Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Apple iPhone SE camera against the 11 range

2020 iPhone SE reviewed: Apple’s best value iPhone

Quick review

Apple iPhone SE (2020)
The good
Feels great in the hands
A "normal" sized phone
The chip and performance of the iPhone 11
Pretty solid camera
Supports Apple Pay
Water resistant
Wireless charging
TrueTone screen
Great price
The not-so-good
Camera isn't as strong as iPhone 11 at night
Battery life isn't great

It’s normal to expect the new and advanced to look like they’ve just arrived from the future, but if you prefer something the way things used to be, just newer, you’ll probably Iike the 2020 iPhone SE.

Phones have changed a lot over the years. They’ve become bigger, faster, more capable, and more futuristic. These days, phone buyers can expect big screens that take up most of the display and sometimes curve, fewer buttons back down to practically one, and all the bits and pieces that make them shine, that make them extraordinary and typically expensive.

But they don’t have to be. Phones can be just as you remember them, sans buttons. They can be comfortable and familiar, yet made for today. They can even be made for a price that doesn’t make you wince and feel you’ll need to sacrifice a cost of living, which is an easy thing to feel when you look at the $1500 and $2000 costs of the mobiles of modern day.

Apple’s latest mobile is made for that, and it might surprise you. It continues a range that showed the maker of the iPhone was thinking about budgets several years ago, delivering the same message today.

When Apple launched the iPhone SE originally in 2016, it was an iPhone that delivered what you needed in a cost-effective package. Four years later, that style of iPhone is back in a familiar style with a whole new focus. Hell, it might just be the perfect upgrade for people who still love their classic iPhone, complete with that home button up front.

Design

Apple iPhone SE (2020) reviewed

We’re in a world of big phones, but that doesn’t mean everyone is happy. Some prefer smaller sizes, which is something of a rarity in these parts. It’s a shame, too, because a smaller phone is often kinder and gentler on your pocket and pants than the bigger phones that are typical these days.

However the iPhone SE goes against those big sizes in a way we suspect quite a few people will like, adopting one of Apple’s most successful designs and breathing new life into it.

That design is the iPhone 8, which was also very much like the iPhone 7, iPhone 6S, and iPhone 6 before it. On the iPhone 8, Apple finessed the formula, replacing the metal back with glass, which kept it water resistant but added support for wireless charging. There’s still a metal frame here, and with the glass front and back, the iPhone SE retains the premium look and feel the iPhone 8 had before it.

It is a small phone, thanks to the 4.7 inch screen, which by today’s standards of 5 inches and above as a minimum size is downright tiny, but it’s a tiny phone that fits neatly in the hand, doesn’t make too much of an impact on your pants pocket, and is about as balanced in design as you could ever want. Plus there are plenty of cases that will fit, because it’s an old school design.

Granted, there are things about it that haven’t changed, such as the large top and bottom bezels associated with the older iPhone design, but if you still love the old Apple look, you won’t be bothered at all. And if you are, best to focus on what’s inside, because that counts most.

Features

Yes, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, because while the 2020 iPhone SE looks like the 2017 iPhone 8, it’s clearly a different phone.

Same exterior, different innards, with an Apple A13 Fusion chip found on the inside of the new iPhone SE, the same chip Apple uses on the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max phones.

There’s a choice of either 64GB, 128GB, or 256GB storage here, and Apple runs iOS 13 out of the box. No upgradeable storage, though, because some things don’t change.

Cameras come in at one on each side, different from the other iPhone 11 models, with a single 12 megapixel camera on the back, while the front gets a 7 megapixel camera for selfies. Support on that rear camera extends to 4K Ultra HD video, but the stills mode also supports portrait images, despite there being only one camera, similar to what was found on the 2018 iPhone XR.

Connections on the phone range from 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax WiFi, Bluetooth 5, GPS, and Gigabit-capable 4G LTE, with NFC also there for Apple Pay. There is no 3.5mm headset jack, though, with Apple sticking to its use of Lightning port only.

Wireless charging is included in the bundle, as is IP67 water resistance, and a fingerprint sensor under the home button still found on the front. This is a classic iPhone design, after all, so there’s no Face ID here, just Touch ID.

You’ll also find a 4.7 inch screen sporting a resolution of 1334×750, providing the old Retina clarity of 326 pixels per inch alongside the white-balancing technology Apple calls TrueTone, all found inside small screen for this day and age.

In-use

By today’s standards, the iPhone SE is quite small, but go back in time a few years, and it was actually fairly normal.

In fact, if you have an iPhone 6, 6S, 7 or iPhone 8, this is what a normal-sized phone is, and you might yearn to keep it that way. Our hands haven’t exactly gotten bigger, so why should you necessarily be forced into a position of carrying a bigger phone?

