Review

iPhone SE 2020 Review: Size Matters

by: - Last updated on: September 27th, 2020

A conversation that our sources in Cupertino overheard:

“Hey, Tim! Our users have something to say. Looks like they are asking for a small phone.”

“But we did the SE in 2016, right? Are there people in 2020 still asking for small phones?”

“More than you would think.”

“But, do we listen to our consumers? You know they have been asking for a Type-C port…”

“Well, we have a stockpile of unsold iPhone 8 phones.”

“Say no more.”

Later that day in the boardroom:

“We’ve got to repurpose the eight.
Bring it out, we’ll see what to do.”
“The latest chip? That’s a nice bait,
But what else can we do new?”

“I don’t think we need to,
It’ll all be done by the A13.”
“In fact, we can even get away
With a design from 2015!”

“What about the cameras?
The 11 Pro has three.”
“Who even needs an ultrawide?
A good single lens is key.”

“What else do we have to do?”
“Gotta change the battery.”
“And why do you say so?”
“1821mAh in 2020 is just paltry.”

“Ah, don’t bother about that.
Told you the A13 will take care.”
“And the huge forehead and chin?”
“We need space for TouchID there.”

“So, what do we call it?”
“Let’s call it the SE again.”
“Price it at $399,
So nobody will ever complain.”

Note: The above conversation is totally fictional. Any similarity to people real or fictional or Cupertinic-al is purely coincidental.

iphone se 2020 review

Ever since the launch of the original iPhone SE back in 2016, Apple has tried to increase its user base by accommodating consumers who are in the market for an affordable phone that can do a lot of things right. And when it’s an iPhone, it automatically appeals to a larger audience due to multiple reasons. The big one being, it’s an iPhone. You get all the goodness of iOS, iMessage, the integration with Apple’s ecosystem, and of course, that shiny half-eaten fruit in your mirror selfies.

Not to forget, the original iPhone SE also targeted a demographic that wanted a small phone, despite the fact that the iPhone 6s was already quite small with a 4.7-inch display. The iPhone 5S undeniably was one of the best iPhone designs of all time and when users were getting that exterior with modern internals, that too at a fraction of the then flagship iPhone 6S, it meant that the iPhone SE sold like hotcakes. Maybe not in countries like India initially, given that it was launched for a price of Rs. 40,000 which at that time was too high for a phone like the SE.

However, over time, the price kept falling and the high demand meant that Apple started manufacturing the iPhone SE in India which meant even lower prices. At a point in time, the iPhone SE was selling for as low as Rs. 15,999 in India and became hugely popular among the masses. Given the incredible software support iPhones get, the iPhone SE was still a good purchase even two years after its launch.

Over time, though, just like any other piece of tech, the iPhone SE also started to show its age. The display was tiny by modern standards and the battery would die by lunch. However, there was no newer alternative to the beloved SE at all since the iPhone 8 was also old and Apple’s current-gen flagships were too expensive and given the adaption of huge displays on smartphones of late, users who specifically wanted a compact phone had no options at all.

However, Apple started doing something in 2019 that it didn’t do very well before – listen to its users. They fixed the magic keyboard, they upgraded the base storage on iPads and MacBooks, they priced the iPhone 11 $50 cheaper than the XR, and now in 2020, they launched the new iPhone SE. At an attractive price (not so much here in India), the most powerful mobile chip, and a familiar form factor, has Apple found the perfect mantra to reach the masses all over again? Let’s find out.

Build and Design: Take me back to the Steve Jobs era!

iPhone se 2020 design

I could conveniently head over to our iPhone 8 review from 2017 and paste the exact contents in this section. That’s because if you are not aware yet, the iPhone SE 2020 uses the exact same chassis as the iPhone 8, except for the back where the Apple logo has now been moved to the center to keep up with the flagship iPhone 11 series. Apple has been using the same design language since the iPhone 6 and if you’ve used any of the iPhones till 2017, you will feel right at home with the iPhone SE 2020. The minimalistic industrial design is something Steve Jobs would be proud of.

