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Lifewire / Andrew Hayward
Very good camera
Weak battery life
Screen feels cramped
Power users should probably pass, but anyone else who wants a powerful iPhone without stretching their wallet might love this updated throwback.
We purchased the Apple iPhone SE (2020) so our reviewer could put it to the test. Keep reading for our full product review.
Apple’s annual iPhones have mostly gotten larger and more expensive over the years, but the original iPhone SE (2016) hung around in the lineup to combat both trends. Essentially an iPhone 5S with newer components, it was both much smaller and cheaper than any other recent iPhone at the time. Well, it took a few years, but Apple finally issued a new 2nd-generation iPhone SE in 2020, and it thankfully continues the trend with new source material.
Instead, the new iPhone SE is based on the familiar, retired iPhone 8 design, but it’s a fair bit smaller than the iPhone 12 and costs half as much while still featuring a powerful processor capable of running all of today’s apps and games. There are a couple of trade-offs here versus wielding one of Apple’s newer models, but the iPhone SE (2020) is a strong choice for anyone who wants a budget-friendlier iOS smartphone.
The iPhone SE’s design will be familiar to anyone who previously owned an iPhone 6, iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, or iPhone 8, as it carries over the core look and feel of that popular run of handsets. It’s essentially identical to 2017’s iPhone 8, thanks to the glass backing (in white, black or red) and wireless charging capabilities held within.
The iPhone SE feels shockingly small compared to today’s most popular phones.
Even so, the iPhone SE mostly looks and feels like a phone that was first released seven years ago, skipping out on more recent trends and advancements. It has chunky black bezel borders above and below the screen with a standard 16:9 display, rather than fitting in a taller display by putting the front camera into a notch or punch-hole cutout. It also has the speedy Touch ID fingerprint sensor below the screen, whereas Apple has switched to Face ID security and other makers have implemented either in-display or rear sensors.
The iPhone SE also feels shockingly small compared to today’s most popular phones. Remember when a phone with a 4.7-inch screen seemed large compared to its predecessors? Now it feels quaint, but there’s definite upside for anyone with smaller hands or who prefers the kind of one-handed usage that has become more difficult with large, recent rivals.
Size-wise, the iPhone SE sits between the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini in dimensions, although the mini’s taller 5.4-inch screen benefits from the added height and the lack of thick bezel borders.
Even if the iPhone SE looks a bit dated, it feels entirely sturdy and well-crafted, and you’re less likely to drop a phone that’s small and thin enough to securely grip in one hand. It does have IP67 dust and water resistance certification, however, and is rated to survive up to 30 minutes in 1 meter of water. Most phones in this price range, including the $349 Google Pixel 4a, don’t have any water resistance certification. Even the unlocked $729 OnePlus 9 doesn’t have it.
The base iPhone SE (2020) comes with 64GB of internal storage, which isn’t a lot—but it’s the same amount found in the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini. Like those phones, you can double the starting storage for an extra $50, which is a sensible upgrade if you want to carry around a lot of games, media, photos, and apps. No iPhone lets you expand the storage tally after purchase with a memory card, however, so choose wisely from the outset.
The 2020 iPhone SE is a major upgrade over the original model, which makes sense given the four-year gap between releases. The latest iPhone SE has a larger screen at 4.7 inches vs 4.0 inches on the original model, plus significantly improved overall performance thanks to the newer processor. It takes crisper photos on both sides, has a longer-lasting battery, offers wireless charging, features twice the base internal storage, and includes water resistance.
The iPhone SE (2020) sets up easily once you hold in the power button to start the device. Simply follow the on-screen prompts, which will direct you to sign in with (or register) an Apple ID, choose whether or not to restore from a backup or copy data from another phone, and set up the Touch ID fingerprint sensor along with other basic options. It’s very straightforward and designed to get you up and running quickly.
As mentioned, the iPhone SE’s screen feels small at 4.7 inches in part because it’s a standard 16:9 widescreen panel, rather than a taller screen like those on most new phones. For example, the iPhone 12 mini’s 5.4-inch screen has a 19.5:9 aspect ratio and eliminates the large bezel chunks above and below the display.
