iPhone SE (2020) Review: The Good, The Bad And The Worst

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Last year, when Apple launched its iPhone 11 lineup of devices, they introduced three new variants, which ranged from the standard model to the Pro, and then the Pro Max model. All of the models share the same design language, as well as the same chipset.

However, the newly launched iPhone SE isn’t the same. The “SE” in the model name stands for “Special Edition,” but you also may unofficially call it the “Small Edition” because of how small the iPhone SE is compared to its more expensive counterparts.

Although the dimensions of the new iPhone SE are just a bit smaller than the iPhone 11, the bezels around the screen and the return of the home button results in less screen size.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the new iPhone SE is the A13 Bionic chipset. It is Apple’s top of the line mobile processor right now, and also found in the iPhone 11 lineup of devices, which are much more costly than the iPhone SE.

Apple is selling the iPhone SE at a retail price of ₹42,500 (~$560 in USD) in India. Although it is quite expensive, the iPhone SE is still the cheapest offering from Apple’s current lineup of devices.

However, there are several competitive Android flagship smartphones at this price, albeit with less raw processing capabilities compared to the iPhone SE.

So, the question arises – What do you get with Apple’s ‘most affordable’ iPhone variant in 2020, and should you consider buying it? We answer your questions in our honest review of the iPhone SE (2020).

iPhone SE (2020): Our First Impressions

  • Dimensions:4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm
  • Weight: 148g
  • Display:7-inch IPS LCD Retina HD Display (1334×750 pixels, 326 PPI)
  • Additional features: Touch ID, IP67 water and dust resistance, Apple’s proprietary lightning port for data transfer and charging.

Our first hands-on with the iPhone SE (2020) instantly reminded us of the iPhone 8, as the body of the iPhone SE has almost the same dimensions as the iPhone 8’s body. The only difference between the two models is the position of the Apple logo, which is now found in the center of the rear glass panel. Other than that, the iPhone SE has the same single camera layout, an identical 4.7-inch LCD screen, a home button with Touch ID, as well as the same aluminum frame from the iPhone 8.

One of the best-selling aspects of the iPhone SE is actually its screen size, even though the 4.7-inch screen is covered by thick bezels straight out of 2016. If you are not a fan of those huge, borderless screens found on almost every Android flagships nowadays, the smaller LCD screen of the iPhone SE might be appealing to you. Due to its compactness, the iPhone SE is a one-handed beast.

At first, we were quite skeptical of the LCD panel, but Apple delivers up to its standards. It is neither the brightest LCD panel in the business nor matches the contrast levels of OLED panels found in the iPhone 11 devices. However, it does the job as intended. However, the minimum brightness of the panel could have been lower, as it makes the device a bit of a pain to use in a dark room.

Another thing that we are quite glad to see is the return of a physical home button, as well as the Touch ID. The iPhone SE sadly doesn’t have Face ID unlike Apple’s iPhone 11 family, but Touch ID is still much more reliable and secure. In a world where we now have to maintain social distancing and wear masks, physical biometric authentication offers more flexibility compared to Apple’s latest facial recognition technology.

The home button is accompanied by Apple’s Taptic Engine, providing exceptional haptic feedback. When combined with Touch ID, unlocking the device or authorizing online payments is really satisfying. No other Android flagship in this price range offers the same level of haptic feedback as the iPhone SE.

As you probably know, Apple had ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack a long time ago. The iPhone SE sadly doesn’t have one, but it does have two speakers at the bottom. They do get pretty loud at higher volumes. However, the distortion and lack of stereo separation is a bummer.

In terms of design, the iPhone SE does hold up its own competition, with its polished aluminum frames and a rear glass panel. It feels quite sturdy in the hands. The lightweight nature of the iPhone SE doesn’t hinder its premium feel, and overall it feels like a tiny tank with zero compromises in build quality.

iPhone SE (2020): A Solid Performer

  • Processor: Apple A13 Bionic (7nm)
  • RAM: 3GB LPDDR4X
  • Storage: 64GB/128GB/256GB

Even though Apple is recycling the iPhone 8 design with its new iPhone SE, they managed to pack the latest A13 Bionic processor in the small shell. As a result, it offers blazing performance similar to the iPhone 11, and almost all the chipset capabilities, including fast charging and AI deep learning for portrait mode photos.

