Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: An affordable, capable business phone fit for uncertain times

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  • Editors' rating
    9.7 Spectacular
  • $399.00

Pros

  • High end processor
  • Low price
  • Small size for the masses
  • Solid battery life
  • Wireless charging
  • Capable rear and front cameras
  • Touch ID front sensor
  • $50 charge for reasonable internal storage

Cons

  • Large top bezel

A couple of years ago the Apple iPhone X restored my joy in smartphones and a lot of that had to do with the small size and extremely responsive performance of the phone. I went through the iPhone XS Max and iPhone XR before choosing to stick with the iPhone XS and then moved onto the iPhone 11 Pro.

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Two months ago, I traded in my iPhone 11 Pro -- as part of the T-Mobile Jump On Demand program  -- to pick up the new Galaxy S20. When I saw the announcement for the new 2020 iPhone SE with a low starting price of $399, I immediately ordered one to satisfy my iOS desires. After almost a week with this new iPhone, I'm convinced it is perfect for people like me who want an iOS experience without paying $750 to more than $1,000.

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

At $399, you would think there would be unforgivable compromises made to launch at this low price. There were not and Apple's shot across the bow with the iPhone SE should make all Android manufacturers a bit nervous. Google launched the Pixel 3a last year with a similar strategy and may soon release the Pixel 4a, but Apple's iPhone SE currently sets the bar for sub-$400 smartphones.

Specifications

  • Processor: Apple A13 Bionic chip, third-generation neural engine
  • Display: 4.7 inch 1334 x 750 pixels resolution LCD (326PPI)
  • Operating system: Apple iOS 13.4
  • RAM: 3GB (unofficial)
  • Storage: 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB internal options
  • Cameras: 12MP f/1.8 aperture rear camera; 7MP front-facing camera with f/2.2 aperture.
  • Wireless technology: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax Wi-Fi-6, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, GPS/GLONASS
  • Dust and water resistance: IP67
  • Battery: 1,821mAh battery (unofficial) rated at up 40 hours of audio playback and 13 hours of video. Wireless charging and fast charging with an 18W adapter (sold separately).
  • Dimensions: 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm and 148g
  • Colors: Black, White, Product Red

One thing I love about these lower-priced iPhones, the iPhone SE and iPhone 11, is that Apple offers a reasonably priced option for additional internal storage. I think 64GB is fine for this affordable iPhone and $50 to double the storage to 128GB is perfectly acceptable.

Hardware

My brother is one of those people who still carry an iPhone 8 because he likes using the Touch ID front fingerprint sensor. Now with facemasks a common wearable accessory, Face ID is not a practical solution for unlocking your iPhone. The iPhone SE launches at a perfect time at a price that is tough to beat.

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Current iPhone 11 or 11 Pro users may even want to purchase one to use through the current coronavirus pandemic as a phone that can be secured with your finger and easily carried in an accessible pocket while you are wearing protective gear. It is a perfect starter iPhone and also a great option for people looking to upgrade their iPhone 8 to something with modern internal specifications.

The new Apple iPhone SE is essentially an iPhone 8 with improved internal specifications. It has a 4.7-inch LCD with large top and bottom bezels. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is located at the center of the bottom bezel and works as perfectly as ever, especially during these times with your face hidden from view.

Also: iPhone 11 Pro review: Apple scores near-perfect 10, thanks to battery life, cameras, and phenomenal performance

Apple added another camera this year to the Pro models so we now have three 12 megapixel cameras for wide, ultra-wide, and telephoto scenes. The top camera is the wide camera with f/1.8, 6-element lens, OIS, and 26mm focal length. The one below it is the 2x optical zoom camera with 52mm focal length and f/2.0 aperture with OIS. The camera in the middle, towards the center of the phone, is the ultra-wide camera with a 120-degree field of view, five-element lens, and f/2.4 aperture. This camera does not have OIS.

All of the same iPhone elements are present on the sides with the ringer switch and volume buttons on the left and the power button on the right. The Lightning port is on the bottom with nothing on the top edge.

A single-camera and flash are found tucked away in the upper left corner of the back. The Apple logo is centered with the Product Red logo in the bottom center of the phone I bought.

The red phone looks great with a glossy glass back and matte finish aluminum edges. The front is black so screen content pops when you turn on the display.

I've been very impressed with Apple's stereo speakers on its phones for the last couple of years and find the iPhone plays the loudest on connected Bluetooth headphones too. The stereo speakers sound good on this little phone. I cannot even listen to content at maximum volume.

After using the phone for about a week, I'm getting through a full day of use. Since we spend most of our time indoors with Wi-Fi service, it will take more testing out and about to pass final judgment on the battery. With the small LCD and Apple's excellent battery management,  I am not concerned at all about battery life.

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Software

The iPhone SE runs the iOS 13.4.1, and in typical fashion, you can expect to get regular updates from Apple for years. There is no carrier bloatware, extra apps, or any other software installed that cannot be removed by the user.

Apple Arcade games play perfectly on the iPhone SE, and with the small size, some of the controls and functionality are even easier for many people. Apple TV Plus is supported as well so you can enjoy lots of content on the small 4.7-inch display.

All the great features of the latest version of iOS are present. This includes dark mode, Siri shortcuts, new Photos app, Apple Maps, Siri updates, and much more.

