iPhone SE (2020) Review: a classic design and state of the art performance gives me the best of both worlds

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Intro

Since 2016, I had used an iPhone 7 as my daily driver. For me, at the time, the improved water resistance, capacitive home button, faster Touch ID sensor, and strong performance gains were a compelling upgrade from my two-year-old iPhone 6.

 

In the proceeding years, however, I began to feel like the iPhone, and other smartphones, were stagnating, iterating less and less each year. For example, in 2017, Apple introduced the iPhone 8 with a faster A11 Bionic chip, an improved camera, and a glass back to support wireless charging. At the same presentation, they introduced the iPhone X, which was largely regarded to resemble the future of the iPhone.

 

With its edge to edge OLED display, no home button, Face ID, and a dramatically improved camera, many users viewed the iPhone X as a refreshing change to the core iPhone design. However, neither the iPhone 8 nor iPhone X felt particularly compelling to me as a blind iPhone 7 owner at the time. For one thing, the iPhone 8 seemed like merely an incremental upgrade, and I had several concerns with the new design of the iPhone X.

 

I would eventually learn that Apple had indeed come up with alternative VoiceOver gestures to replicate the functions of the home button, and that Face ID was generally usable even if you couldn’t see or look at the camera, if not as convenient or reliable as Touch ID. However, similar to the addition of the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro, I viewed the experience of Face ID as a VoiceOver user as neither a step forward nor a step backward, but an expensive step sideways at best.

 

I figured that eventually, either my iPhone 7 would stop working or the A10 Fusion chip would reach end-of-life status, necessitating an upgrade. However, as the years past, and the iPhone XS followed by the iPhone 11 were released, I kept hearing rumblings from various Apple rumor sites about an iPhone SE revival. Sure, at any given time, numerous rumors concerning upcoming Apple products float around the Internet with no way for me to independently verify their veracity, but the consistency of the chatter and the chorus of seemingly reliable sources corroborating the reports gave them significant credibility.

 

By the beginning of 2020, I knew that I would need a new phone sooner rather than later. Having worked reliably for over three years, my iPhone 7’s battery began to show signs of age, with decreased battery life and overall capacity depreciating. While I at one point considered replacing the battery, I ultimately decided that that would be good money after bad, since I would need to buy a new phone eventually. At the same time, I also considered just biting the bullet and getting an iPhone 11 Pro, the closest screen size model to the iPhone 7, but the increased chatter on rumor sites about a new, low-cost iPhone persuaded me to wait until the spring.

what the iPhone SE (2020) is, and what it isn’t

As the iPhone line matured over the years, the screen size gradually increased from 3.5, to 4, to 4.7, to 5.8 inches and beyond. For sighted users, there are obvious benefits to a larger or clearer screen iPhone, such as more real-estate to comfortably display high-definition visual content or play games. For me, I need just enough real-estate to use VoiceOver while comfortably holding the device with one hand, as I am totally blind and have found larger screen devices disorienting and unwieldy. In addition, there are other reasons why users may not like a larger screen.

 

In an effort to compel users of the iPhone 5 and 5S to upgrade, Apple introduced the original iPhone SE in 2016. This device featured the small body and 4 inch screen found on the iPhone 5S, with the A9 processor and NFC chip found in the iPhone 6S. With the exception of the first generation Touch ID sensor found on the iPhone 5S and 6, the iPhone SE featured similar specs to Apple’s flagship iPhone at the time. This move proved very successful in compelling iPhone 5 and 5S users to upgrade to a smartphone that felt comfortable and familiar, while ensuring support by Apple and app developers for years to come.

 

As it always does, however, technology moved on, Apple introduced larger and more expensive iPhones with no new smaller or cheaper siblings, and the original iPhone SE was discontinued in September 2018. Like Apple’s previous changes to iPhone design, there were naturally people who were reluctant to upgrade to an iPhone X or later. For the reasons mentioned earlier, I was one of them. The ever increasing price of iPhones didn’t make the thought of upgrading any more palatable either. Catching on to this market, Apple went about developing a device that resembled the physical characteristics of the iPhone 8, with the internals that would ensure support for about four years.

 

However, while the original iPhone SE and the iPhone SE (2020) share the same name and marketing objectives, they are two very different devices. While the original iPhone SE physically resembled the iPhone 5S, the iPhone SE (2020) resembles the iPhone 8. This seemingly indicates that Apple is not planning to develop any 4 inch iPhones, with 4.7 inches the smallest size available. Therefore, if you’re using an original iPhone Se and don’t like the design first introduced with the iPhone 6, the iPhone SE (2020) is not for you.