That’s one of the arguments for the iPhone SE, which retains the look and feel of the older, smaller iPhone, but updates the insides. The other matter at hand is that of price, because the new iPhone SE is much more friendly on the wallet, being the first new iPhone in a long time that has come in under a thousand bucks in Australia.

However let us first focus on how you use it, as that’s a big part of what makes the new phone so appealing.

For starters, there’s no facial security on this iPhone, not like there is on the other new iPhones out in the market.

Using the iPhone SE is just like using an iPhone 8 because of the design and Touch ID-equipped home button, but the phone is more like an iPhone 11 in how it performs, and there’s a great reason why: at the heart of the iPhone SE, this phone beats with iPhone 11 hardware.

Apple iPhone SE (2020) reviewed

Performance

Yep, you read that right: the iPhone SE is technically an iPhone 11 under the hood, complete with similar benchmarks, too. That’s an Apple A13 Bionic beating as its heart, delivering very similar performance to what’s in Apple’s more expensive current iPhones, the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Think of the 2020 iPhone SE as a little iPhone 11, because in a way, that’s what it is. That’s kind of what Apple is going for. Kind of.

As such, expect it to handle most of what you intend to throw at it, be it apps, music services, or games. Even though the iPhone SE is technically an entry-level Apple iPhone, there’s very little difference in speed or capability from Apple’s most expensive phones. This will do the job you’re looking for in a phone, and possibly even a video game system for Apple Arcade, even if the 4.7 inch screen is much smaller than most phones and portable game consoles these days.

Mobile performance has seen a marked improvement, even if we’re not really getting to test it much from this self-isolation work-from-home period we’re all in.

A few tests out and about show speeds as high as 150Mbps could be found on the Telstra 4GX network in Sydney, though the modem inside the 2020 iPhone SE can hit speeds as high as 1Gbps, so if you need it, there’s plenty of speed to be had, alongside that WiFi 6 support, also known as 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax. Handy.

Camera

Apple iPhone SE (2020) reviewed

Also handy is the camera, which has seen an upgrade and is now very similar to the iPhone XR. We don’t know if they’re exactly the same camera, but we know the main camera in the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro/Pro Max is not the same one found in the iPhone SE.

You will get a 12 megapixel camera, though, and it feels like what we experienced on the XR in 2019. That means it’s more than capable, offering strong colours and sharp details in daylight, with support for Apple’s Live Photos.

Low light images are OK and acceptable, at least by today’s standards, though we wish Apple would have included the long exposure “night” mode it opted to use in the iPhone 11 range. That is sadly missing in action here, and means you’ll just be getting low light shots by the grace of the camera sensor as per usual, meaning it will work — and work similarly to those iPhone 11 models when capturing in the standard image mode — just not as well as on Apple’s more expensive phones.

Low light modes on the 2020 iPhone SE and 2019 iPhone 11 Pro Max compared, with the iPhone SE (left), iPhone 11 Pro Max in standard (middle), and iPhone 11 Pro Max in night mode (right).
Low light modes on the 2020 iPhone SE and 2019 iPhone 11 Pro Max compared, with the iPhone SE (left), iPhone 11 Pro Max in standard (middle), and iPhone 11 Pro Max in night mode (right).

Also along for the ride is 4K video capture, which you can get from the rear camera, offering that typical Apple excellence from the video capability, which still rates as one of the better video cameras in any phone range.

However we’re more interested in stills, specifically the portrait mode, which exists in the 2020 iPhone SE with one camera. It’s very much like how things were in the iPhone XR, a phone that felt like it was an iPhone for everybody, with AI filling the gap and able to do what the second camera lens does on the other models. That means if you stick the new iPhone SE into portrait mode, machine learning will pick up on the characteristics that make a human portrait what it is, and blur the background, emulating how camera lenses work.

Results from this mode are quite strong, with the familiar soft background evident in Apple’s other portrait modes, complete with the ability to edit them later on. The look is smooth, and while there are some misses from the camera technology, we found the 2020 iPhone SE handles its own quite well in portrait mode.

That goes for the front-facing 7 megapixel camera, too, alongside that 12 megapixel module, because you get portrait mode on the front, as well.

Aside for low-light needing some work, the only other issue we have with the camera would be the speed, as it can be just a little on the slow side. Sometimes you’ll fire a shot and the camera will fire immediately, while other times, you’re waiting a half second to a full second, missing the shot or capturing blur. It definitely happened more than once, and is just one of those things worth keeping in mind with this camera upgrade.

Battery

The camera may have received an upgrade, but the same can’t be said for the battery. Inside the iPhone SE, you’ll find an 1821mAh battery, a much smaller amount than the larger batteries expected in today’s phones.

