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Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff
Portrait Mode everywhere
No Portrait Mode for animals or objects
Apple's reborn iPhone SE is really an iPhone 8 with a powerful new CPU. Even with that tiny screen, it's a good mix of value and performance.
We received an Apple iPhone SE (2nd Generation) review unit so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
I always liked the iPhone 8, so much so that recently I bought it as a more affordable option for my wife. As a 4.7-inch iPhone, it was the last of a smaller-screened, more pocketable, and home-button featuring breed. I had no illusions about its power and capabilities. They were two generations back.
Whatever you think of the new Apple iPhone SE (2nd Generation), know this, it is an iPhone 8 with a much bigger brain and noticeably more memory capacity.
It’s not a redesigned iPhone SE. This iPhone SE (2nd Generation) is a completely different product, a smarter replacement, and big step away from an aging design.
That said, the iPhone SE (2nd Generation) also represents a last gasp of another dying design language, one of rectangular screens with sharp corners and islands of black bezel to accommodate distinct components. On the new iPhone SE (nee 8) everything is still in its place. The Touch ID home button gets its own expanse of black glass, as does the 7 MP FaceTime camera (okay, it has to share it with a small speaker grill). This smartphone is simply not like the iPhone 11; it’s smaller and leaner by almost every measure and still has just a single camera on the back.
In total, the iPhone SE is a throwback, but one with the heart of a lion. Perhaps that’s why I like it.
For the sake of argument, let’s start by comparing the $399 iPhone SE to the aforementioned, $699 iPhone 11. Slightly larger than the more powerful and expensive iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone 11 weighs 194 grams and is 5.94 inches by 2.98 inches by 8.3 mm thick.
The new iPhone SE is essentially the same size and weight as the iPhone 8, 7 and 6s before it. It’s just 148 grams and 5.45 inches by 2.65 inches by 7.3 mm thick. This is a design from when phone thickness really mattered, and when no one considered that someone would try to bend a phone for the heck of it.
These dimensions make the new iPhone SE a pleasure to hold and use. Before I started using an iPhone 11 Pro, I lived with the iPhone 7. I loved that little guy. Now, though, I am readjusting to using the 4.7-inch screen, which is, by the way a lot smaller and lower resolution than the iPhone 11.
There is no contest on the screen size or resolution, and I’ve had to retrain myself to thumb type on the tiny screen.
Button placement is unchanged from the iPhone 8. There’s the silent mode switch on the right edge and right below that two volume buttons. On the right side is the power/sleep button (you still hold down the Touch ID button to summon Siri), and on the bottom is the lightning port and speaker and mic grills. Transparent glass covers the front and back, but not the brushed metal outside edge. You have a choice of black, white, or red, which is actually (PRODUCT)RED. That’s the color of my test unit and I highly recommend it because every purchase contributes directly to the Global Fund and the fight against COVID-19.
The Touch ID button, which does not actually move but uses haptics to fool you into thinking it does, works just as well as it did on the iPhone 8. It was easy to register my finger and use that to unlock the phone and, when I connected to LastPass, access other password protected apps and services.
This inevitably brings me to the silicon elephant in the room, which is the SE’s top-end mobile CPU, Apple’s apex iPhone silicon: the A13 Bionic. It’s the fastest chip Apple has ever made for its iPhone. The company likes it so much, they’ve now stuffed it into almost every single iPhone (save the iPhone XR, which still has the A12), regardless of price.
At this writing, Qualcomm’s best mobile CPU, the Snapdragon 865, which is being used in virtually all Android flagship phones, still trails behind the A13 Bionic's benchmark numbers, especially in graphics.
Apple had good reason to use this same chip, because it enables standard iPhone experiences, like portrait mode photography and Augmented Reality, that would not have been possible otherwise.
All of these experiences happen through that relatively tiny screen and decent, though not iPhone 11, quality speakers.
When I play Asphalt 9 Legends or Pascal’s Wager, the graphics and responsiveness are just as good as I’ve found on the larger, more expensive iPhones. It's not, though, an immersive an experience. This is a tiny screen and I’m used to bigger and higher-resolution displays. I’m also used to the richer colors and deeper blacks of an OLED display, and not just on iPhones. Virtually every smartphone I’ve tested in recent months has a larger screen and usually it’s OLED or AMOLED.