 

Another thing to keep in mind is that like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE (2020) does not include a 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, nor is a 3.5 millimeter to Lightning adapter included in the box. For users who depend on headphones or other audio equipment that connects via this standard, the adapter can be purchased from Apple for US $9. As I use a bluetooth streamer to output my iPhone’s audio to my hearing aids, and because if I needed it, I still have the adapter included with my iPhone 7, this was not an issue for me. However, I thought it prudent to include that information in this review for anyone with an original iPhone SE who relies on the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack.

internals

For me, the most impressive thing about this phone are the internals. The iPhone SE includes an A13 Bionic processor, giving me similar performance to the flagship iPhone 11 and 11 Pro at a fraction of the cost. Additionally, it includes Wi-Fi 6, which while currently new and supported on a relatively small number of devices and wireless routers, is likely to become ubiquitous in the next couple of years.

 

One thing the iPhone SE, and any iPhone for that matter, does not include, is the technology that has been hyped like crazy by the cellular industry for the past couple of years, 5G. For people in the Apple ecosystem who want that, Apple is rumored to be developing several 5G capable iPhones reportedly scheduled to launch this fall.

 

Personally, while I feel like I’ve heard a lot of noise about 5G from wireless carriers, I’ve yet to hear from people who have been able to take advantage of the truly mind-blowing speeds that it can theoretically offer. For that to work, I would need to have a 5G phone on a city block in range of a newly deployed transmitter, not obstructed by buildings or my hand gripping the device. For more details than I can cover in this review, check out this explainer of the current limitations of the technologies known as, “5G.”While the piece is from December of 2018, the essential problems of internal smartphone design compromises, comparatively short range, and limited scale of deployment still persist, from what I can tell. That said, I’m sure in a few years, as manufacturers develop more efficient 5G modems and carriers deploy more transmitters in wider coverage areas, this new generation of cellular connectivity will become more practical, and by then, I most likely will be looking for a new phone anyway. Until then, I have my iPhone SE, with 4G LTE, which gives me perfectly adequate speeds when I’m not on Wi-Fi; not that I’ve been leaving my house much in the last couple of weeks anyway.

 

If you’re interested, the iPhone SE starts at US $399 for 64 gigabytes, US $449 for 128 gigabytes, and US $549 for 256 gigabytes. It comes in three colors, black, white, and (PRODUCT)RED. For customers who purchase the (PRODUCT)RED edition, Apple will donate a portion of the proceeds to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

using the device

Now that I’ve hopefully given a sufficient overview of the device, as well as a good explanation of my rationale for purchasing it, it’s time to use it in the real world.

 

The short answer is, it’s basically an augmentation of my iPhone 7 use case. The vast majority of tasks I used my iPhone 7 for, voice and video communication, texting, email, light web browsing, online banking, Twitter, and a few audio games perform exactly the same, if not snappier, on my new iPhone SE, with the exception of 3D Touch, the technology that could sense how hard I’m touching the screen and respond differently based on this input. This comes as no surprise, as 3D Touch never really seemed to catch on with developers and users the way Apple probably hoped it would, and tellingly, it was removed from all new iPhones released in 2019. In its place, Apple has implemented what it calls, “Haptic Touch,” which simply involves double tapping and holding, (or long pressing if you don’t use VoiceOver) instead of hard pressing on an item to get a context menu. This is the same menu that would appear if hard pressing on an item on a 3D Touch enabled device.

 

One interesting oddity with Haptic Touch on the iPhone SE relative to other iPhones is the inability to interact with notifications. For example, I would expect if I was to double tap and hold, or perform a three-finger flick down, on an incoming text message, I would be able to reply to that message without needing to open the Messages app. However, this does not seem to work, with some reports even saying that this is expected behavior, not a bug. As sighted users have reported this problem when using equivalent gestures, it does not appear to be VoiceOver related.

 

As Haptic Touch seems to work as expected in other instances, I don’t understand why Apple would intentionally impede its functionality for notifications, provided that such reports are correct. I’ll update this review if I learn more. While I am the furthest thing from a software or hardware engineer, I can’t imagine that it would be infeasible for Apple to release an iOS update to correct this behavior.

 

Update: as of iOS 13.6, it is now possible to flick down to the, “View,” rotor action on an incoming message to reply to that message without opening the Messages app. I suspect that similar interactions are available for other types of notifications, but cannot confirm this.

