Apple iPhone SE (2020) review

5 min


The Apple iPhone SE 2020 is the affordable phone to beat, and the one of the best cheap phones you can get. It’s the closest thing to future-proof you’ll find under $400 offering the fastest performance around, very good cameras, wireless charging and a premium design that outclasses cheap Android phones.Ah, the Apple iPhone SE. The Special Edition. Even if the Smaller Edition was more appropriate. And just like the first iPhone SE, its second generation is both – Small, even if larger than the first one, and Special – as such launch happens once in four years or so.

We are sure Apple had plans for a great premiere event last March, but COVID-19 turned everything upside down and such plans were abruptly scrapped. The new iPhone was unveiled fanfare-less on the maker’s website, out of the blue, but it quickly became famous for being not only one of the cheapest iPhones ever made but also as one of the season’s hottest bang for the buck offers.

Imagine that – bang for the buck coming from Apple! Indeed, the highlight feature of the new iPhone SE is the A13 Bionic chip – that’s Apple’s latest platform – the one that’s powering the iPhone 11 trio. As for the rest, well, it’s mostly iPhone 8.

Apple did use the 2.5 years old iPhone 8 as a canvas in more than one way. The shell is the same, as is the screen (sans the 3D Touch layer), same front and rear cameras ergo photo and video capabilities, same stereo speakers, same battery capacity, same charging capabilities.

A thorough look reveals the iPhone SE (2020) is indeed small by today’s standards, and while it brings features introduced more than two years ago, those are hardly outdated – the phone is water-resistant, its single camera offers numerous features such as portraits, Smart HDR and even 4K at 60 with both OIS and EIS available, while the stereo speakers are of an excellent quality that is tough to beat even to this very day.

Apple iPhone SE (2020) key features

  • Body: Aluminum frame, Gorilla Glass front with oleophobic coating, Gorilla Glass back with glossy finish, IP67 certified for water and dust resistance. Red, Black, and White color options; 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm; 148g.
  • Screen: 4.7″ 16M-color LED-backlit IPS LCD screen of 750p resolution, 326ppi, True Tone adjustment via four-channel ambient light sensor.
  • OS: Apple iOS 13.
  • Chipset: Apple A13 Bionic (7nm+) chip – 2×2.66 GHz Lightning + 4×1.8 GHz Thunder) Apple CPU, four-core Apple GPU, 8-core Apple NPU 3-gen.
  • Camera: 12MP camera with F/1.8 lens, optical image stabilization, quad-LED flash with slow sync, phase detection auto focus, Smart HDR, wide color capture.
  • Video recording: 2160p@60/30fps, 1080p@30/60/120/240fps video recording
  • Selfie: 7MP F/2.2 front-facing camera with BSI sensor and HDR mode, 1080p@30fps video
  • Storage: 64GB, 128, or 256GB of built-in storage.
  • Connectivity: 4G LTE Cat.12; Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 5.0; Lightning port; GPS with A-GPS, GLONASS, GALILEO, QZSS; NFC (Apple Pay only).
  • Battery: 1,821mAh battery, 18W fast charging, wireless charging (Qi compatible).
  • Misc: Stereo speakers, pressure-sensitive Home key with fingerprint scanner, Taptic Engine.

The bezels are what looked old on the iPhone 8, and now they look ancient on this new SE model. They are wonderful as thumb rests for when you are using the phone in landscape orientation for gaming or videos, but they will be a target for many laughs either way. And the battery capacity could have been improved a bit, but we are yet to see the new A13 chip in action, so let’s not judge just yet.

And now, it’s time to unpack our red iPhone SE.

Unboxing the Apple iPhone SE (2020)

The iPhone retail bundle has seen few changes over the year with the most prominent being the 18W charger replacing the 5W adapter for the iPhone 11 Pro models. That is not the case with the iPhone SE, though.

The Apple iPhone SE (2020) retail box contains the prehistoric 5W charger and the usual Lightning cable. We do appreciate the EarPods that are included with every iPhone, though. Two Apple logo stickers and the SIM ejector complete the SE bundle.

The iPhone SE supports USB-PD fast charging (up to 18W), as well as wireless charging (up to 8W), so at least you are not without other options. You just have to get yourself a quick charger separately.

