This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an Apple iPhone SE. The first-gen model launched back in 2016 and, like the new iPhone SE (2020), its unique selling point was the fact it was Apple’s cheapest smartphone at the time.
The phone offered features, functionality and performance that were attractive to those who wanted a powerful smartphone but in a smaller, cheaper package. It gave you pride of iPhone ownership and a large dose of the Apple experience for a fraction of the price of its flagship handsets.
Skip forward four years and we’re getting a distinct feeling of deja vu. The iPhone SE is back and the idea is pretty much the same – give the user an authentic iPhone experience without the huge price tags of the upper-tier handsets.
In theory, it sounds great, but Apple has obviously had to make some sacrifices to reach that lower price point. The question is, how much have these sacrifices affected performance?
One slight mark against the original iPhone SE was its appearance. It used an older iPhone design, giving the impression it was a poor relative of the flagship iPhone 6S and 6S Plus of the time. With the iPhone SE (2020), there’s no need for such an inferiority complex.
Screen size 4.7in
Resolution 1334 x 750 pixels
Camera Triple 12MP (main), 7MP (selfie)
Bluetooth version 5.0
Finishes Black, white, red
Dimensions (hwd) 13.9 x 6.7 x 0.7cm
At a glance, the SE looks closely related to the current iPhone XR and iPhone 11. Not only that, it feels like a proper iPhone too. Those smooth, curved aluminium edges with glass front and back still give the impression of quality, even if it doesn’t have the textured matt glass of the top-of-the-range iPhone 11 Pro.
Place the phones side by side, though, and the biggest difference is the screen size and amount of real estate offered by the iPhone SE (2020). The SE’s display is only 4.7in compared to the 6.1in screen offered by the iPhone 11. The 11’s screen also spans the full length of the phone, compared to the iPhone SE which has to make do with thick black bezels top and bottom, much like an iPhone 8.
The bottom bezel accommodates the SE’s Touch ID fingerprint security tech, which is used instead of Face ID found on the rest of Apple’s current smartphone lineup.
The iPhone SE (2020) weighs 148g, which is nearly 50g less than the iPhone 11. The SE is also 1mm thinner (7.3mm), 13mm shorter (13.8cm) and almost 1cm narrower (6.7cm) and it feels lighter and less chunky in hand. Some may actually prefer the smaller handset, especially if buying a bigger model means two hands are needed to operate it.
One slight downside is that you don’t get the same range of colourful options as with the iPhone XR and iPhone 11. The iPhone SE (2020) is limited to just three finishes: black, white and red.
The iPhone SE (2020) is powered by Apple’s A13 Bionic chip and third-generation Neural Engine. This is the same chip that's in not only the iPhone 11, but also the flagship iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max. It’s good to see the SE doesn’t have to make do with a lower-powered processor and this helps it deliver an excellent user experience.
Unlocking the phone with Touch ID, flicking between multiple apps, navigating menus and jumping in and out of the camera are handled with minimal fuss. The user experience is just as satisfying on the iPhone SE (2020) as it is on Apple’s more expensive handsets and you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
We fire up Netflix and download the first episode of Season 2 of Altered Carbon, and there is little difference in responsiveness between the iPhone SE (2020) and the iPhone 11. We are up and running in seconds.
One compromise with the cheaper, smaller iPhone is the battery life. Apple claims around 13 hours for video, compared with 16 hours on the iPhone XR and 17 hours on the iPhone 11. Audio playback is a claimed 40 hours, compared with 65 hours on the other two iPhones. We get a day’s use out of the phone’s 1821mAh battery, but the iPhone SE (2020) will definitely need topping up daily, especially if you’re watching content with the brightness cranked up or listening to music at high volume.
The second compromise relates to the main camera. Understandably, given the cheaper price point, there’s no sign of the triple camera arrangement on the flagship iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max, nor the twin set-up found on the 11.
What you do get is a solid point-and-shoot snapper. The iPhone SE (2020) gets a single 12MP wide camera similar to that found in the iPhone XR. This means there’s no ultra wide lens or night mode, so low light snaps can suffer for detail and contrast. The front-facing FaceTime HD camera, is 7MP, with 1080p video recording at 30fps. There are a wide range of video recording modes – the iPhone SE can record 4K video at 24fps, 30fps or 60fps and 1080p video at 30ps or 60fps.
