Remember the iPhone SE? Apple launched it back in 2016 and it was the successful combo of a diminutive older iPhone 5S body but with upgraded internal hardware. Despite being a favourite of bargain hunters and those railing against ever-increasing screen sizes, it was canned two years later. Now the SE returns, and Apple has gone and performed the same trick all over again: old phone, new innards, lower price.
Who’s it for?
For people who understandably baulk at spending £1,000 on an iPhone, of course. A top-spec 11 Pro Max will set you back £1,149, while the SE starts at £419. Yes, you don’t get many of the bells and whistles of a flagship smartphone, but then again very few people really use those additions to their full potential anyway. It’s also good for anyone with an iPhone 8 or older and looking to upgrade. And finally, at this price, the SE is certainly aimed at luring Android faithfuls over to iOS, too.
It’s an iPhone. I’d love to just leave it there. OK, it looks like an iPhone 8. More? Well, some will think the return of the Home button is nice. Fingerprint ID over face ID will feel like a step backwards to many, but one clear advantage was that you could take your iPhone 8 out your pocket and by the time you’d raised it to your face or to a pay terminal it was already unlocked. Face ID can’t do that.
A big plus is, because it’s Apple, despite it being a £400 phone you get the same build quality as the 11s. Can’t fault the construction or materials here – it’s as good as it gets. Being IP67 rated, spills and dunkings are allowed. The new all-black front regardless of colour – choose from black, white or red – means the 4.7-inch display hides its chunky top and bottom black borders until the screen is active. The smaller screen can be a design plus, though. This is a phone for people who like to operate their handset one-handed. No stretching to reach the corners here, which I found more endearing that I thought I would. Oh, you also get wireless charging thanks to the glass back.
Living with it
It’s small and light (148g). The screen is LCD, not OLED, so if you’re really picky you will see some drop in image quality, but I have yet to meet anyone outside of product testers who would notice such a change unless comparing directly side by side. The 4.7in screen is noticeably smaller when watching movies and TV if you’re used to a larger phone, but you do quickly get used to it. What’s amazing is how that extra .7in up from the first SE makes all the difference, because this handset doesn’t feel like it is too small.
Does it have USB-C? No. Headphone socket? No. What about 5G? No. The speakers are not as good as the iPhone 11 speakers, but they are still good and serve just fine.
Apple says the iPhone SE has the best single-camera system in an iPhone. And they are right. You get a 12MP wide-angle camera that combines with the Neural Engine from Apple’s top-of-the-range A13 Bionic chip. This means that, despite the fact the SE hasn’t got the front TrueDepth camera, thanks to some software trickery, you get a version of portrait mode and portrait lighting add-ons anyway. You also get 4K video up to 60fps, slo-mo, and time-lapse. Extended dynamic range for greater highlight and shadow detail limits 4K to 30fps.
The camera is good. Not iPhone 11 good, but still plenty good enough for practically anyone, and certainly anyone not wanting to spend over £500 on a phone.
The chip. Mirroring the tactic for the first SE, the inclusion of the top-end A13 Bionic means this SE has the grunt of the flagships. It is lightning fast and so somewhat future-proofed. Fingerprint ID is instant. Apps open in a flash, you get the Neural Engine for augmented reality apps (if you like such things). For comparison, the A13 Bionic is 2.4 times faster than the first SE’s A9 and up to 40 per cent faster than in A11 Bionic in an iPhone 8. The inclusion of Apple’s best chip has the neat trick of making the SE feel anything but budget.
Fix this next time
The big weakness of the SE is the battery. Though it supports fast charging, the SE’s 1,821mAh power plant is smaller than every modern iPhone by some margin. Budget Android phone comparisons are just as bad. Samsung’s new Galaxy M31 with its 6.4-inch display boasts a thumping 6,000mAh battery (and all for £245, to boot). Apple says the SE is good for streamed video playback for up to eight hours. I got six hours and 32 minutes from full charge to power down. This is not an all-day phone.
What the blazes?
Now MacBooks and iPads are sporting USB-C ports, it’s getting increasingly barmy for Apple to persevere with the Lightning cable. The writing is on the wall. Apple will have to change this on its phones at some point, just as it has had to do with tablets and computers. Astoundingly, Apple’s response earlier this year to the European Commission’s proposal for a standard phone charger was that this would stifle innovation and not help the environment. Let’s all remember that if it does eventually change to USB-C.
Despite being the budget Apple handset, iPhone SE has another iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro feature of interest to business users: dual SIM. With an eSIM on board you can use two separate numbers – e.g. a business and a personal number, or a local SIM when you’re travelling (when we are allowed to again). Wi-Fi 6 is welcome news, too, as this means (theoretically) 9.6Gbps as opposed to 3.5Gbps on Wi-Fi 5.
So, should I buy it?
On balance, yes. This is a great iPhone for a bargain price – and I only ever get to write that sentence when Apple launches an SE. It should years before becoming outdated, and if you have an 8 or older this is a no-brainer. If it is time to upgrade but you don’t want to drop the best part of a grand in these uncertain times, again, this is a no-brainer. If you are tempted to convert from Android, start here and see if you like the iOS landscape. As for those battery worries, try and keep in mind how often you really ever use your phone all day without charging it somewhere. I bet hardly ever.
iPhone SE Specs & Price
Price: from £419 | Models: Black, white, red | Capacity: 64GB/128GB/256GB | Weight: 148g | Display: 4.7in LCD 326ppi | Chip: A13 Bionic | Camera: 12MP main, 7MP front | Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, Wi-Fi 6 | Battery: 1,821mAh
Jeremy White is WIRED’s executive editor. He tweets from @jeremywired
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