The iPhone SE is one of Apple’s most popular models. It’s easy to see why: it’s by far the least expensive, but it’s still “new.” With the first two iPhone SE models, introduced in 2016 and 2020, Apple took a somewhat old iPhone body and simply swapped out the internal components for its latest-and-greatest system-on-chip. The concept is a hit–many users don’t feel the need for all the latest “bells and whistles” they just want an affordable, fast iPhone that will be supported and updated for years.
It is no surprise, then, that the third-generation iPhone SE follows the same pattern. In fact, if anything is odd about it, it’s that Apple still hasn’t updated the design, sticking with the same large bezels, home button, and Touch ID of the iPhone 8 instead of something still old but not quite so old, like the iPhone XR.
The third-generation iPhone SE shares the same design as the second-generation model, which is to say it’s the same body as the iPhone 8. It has the same rounded edges, large bezels above and below the display, Home button with Touch ID, and a single camera on the rear along with a single FaceTime camera on the front. There’s no ultra-wide or telephoto camera, and no Face ID.
To some, the return of the home button and Touch ID is an undisputed win. There are those who have never gotten adjusted to using Face ID and swiping up from the bottom of the display to return to the home screen, or who would be unwilling to make that change from their existing (now ages-old) iPhone. It does come at a cost, though: the display is necessarily much smaller in relation to the size of the phone. It’s still just 4.7 inches, whereas an iPhone 12 mini manages to fit a 5.4-inch display in a smaller body precisely because the display can stretch to the edges of the device.
The new iPhone SE even comes in the same colors as the model it replaces: Black (“Midnight”), White (“Starlight”), and ProductRED.
Speedy A15 inside
As Apple always does with the iPhone SE, it has given budget users its most advanced processor: the A15. Specifically, this is the same version of the A15 features in the iPhone 13, and you can read about its performance in our iPhone 13 review. The iPhone 13 Pro has a version of the 15 with five GPU cores instead of four.
The third-gen iPhone SE still starts with a minimum of 64GB of storage, with 128GB and 256GB options available.
The A15 affords a number of benefits over the A13 in the second-generation iPhone, beyond simply CPU and GPU speed or storage limits. It has a much more powerful image processor, so while the camera specs and optics haven’t really changed (it’s still and f/1.8 12MP rear camera and f/2.2 7MP front camera), you’ll take much better photos and videos. The Neural Engine responsible for accelerating machine learning and AI code is more than twice as fast as that in the A13.
The processor is more efficient, too. Along with improved battery chemistry, Apple says this leads to even longer battery life. Apple claimed the second-gen iPhone SE would give you up to 13 hours of video playback (offline) or 8 hours streamed. Those numbers are now up to 15 hours and 10 hours, respectively.
5G for the masses
For some, the biggest draw of the new iPhone SE will be its 5G compatibility. Prior to this release, if you wanted a 5G-capable iPhone you had to spend at least $629 on an iPhone 12 mini. While that phone has a number of features to recommend it over the iPhone SE, it’s still $200 more and has a slightly slower A14 processor.
You should know that the iPhone SE does not support mmWave 5G frequencies. Those are the super short-range (one block or so), ultra-fast (over a gigabit per second) frequencies that are new to the 5G specification. Rather, it supports only the sub-6GHz frequencies that are used by LTE networks as well. 5G on sub-6GHz networks typically delivers much better performance and reliability than LTE, especially near the edge of cells, though.
A better camera
The iPhone SE’s camera has the same single 12MP wide camera with an f/1.8 aperture as its predecessor, but it brings some improvements. Most notably, it has Deep Fusion, Apple’s computational processing system that uses machine learning to do “pixel-by-pixel processing of photos, optimizing for texture, details, and noise in every part of the photo.” It also has Smart HDR 4 for photos, an improvement over the prior model’s “next-generation” Smart HDR and the Photographic Styles feature that offer several preset options (rich contrast, vibrant, warm, and cold) that intelligently adjust the scene rather than applying a filter over the whole photo.
What’s missing from the iPhone SE, however, is Night mode. A feature since the iPhone 11, Night mode offers a dramatic improvement in low-light photos. Apple theoretically could add it in a later software update but that’s extremely unlikely.
A slight price bump to $429
The second-generation iPhone SE started at $399. As with the other 5G iPhones, however, that starting price has jumped $30 to $429. You’ll be able to pre-order the phone on Friday, March 11, and it will ship and be available in stores a week later on March 18.
In other words, the new iPhone SE is essentially identical to the two-year-old model it replaces, but with a two-years-newer processor and everything that comes along with it. For those looking for the latest and greatest iPhone, its features will come up woefully short. But those more concerned with price and longevity will be thrilled, and that’s a substantial market.