Apple iPhone SE (2020) Assessment: Its Second Coming Is Still The Best Of Small Worlds

A few weeks back, Apple launched the new iPhone SE to quite a lot of fanfare — afterall Apple was reviving a version of the iPhone that had become a flag-bearer for smaller-sized smartphones over the past few years. The original iPhone SE originally debuted in March 2016 and had the same physical design as the iPhone 5 and 5s, so it had the flat chamfered edges, a physical home button, and the perfect one-handed 4-inch screen size.

The new iPhone SE is a revival of this fan-favorite iPhone, but aside from keeping the Home button, it’s not quite what fans of the original SE expected. The new iPhone SE recycles the old iPhone 8 body, so it has a 4.7-inch screen. Even though the 4.7-inch screen is the smallest size that Apple offers right now, it’s not as manageable in one-hand as the old 4-inch size.
The new iPhone SE also packs in the A13 Bionic chip that is found in the iPhone 11 line, IP67 water resistance, and a single camera that boasts of better performance than the iPhone XR with Portrait Mode. However, the best part about the new iPhone SE is the price, especially given the fact that it’s been adjusted for the recent increase in GST. Just like the original iPhone SE, the new one still remain the most affordable new iPhone you can buy right now, starting at INR 42,500.

iPhone SE (2020) alongside the original iPhone SE

But wait! This new iPhone SE isn’t quite a must-buy right away. For one, if cutting edge is what you seek for your hard-earned money, the new iPhone SE might disappoint you on several counts. There’s no high refresh rate display, the battery life isn’t spectacular, you miss out on the versatality of having more lens options in the camera department and even though you have an A13 chip, gaming isn’t something you’ll find yourself doing very often on a 4.7-inch display.

Essentially, what I mean is that there are a number of questions that you need to ask yourself before you spend your money — all of which are potentially crucial for any smartphone user and this review’s all about identifying those questions and answering them as we progress.

The Pro’s and Cons of a 5-year old design

TLDR: If you’re someone who doesn’t mind the small display, I really don’t see why the iPhone SE 2020 won’t appeal to you.

If you’ve seen an iPhone from 2014 to 2017, the iPhone SE’s shape, size and design will feel familiar. Technically, the iPhone SE recycles the iPhone 8’s design, but really, that design language stretches all the way back to the iPhone 6.

The front fascia of the new iPhone SE is identical to that of the iPhone 8 from 2017

This means, you’re stuck with a gigantic, symmetrical bezels that sandwich a 16:9 LCD screen, with a circular home button on the bottom bezel. The phone still looks pristine, but its difficult to unsee those bezels when you notice someone using a budget Android phone with a front that’s almost all display.

The presence of a home button also means that you lose out on FaceID. Coming from an iPhone XR, I did miss FaceID terribly at first but TouchID has its advantages too and Apple’s brilliant haptic engine runs circles around its Android counterpart.

There’s no headphone jack in the iPhone SE either, just like the iPhone 8. Instead, there are two sets of speakers on the bottom of the device. Overall, the speakers weren’t great even though they did get loud. They just lacked any separation and depth.

Well, provided you’re alright with the fact that this is a small phone with an even smaller-than-usual display, those are where the cons end on the design front.

The iPhone SE is crafted mainly out of glass with an aluminum railing, and the construction is top notch. And just like the iPhone 8, you don’t lose out on premium features like wireless charging support, stereo speakers and a water resistant chassis.

The screen measures 4.7-inches diagonally, and the overall phone measures around 5.5-inches in length and 2.7-inches in width. Yes, it’s a very small phone by 2020 standards and is also very light at just 148g. All in all, Apple’s old design still holds strong for all intents and purposes, even though there are elements in the design which do make the phone feel dated.

The display is great but larger OLED displays are just better

One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about the new iPhone SE is what you’re missing by buying the iPhone SE? The most obvious answer would be the lack of an OLED display if you’re comparing it to Android counterparts.

You’re stuck with a 60Hz display too and although I understand that using display units that are identical to the iPhone 8 is a clear cost-cutting measure for Apple, 90Hz displays have become a norm for Android flagships, even for the more affordable ones.

Colors are accurate and True Tone ensures your color temperature adjusts to your surroundings

The iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch IPS LCD screen with a resolution of 1,334×750 pixels at 326ppi. The resolution is nothing to write home about, but this display is well calibrated, and it sports an impressive 1,400:1 contrast ratio and 625 maximum nits of brightness.

I didn’t have any issues viewing the screen outdoors when surfing the web or taking photos but sunlight legibilty under direct sunlight may be a problem at times.

The panel also supports True Tone, which means it can automatically adjust the screen’s color temperature based on the ambient lighting conditions. In terms of color reproduction and viewing angles, I had no complaints.

Performance is excellent but how much of is it are you really using?

While it probably seems like Apple is just rebranding old iPhone 8 stock, the SE is packed with Apple’s latest A13 Bionic processor.

The A13 Bionic is the most powerful mobile processor around. Whether in benchmarks or real world tests, it beats Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 or Samsung’s Exynos 990 SoC. To be fair, the extra boost in power can’t really be felt doing basic smartphone things like browsing through Twitter or Instagram or sending emails and communicating on Slack.

