Gears & Gadgets

iPhone SE review: Small screen, huge performance

It’s finally here. Nearly two years after discontinuing the 4-inch iPhone SE, Apple has introduced a new iPhone SE with a highly competitive $ 399 starting price tag.

Like its predecessor, this release puts Apple’s latest processor inside the chassis of the company’s heretofore cheapest phone, giving buyers who want a powerful, future-proof handset an option for quite a bit less than the $ 1,000 cost that has become common for flagship phones.

That said, there’s at least one key difference between the phone released in 2016 and the one arriving today. The previous iPhone SE was 4 inches, but this one is 4.7—which might not be the ideal size for users who operate their phones one-handed.

Those who aren’t married to the idea of a 4-inch smartphone will find a lot to like about the SE, though. It doesn’t have an OLED screen or the latest multi-camera system, but given the price, it still might be the best iPhone for most people.

Table of Contents


Specs at a glance: Apple iPhone SE
Screen 1334×750 4.7-inch (326PPI) pressure-sensitive IPS touchscreen with DCI-P3 color gamut
OS iOS 13.4
CPU Apple A13 Bionic
GPU Apple-made A13 Bionic GPU
Storage 64, 128, or 256GB
Networking Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5
Ports Lightning
Camera 12MP rear camera, 7MP front camera
Size 5.45×2.65×0.29-inches (138.4×67.3×7.3mm)
Weight 5.22oz (148g)
Starting price $ 399
Other perks Wireless charging
Apple iPhone SE (2020) product image

Apple iPhone SE (2020)

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The iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1,334×750 pixels at 326ppi. The resolution is nothing to write home about, but this display is well calibrated, and it sports an impressive 1,400:1 contrast ratio and 625 maximum nits of brightness.

Available storage configurations include 64GB ($ 399), 128GB ($ 449), and 256GB ($ 549). 64GB is a bit low even for light users, provided there’s any media or game downloading going on. But the 128GB upgrade is only $ 50 more.

Apple has equipped this phone with the A13 system-on-a-chip, which includes a CPU, GPU, machine learning processor, image signal processor, and more. By most benchmarks the A13 (which was introduced in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro late last year) is the fastest mobile processor on the market, so it’s honestly amazing to see it in a phone at this price.

The iPhone SE supports the new Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard, which is interesting given that Apple opted not to support that in its new MacBook Air. Still, it’s welcome even though Wi-Fi 6 is nascent on the market. Bluetooth 5.0 is also here.

You’ll find a 12-megapixel, ƒ/1.8 aperture camera with a wide-angle lens on the back of the phone. It’s not much to write home about specs-wise, but it supports most (not all) of Apple’s machine-learning-driven computational photography features that attempt to make up for so-so hardware through software techniques. The rear camera can shoot 4K video at up to 60 frames per second.

The front camera offers 7 megapixels and a ƒ/2.2 aperture, and it can take 1080p video at 30 frames per second.

Apple has included a charging brick, a Lightning/USB charging cable, and EarPods wired earbuds in the box. Unfortunately, the company didn’t deem it necessary to include a 3.5mm headphone jack to Lightning adapter like it did in iPhones a few years ago.

While that adapter only costs $ 9 when purchased separately, I feel Apple should have included it since consumers buying at this price are less likely to have bought into the expensive-but-cool world of wireless audio. Many users who spend $ 400 on a smartphone are going to balk at spending roughly half that amount on AirPods, which Apple clearly has in mind as the main audio solution for iPhones.

Apple claims the iPhone SE’s battery can last up to 13 hours for local video playback, eight for streaming video, and 40 for audio playback. That’s a lot less than the iPhone 11’s 17, 10, and 65 respective hours for those use cases. It shouldn’t be a surprise from a smaller phone with less space for a bulky battery, though.


Just looking from the outside, it’s difficult to tell this phone apart from an iPhone 8. It has the exact same dimensions at 5.45×2.65×0.29 inches. All the externally visible components are in the same places, from the camera to the home button.

And the iPhone 8 already looked pretty similar to the iPhone 7 before it, and the iPhone 6 and 6S before that—the main differences are found in the materials. The iPhone SE and iPhone 8 have glass backs, whereas the 6, 6S, and 7 had aluminum backs. The glass back enables wireless charging but poses a durability concern.

