of iPhone 6 upgraders and “I got this basically free from my carrier” customers, the new iPhone SE is the most outstanding value since, well, the old iPhone SE.
iPhone 8 redux
At a glance, it’s hard to tell the iPhone SE from an iPhone 8. They’re exactly the same size with precisely the same button placement—iPhone 8 cases work just fine on the iPhone SE. There are small changes, like the way the iPhone SE’s front is all black no matter the back glass color, or the now-centered Apple logo on the back. In essence, though, this is an iPhone 8 on the outside.
It’s just like the iPhone 8 in most other ways, too. Both have IP67 water resistance. Both support wireless charging. The new phone has the same 4.7-inch Retina HD (that’s approximately 720p) LCD display, too.
You won’t really notice that the resolution is a bit limited by today’s standards, but you will notice it’s not quite as bright as newer phones. We measured a maximum brightness of 750 nits, which isn’t bad for a $400 phone, but the iPhone 11 cranked out 900 nits. In bright daylight, that makes a big difference.
If you’re a fan of small phones, you’ll enjoy the relatively diminutive size and featherlight weight of the iPhone SE. Every iPhone since the iPhone 8 has been bigger, and the rest of the smartphone industry has followed the same trend. Three years ago when it was new, we didn’t think of the iPhone 8 as especially small, but it’s one of the smaller phones today.
And of course, the iPhone 8 was the last iPhone (until now) to feature a Home button and Touch ID instead of an edge-to-edge display and Face ID. The last couple years of iOS development have focused on gesture control for Home-button-free iPhones, and it feels really weird to go back to using one.
If every iPhone you have ever owned has had a Home button, you’ll feel right at, well, home with the iPhone SE. It’s understandable that Apple would forgo the expensive TrueDepth module and edge-hugging display on a phone meant to cost only $399, but it still feels like a step back.
Unnecessarily high performance
The biggest difference between the iPhone 8 and the iPhone SE is the processor. The A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE is dramatically faster than the A11 in the iPhone 8.
Benchmarks for the iPhone SE show it to perform essentially the same as the iPhone 11. Single-threaded and multithreaded CPU performance are both about 30 to 40 percent faster than the iPhone 8 in most benchmarks. Our Geekbench 4 and 5 test results show just what we expect: the iPhone SE performs exactly on par with the iPhone 11, a phone that costs hundreds more. It’s faster than than nearly all Android phones in these tests, regardless of price.
Graphics performance takes a big step up, too. Depending on the application, it can be anywhere from 40 to 60 percent faster than the iPhone 8. Interestingly, while the older 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test delivered the results we expect (equal to the iPhone 11), the newer Sling Shot tests were quite a bit slower, though still faster than the iPhone 8. We’re not sure what causes this discrepancy (hardware or software?), but we ran the tests multiple times to confirm it. No matter—with a display resolution of only 1334×750, the GPU in the A13 is total overkill. It’s going to run any modern graphics-intensive game or application beautifully.
Machine learning is a whole lot faster, too. While the A11 Bionic in the iPhone 8 introduced Apple’s first Neural Engine, newer processors are several times faster at performing Machine Learning tasks. The A13 here is accompanied by 3GB of RAM—up from 2GB in the iPhone 8, but down from 4GB in the iPhone 11.
If you’re coming from an older phone, like an iPhone 6s or even the previous iPhone SE, you’re going to see a night-and-day difference in performance. Everything is going to fly. Let this sink in for a moment: Apple’s $400 phone is, in most respects, faster than the fastest Android phone you can buy at any price.
If there’s a shortcoming in the iPhone SE hardware, it’s that it has the same battery capacity as the iPhone 8, and essentially the same battery life. Our Geekbench 4 run-down test (with the display set to 200 nits) ran for 3 hours 37 minutes, just 20 minutes longer than the iPhone 8.
Mind you, this is running an intensive benchmark in a continual loop, and your actual day to day battery life will be a lot longer. I didn’t have trouble getting through a full day of regular use. On the one hand, it’s impressive to see the same battery capacity last just as long with such dramatically improved performance. On the other hand, the other iPhones, while more expensive, will last a lot longer on a charge.
A good enough camera
The iPhone SE has the same camera sensors as the iPhone 8—we think. Apple would not answer a direct question to confirm that, though it does have identical specs: the lone rear camera is 12MP with an f1.8 aperture and optical image stabilization, the front is a 7MP sensor with f2.2 aperture. The iFixit teardown seems to confirm that the iPhone 8 and iPhone SE camera modules are identical.
Apple prefers to focus on the “camera system,” which includes the image signal processor and neural engine of the A13 chip. It’s a legitimate point, as so much of smartphone image quality depends on the image processing handled by a variety of specialized parts of the processor.
As a result of the bump from the A11 to the A13, the iPhone SE produces much higher quality images than the iPhone 8, despite using what we believe are the same sensors and lenses. It can pull the iPhone XR’s trick of single-camera Portrait Mode on the rear camera, and for the first time ever on an iPhone, on the front camera as well. The iPhone X and later models do Portrait Mode selfies using the TrueDepth module that powers Face ID, but the iPhone SE is the first to do it with just a single standard front-facing camera.
It should be noted that both the front and back camera only perform Portrait Mode and Portrait Lighting in the Camera app when they detect a human face. Portrait Mode shots of your pets or inanimate objects are not available. But the phone is producing an estimated depth map, which means that third-party camera apps could conceivably give you portrait-like effects on any subject.
While the iPhone SE has the same powerful image processing as the latest iPhone 11, because it doesn’t have the same sensors it doesn’t produce results that are quite as good. Notably, it’s not as good in low light. The Night Mode and Deep Fusion features of the iPhone 11 are totally absent. In good light, the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE take remarkably similar photos. As the light gets worse, the iPhone 11’s superiority is clear.
You can take fantastic video with the iPhone SE, too—up to 4K at 60fps, or 1080p at 240fps. The detail, dynamic range, and clarity of video is far superior to any other phone in this price range.
The best feature is the price
The new iPhone SE is perhaps the least interesting iPhone to debut in years. It’s just the latest processor stuffed into an old iPhone 8, right? There’s nothing new to see here, and that makes it boring to Apple enthusiasts always hungry for the next insanely great thing.
But it’s precisely because Apple reuses existing parts that it is able to sell such a thoroughly decent new iPhone for only $399. You can pay $50 more to jump from 64GB of storage to 128GB, which is a good value and recommended. Years from now, you’ll be glad you did. A 256GB version is $549, which is not worth the cost.
This is a brand-new iPhone that costs about half of what an iPhone 11 does, or a third of the top-end iPhone 11 Pro Max. It’s inexpensive enough that many users will get one by paying something like $5 a month more on their carrier bill, or get it “free” with the purchase of another phone and a two-year agreement.
The value is off the charts. With the A13 inside, it’s faster than Android phones that cost twice as much. Photo and image quality is excellent for this price range. It will get software updates for years where similarly-priced Android phones will be lucky to get a single major Android update.
This clearly isn’t Apple’s absolute best iPhone, but it’s the best choice for many millions of users. It is Apple’s least interesting iPhone in years, and simultaneously, perhaps, the most important. It’s hard to overstate how big the market is for those who just want an affordable new iPhone that will last another four or five years, even if it doesn’t have every new fancy feature. We can only hope Apple doesn’t wait another four years to produce another new iPhone SE model.
I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.