OK, so I’m no Apple ad copywriter, but the iPhone SE is a great phone. It just isn’t meant for those of us who upgrade our phones every year or two.
It’s for people like reader Carol Morton with a cracked, four-year-old iPhone 6s. Or Daniel Ford, whose ancient iPhone 4 miraculously still works but doesn’t download the latest apps anymore. Or Cherine Trombley, owner of a first-generation iPhone SE from 2016. It’s even for Paul Fenton, whose kids want him to finally get rid of his Jitterbug flip phone.
Calling the iPhone SE “new" is like calling last week’s meatloaf “new" after applying some fresh ketchup. Take the iPhone 8 body, mix in the iPhone XR’s camera and the iPhone 11 processor and—poof!—it’s an iPhone SE.
But that’s exactly what makes the phone so appealing to those who still like their older models and don’t want to mortgage their home for a phone the size of Nebraska.
Unlike the starting-at-$699 iPhone 11 models, the SE is the only remaining iPhone with the once-beloved home button and a small (well, smaller) 4.7-inch screen. Yet it still has the performance and some of the camera tricks of those higher-end phones.
To test the SE over the past week, I went deep into my Museum of Ancient iPhones—and deep into my email inbox—to focus on the hundreds of questions that owners of older iPhones have written to me with since my iPhone 11 review last year.
No matter which phone you’re coming from, you’ll find the SE to be one of Apple’s best values in years, especially as we all try to tighten our belts in the coronavirus world. It’s even nice for talking to people, now that we’re doing that again. Just one problem: When we finally can stop sheltering in place, we’re going to want better battery life.
How to play iPhone solitaire: Shuffle an iPhone 6, 7, 8 and new SE, line them up face up and try to guess each model without flipping it over. From the wide-screen frame to the rounded edges, the SE looks exactly like those older models. The glass back, which it shares with the iPhone 8 that it replaces, really should be covered in a case. It slipped off my desk onto the wood floor and got nicked.
Some seem deeply angered about the “large" size of the new SE. Indeed, the new iPhone SE feels huge after holding the original iPhone SE with the 4-inch screen. But hold the new SE after holding a 6.1-inch iPhone 11, and it feels teeny tiny. It’s all relative.
The Touch ID fingerprint sensor is in its usual spot inside the home button. However, if you’re coming from an original iPhone SE, iPhone 6s or earlier, you’ll note that the button no longer presses down. Instead, you feel a little bump of feedback when you press it. The nicest thing about Touch ID? Unlike Face ID on the new iPhones, it works when you have a mask on. Very handy for using Apple Pay at the drugstore.
If you’re coming from an iPhone 6s or older, good news: Your new phone is water-resistant enough to survive a fall into the toilet. Bad news: Your new phone doesn’t have a headphone jack. However, it comes with earbuds that plug directly into the Lightning charging port. You could also buy adapters—or even AirPods.
Performance and Camera
There were a few things I missed about my iPhone 11 during my week of testing. Performance wasn’t among them. Powered by the same A13 Bionic processor, the SE was just as snappy to launch apps and handle games. Scrolling through long documents—fine, you got me, scrolling through Instagram—was very smooth.
An up-to-date processor also means iOS updates for the foreseeable future. Last year, Apple cut off the iPhone 6 from new iOS updates; the iPhone 6s and original SE are likely next on the chopping block. iOS updates don’t only mean new features but important security and privacy fixes.
The processor also unlocks some photography tricks, including the great portrait mode, which blurs the background behind a subject for a classier shot. When I compared portrait shots taken with the $999 iPhone 11 Pro to those from the iPhone SE, I was hard-pressed to figure out which ones looked better. In fact, in one setting, the iPhone SE did a better job than the 11 Pro at figuring out where my head ended and the tree behind me started. (And yes, portrait mode also works on the SE’s front-facing selfie cam.)
But I’d have a hard time giving up my iPhone 11 because of my award-winning photos of my dog. The SE’s portrait mode only recognizes human faces. I also missed my 11’s night mode—and its wide angle lens when attempting to capture my son with his kite way up in the air.
Tricks aside, you’ll need to study photos side by side to spot the differences in photo quality, at least in decent outdoor lighting, if you’re coming from an iPhone 6 or 6s, or the original iPhone SE. I could see a few improvements in the new SE: Lighting on faces is smoother and less shiny, low-light photos are better and shots of moving objects (like kids or dogs) are less blurry.
If you are coming from an old iPhone with an aged battery, you’ll find the SE’s new battery to be a big improvement. No more sudden drops from 20% to 1%; no more living in low-power mode. (Although you could always look to upgrade the battery in an older phone.)
But this isn’t an iPhone that meets my 2020 battery-life standards. After days of moderate use—email, texting, a few phone calls, too much Twitter—I landed in 15% territory by 6 p.m. My iPhone 11 doesn’t hit that until past 11 p.m.
In my battery run-down tests, the higher-end iPhones completely decimated the SE. The iPhone SE streamed video on YouTube for 8 hours. The iPhone 11 and 11 Pro went for around 13 hours. Of course, those have larger or thicker bodies with room for bigger batteries.
On the plus side, the iPhone SE supports wireless charging so you could keep the phone on a charger, like this $30 Anker PowerWave Charger Stand, while you’re working at your desk. It also supports fast charging via Lightning cable, though you’ll need to buy a higher-wattage wall adapter for that (or borrow your iPad’s charging brick, if you have one). The SE still comes with Apple’s slow, dinky 5W charger. If long battery life is at the top of your must-have list but you don’t want to spend $1,000, the $599 iPhone XR and $699 iPhone 11 last a solid day.
The SE makes you wonder what good reason there is to pay $1,000—or even $699—for an iPhone at all. In the next big iPhone release, Apple will try to sell frequent upgraders on 5G connectivity, according to reports, but 5G won’t be mainstream for a long time. Yep, time is on your side, SE buyers.
When the next SE turns up, in about four years, we’ll hopefully be able to leave the house, and those 5G networks might finally be as reliable as 4G. Just prepare to bid a final farewell to your beloved home button.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.