This 4.7-inch screen isn’t very high-resolution at 1334x750, but given the small size, it’s solidly crisp and clear. It can feel cramped at times when browsing the web or viewing certain app interfaces, but there’s enough room here to accomplish your tasks and play games effectively.
This older LCD panel looks a little muddy when transitioning between apps and menus, though, and it doesn’t offer the punchier contrast and deep black levels of the iPhone 12 line’s OLED displays. For a $399 phone, though, it gets the job done.
Apple should be commended for ensuring that the iPhone SE can keep up with their pricier siblings, which means it will be supported with iOS upgrades for years and can run all of the same apps and games with no performance degradation. The 2020 iPhone SE uses Apple’s A13 Bionic chip, which was the current model (introduced in the iPhone 11) when this handset was released in April 2020.
In terms of raw benchmark scores, it’s faster than any Android phone released in 2020, even those that cost two to three times as much, and even beats 2021’s $800 Samsung Galaxy S21 running the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip. It doesn’t match the A14 Bionic chip from the iPhone 12, but even so, the iPhone SE (2020) feels smooth throughout in everyday usage, and it’s primed to remain that way for years to come.
In terms of raw benchmark scores, it’s faster than any Android phone released in 2020, even those that cost two to three times as much.
More importantly, it’s vastly ahead of what you’ll find in any $400-500 phone right now. In Geekbench 5, the iPhone SE recorded a single-core score of 1,335 and a multi-core score of 3,436. When I ran the same test on the mid-range Google Pixel 4a, it put up a single-core score of 528 and a multi-core score of 1,513. In other words, the iPhone SE (2020) has well more than double the pure processing power of its chief rival in this price range. That’s pretty incredible.
That advantage comes through in gaming performance, too, as the iPhone SE (2020) is equipped like a premium flagship phone. Games like League of Legends: Wild Rift and Asphalt 9: Legends run beautifully here.
In the GFXBench benchmark test, I recorded 60 frames per second in both the glossy Car Chase test and less-intensive T-Rex test. Compare that to the Pixel 4a’s 16fps for Car Chase and 50fps for T-Rex. The Pixel 4a does contend with a higher-resolution 1080p panel, but even so, that’s a vast difference on the Car Chase test.
You won’t get access to any of the high-speed 5G connectivity introduced with the iPhone 12 line: the iPhone SE (2020) sticks to 4G LTE speeds. On Verizon’s 4G LTE network just north of Chicago, I saw typical speeds of 30-60Mbps during usage, including a peak download speed of 76Mbps. The unlocked iPhone SE works with all US networks.
The iPhone SE’s speakers work well for speakerphone and videos, although music does sound a bit confined on these small speakers. Put side-by-side with the iPhone 12, Apple’s newer phone delivers broader sound and a bit more bass than the SE can muster. That said, the iPhone SE is perfectly suitable for playing music when you don’t have an external speaker to connect to.
Even with an older flagship camera onboard, the iPhone SE (2020) takes excellent photos in strong lighting conditions. The daytime shots I took while out and about showcase strong detail and contrast with well-judged color balance. Every new iPhone camera is great for its time, and they’re even still great a few years later—at least in ideal lighting.
When indoors or with less light available, the iPhone SE isn’t quite up to par with the iPhone 12, which is better able to handle an array of shooting scenarios and pump out a strong result. Here, lower-light shots resulted in softness and lacking detail at times, or darker-looking results than expected. There’s also no night shooting mode on the iPhone SE, so you’re not going to get any subtly illuminated shots if you go out snapping in the evening.
Even with an older flagship camera onboard, the iPhone SE (2020 Gen) takes excellent photos in strong lighting conditions.
It’s still a very good camera overall, but it’s no surprise that Apple’s newer cameras are smarter and more capable. And unfortunately, it’s just the single 12-megapixel wide-angle camera here: there’s no ultra-wide or telephoto zoom lens alongside. The 7-megapixel front-facing camera takes solid selfies, meanwhile, but it lacks the sensors that enable Face ID security and Animoji in other recent iPhones.