Design and handling

There are always two ways to look at an iPhone, especially one with such a controversial design as the iPhone 8, sorry, SE. It’s either love or hate. It has been this way since the iPhones came into existence, even if specs, features, and prices do help fuel these two feelings, too. But one thing is undeniably true – this is not only the smallest iPhone available but one of the most compact smartphones on the market.

Remember when we called the 6″ Xiaomi Mi 9 SE one of the most compact phones and a remarkably pocket-friendly handset? So, we take those back – these titles belong to the iPhone SE now. Thank you, Mi, you may go now.

So, the iPhone SE (2020) is indeed quite small – it measures 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm and weighs just 148g – meaning it is 1cm shorter and 3mm narrower than the Mi 9 SE.

But if we are to compare the new iPhone SE to the old one, well, it’s definitely grown bigger – 1.5cm taller and 1cm wider, to be specific. It also gained some 35g – a noticeable load if you are comparing those two directly.

Well, the past couple of years did change the definition of the small smartphone, for the worse if you ask us, and the new iPhone SE is well below the current status quo.

But as far as its design is concerned – it’s modern but also, a remnant of our digital past. The iPhone SE (2020) uses the same Gorilla Glass panels and aluminum frame the iPhone 8 had back in 2017 – and even then this design was already three-years-old.

And as the most recent teardowns have revealed, Apple has recycled pretty much everything in the iPhone SE – from the hardware design on the outside to the components used inside.

Still – a glass-sandwich body with a metal frame is the default phone design in 2020, so the iPhone SE is as current as possible looking at its bill of materials. Even better, it is IP67-rated for dust and water resistance – something that still many decide not to offer and yet, here were have it on a $400 phone.

Then we look at the front and honestly, we can hear 2014 calling and asking its bezels back. The iPhone SE has large black bezels above and below its LCD screen, and for some of you, they will be too much of an eyesore to bear. We can get behind this, of course – not only the screen doesn’t impress with the resolution, but it also makes you lose all that room to what – a Home key and earpiece?

Then again – the earpiece is one of the loudest speakers you can get on a smartphone today, one of two actually, and we are impressed with quality audio coming from the SE stereo speakers. The old 7MP selfie camera is around, now capable of selfie portraits, too.

The Home key is also your Touch ID – a feature many missed when it got the boot on the iPhone X. It is the fastest and most convenient security measure, and on top of that – the Home key is also the better way to work with iOS than the current swiping mess.

Sure, the bezels have the benefit of providing nice grip. Such a powerful small phone will need a proper grip for gaming, and the two non-screen ends provide that in buckets. You can rest your thumbs there comfortably and enjoy your gaming session hassle- and obstruction-free.

The 4.7″ IPS LCD screen is familiar – it’s the same display we saw on the iPhone 8 with the so-called Retina 326ppi resolution. There are no notches, it’s fully utilized by every app and games because of its native 16:9 aspect, it is bright and with excellent contrast and color reproduction. Small – it is. Bad – it is not.

One thing that’s missing from the iPhone 8 display is the 3D Touch layer. Apple has ditched the 3D Touch sensors in favor of tap and hold gestures plus feedback from the Taptic Engine. It works almost the same, plus nobody was using the 3D Touch anyway.

The custom-made Gorilla Glass has 2D finish at the front and then transition rather seamlessly into the aluminum frame. The frame itself has a matte finish that provides for some grip and contains all ports and buttons.

The silencer switch and the volume keys are on the left, while the power button and the SIM slot are on the right. The Lightning port, the speaker grille, and the mouthpiece are all at the bottom of the iPhone SE.

The back of the iPhone SE, especially this red one, is as beautiful as it can get. Not having a multiple-camera setup makes for one of the cleanest and stylish rear glass panels we’ve seen in a while. It is also custom-made by Corning, with 2.5D finish.

The main camera is protruding just a tiny little bit, and a thin metal ring surrounds it. Next, flush with the glass, is the dual-tone quad-LED flash. The iPhone SE barely wobbles on a flat desk, and that’s only if you are tapping around the top left part of the phone.

Finally, the iPhone SE is a joy to handle, easily operated with one hand, and it just disappears in pockets. The brushed frame provides enough grip, and even while fingerprint smudges accumulate on the glass with time, the oleophobic coating makes them easy to clean with a quick swipe.

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