Apple also has an incredible track record in providing long-term software updates for its older generation of iPhones, so you can expect four to five years of major updates from the iPhone SE. Even the last-gen iPhone SE is running the latest version of iOS, in case you didn’t know. At the same or higher price range, most Android flagships struggle to deliver even two years of major Android updates and regular security patches.

Although the iPhone SE has enough processing power to run smoothly in the upcoming years, it comes with a measly 3GB of RAM, along with only 64GB of storage in the base variant. iOS handles apps in the background quite efficiently, but 3GB might be a limitation in the future. Also, it would have been better if Apple put 128GB of storage instead of 64GB in the base variant of the iPhone SE since you might run into storage constraints after a while.

The Apple A13 Bionic chipset outshines the other hardware issues, however. At least during our testing, we didn’t encounter a single performance issue throughout heavy usage. Games with intensive graphics, such as Fortnite and PUBG Mobile, ran smoothly without a single frame drop. Considering that it is driving a sub-720p display, the A13 Bionic is left with enough headroom to work with.

iPhone SE (2020): Excellent Camera

  • Rear: 12MP, f/1.8 single camera sensor with OIS
  • Front: 7MP, f/2.2 sensor with gyro-EIS
  • Video: 4K 60FPS (Rear), 1080p 30FPS (Front)
  • Additional camera capabilities: Portrait Mode, HDR, 240FPS slo-mo

Camera quality in smartphones has significantly improved in the last few years, with more advanced features and marginal upgrades in the miniaturized camera hardware.

The iPhone SE has the same 12MP rear camera sensor as the iPhone 8 from 2017, which may not sound impressive to you. But, software and image signal processors (ISP) have played a major role in camera quality improvements, as we have seen with Google’s Pixel devices. The latest ISP in Apple’s A13 Bionic chipset also delivers excellent results.

In our testing, we found the HDR mode surprisingly impressive. Apple’s color science and auto white balance is generally accurate, and the same can be said for the iPhone SE’s camera. It doesn’t oversaturate the green and blues at all, but the HDR mode does crush black levels in photos. We also found sharpness to be well-balanced in pictures, but the 12MP resolution doesn’t produce as crispy images as the high-resolution sensors found in Android flagships.

Portrait Mode does work on the iPhone SE. Similar to the more expensive iPhone devices, the iPhone SE uses the neural cores in A13 Bionic to add depth in two-dimensional images, without requiring a dedicated depth sensor. However, the depth segmentation only works on human subjects by default. Portrait Mode also works with the front camera, which is a welcoming addition for selfie lovers. Speaking of selfies, the 7MP does capture good photos, but it produces softer images due to the low-resolution.

One disappointing aspect of the iPhone SE’s camera is the absence of night mode. While the iPhone 11 lineup does have a night mode, Apple’s decision to not include night mode in the iPhone SE does raise some eyebrows. It’s worth noting that the A13 Bionic’s built-in ISP can denoise low-light images with ease, and the rear camera also has OIS (Optical Image Stabilization), so there’s no excuse for not including night mode in the iPhone SE. The dual-tone flash is the only option for you to take photos in low-light conditions.

Videos captured on the iPhone SE looks impressive. In the last few years, Apple has dominated the DXOMark charts in video capabilities, and it’s great to see Apple retaining the same industry-leading video performance on the iPhone SE. You can record up to 4K videos at 60 frames per second, and the OIS on the rear camera makes up for stable footage.

iPhone SE (2020): Poor Battery Life

  • Battery capacity: 1821 mAh
  • Charging capabilities: 18W fast charging, wireless charging

The 1821 mAh battery found in the iPhone SE is undeniably smaller than any other flagships in the market. However, the A13 Bionic processor built on the 7nm fabrication process is very efficient, and the sub-720p display doesn’t draw a lot of power.