The iPhone SE (2020) has to settle for a widescreen Retina HD LCD display with Multi-Touch, so it’s not quite as high tech as the Liquid Retina HD display of the older XR or 11. This slightly older screen tech is mixed with a resolution of 1334 x 750 pixels and a ppi of 326. This matches the likes of the 11 and XR, but the resolution on those phones is higher at 1792 x 828.
Like its siblings, the SE’s screen is a True Tone display with wide colour (P3) support, 625 nits of maximum brightness, plus Dolby Vision and HDR10 compatibility where available. Apple claims a contrast ratio of 1400:1.
Play the opening credits of Altered Carbon and the iPhone SE (2020) impresses. You see plenty of detail on the snake’s scales and they’re dark and inky black with it. There’s good depth to the opening nightclub scene, with the shadows punctuated by neon reds and blues – the bright blue stripes that wrap around the singer’s microphone burn particularly brightly. On the whole, colours are nicely judged and you’re presented with a nicely balanced palette.
There’s plenty of texture and detail that you can pick out from the singer’s gold dress as it shimmers under the lights. Here the pixel density allows for a solid and stable picture. One thing we’ve come to expect from Apple’s iPhones is a watchable picture with good motion and edge definition, and the iPhone SE (2020) doesn’t disappoint. We think the iPhone 11 adds a touch more subtlety and brightness, but the gap isn’t as big as you might expect.
Given its entry-level status, there are a couple of audio features you won’t find on the iPhone SE (2020) compared to its pricier siblings. This handset has to settle for stereo sound compared to the spatial audio tech on the iPhone 11 and above. The SE also loses Dolby Atmos support, but we wouldn’t describe this feature as vital for a smartphone device.
The iPhone SE (2020) comes with a pair of Lightning EarPods – there’s no longer a Lightning to 3.5mm dongle in the box, so you’ll either have to buy one or use a pair of wireless headphones instead. Those bundled EarPods won’t make the most of the iPhone’s abilities, so even spending a small amount on a pair of budget headphones will bring a big improvement.
The built-in speakers sound decent by smartphone standards and there’s enough detail for the odd music video or an episode of your favourite TV series. The iPhone 11 sounds more solid and composed though.
Plug in a pair of headphones and the iPhone SE (2020) delivers a much more convincing performance and you can hear that same fun-loving sound that we’ve come to expect from Apple’s iPhone range.
Play Bombay Bicycle Club’s I Can Hardly Speak and there’s an even balance to the way music sounds, the phone not favouring one element of the frequency range over the other.
The phone’s timing is spot on, the drum beat rolls along at a decent rate and the heftier hits arrive with a fine sense of purpose. There’s also sparkle and texture to the high frequency jingles and jangles and a welcome lack of background noise during the quieter moments of the track.
This allows the vocal to just hover in the soundstage while the iPhone extracts impressive levels of detail and delivers all the emotion you could really wish for at this level.
Send a spot of classical music its way and the iPhone doesn’t flinch. Playing The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme), performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, the iPhone laps up the power and the drama of the track. Dynamics are excellent, from the short sharp shocks of the strings, to the soaring highs of the wind section. You can just imagine Darth Vader striding into shot, ready to crush rebels.
The iPhone 11 sounds more composed and imparts an even bigger sense of drama and occasion, but the SE still performs superbly for the money.
The Apple iPhone SE (2020) does what it sets out to achieve. It will appeal to those looking for their first affordable iPhone and those who might be a few iPhone generations behind, but don’t want to spend a fortune on a new smartphone.
And although some sacrifices have been made along the way to hit that price, they don’t spoil what is generally an excellent user experience plus a great picture and sound performance. The iPhone SE (2020) is among the best budget smartphones on the market at the moment.
Review sample provided by Vodafone (opens in new tab)
- Screen 5
- Sound 5
- Features 5
Read our Apple iPhone SE review
Read our Apple iPhone 11 review