 

Aside from faster overall performance, the most noticeable improvement I have found is with the speakers. While Apple advertised the speakers on the iPhone 7 as a significant improvement over previous models, I never noticed much of a difference in my every-day use when compared to my iPhone 6. However, I find I am able to hold my iPhone SE to my ear at a reasonable volume and listen comfortably when, for example, I don’t have my hearing aids in. The audio improvements just mentioned may also be present on the iPhone 8, but I never owned that device, so this is the first time I’m noticing them.

 

One compromise of the iPhone SE relative to higher-end iPhones is the camera system. Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE includes a 7 megapixel front-facing FaceTime HD camera and a single 12 megapixel rear camera, as opposed to the multiple camera arrays of the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. For me, the camera on my iPhone is mainly used for obtaining assistance in interpreting the visual world around me, either with the help of AI powered or remote human sighted assistance. Be My Eyes and Seeing AI, the two apps I use most frequently for such tasks, worked quite well on my iPhone 7. In the case of Seeing AI on my iPhone SE, I have found that recognition of short text and currency appears to be faster, but I haven’t tested it enough to conclusively determine objective improvements in the areas of speed and accuracy.

 

When it comes to battery life, with my standard use pattern, I can get through a day without needing to charge my iPhone SE, and have even been able to squeeze two days out of a single charge. However, I use this device in conjunction with my Mac, with the screen brightness reduced, so that probably gives it longer overall battery life. Your mileage will obviously vary, but if you have an iPhone 8, the iPhone SE should give you similar results, as both devices ship with the same battery.

Conclusion

Coming from an iPhone 7, I’d say my iPhone SE was money well spent. Sure, nothing about this phone is, “Revolutionary,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My iPhone 7 suited my admittedly basic needs quite well, and my new iPhone SE, with vastly improved computational power, is likely to continue that trend. Also, in the event that Apple dropped software support for the iPhone 7 in 2021, and the latest iPhones featured a larger screen, no Touch ID, and higher prices, upgrading would not be appealing to me at all.

 

However, with my iPhone SE, I can take advantage of the A13 Bionic processor and Wi-Fi 6, whenever that becomes more widespread. This will hopefully give Apple and the cellular industry time to improve upon 5G, as well as the in-screen fingerprint reader that Apple is rumored to be developing for inclusion in an iPhone in several years. If such rumors pan out to be true, that will make me much more enthusiastic about buying an iPhone with a more modern design in the future.

 

As I bring this review to a close, you might be asking yourself, “Should I upgrade?” While only you can make that decision, here’s my buying advice. If you have an iPhone X or later, I would not recommend upgrading unless you really miss the smaller screen, home button, or Touch ID. Likewise if you have an iPhone 8, unless your use case demands the most powerful processor in a smartphone, I believe that phone should remain quite capable for the next couple of years.

 

If you have an iPhone 7, I’d definitely recommend giving the iPhone SE a serious look. While your device may work reasonably well today, this may be a good opportunity to future-proof your workflow at a very competitive price for a new iPhone.

 

If you have an iPhone 6S or earlier, I’d definitely recommend upgrading if it’s financially feasible for you. I would guess that either this year or the next, Apple will release a new version of iOS that drops support for the A9 processor.

 

If you do end up upgrading, I would generally recommend also buying a case, as the back is all glass in order to support wireless charging. As I plan to use this phone as my daily driver, I did not perform any stress-tests, but I would guess that its durability when dropped is similar to that of the iPhone 8. As the market for cases is quite broad, I can’t recommend any one product over another. Personally, I will be waiting for stores to reopen in my area so I can feel them in person. I have no idea exactly when stores will reopen, let alone when customers will be able to touch sample phone cases, but in the meantime, I will be at home and when my phone isn’t in my hand, it will be deep in my pocket. If you have a case that you used for an iPhone 7 or 8, it should fit on the SE, eliminating the frustrating experience of needing to purchase a new accessory to accommodate a new iPhone.

See also iPhone SE 2020: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly!

 

As of the time of this writing, I have only had my iPhone SE for a couple of weeks, and thus there may be things about it that I’ve yet to discover. However, looking toward the future, I feel quite confident that this device will give me sufficient performance for whatever I may throw at it in the next couple of years.

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About the author
Tyler Stephen
Tyler Stephen
I'm Tyler Stephen, from the US state of Maine. I have a life-long passion for technology, and in addition to writing here, I am also on the editorial team of AppleVis.com. I've been totally blind from birth and thus rely on screenreading software like VoiceOver on Apple products and NVDA on Windows. I have been a Mac user since 2005 and an iOS user since 2010, in addition to also having used Windows, Linux, and Chrome OS. On this site and elsewhere, I hope to write pieces that educate and entertain people, as well as bring attention to the accessibility or inaccessibility of various technologies.

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