There is only a single camera on the back so the camera software is limited to capturing portrait mode shots of people. However, with people in the shot, you do have support for depth control before or after the shot. There are also six portrait lighting modes for people. If you want to capture portraits of pets, flowers, or other subjects then you will have to shoot in Photo mode and let the camera hardware apply native bokeh effects.

The 4K video capture is supported so the iPhone remains a solid video capture device. You can also now start capturing video while taking photos by holding down the shutter button. A handy feature to help you capture spontaneous moments.

Price and availability

The Apple iPhone SE is available now in three colors, White, Black, and Product Red, starting at $399 for 64GB capacity. The 128GB model is $449 and the 256GB model is $549.

Daily usage and conclusions

One thing that I'm discovering with the Apple iPhone SE is that an affordable iPhone may be perfect for someone like me who prefers to spend most of his time with an Android phone while enjoying the iOS experience from time-to-time. Honestly, when I retire from the smartphone business, I will probably pick up the latest iPhone and cool my addiction.

As someone who now runs regularly with a phone, primarily for safety reasons, small phones are desirable. The Apple iPhone SE offers a wonderful combination of compact size, in relation to massive Android phones, and superb performance.

It's not the best phone for watching media content, capturing photos with advanced options, or working on spreadsheets on the go. However, it is arguably the best phone available at $399. The Pixel 3a is the closest competitor, but it compromises on the processor, internal storage, no dust/water resistant rating, and a lack of wireless charging. Other Android phones in this price also lack NFC and have almost non-existent software upgrades.

The new Apple iPhone SE is going to stick around until at least the new iPhone flagship models are announced later this year. Even then, it's hard to beat such a near-perfect phone at a price of $399.

Specifications

Cellular
Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
Type smartphone
Integrated Components digital player, front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, stereo speakers, voice recorder
Navigation GLONASS, GPS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900 / CDMA2000 1X 1900/800
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider Sprint, not specified, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless
Operating System Family iOS
Payment Technology Apple Pay
Intelligent Assistant Siri
SIM Card Type Electronic SIM card (e-SIM), nano SIM
SIM Card Slot Qty dual-SIM
Input Device Multi-touch
Details
SAR Value 1.2 W/kg (body) / 1.17 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, voice recorder, stereo speakers, navigation, digital player
Body Color White
Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, 3-axis gyro sensor, digital compass, barometer
Additional Features FaceTime, AirPrint wireless printing, iCloud Photo Sharing, AirDrop function, MIMO technology, Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, CarPlay function, QuickType keyboard, HomeKit, Apple TV support (2nd or later), Fast Charging, AirPlay Mirroring, Third-generation Neural Engine, Audio Sharing
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Yes
Miscellaneous
Compliant Standards IEC 60529 IP67, HAC (Hearing Aid Compatible)
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Included Accessories Power adapter, Apple EarPods with Lightning Connector, Lightning to USB cable
Communications
Data Transmission DC-HSDPA, EDGE, EV-DO, FDD-LTE, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA, LTE, TDD-LTE, VoLTE, VoWiFi
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
Processor
Type Apple A13 Bionic
Manufacturer Apple
64-bit Architecture Yes
Display
Technology Retina HD display with IPS technology
Display Resolution 1334 x 750 pixels
Pixel Density (ppi) 326
Contrast Ratio 1400:1
Diagonal Size 4.7 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 11.9 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 4.7 in
Protection fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
Color Support color
Display Languages Arabic, Australian English, Brazilian Portuguese, Catalan, Chinese (simplified), Chinese (traditional), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, French Canadian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, UK English, US English, Ukrainian, Vietnamese
Features Display Zoom, Reachability (screen shifting), True Tone display
Manufacturer Warranty
Service & Support Limited warranty - 1 year
Technical support - consulting - 90 days
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards M-JPEG, H.264, HEVC, MPEG-4 Part 2
Supported Digital Audio Standards Audible, MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, AC-3, AAC-LC, LPCM, HE-AAC, Audible AAX, Audible AAX+, protected AAC, EAC3, HE-AAC v2
Environmental Parameters
Min Operating Temperature 32 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Humidity Range Operating 5 - 95% (non-condensing)
Battery
Run Time Details Playback (audio): up to 40 hrs
Playback (video): up to 13 hrs
Playback (streamed video): up to 8 hrs
Technology Lithium ion
Run Time Details Playback (audio): up to 40 hrs
Playback (video): up to 13 hrs
Playback (streamed video): up to 8 hrs
Wireless Charging Yes
Digital Camera
Special Effects Natural
Header
Brand Apple
Product Line Apple iPhone
Packaged Quantity 1
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, barometer, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Additional Features AirDrop function, AirPrint wireless printing, Apple TV support (2nd or later), CarPlay function, FaceTime, Fast Charging, HomeKit, MIMO technology, QuickType keyboard, Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, iCloud Photo Sharing
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC-LC, AC-3, Apple Lossless, Audible, Audible AAX, EAC3, FLAC, HE-AAC, HE-AAC v2, LPCM, MP3, protected AAC
Supported Digital Video Standards H.264, HEVC, M-JPEG, MPEG-4 Part 2
Sound Enhancements Dolby Digital Plus sound, Dolby Digital sound
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 64 GB
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty, technical support
Service Included consulting
Full Contract Period 1 year, 90 days
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 7 Megapixel
Lens Aperture f/2.2
Features Auto image stabilization
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty

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Where To Buy

Apple iPhone SE (64GB, White)

Part Number: MX9A2