The sides are aluminum and are color-matched to the color of the back, which on our unit is black. The glass back enables wireless charging, a feature that’s a rarity at the price point of the iPhone SE 2020. The phone feels solid in hand and is extremely thin and lightweight compared to modern-day phones that breach the 200g mark. Apple, of course, is sticking to the lightning port at the bottom along with its signature mute switch on the left. TouchID makes a comeback with the iPhone SE 2020 so you don’t get FaceID like the newer iPhones. While this is mostly based on personal preference, we found TouchID to be faster and more convenient, especially in the current scenario we’re living in where wearing a mask has become an integral part.

iPhone SE 2020 TouchID

If you call yourself a connoisseur of small and compact phones, handling the iPhone SE will give you a sense of satisfaction that no other phone in 2020 will. Despite retaining the bezels straight from 2015, the iPhone SE 2020 manages to feel comfortable in your hand and is probably one of the only phones out there that you can use without your fingers performing cardio. Not to forget, the iPhone SE 2020 is IP 67 rated which is again a rarity for a phone at this price point. If you want a phone that looks remotely modern though, you shouldn’t even be reading till here.

Display: They didn’t like the notch, so I got rid of it. Not really.

Unlike the newer iPhones, the iPhone SE 2020 has a conventional 16:9 display repurposed from the iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and 8. Now you know how Apple managed to price it at $399. The IPS panel with a laughable 720p resolution is actually much better than you would expect. Apple has never been about big numbers, at least on specs, not so much on price tags, but you get the point. The display on the iPhone SE 2020 is color accurate, gets adequately bright outdoors, and text looks crisp.

iPhone SE 2 Display

The issue for a lot of people, though, would be the display size. 4.7-inches, even during the time of the iPhone 6S or 7 was considered small given that phones with 5.5-inch displays, like Apple’s own Plus series were quite popular. Fast forward to 2020, I had to dig up the dictionary from my bookshelf to look for synonyms of tiny. With 6.7-inch displays becoming the new norm thanks to slim bezels and weird aspect ratios, watching any form of content on the iPhone SE 2020 isn’t the most enjoyable experience.

If you don’t game a lot on your smartphone or use another device like a computer or tablet to consume media,  you’re going to be perfectly alright with the iPhone SE 2020’s display. There are no issues scrolling through social media feeds, however, you will need some getting used to typing on the device due to the miniature keyboard so that’s something to keep in mind. Undoubtedly, there are smartphones with much bigger and better displays out there at this price point. But, the iPhone SE 2020 would appeal to you if you are specifically on the lookout for a handy smartphone.

Performance: Nobody Does it Better

iPhone se performance

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the iPhone SE 2020 is the best performing smartphone out there till the iPhone 12 series comes out. The A13 Bionic is blazing fast and given that it only has to push a tiny 720p display, the performance that you get out of this little beast is incredible. If you are going to be doing basic tasks like run social media apps or read documents, the iPhone SE is going to fly through them all. Even though 3GB of RAM might seem insufficient compare to the 8 or 12 we see on Android smartphones, the iPhone SE easily retains more than 8-10 applications in memory.

Even if you play heavy titles of your phone like PUBG, the iPhone SE holds its own and can produce a constant frame rate of 60fps even with HDR + Extreme graphics, something that dedicated “gaming” phones also cannot do. The gaming experience on the iPhone SE 2020 is fantastic, except for the fact that you have to deal with the small display. It does take some getting used to, but once you’re accustomed to playing on it, the iPhone SE 2020 can be a great purchase if you want to get into competitive gaming or if you stream your gameplay with the help of a capture card.

Another thing to note is that Apple updates its smartphones for at least four years which will keep the iPhone SE 2020 relevant and smooth even in the not-so-near future. Also, a lot of apps and games are very well optimized for iOS when compared to Android and you would realize that they run smoother. Needless to say, being an Apple device, you get the goodness of AirDrop, Handoff, Continuity, and iMessage if you’re into the Apple ecosystem.

Cameras: Single, wish it had Mingled!

Apple took its computational photography game to the next level with the iPhone 11 series which to date is regarded as one of the best smartphone cameras out there. Of course, while the camera sensors on those phones are superior, what made the image output so good was the new ISP on the A13 Bionic chip. Given that Apple is using the same chip on the iPhone SE 2020, they’ve managed to pull off a solid camera performance even with the same hardware as the three-year-old iPhone 8.

The single 12MP shooter clicks images with ample details (not as much as the 64 or 108MP sensors on the Android side of things, of course), natural colors, and excellent dynamic range thanks to Smart HDR. It gets the color temperature spot on and in simple words, you’re going to get some of the best pictures you’ve clicked out of the iPhone SE. But, and quite a big one at that, Apple has left out its Night Mode from the iPhone 11 which means everything we mentioned about the SE’s cameras are limited to when there’s sufficient light.