The iPhone SE has a home button, making it the only iPhone in the lineup that doesn’t use Face ID for authentication. The iPhone SE also, therefore, uses the slightly different gestures for home-button-equipped phones. The home button, those gestures, and Touch ID fingerprint authentication work just fine, though, so this isn’t going to be a downside for most people.

There’s not anything new to say about the design since it’s the same basic design we’ve been reviewing for years. It’s tried and true. Lots of people like it. By contemporary standards, the bezels are quite large. But at $ 400, no one is likely to expect the most modern design trends.

I do think it’s interesting that Apple has introduced a new phone with this screen resolution, as that will surely extend the period of time that app developers will have to keep supporting this screen’s aspect ratio. (The screens in the rest of the lineup are all taller in portrait mode, or wider in landscape.) Had Apple not introduced the iPhone SE, we might have expected new apps to keep supporting this screen size and aspect ratio for three or four more years. Now there’s no end in sight. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just something app designers and developers will have to note.

Overall, the iPhone SE’s design is not going to turn any heads. It looks a little dated, and I’m not sure wireless charging is worth the concerns that come with a glass back. But again, this is one of the most tested and accepted smartphone designs ever, so it’s going to be just fine for most people.

Despite all of that tried and true vindication, there will still be some users disappointed by the fact that Apple hasn’t brought back the 4-inch smartphone like the original SE. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

Phone sizes

I wrote at length about the reasons for continuing to offer 4-inch phones in an op-ed we published after the SE was announced, so I won’t retread everything here.

But the short summary is that while there are good business and technical reasons for Apple to focus primarily on phones that are much larger than the earliest iPhones, there are some users who are left out in the cold as phones keep getting bigger.

This new iPhone SE keeps the 4.7-inch phone alive in Apple’s lineup, and that’s a good thing. It’s small enough for my small-phone tastes, but it won’t be for those who liked the previous SE.

Reading the comments for that piece, I noticed a lot of confusion from folks about why some small-phone fans are so rabid. “I have small hands and the big phones are just fine for me,” some wrote. The key difference seems to be proclivity for one-handed use. Anecdotally, it seems to me that most people who are fine with 6-inch phones default to two-handed use.

But like many others, I find the need to use a phone with two hands a serious compromise. I almost never do so if I can help it. I’ve built up typing muscle memory over many years using just one thumb over the keyboard, and I’m nearly always using the phone while the other arm is doing something else—raising a beverage for drinking, holding onto a bar to stay stable on the train, resting over my wife’s shoulders while we watch TV on the couch, and so on.

For me, 4.7 inches is just small enough to keep doing those things, so this new iPhone SE is very attractive on that alone. It’s a world of difference for my hands compared to my own iPhone XS, which frustrates me daily when I have to put something down to reach that one on-screen button I just can’t quite reach otherwise.

Other people have smaller hands than I do, though, and they might be out of luck in Apple’s lineup even with the new SE if they want a small phone they can use one-handed.

All this is to say that if you loved your old iPhone SE, this will be an adjustment—especially if you are accustomed to always using your phone with one hand. I’d recommend trying out one-handed typing and the like on this new phone in a retail store (that is, once they’re open again and safe in your area) if you have that option and your current phone is still working fine.

Sadly, there aren’t many smaller options left on the market, so it might be futile if an upgrade is urgently necessary.


We can’t be sure, and Apple has not told us one way or another, but based on teardowns performed by iFixit and others, it at least appears that this is the iPhone 8 camera hardware. That said, it is paired with the A13 chip, which claims to offer new and improved image processing, so it may take slightly better photos under some circumstances. We compared photos taken with the iPhone 8, iPhone XS, and 2020 iPhone SE below.

The iPhone SE performs pretty admirably under normal lighting conditions. As you can see in the plant photo, it offers more vibrant color, among other things, compared to the iPhone 8 with similar hardware, appearing close in some ways to the iPhone XS. This goes to show just how much the quality of photos taken with modern smartphones comes down to image signal processors and computation rather than optics.

Unfortunately, the SE buckles under pressure in low light compared to the XS. The SE low-light photo is grainy, and the camera had various degrees of difficulty focusing each time we took the photo. We didn’t test an iPhone 11 Pro here, but that phone’s new Night Mode feature would produce even better comparative results than the XS does.

