Apple iPhone SE (2020) Review: Classic iPhone, Cutting Edge Chip, and Cost Conscious!

iPhone SE 2020

The curious thing about the new iPhone SE 2020 is that it reminds me just how good the original iPhone 8, on which it’s based, was in the first place. Except that the iPhone 8, from 2017, so two and a half years ago, launched at £700, in the UK at least. Whereas the new SE, in Product Red livery here, starts at £420, a truly massive price drop, despite having major internals revamp with A13 chipset and an extra GB of RAM. Read my iPhone SE (2nd generation) review after the break.

So yes, using the SE does feel a little like going back in time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Whether you’re fed up with Face ID and using it with COVID-19 masks, or whether you preferred Touch ID in the first place, or whether you just want all the benefits of a good iPhone for a lot less money, the SE 2020 has you covered.

The most controversial aspect of the SE’s release is the design – for 2020, those top and bottom bezels are large, with even budget Android phones now going virtually bezel-less, at half the price. The bottom bezel houses the excellent, haptic-heavy, Touch ID-containing home ‘button’, of course, and that’s a pleasure to use. But the top bezel? Well, that’s just down to the iPhone 8 form factor being re-used to save on construction cost – and you have to live with that if you also want a genuine new iPhone for £400 or so.

iPhone SE 2020 oblique

In truth, the symmetry between top and bottom bezels does have a certain charm and, once you get used to the SE, the black bezels cease to be an issue. The screen is smaller than you might be used to, of course, but then again the whole device is smaller. Arriving in 2020, the SE feels positively petite.

To put it into context, the SE is significantly smaller (138mm tall) and lighter (148g) than even the classic iPhone X/11 Pro form factor that we’ve become so familiar with. You could even call it the ‘iPhone Compact’ without too much argument. So the proposition becomes a modern specced iPhone with all of its ecosystem and support, in a tiny form factor that can fit in any top pocket or purse, as needed. All at a relatively low price. What’s not to love?

iPhone SE 2020 back

The review unit was ‘Product Red’ branded, with some of the profits going to the charity – but the sheer color is striking enough on its own. Obviously, most people will put this in a case, and a $10 – $15 case will probably do just fine, though it’s worth noting that all iPhone 7 or 8 cases will also fit, and they’re extremely readily available now at low cost.

There are no surprises in terms of materials – the display is the iPhone 8’s 750p LCD, but it’s one of the best with this technology on the market and in use, I found I rarely noticed a difference from AMOLED, especially with the brightness cranked up. 

Not metal or plastic, the SE’s back is painted (on the inside) glass and will crack if dropped. In fact, as usual with iPhones, it’s much cheaper to replace a cracked display, because that comes off first when disassembling, whereas getting to the back glass requires taking all the other guts out first!

On this Product Red edition, there’s good attention to detail in the coloring of the buttons and ‘silent’ switch, though this doesn’t extend to the phone’s opening screws or Lightning port surround – which is fair enough, given the cost.

iPhone SE Product Red
iPhone SE Product Red

Inside, the iPhone 8’s A11 chipset (based on 10nm process) is swapped out for the two-years-newer A13 chipset (based on 7nm), which is faster and more battery efficient. There’s an extra Gigabyte of RAM too, to help keep things ticking along nicely. It’s a very sensible upgrade and also helps in terms of the iPhone 8 camera, which is re-used here but produces significantly better results, thanks to the extra horsepower for handling multi-frame captures and computational depth effects.

Camera

iPhone SE 2020 camera

Physically, the single-camera is the same, at 12MP, f/1.8, with (simple) PDAF and OIS (Optical Image Stabilisation). But the photos captured are demonstrably good, see the samples here. True, the absence of an ultra-wide or telephoto lens seems a little odd in 2020, but for 90% of shots, you simply don’t need these.

Here are some samples and crops – note that although these are taken at the default 4:3, there’s also the manual option to take in 1:1 or 16:9, something which wasn’t possible when the iPhone 8 was new, I believe.