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However, there is a fix for that too which comes in the form of a third-party app called Neural Camera that can be purchased from the App Store for USD 3 / Rs. 249. It improves the low-light performance of the iPhone SE 2020 by a big margin but is still nowhere comparable to the performance of the iPhone 11. Shots end up looking noisy, but they are much better than what you would get out of the stock camera app without night mode.

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While we’d have loved a wide-angle or telephoto or a depth sensor, you still get portrait mode from both the rear and front-facing cameras that work much better than we expected. It only works on human subjects though. From edge detection to skin tones, the iPhone SE 2020 impressed us with its portrait mode shots even from the 7MP selfie shooter.

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When it comes to videos, there’s absolutely no competition to the iPhone SE 2020 in its price range. You can shoot up to 4K 60fps video from the rear camera and the level of details, the dynamic range and more importantly, the stabilization is phenomenal. The camera on the front can shoot videos at 1080p 30fps and while the stabilization is equally good, the dynamic range could’ve been better.

While you don’t get the versatility of an ultra-wide camera or a telephoto lens, something that’s available on Android right from the budget and mid-range categories, the single shooter on the iPhone SE can give any modern flagship a run for its money, at least when there’s ample light.

Battery Life: Can it get You through an Entire Day?

The iPhone SE 2020 packs in a 1821mAh battery and despite the low power consumption of the A13 Bionic and all the optimization done by Apple, battery life is undoubtedly one of the weakest aspects of the iPhone SE 2020. However, that’s not saying that the SE gives up without a fight after being plugged out of the charger. While we were averaging a screen-on time of somewhere around the 4-hour mark for the first couple of days, the iOS 13.5 update seems to have brought about some improvements in battery life.

iphone se 2020 battery

If used only on Wi-Fi, the iPhone SE 2020 can touch the 6-hour mark on a single charge which given the capacity, is commendable. If you consider mobile data usage as well along with Wi-Fi, the battery life drops by about an hour and you’ll get around 5 hours of usage. While the numbers are not terrible, you cannot rely on the iPhone SE to last you a complete day if you are using it heavily. If you play PUBG, you can kill the SE in 4-5 full-length classic games. If you’re traveling with the SE, it’s advisable to carry a power bank with you. For most light to moderate users, you can get through a full day’s usage. It’s a bonus if you’re around chargers, let’s say in your office, where you can top it up mid-day.

Speaking about topping up, the iPhone SE 2020 comes with a 5W charger in the box which unfortunately isn’t a crime yet, at least here in India. In spite of the fact that the charger just needs to charge a tiny battery, it takes over 2 hours to charge the iPhone SE 2020’s battery. There is support for 18W fast charging, but you need to purchase that separately and as per a few tests, it does not make that big of a difference. Wireless charging is an added bonus for convenience.

Who is the iPhone SE 2020 for?

iPhone se review

Let’s make one thing clear. Someone who is getting the iPhone SE should know what they’re getting themselves into. The design is outdated, the display is small, the bezels are huge, there’s only a single camera, and the battery life isn’t the best. Despite all of this, the biggest pro of the iPhone SE 2020 is that it’s an iPhone and whatever it does, it does it so, SO well. The performance is unmatched, the display, despite being small, appeals to a niche looking for compact phones, the single-camera is excellent, you can expect software support for at least the next four years, and you get all the features of iOS that you would get on a flagship iPhone.

The iPhone SE 2020 just works. It offers a no-frills experience and for anyone looking to experience iOS for the first time and does not want to spend an exorbitant amount on a smartphone, the iPhone SE 2020 fits the bill perfectly. Of course, there are better phones out there for the price looking at the overall package, at least here in India.

The OnePlus 8, for example, has a modern design, a much bigger display, three cameras, a huge battery, etc. If you’re someone who compares specifications and buys a phone, the iPhone SE is automatically eliminated from your list. But if you’re someone looking for an overall premium experience in a compact size without breaking the bank, the iPhone SE 2020 will not disappoint. We really wish Apple put in a bigger battery and an edge-to-edge display in the same form factor and looks like the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 is Apple’s response which we are eagerly waiting for.

After all, size does matter.

Pros
  • Top class Performance
  • Capable Cameras
  • Compact Design
Cons
  • Outdated design
  • Average battery life
Review Overview
Build & Design
Display
Performance
Camera
Battery
SUMMARY

The iPhone SE 2020 has to be one of the most polarising smartphones in recent times. It has the best internals of 2020 inside a body of 2016. Is it as good as fanboys claim? Or as bad as some critics bash? Here's our review.

3.8

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