These days, battery volumes of 3000 and 4000mAh are more typical in phones, while batteries below 2000mAh hark to the good ol’ days of roughly two or three years ago. The saying “they don’t make ’em like they used to” could be applied to batteries this size, and for good reason: they’re tiny.

Back when we last reviewed an Apple device this size, we’d invariably be charging as soon as we got home from work, and the 2020 iPhone SE is no different, making it a work day phone. It means while the iPhone 11 Pro Max can hit a full 24 hours of life and reach into the second day just a little if you have to, the iPhone SE will need a charge the moment you get home, and possibly throughout the day, as well.

Our battery tests aren’t quite as exhaustive as they once were, what with the self-isolation requirement these days, but we tried to get the same experience as per normal, and found that the phone could be taken off charge at 7am and would need an urgent power source by 10pm for moderate use. More extensive use will see the iPhone SE needing a charge throughout the day, which makes it more like the iPhone 8.

It is possible we’ll see Apple wring more life from the battery as time goes on, but if you’re used to the battery life of an iPhone 6, iPhone 7, or iPhone 8, and you’re thinking of upgrading to the 2020 iPhone SE, it is very much a case of more of the same.

Value

While the battery leaves something to be desired, Apple has practically nailed the value. At $749, this is about Apple’s best price yet, delivering a lot of iPhone for under a grand.

The outside is an iPhone 8, but the inside is what counts, delivering much of an iPhone 11, plus a decent camera, even if it’s not quite on the same level as the iPhone 11.

At $749, the iPhone SE is Apple’s best value iPhone yet, bar none. Set near the price of Google’s Pixel “a” series (the Pixel 3a at the moment, though a new model is coming), it’s a phone that lowers the cost of entry and barrier to the world of iPhones, while keeping it open for people who like normal sized phones as more normal-like pricing.

Make no mistake, while high-priced phones are the new norm, the price of the iPhone SE is a version of normal we’d much prefer to see.

Apple iPhone SE camera against the 11 range
The iPhone SE (left) has the heart of an iPhone 11 (middle) and iPhone 11 Pro Max (right), but only one camera.

What needs work?

While Apple has clearly delivered an upgrade on the iPhone 8 approach and formula, one we’re not surprised about the battery for, we do wish it had a little more in the camera department.

It’s as if Apple has given it the iPhone 11 camera and processing, but stopped short of one of the best features from the iPhone 11 range: night mode. It’s nowhere to be seen here, which is a shame.

Our guess is Apple didn’t want to undercut the iPhone XR, which also lacks the night mode in its camera. However without this, the iPhone SE is a great phone with a great camera, just one that performs rather ordinarily in low light, a shame given how almost everything else is an iPhone 11 in some way.

Apple iPhone SE (2020) reviewed

Final thoughts (TLDR)

It’s worth keeping in mind that the 2020 iPhone SE is not an iPhone 11. There is indeed a lot in common on the inside, but it’s not the same.

But it doesn’t need to be, either. The new iPhone is a look back at something familiar from the good old days of the iPhone, and it’s one that will work quite well for people who love this style of phone. You know, the classic style.

It’s familiar and friendly, and outside of the battery life, the iPhone SE is great option not just for people yearning for the familiarity of an old school iPhone, but also for people who might be willing to jump into an iPhone at a reduced cost.

You can call it something else, but the 2020 iPhone SE is a budget iPhone, lowering the cost of entry to Apple’s smartphone world, yet keeping the quality up there. The technology is strong and the phone is great, offering so much of what makes the iPhone 11 range capable, yet inside of a smaller and more pocket friendly body.

Apple doesn’t make budget iPhones, either. Technically, this would be a midrange phone, but it feels as though Apple is trying to elevate the status of both the budget and midrange with this take, providing old school iPhone owners with something they already love, just with an upgrade here and there.

For folks who love the look and feel of the old iPhone and yearn for an upgrade, this is it. It’s an iPhone for more people, yet for less, and that’s not bad at all. If you want an iPhone Plus model, however, Apple is pushing you to the button-less designs of the iPhone XR, iPhone 11, or iPhone 11 Pro Max. But if you’re happy with a small and svelte phone, complete with a button the way it used to be, the iPhone SE gets you, and gets the formula mostly right. Recommended.

Apple iPhone SE camera against the 11 range
Apple iPhone SE (2020)
Design
Features
Performance
Ease of use
Cameras
Battery
Value
The good
Feels great in the hands
A "normal" sized phone
The chip and performance of the iPhone 11
Pretty solid camera
Supports Apple Pay
Water resistant
Wireless charging
TrueTone screen
Great price
The not-so-good
Camera isn't as strong as iPhone 11 at night
Battery life isn't great
4.2
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