Photo sample from the SE
Perfect lighting and natural subject
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing sharpening and some ‘jaggies’ at the pixel level, but the typical SE user will never, repeat never look this closely!
Photo sample from the SE
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, with plenty of detail once focussing’s right. The latter is slower than on more modern iPhone cameras, but still fast enough for the average snap.
Photo sample from the SE
Extending towards the SE camera and looking at depth of field…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, budding nature snappers will be pretty happy with results…
Photo sample from the SE
Natural shallow depth of field, when used with care!
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – nothing’s quite as stunning as we’ve been used to on the 11 Pro, for example, but it’s still plenty good enough for a ‘mid range’ priced phone.
Photo sample from the SE
Shot in very gloomy indoor light, my eyes could hardly make out these DVD titles, but the 1/4s exposure here (aided by OIS) brought out a sharp enough photo.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing digital noise in this low light test, but despite the handheld 1/4s shot, everything remains crisp, which is good to see.
Portrait example
Portrait example. The image processing still does a super job at creating ‘Portrait’ effects – Apple did create the whole ‘software-based faux shallow depth of field’ photo genre, after all. However, because there’s only a single lens, note that the photographer has to be much closer to the subject!

Multimedia and in-box accessories

Multimedia generally is excellent here – you are obviously limited to the 16:9 screen, so you can’t go ‘wide’ as on newer phone designs, but most YouTube and Netflix content is still (or can be supplied in) 16:9, for example, so you won’t see black bars too often. 

And the stereo speakers are true stereo and (again) very good considering the price point here. They’ll be the same components as in the iPhone 8 in 2017, but they were in a flagship then and they still impress now. Despite the use of the A13, the SE doesn’t get the iPhone 11 series’ Dolby Atmos’ support, but that’s only a minor disappointment.

In the box, you get some pretty good Lightning headphones, but sadly no Lightning to 3.5mm adapter (as the iPhone 8 shipped with). But again, cost savings, etc. Also, you only get the old 1A mains charger (as on the 8), even though the SE 2020 supports 3A fast charging. So the user would have to buy a meatier charger separately. Or perhaps use the one that came with another more expensive family device?

OS and battery life

In terms of software, the SE is bang up to date with iOS, of course, and with the slight novelty that a 16:9 notch-less display on a new iPhone means the return of the battery percentage indicator, top right. It’s off by default but is trivial to toggle on and enjoy.

Battery percentage

Battery life has been much criticized, with the 1821 mAh cell looking a bit anemic in 2020, but the A13 chipset is efficient despite its power and I think you also have to examine the use cases for the SE. 

The ‘iPhone for mum/dad/partner’ is the most obvious, with the user not living on their phone in quite the way you and I (reading this) probably do. The typical day of SMS, iMessage, Facebook, and Music will be handled acceptably, with power left at bedtime.

While the ‘iPhone for your social-network and Netflix-addicted teenager’ is common but not really a fair test. Five hours of intense gaming or media consumption is going to hammer any phone and the teenager in question is very used to a mid-afternoon charge, to keep their habit going(!)

So I’m giving Apple a ‘pass’ here. I’d like to have seen a slightly larger battery, but then we saw from Samsung’s Note 7 fiery fiasco just what happens when you try to cram in a few more hundred mAh into the same size battery bay.

Importantly, while the iPhone 8 was only offered in 64GB or 256GB versions, the iPhone SE 2020 also comes in a middle, 128GB variant, arguably the most useful of the lot. At least for you and I – I keep maxing out my 64GB iPhone 11 Pro! While 64GB and 256GB are still available for those who either don’t need to keep media offline or those who want to keep everything offline – and install massive games! Good to have the full range of choices. But you can read our article if you need help on which storage option to select.

Verdict

In short, Apple has done an awful lot of good with the iPhone SE 2020. Not least in Product Red form here and helping charities. But also in providing a stepping stone onto the iPhone ladder, with cutting edge internals and demonstrably good enough screen, camera, speakers, and microphones, all at the lowest price for an iPhone since the original SE back in 2016. The latter was many peoples’ favorite iPhone of the last decade and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the 2020 version doesn’t carve out its own niche in peoples’ hearts.