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Apple iPhone SE review: $399 gets you the power of a $1,000 phone

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Apple’s iPhones are some of the world’s most popular smartphones. But consumers on a budget have had to opt for older, more affordable models, rather than the latest and greatest devices. And that’s where the company’s new iPhone SE comes in.

The follow-up to 2016’s iPhone SE, the new edition starts at just $399, packing all of the processing power of Apple’s (AAPL) current iPhone 11 line into what is essentially the body of 2017’s $449 iPhone 8. That means you get a 4.7-inch display, something fans of smaller phones have been clamoring for, as well as the classic Home button and Touch ID sensor, also fan favorites.

What you don’t get, however, is the multi-camera layout of the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, or those phones’ edge-to-edge displays.

But for a device with a rock-bottom starting price, and easy entry into Apple’s broader ecosystem, the iPhone SE is a stellar value.

  • Starts at just $399

  • Features Touch ID and Home button

  • Fantastic camera system

  • Entry into Apple ecosystem at low price

A familiar face

Apple’s iPhone 8 lived on through the company’s stores for quite some time. In fact, the tech giant lowered the phone’s price to $449 as recently as September when it launched the iPhone 11 line, which starts at $699 with the iPhone 11 and tops out at around $1,000 for the iPhone 11 Pro. All of that is to say the iPhone SE should be a familiar face.

That’s because it quite literally has the same design as the standard version of the iPhone 8. Heck, the phones share the exact same weight and dimensions. I’ve been using an iPhone 11 Pro Max, Apple’s largest phone, and it makes the iPhone SE feel incredibly small and light by comparison.

The iPhone SE offers premium performance, a powerful camera, and a rock bottom price. (Image: Dan Howley)

If you’ve been using an older iPhone, such as the iPhone 8 or even the iPhone 7 or iPhone 6, moving to the SE will feel like a natural transition. There are no new features to learn like Face ID, the SE comes with Apple’s popular Touch ID fingerprint reader, and the interface is more or less the same as what you’d find on older iPhones rather than the swipe-heavy interface found on newer devices.

Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE offers IP67 dust and water resistance, which means the phone can take a dip in up to 3 feet of water for as long as 30 minutes before it gives up the ghost. Apple’s new devices, including the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, can survive falling into water as deep 6.4 feet and 13 feet, respectively.

The return of the small screen

The iPhone SE marks the return of Apple’s small-screen form factor. Unlike the company’s iPhone 11, which sports a sizable 6.1-inch display, or the Pro models, which pack 5.8-inch and 6.5-inch screens, respectively, the iPhone SE has a modest 4.7-inch panel. 

The iPhone SE features a 4.7-inch display. (Image: Dan Howley)

That screen is essentially the same Retina Display panel found on the iPhone 8, and features Apple’s True Tone technology, which automatically adjusts the color temperature of the screen to match the ambient lighting, ensuring the panel never looks too blue or yellow.

The SE also includes two large bezels above and below its display. It would be great if the SE packed an edge-to-edge panel, but doing so would likely drive its price up significantly. That said, the SE’s screen doesn’t feel too cramped when typing or watching shows, something I spent a good deal doing when I was supposed to be working.

Fantastic camera

Unlike the iPhone 11, which has a dual-camera setup, or the iPhone 11 Pro, which packs three cameras, the iPhone SE has a single-lens camera. But it’s one heck of a camera. I took the SE and the $1,099 11 Pro Max out on a walk to my local park, to see how well the least expensive iPhone’s camera stood up to the most expensive iPhone’s camera, and outside of low-light photos, the two were on a par with each other.

The iPhone SE captures sharp details up close. (Image: Dan Howley)

Photos of a flowering Kanzan Cherry Tree looked brilliant when taken with both the SE and 11 Pro. The tree’s bronze leaves and pink flowers offered a distinctive contrast in both shots, without any over saturation.

The iPhone SE's low-light photos can't match the quality of the iPhone 11's. (Image: Dan Howley)

The SE’s lone issue is its low-light capabilities. To be fair to Apple, the company doesn’t include its low-light photo mode with the SE. That is found on the iPhone 11 line, and truly offers a dramatic improvement when capturing photos in poorly lit settings. The SE struggles compared to the 11 Pro Max, but that’s to be expected when there’s no specific night mode.

The 11 Pro Max, which costs hundreds more, captures better low-light shots, but that's to be expected. (Image: Dan Howley)

Impressively, Apple included its Portrait mode with the SE’s FaceTime camera. Portrait mode creates a bokeh effect that sharpens your subject in the foreground, while blurring the background.

I’ve cultivated a sizable amount of facial hair during my time in lockdown, and figured the camera would have issues discerning my beard from the tree behind me — but it managed to do so without issue multiple times.

The iPhone SE's Portrait mode is accurate and easily distinguished background from foreground. (Image: Dan Howley)

Powerful, pint-sized performance

Where the iPhone SE really distinguishes itself from the iPhone 8 is in the performance department. Unlike the iPhone 8, which came with Apple’s A11 processor, the iPhone SE gets Apple’s top-of-the-line A13 Bionic chip. That’s the same processor found in the iPhone 11 line.

As a result, the SE handled every app I threw at it without issue. Apple Arcade games like “Sneaky Sasquatch” ran as smoothly on the SE as they do on the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The A13 Bionic chip also means the SE can handle things like machine learning and augmented reality, two functions Apple has been keen on pushing forward.

Battery life for the SE is, according to Apple, roughly the same as the iPhone 8. I gave the SE’s battery a serious test by using it to broadcast live video from my home for Yahoo Finance’s slate of daily shows for two straight hours. About 20 minutes before the end of the broadcast, I received an alert saying the battery was down to 20%.

I usually use the 11 Pro Max to do the same kind of broadcasting and end with about 40% battery life, but still manage to get through most of the rest of the day without having to recharge.

All of that is to say that the SE will provide enough power to deal with your average user’s needs, but might come up a little short under extreme circumstances. I don’t imagine most people will be broadcasting live video for two hours from their phone everyday, though.

Should you get it?

The iPhone SE is a powerful smartphone in a compact, inexpensive package. For the person moving up from an iPhone 6, iPhone 7, or iPhone 8 who doesn’t want to spend a lot of cash, it’s a perfect fit. If you want the kind of showstopping features found in the iPhone 11 Pro, like FaceID and multiple cameras, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

This is a phone that will ensure users looking at a low-cost option get into Apple’s ecosystem at a bargain of a price. Remember, every new iPhone means the potential for sales of Apple accessories and services.

The SE is also a perfect product for one of the fastest growing smartphone markets: India. The iPhone 11 is largely too expensive for consumers in that country, but the SE could be a perfect fit.

The iPhone SE looks poised to be a winner for Apple no matter how you slice it.

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Got a tip? Email Daniel Howley at danielphowley@protonmail.com or dhowley@yahoofinance.com, and follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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