Apple iPhone SE (2020) Review

Apple makes an iPhone model for everyone again

It always seemed like a bridge too far for an image obsessed company like Apple, but the announcement that many had always wanted is finally here: a budget option for iPhone fans. Of course ‘budget’ is a relative term, but at around £400 or £35 a month for a brand new iPhone release, fans of the brand, and newcomers alike, should check this out.

So is this a worthy entry-level variant of the top-notch but pricey iPhone range, or have Apple sacrificed too much for this new approach to be worthwhile? Check out the rest of our iPhone SE review below to find out.

iPhone SE | The looks

While this is a brand new phone that doesn’t really take its design cues from any of the current generation, you might recognise bits and pieces from older iPhones of the last decade. For a start, this iPhone SE model ditches the full-screen design of the iPhone XR and iPhone 11, for one with borders, reminiscent of the iPhone 8 from 2017, which means it’s not in the same league as the latest top-end iPhone models but is a significant upgrade from the iPhone 6, 6s or 7 – if that’s your latest point of reference. Even this has a positive however, as it means that it is nowhere near as heavy as some of the latest generation phones while having comparable performance. This gives it a power to weight ratio that compares favourably with much more expensive phones, and blows the older iPhones out of the water.

The rest of the phone is not just reminiscent of the 8, it’s almost identical, right down to the placement of the buttons and even the weight. This makes sense from an Apple perspective, as it means they can keep the price of the device down by reusing older parts and manufacturing templates, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking in the design department. You may well actually prefer having a phyiscal home button too – something the flagship iPhone 11 has done away with.  However, for owners of older iPhones or people who care more about performance than design, the exciting stuff is what’s going on inside this phone, where it’s been blessed with the same guts as its more expensive brother the iPhone 11.

iPhone SE | The size

One of the most appealing features of the original iPhone SE was it’s size. It was a more pocket-friendly device compared to the larger screen Plus models, and the more recent iPhone X and 11. The new iPhone SE retains it’s smaller size, with a 4.7″ display which means that it’s a bit easier to fit in your pocket or bag, as well as being an easier to hold and use with one hand.

iPhone SE | Under the hood

If you were concerned from the looks that this phone is just an upgraded iPhone 8, be reassured by the performance and specs which proves that it’s not. While it may look the same, internally the phone has far more in common with the new iPhone 11 than it does with any older designs, meaning that its performance leaves both the older SE and the iPhone 8 in the dust. The primary reason for this jump in performance is the use of the new A13 Bionic Chipset, the same one that’s used in the iPhone 11 Pro, which means that it can keep up with its more expensive brother in terms of day to day running and flipping between apps. One area where you may notice a slight difference is in more complicated tasks like running complex apps and editing photos or video, but even here it is still light years ahead of the iPhone 8 or its older variants.

One area where the SE does fall behind the iPhone 11 is in battery life, easily explicable by the fact that it’s a smaller phone that uses the older 1,821mAh power pack from previous iPhones, however it’s also a consequence of its ability to match the 11 in performance. You should still get a full day’s use out of this phone for as long as you’re not doing too much heavy video editing and streaming – this is the big trade-off for having near-iPhone 11 powers.

The compromises they have made around battery life are more obvious when performing complex multi-core tasks, such as streaming and downloading while playing a game at the same time, where it’s clear the designers have throttled performance to conserve battery life. That said, we’re being harsh by comparing the SE to a much more expensive device: It still outperforms more comparable phones from Apple rivals Google and Samsung, squeezing out higher performance than the Pixel 3a or the Samsung Galaxy s10.

iPhone SE | The camera

Photography is another area where Apple have been surprisingly generous with the SE, packing nearly the same software that you get with the iPhone 11 into a much cheaper phone, even though the actual camera is the same one that was bundled with the iPhone 8. Apple have got around this by having the gap between the older hardware and newer software be bridged by image correction technology, which largely works very well. The result of this Frankenstein approach is that you get a lot more for your money: colour sharpness and reproduction are noticeably better than the equivalent photo taken with an iPhone 8, especially in low light conditions, making it doubly impressive. Once again the strain this places on the processor becomes more noticeable when you take richer or higher definition photos and video, when compared with the iPhone 11, but for the price and for those of us that just want a decent smartphone camera that does the job, this is an excellent compromise.

iPhone SE | The verdict

Budget models of the latest flagship phone have long been a way for price conscious consumers to get a taste of the latest tech, but it’s often been a toss-up between whether it’s a genuine contender or merely a beefed-up version of an older model. Despite appearances, this iPhone SE is genuinely the real deal. While it might look a lot like an iPhone 8 you definitely get the impression that this is actually a stripped-down version of the mindbogglingly feature rich iPhone 11. The tech inside the phone is practically identical in many ways, and though there’s no way of getting around the fact that the performance and options are not quite up to spec with its more expensive sibling, there’s no doubt that it’s a great deal for the price.

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