The iPhone SE isn’t built for power users, and that’s nowhere more obvious than with the puny battery. The 1,821mAh battery cell is nearly 1,000mAh smaller than the iPhone 12, and less than half the amount you’ll find in most Android phones today.
In any case, if you’re planning to use the phone for more than light communication, web browsing, and app usage, then you might want to carry a backup battery—or charge your phone before leaving home or the office for any significant stretch of time.
Battery life is by far the biggest weakness of the iPhone SE.
Across a week of using the iPhone SE as my everyday phone, I finished with less than 20 percent of a charge by the end of each night. On one of those days, the battery died before bedtime, and it was at 5 percent or less on two of the other nights. By contrast, the iPhone 12 usually ended days with about 30 percent left in the tank during my review testing. Battery life is by far the biggest weakness of the iPhone SE.
It can charge quickly, however, adding up to 50 percent in 30 minutes with a 20W wall charger. Unfortunately, as with the iPhone 12 models, you’ll have to buy the wall charger separately or use an existing one: the phone only comes with the USB-C to Lightning cable included.
The iPhone SE also supports wireless charging at a slower rate (up to 7.5W), which is ideal for gradually topping up your battery throughout the day. Wireless charging is an incredibly rare feature for a phone at this price, so it’s a handy and unexpected perk.
The iPhone SE runs the same iOS 14 interface that you’ll find on other current Apple phones and is poised to receive annual upgrades for years to come. While iOS 14 is largely iterative in its year-over-year enhancements, the long-awaited addition of larger home screen widgets—such as calendars, to-do-lists, rotating photo carousels—is very welcome indeed.
Otherwise, iOS 14 is as robust, smooth, and easy-to-use as any iOS version to date, and the App Store still features the widest selection of downloadable apps and games for any mobile operating system. Thankfully, the powerful iPhone SE has no problem running them.
At $399, the current-generation iPhone SE is $300 cheaper than the iPhone 12 Mini and half the price of the standard-sized iPhone 12. Granted, there are a few notable trade-offs here: the battery life is sadly meager, the screen is small and less crisp, there’s no 5G connectivity, and the camera isn’t quite as consistent across varying lighting conditions.
All that said, this is still a powerful iPhone thanks to the recent A13 Bionic processor, and it provides a comparable iOS experience with the same apps, games, and lengthy runway of annual upgrades ahead. If you’re a more casual user who isn’t likely to pound the battery with steady usage and don’t mind the compact size, this is a great option for an affordable smartphone.
In the battle for a capable, sub-$400 smartphone, these are the two top options right now. Google went a different route with its $349 Pixel 4a. It doesn’t have one of the most powerful processors inside, even if it delivers pretty smooth performance, but instead, focuses on camera quality.
The single 12-megapixel shooter here relies on software smarts to pump out stellar shots in nearly all scenarios, even beating some Android phones that cost twice as much. It’s better in low light than the iPhone SE, and has great nighttime shooting too.
On top of that, the Pixel 4a really doesn’t have any critical weaknesses. The design is a bit bland, but it’s functional—and from the front, I’d take its nearly all-screen look with the taller 5.8-inch display and punch-hole camera cutout over the chunky bezel of the iPhone SE. It’s a crisper and bolder-looking screen, too, and battery life is notably better on the Pixel 4a. If my budget was limited to $400 max, I’d take Google’s phone over the iPhone SE.
Battery life aside, it’s great for the price.
If you want an affordable iPhone and don’t care as much about the looks or latest amenities, the iPhone SE (2020) is a strong option. Yes, it’s small and lacks features like 5G and the Face ID sensor, plus the screen and camera aren’t as strong as you’ll find on the iPhone 12. But at half the price of that phone and packing a recent processor inside, this is still a smooth-running iPhone that can handle all apps and games, plus it will be updated with new software and security updates for years to come.
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