Still, four hours of average screen-on-time is a bit underwhelming, considering that most flagships can last two days with eight to nine hours of SoT. Even when compared to the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max’s 3000+ mAh battery capacity, the iPhone SE’s battery can’t handle a full day of usage.

Fortunately, you do get 18W of fast charging with the new iPhone SE, which can charge the device to 50% in just 30 minutes. However, you only get a 5W charger brick in the box, which consumes a lot of time to charge the iPhone SE to 100%. It does support wireless charging as well, and you can leave the iPhone SE on a Qi-enabled charging dock overnight.

iPhone SE (2020): Experience with iOS

Let’s not go to the long-running debate of Android and iOS superiority, but have a civil discussion about the pros and cons of the latest iOS software in the iPhone SE. The first thing that comes up in mind is customization, which isn’t the strongest aspect of iOS.

As an example, the absence of an app drawer forces you to keep all the apps on your Home screen, which hasn’t changed since iOS 1.0 in the original iPhone. It’s possible to organize the apps in a different folder, but the exclusion of an app drawer is annoying nonetheless.

The cluttered notification shade of iOS also doesn’t group notifications by apps and categories, unlike Android. However, the upcoming iOS 14 is set to change the notification shade, while also adding widgets on the home screen, just like Android.

Apple doesn’t bundle third-party bloatware with iPhone devices, and the same can be said for the iPhone SE. As previously mentioned, Apple does provide regular software updates to its devices, and you might also expect new camera features, device customization, and performance improvements from the iPhone SE to some extent in the future.

It was hard to get past Apple’s navigational gesture controls for us at first, but the physical home button became quickly familiar once again with the iPhone SE. Thanks to the optimizations made in iOS, the iPhone SE breezes through the user interface. Even stock Android devices don’t feel this smoother.

You do lose a lot of screen real-estate while browsing through social media and the web, but iOS 13 scales well on iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch screen, providing an overall consistent one-handed usage.

iPhone SE (2020): Is It Worth The Premium?

The iPhone SE is the only Apple device in the sub $400 (~₹30,000) retail price, at least in the United States. In India, the price is inflated to ₹42,500 (~$560) for the base 64GB variant, making it a tough choice to recommend.

When compared to a killer Android flagship like the OnePlus 8 5G (₹41,999), you do miss out a lot on the iPhone SE, including a high-resolution 90Hz borderless OLED display, 128GB base storage, more RAM, higher battery capacity, and a marginally better camera system. Also, you are secured with the latest Android updates, as well as enjoy the ability to customize Android to your preference.

However, if you prefer to use an iPhone as your daily driver, then the new iPhone SE (2020) might be an excellent choice for you without breaking the bank. Also, the current pricing of the iPhone SE in India might soon decrease, as the recent reports suggest that Apple is going to manufacture the device locally.

If you are looking for a larger screen, then the iPhone XR from 2018 is the way to go. It also has a bigger battery capacity, and the A12 Bionic chip inside the iPhone XR still delivers exceptional performance. In e-commerce websites like Chroma and Flipkart, the price of the iPhone XR occasionally dips below the retail price of the new iPhone SE in India.

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Could be better

When compared to a killer Android flagship like the OnePlus 8 5G (₹41,999), you do miss out a lot on the iPhone SE, including a high-resolution 90Hz borderless OLED display, 128GB base storage, more RAM, higher battery capacity, and a marginally better camera system. Also, you are secured with the latest Android updates, as well as enjoy the ability to customize Android to your preference.

However, if you prefer to use an iPhone as your daily driver, then the new iPhone SE (2020) might be an excellent choice for you without breaking the bank. Also, the current pricing of the iPhone SE in India might soon decrease, as the recent reports suggest that Apple is going to manufacture the device locally.

  • Design
  • Dispaly
  • Camera
  • Performance
  • Battery

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