Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: On the money
At first glance the second-generation iPhone SE looks like the iPhone 8 from back in 2017. It comes in the same form factor, features the same display, has a Touch ID Home button, even the same camera sensor.
Under closer inspection the new SE is not quite the iPhone 8 reborn. Oh no, it might have the same looks, but it comes with many of the more recent iPhone 11 specs. And, importantly, a price tag that's almost from the past - for this is not a hyper-expensive Apple phone.
So can a phone that is a mish-mash of technology dating as far back as 2015 still be a hit in today's world? We think the new small iPhone will hold heaps of appeal for many. Here's why.
Is the iPhone SE the same as the iPhone 8?
- Available in three colours: Black, White, Product Red
- 4.7-inch Retina HD display, 1334 x 750 resolution
- Dimensions: 138 x 67 x 7.3mm / Weight: 148g
- Touch ID Home Button
- 7MP FaceTime camera
- IP67 water-resistant
- Lightning connector
This 2020 iPhone SE replaces the iPhone 8 completely, which is why you'll hear some call it the 'iPhone 9'. While phones have continued to grow in size over the years, there's always been room for 'the small one' in Apple's stable, which is where the SE slots in.
To date, Apple has sold around 500 million smartphones with 4.7-inch displays, so it's fair to say that the form factor works - and not for a niche market. It's a perfect size for those who don't want anything too big - a criticism we had of the iPhone XR, for example; even the iPhone 8 Plus felt too wide in our hands when that first launched.
The SE features a Touch ID-enabled Home button located at the bottom of the screen, but no Face ID - which would require the company's TrueDepth technology. That means the front-facing 7-megapixel FaceTime camera is fine for calls and selfies, but doesn't support facial login, Animoji or animated Memoji.
While Apple has moved towards USB-C for charging in its more recent devices, the 2020 iPhone SE sticks with the Lightning port connector, just like the iPhone 8. That's how similar these devices are - even iPhone 8 cases will still fit the 2020 SE, although Apple and others will of course be happy to sell you an iPhone SE one if you want.
The second-gen SE retains its waterproofing status, too, meaning you can drop it down the loo or in the hotel pool by accident and it won't mean the death of it.
What's the iPhone SE's performance like?
- 64GB, 128GB, 256GB storage options
- A13 Bionic processor
- Wi-Fi 6, 4G LTE
- No Face ID
- No U1 chip
So the new iPhone SE certainly looks like a device from 2017, but its internal tech is very much 2020. There's the same A13 Bionic processor as found in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro models. That's unexpected for a 'budget' model, but most welcome, as it means this phone zips along when performing a range of tasks, from gaming, to photo editing, to casual WhatsApp and emails.
We've been using the iPhone 11 Pro for over six months at the time of writing - and the experience with the new SE is very much the same. We've had no problems running the latest and greatest games, including those available on Apple Arcade. We've been playing everything from Agent Intercept to Sayonara Wild Dreams. Load times are fast, there's no in-game lag, and compared to the iPhone 8, it's incredibly quick.
Connectivity comes in the guise of Wi-Fi 6, 4G (via dual SIM with eSIM support), all pointing towards speedy connectivity.
All in all the SE delivers a flagship phone experience, but isn't flagship priced. While various Android phone makers have offered this kind of solution for years, that's not something Apple has offered in the past.
However, the SE doesn't have everything of its iPhone 11 peers. There's no Face ID, no multiple cameras, no stereo speakers, no new U1 chip, no Lidar sensor as found on the iPad Pro. Which, at this price, is exactly what we'd expect. It sensibly ranges the SE, so if any one of those features is a must-have then you've got the option to pay more for the device most suited to your needs.
What's the iPhone SE battery life like?
- Same battery as iPhone 8
- Supports Qi open standard wireless charging
- Fast-charge 18W supported (charger sold separately)
Battery life is always brings that big question: "Will it get me through a full day?". Apple states the new SE "lasts about the same as iPhone 8".
In the real-world that means it should give an average user a full day's charge. In our tests it's not been as long-lasting as the larger iPhone 11 range, as the battery capacity in the SE is less, but it's good enough.
It all depends on how you use your phone though. Just as we said of the iPhone 8: "if you're a social media heavy user then expect to need a top-up around 7pm".
The fact that you can charge wirelessly, or via the fast-charge feature - remember you'll have to buy a new power adapter for either to work, as the 18W one isn't included in the box - means you'll be able to quickly top-up on the go anyway.
Does the iPhone SE have good cameras?
- Single rear camera: 12-megapixel wide-angle, f/1.8 aperture
- 4K video to 60fps, slow-mo to 240fps (at 1080p)
- Portrait Mode lighting effects supported
- No Night Mode
Unlike the iPhone X, iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, the iPhone SE only features the one camera on the rear. That means no optical zoom (it's digital only), no ultra-wide, no extra bells and whistles.
It's actually the same sensor as found in the original iPhone 8, but with a number of software improvements to bring it up to 2020 performance levels. And before you ask, it's not the iPhone XR camera either.
Using the new A13 Bionic processor the iPhone SE can offer the full array of Portrait Mode lighting effects, Smart HDR, and Quick Take Video (allowing you to press-and-hold to start a video recording).
You can't use Portrait mode on anything other than people. It simply won't work. But that shouldn't matter for most people - unless you really like taking pictures of your dog or cat. Portrait mode also still run into problems from time to time, especially with wispy hair and thin glasses frames, which can blur out, but on the whole it's very good.
What's disappointing, but perhaps expected, is the iPhone SE doesn't offer the Night Mode feature for taking pictures in low-light conditions, and you don't get Deep Fusion - Apple's clever AI that enhances pictures even further, as it does on the iPhone 11 range. We really miss Night Mode, especially as low-light pictures are still blurry at times.
Find some daylight and it's a different story - with the photos we've taken offering bright crisp colours with clean results. The picture quality shows off Apple's usual picture processing standard.