Few phones, though, are as affordable as this iPhone SE. Obviously, if you’re willing to switch to Android, there are many more affordable choices with considerably more features. Take Samsung’s Galaxy A50. It has a high resolution, edge-to-edge AMOLED display and a triple camera array on the back and starts at $349.
In the world of iOS and Apple Phones, though, the iPhone SE is the price/performance leader, and it does have other charms.
Apple did not update the camera hardware from the iPhone 8 to iPhone SE. There are two:
Image quality is in line with what I found on the iPhone 8. However, now I can shoot Portrait Mode on the front and back cameras. This is a technical feat powered by the A13 Bionic, its integrated image processor, and on-board AI and machine learning. However the iPhone 8’s Portrait mode photography suffers from an iPhone limitation I have not seen since the single-lensed iPhone XR. It can shoot beautiful portrait mode images of people, but not animals or objects. The iPhone SE is the same.
This means that if you were planning on buying this $399 phone and filling your camera roll with gorgeous Portrait Mode images of your French poodle Marita, you can forget about it. It’s a small price to pay, but to be clear, this is not the full-boat bokeh photography you get with the iPhone 11 Pro or even the iPhone 11.
I am, however, more impressed with what Apple’s done with the single Facetime camera. Even though there’s ample room above the screen for a TrueDepth Module, Apple stuck with the iPhone 8’s 7MP shooter, probably to keep costs (and development) under control. That camera, though, can now shoot lower-resolution portrait mode photos pretty much as well as the rear camera.
Aside from animal photography, Apple doesn’t skimp on the iPhone SE portrait editing skills. I can adjust f-stops (background blur) during and after I take the photo from either the rear or front cameras. I can also apply all the same portrait lighting effects. The iPhone SE essentially shares all the same photo and video software features, including video editing, you’ll find on and iPhone 11 running iOS 13.
From a power perspective, the iPhone SE has as much power as any other phone running an A13 Bionic CPU. It does not have as much memory. At 2.88 GB, the SE has almost 1 GB more RAM than the iPhone 8, but still less than the iPhone 11, which has 3.77 GB.
Numbers aside, nothing about the iPhone SE felt slow or under-performing. Creative apps like BeCasso worked quickly, Night Sky’s celestial imagery looked smooth ad beautiful, and Wonderscope’s AR characters looked adorable in my home office.
Overall, it’s a powerful little phone, squeezing exciting experiences into a tiny little screen.
Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE now starts with 64 GB of storage. This is a big step in the right direction for Apple, but I honestly don’t think any smartphone, especially ones shooting 4K video, should ship with anything less than 128 GB. My test model, by the way has 256 GB, which raises the price to $549.
This is the first SE-class iPhone than can handle a dunk in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes (IP67 rating). I ran in under water and saw no ill effects. (The iPhone 11 Pro has an IP68 rating, which means it’ll survive in 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes.)
Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE supports wireless charging and worked perfectly on all my Qi-based chargers. It also supports Fast Charging with an optional 18W charger.
The iPhone SE battery is, unremarkably, about the same size as the iPhone 8’s. Apple says battery life is roughly equal to the 8. If this is true, it’s quite an achievement, since the A13 Bionic is a much more powerful chip than the iPhone 8’s A11. Granted, Apple is constantly improving power management both in the silicon and through AI on the phone itself.
The reality is when I turned the screen brightness to max, set display Auto-Lock to “never” and used the phone throughout the day, I got about 8 hours of battery life, which is what Apple says I’d get if I streamed video all day long. With the phone managing screen brightness and auto-locking every minute or so, your battery life is probably going to be 10-plus hours.
This is a DualSim phone (a physical SIM card and eSIM). It supports Gigabit LTE, fast Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.
The Apple iPhone SE is the best, affordable iPhone on the market.
It’s a canny piece of rebranding for an aging design that reinvigorates it through silicon and ultra-smart programming. I suspect at $399 (even cheaper with a trade-in) this will quickly become the iPod of iPhones, ending up in the hands of countless children and tweens. It’s also perfectly timed for a world that is recalibrating considered purchases and realizing that spending $1,000 or more on a phone is, perhaps not the best course of action right now. For that reason, this iPhone SE is going to be hot seller across all strata and most who get it will not be disappointed.
Check out my video review!