iPhone SE (2020) hands-on: Four quick thoughts after unboxing Apple's $399 iPhone

The iPhone SE arrives Friday, but we got our hands on it a little early. Here are some thoughts after we got it unboxed and set it up.
Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributing Writer

Reviews of the iPhone SE went live this morning, and overall, it's a hit. ZDNet sister site CNET already reviewed it, with Patrick Holland saying the SE is "not only a wonderful iPhone but one of the best budget phones you can currently buy." Now, combine that line of thinking with businesses who are looking to cut back on costs while still ensuring their employees are always connected, and the iPhone SE is poised to be hit with consumers and business users alike. 

At $399, with the latest A13 Bionic processor, new camera features, and battery life that should be more than enough for most -- it's hard to go wrong with this budget-tier iPhone. 

While we wait for ZDNet contributor Matthew Miller to write up his full review of the iPhone SE, I thought I'd share some quick thoughts after I got my hands on the SE a couple days before it's official launch on April 24. 

iPhone SE 2020.jpg

Apple's iconic home button and Touch ID are back. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

I really miss small phones

It's been years since I've owned or regularly used a phone with a screen smaller than 5.5 inches, but after a couple of hours setting up and using the iPhone SE, I now remember why I resisted jumping on the phablet train years ago. 

Smaller phones are just easier to manage, whether it's throwing it in your pocket, or when using it with a single hand.

For example, iOS 13 included a gesture keyboard, and I've yet to use it more than a couple of times. That kind of keyboard lends itself to single-handed use, and trying to hold the iPhone 11 Pro Max with one hand while gesture typing is just begging for the phone to take a tumble. With the iPhone SE, I've swipe-typed several times already, and it just feels natural. 

Sadly, with phones like the S20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro showing that manufactures are only continuing to push the size limits of phones, it doesn't look like small form factor phones with high-end features are about to make a comeback. 

I don't miss Touch ID, but it has its place

I've said it before, but I simply prefer the ease of use that Face ID brings to Apple's lineup. I pick up or wake up my device and by the time I swipe up on the screen, my phone's unlocked and ready for use. Touch ID is similar, in that I press the home button and it simultaneously unlocks and takes me to the home screen. It's sure to be a useful tool, especially right now when wearing a face mask in public renders Face ID useless. 

I still prefer Face ID, but we'll see how I feel about Touch ID after a week or two of use. 

IPhone SE 2020-1.jpg
Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The camera has potential

I need to fully test the camera before I give any hard opinions, but the first few pictures I captured have looked good. Apple has implemented a lot of machine learning and AI into making the iPhone SE's camera take better photos than what we saw with the iPhone 8. 

The biggest change I'll have to learn to deal with is getting used to the smaller display and how it impacts framing a photo. This is, admittedly, something I'm only even aware of because I'm coming from the iPhone 11 Pro Max and its 6.5-inch screen. For someone who has been using something like an older iPhone 6, you won't even notice. 

However, it's worth mentioning for those who are thinking about downsizing with their next upgrade. A smaller screen is more manageable, sure, but it also means there are undoubtedly adjustments that will need to be made when completing routine tasks. 

Don't worry about performance

I made a quick run of Geekbench 5's CPU benchmark on the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Remember, both phones have the A13 Bionic processor.

The iPhone SE scored 1,338 on single-core and 2,971 for multi-core. The iPhone 11 Pro Max? It scored 1,322 for single-core and 3,462 for multi-core. In other words, at $399, you're getting an iPhone with performance nearly on par with the $1,200 iPhone 11 Pro Max. That's just crazy. 

IPhone SE side buttons .jpg
Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

More to come

We will have a full review soon, and I'll follow that up with more thoughts after I've spent some quality time with the iPhone SE and acclimated to a smaller device. It's going to be a challenge, but a fun one at that. 

I'm curious about battery life, overall camera performance, especially in low light situations, and whether I miss having multiple cameras.

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