But try to run an AR application, or edit a video in iMovie, and the A13 Bionic is noticeably a step ahead of anything powering an Android phone — even the ones that cost much, much more.

Asphalt 9 Legends on the iPhone SE runs like a charm courtesy of the A13 Bionic chipset

Now gaming isn’t something I found myself doing too often on the relatively small 4.7-inch display but even when I did, the performance was top notch. Playing PUBG Mobile is quite the task since the on-screen buttons take away much of the available field-of-view, but games like Asphalt 9 Legends and Sayonara Wild Hearts play without a hitch.

The main advantage of having an A13 Bionic here though is that its practically ensure that the iPhone SE 2020 will be supported via software updates for several years to come. That’s an important factor to consider when buying a modern smartphone.

The Camera package is hard to beat at this price (for now, at least)

The main 12MP camera of the SE is very good—because it is very similar to the iPhone 11’s main camera, which is also a 12-megapixel camera.

iPhone SE (2020)

Apple says they are different camera systems, but photos and videos captured by the SE and XR during the day, or in good lighting conditions, are virtually identical.

iPhone SE (Left) vs Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (Right): Notice how the SE misses a chunk of the cap in Portrait Mode

Even at night, if there’s enough ambient city lights around, the iPhone SE keeps up with the iPhone XR. It’s only in dim or really low light situations where the iPhone SE visibly beats the iPhone XR.

iPhone SE (default mode) vs iPhone SE using Neural Cam (centre) vs Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra (default): A night mode would have been really helpful

That’s still very good for a phone that starts at INR 42,500, because the iPhone 11 has one of the very best camera systems around and that costs a whole lot more. The camera focuses fast, colors are accurate, and dynamic range is excellent.

Portrait Mode: iPhone SE (left) vs iPhone XR (right) – The iPhone SE gets the colors right while also bettering in edge detection

It’s arguable that some Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Mi 10 have surpassed the iPhone in still photos, but in the video recording space, the iPhone 11 is the king of smartphones and it’s not close. So the iPhone SE having essentially the same video performance is huge.

Obviously, without a telephoto camera and a wide-angle camera, the iPhone SE cannot pull off the optical 2X zoom that recent iPhones can do or wide-angle shots. The SE can still do digital zoom up to 5X—and they’re okay, just not flagship level.

Selfies look good and yes, there’s portrait mode for the front camera too

Despite missing a telephoto camera, the iPhone SE can still capture “Portrait” bokeh shots with the main and front camera, using entirely software processing to produce the depth-of-field effect. The below samples consist of portrait shots captured with the main and selfie cameras. The results are very good, with respectable edge detection around hair. In fact, color tones and the edge-detection are both better than that on the more expensive iPhone XR. Standard selfies with the SE look great as usual too.

The software experience is excellent but the iOS vs Android question rests on preference

The iPhone SE currently runs iOS 13, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system and let’s face it, iOS is definitely among the main reasons why people buy iPhones. It’s relatively stable and straightforward to use, with one of the best software ecosystems that exist.

iOS differentiates itself from the competing Android platform through both a promise of software-hardware integration and an added focus on personal privacy and Apple tends to support devices with software updates for many years longer than competitors.

You may need to carry a charger or power bank in your backpack

While Apple’s A13 Bionic processor undoubtedly helps the iPhone SE be more power-efficient than something like the iPhone 8, it’s hard to deny that it has a small battery. In fact, it’s the same as the iPhone 8, coming in at 1,821mAh.

That’s less than half the capacity of many modern Android devices. Thankfully, iOS and the new processor together help the SE get through a full day.

On average, I got a little more than four and a half hours of screen-on time per day being on WiFi at all times, which, for my usage, translated to about 9am to 1:30am of use every day. While consistent, the battery life here could be a worry if you tend to have days where you need to push your phone for longer hours.

Apple says the iPhone SE can handle up to 13 hours of local video playback, compared to 18 hours for the iPhone 11, that is indeed quite a bit less. So if you are a heavy user, I’d suggest you consider the iPhone XR, in case you’re hell-bent on sticking to iOS.

Price and Verdict

Generally, new iPhones belong to an elite, ultra-premium range of phone with limited competition from the Android side of options. But because this iPhone enters the market with the label of being an “affordable iPhone,” I just have to pit it against phones like the OnePlus 8 and the Realme X50 Pro in terms of features — both offerings that belong to that 45k price bracket.

The iPhone SE 2020, even with its oddities though, is best iPhone Apple has on offer when you think of affordable Android flagships. It’s the closest thing to future-proof you’ll find under INR 45,000, offering the fastest performance around, very good cameras with the best video capturing performance on any smartphone in its price vicinity, wireless charging and a premium design that’s stood the test of time. Yes, I wish the bezels were smaller and that Apple included Night mode for the camera but overall the pros far outweigh the cons.

I do wish Apple would offer an iPhone SE Plus for those that prefer a bigger display, say for around INR 50k, but if you prefer a smaller phone this handset will not disappoint. Google’s upcoming Pixel 4a is rumored to offer even better cameras and a larger display than the iPhone SE, but with a slower processor, so I’d suggest you wait it out till that launches. But either way, you can’t go wrong with the iPhone SE, especially in the performance department.





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