iPhone SE review: Small screen, huge performance

The 2020 iPhone SE. Samuel Axon It has a glass back like all current iPhones. Samuel Axon The bezels are large by today’s standards, and it’s still very reflective—but look, I could reach the whole screen with one thumb if I wanted! Samuel Axon It still uses Lightning rather than […]

It’s finally here. Nearly two years after discontinuing the 4-inch iPhone SE, Apple has introduced a new iPhone SE with a highly competitive $399 starting price tag.

Like its predecessor, this release puts Apple’s latest processor inside the chassis of the company’s heretofore cheapest phone, giving buyers who want a powerful, future-proof handset an option for quite a bit less than the $1,000 cost that has become common for flagship phones.

That said, there’s at least one key difference between the phone released in 2016 and the one arriving today. The previous iPhone SE was 4 inches, but this one is 4.7—which might not be the ideal size for users who operate their phones one-handed.

Those who aren’t married to the idea of a 4-inch smartphone will find a lot to like about the SE, though. It doesn’t have an OLED screen or the latest multi-camera system, but given the price, it still might be the best iPhone for most people.

Table of Contents


Specs at a glance: Apple iPhone SE
Screen 1334×750 4.7-inch (326PPI) pressure-sensitive IPS touchscreen with DCI-P3 color gamut
OS iOS 13.4
CPU Apple A13 Bionic
GPU Apple-made A13 Bionic GPU
Storage 64, 128, or 256GB
Networking Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5
Ports Lightning
Camera 12MP rear camera, 7MP front camera
Size 5.45×2.65×0.29-inches (138.4×67.3×7.3mm)
Weight 5.22oz (148g)
Starting price $399
Other perks Wireless charging
Apple iPhone SE (2020) product image

Apple iPhone SE (2020)

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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.

Available storage configurations include 64GB ($399), 128GB ($449), and 256GB ($549). 64GB is a bit low even for light users, provided there’s any media or game downloading going on. But the 128GB upgrade is only $50 more.

Apple has equipped this phone with the A13 system-on-a-chip, which includes a CPU, GPU, machine learning processor, image signal processor, and more. By most benchmarks the A13 (which was introduced in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro late last year) is the fastest mobile processor on the market, so it’s honestly amazing to see it in a phone at this price.

The iPhone SE supports the new Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard, which is interesting given that Apple opted not to support that in its new MacBook Air. Still, it’s welcome even though Wi-Fi 6 is nascent on the market. Bluetooth 5.0 is also here.

You’ll find a 12-megapixel, ƒ/1.8 aperture camera with a wide-angle lens on the back of the phone. It’s not much to write home about specs-wise, but it supports most (not all) of Apple’s machine-learning-driven computational photography features that attempt to make up for so-so hardware through software techniques. The rear camera can shoot 4K video at up to 60 frames per second.

The front camera offers 7 megapixels and a ƒ/2.2 aperture, and it can take 1080p video at 30 frames per second.

Apple has included a charging brick, a Lightning/USB charging cable, and EarPods wired earbuds in the box. Unfortunately, the company didn’t deem it necessary to include a 3.5mm headphone jack to Lightning adapter like it did in iPhones a few years ago.

While that adapter only costs $9 when purchased separately, I feel Apple should have included it since consumers buying at this price are less likely to have bought into the expensive-but-cool world of wireless audio. Many users who spend $400 on a smartphone are going to balk at spending roughly half that amount on AirPods, which Apple clearly has in mind as the main audio solution for iPhones.

Apple claims the iPhone SE’s battery can last up to 13 hours for local video playback, eight for streaming video, and 40 for audio playback. That’s a lot less than the iPhone 11’s 17, 10, and 65 respective hours for those use cases. It shouldn’t be a surprise from a smaller phone with less space for a bulky battery, though.


Just looking from the outside, it’s difficult to tell this phone apart from an iPhone 8. It has the exact same dimensions at 5.45×2.65×0.29 inches. All the externally visible components are in the same places, from the camera to the home button.

And the iPhone 8 already looked pretty similar to the iPhone 7 before it, and the iPhone 6 and 6S before that—the main differences are found in the materials. The iPhone SE and iPhone 8 have glass backs, whereas the 6, 6S, and 7 had aluminum backs. The glass back enables wireless charging but poses a durability concern.

The iPhone SE has a home button, making it the only iPhone in the lineup that doesn’t use Face ID for authentication. The iPhone SE also, therefore, uses the slightly different gestures for home-button-equipped phones. The home button, those gestures, and Touch ID fingerprint authentication work just fine, though, so this isn’t going to be a downside for most people.

There’s not anything new to say about the design since it’s the same basic design we’ve been reviewing for years. It’s tried and true. Lots of people like it. By contemporary standards, the bezels are quite large. But at $400, no one is likely to expect the most modern design trends.

I do think it’s interesting that Apple has introduced a new phone with this screen resolution, as that will surely extend the period of time that app developers will have to keep supporting this screen’s aspect ratio. (The screens in the rest of the lineup are all taller in portrait mode, or wider in landscape.) Had Apple not introduced the iPhone SE, we might have expected new apps to keep supporting this screen size and aspect ratio for three or four more years. Now there’s no end in sight. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just something app designers and developers will have to note.

Overall, the iPhone SE’s design is not going to turn any heads. It looks a little dated, and I’m not sure wireless charging is worth the concerns that come with a glass back. But again, this is one of the most tested and accepted smartphone designs ever, so it’s going to be just fine for most people.

Despite all of that tried and true vindication, there will still be some users disappointed by the fact that Apple hasn’t brought back the 4-inch smartphone like the original SE. Let’s talk about that for a moment.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

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