And while Apple’s current flagships offer additional lenses (telephoto and ultra-wide angle) the SE offers neither of these. Don’t get me wrong; the iPhone SE camera is just fine—good for the price, even. But it’s one of the main things you’re sacrificing when you skip out on paying significantly more for an iPhone 11 Pro or a high-end Android phone.


We’ve written about the A13, and Apple’s chips in general, in prior iPhone and iPad reviews, so we’ll cut to the chase: direct comparisons with other iPhones and a couple of Android flagships.

The iPhone and iPad devices we tested against represent the past three generations of iPhone processor: the iPhone 8 (A11), iPhone XS (A12), and iPhone 11 Pro (A13, the same as this SE). We also included the A12Z-equipped iPad Pro that launched just last month.

As expected, the iPhone SE performs similarly to the iPhone 11 Pro. It outperforms every prior iPhone—and every Android phone, including recent releases with vastly higher price tags.

This phone might be small, and it might be relatively cheap, but it is exceedingly powerful. It’s honestly amazing that you can get this level of performance for this price.

The bad news is that the iPhone SE can’t match the latest iPhones and Android phones in terms of battery life. Apple says the iPhone SE can handle up to 13 hours of local video playback, compared to 18 hours for the iPhone 11—that’s quite a bit less.

We haven’t had enough time to run complete and rigorous battery tests yet, but based on one initial synthetic test and anecdotal use, Apple’s estimates appear to be spot on—at least in terms of what kind of difference you’re looking at between the SE and the 11.

This isn’t the phone to get if you care most about battery life; the pursuit of better battery life is a key reason why smartphones have gotten so physically large lately, after all. But if you’re looking for a great price-to-performance ratio, it seems likely the SE is the best pick out there.


The iPhone SE currently runs iOS 13, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. As I’ve said in other reviews, iOS is the main reason people buy iPhones. It’s relatively stable and straightforward to use, with one of the best software ecosystems that has ever existed on any platform.

iOS differentiates itself from the competing Android platform through both a promise of software-hardware integration and an added focus on personal privacy. And Apple tends to support devices with software updates for many years longer than competitors.

For much more detail about iOS 13, read our in-depth review. This operating system is not perfect, by any means, but it’s more than good enough for almost anyone.

This seems like as good a place as any to note one oddity that I came across with the iPhone SE that was also reported elsewhere. For some reason, it is not possible to interact with a lock screen notification via Haptic Touch on this phone even though it is on other iPhones—and the SE otherwise supports Haptic Touch.

You can still get the same results by swiping, but this is a strange omission—so strange that I have assumed it is a bug, though some reports suggest otherwise.

Anyway, despite that bit of weirdness, iOS 13 works great on the SE as far as I could tell during my week with the device. It runs smoothly, all the apps in the App Store support this phone, and each and every one of Apple’s services works great here.

Though it be but little, it is fierce

When I reviewed the iPhone 8, I questioned the value that phone offered, given that it was not that far off in price from Apple’s new flagship at the time, the iPhone X. But the iPhone SE is a superior handset to the iPhone 8, and it costs half as much as the 8 did when I reviewed it in 2017.

With a caveat or two about the camera and battery life, Apple has made a phone that packs in all the most important things about its flagships but excludes only the luxuries or nice-to-haves, like OLED, Face ID, and secondary cameras. That decision-making results in greatly bringing the price down.

As a result, I’ve never had an easier time recommending an iPhone than I do with the iPhone SE.

If you prioritize a large screen for consuming rich content on your phone regularly, you’ll still want to consider the more expensive iPhones. The same goes if taking high-quality photos with your phone is a big part of your day-to-day, especially in low light.

But if you just want a reliable, blazing-fast phone with excellent software support for years to come and all the essential features you expect from a smartphone at a reasonable price, you might pick up the iPhone SE—maybe even with just one hand, at that!

The Good

  • This is a highly competitive price for an iPhone
  • The fastest performance available in a smartphone today at less than half the cost of top-of-the-line iOS and Android flagships
  • iOS is an effective, secure, and robust mobile operating system that is a great choice for most users
  • The inclusion of Apple’s A13 chip all but ensures this phone will be supported by new apps and updates for a long, long time

The Bad

  • The iPhone SE trails behind other iPhones in terms of battery life
  • The design is looking a bit dated
  • There’s no headphone adapter included in the box
  • Mediocre low-light camera performance

The Ugly

  • Folks expecting the return of the hyper-compact, 4-inch iPhone SE will be disappointed

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Tech – Ars Technica

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