Apple iPhone SE (2020) long-term review: Small phone, huge impact


The iPhone SE starts at Rs 42,500. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Making a smartphone has become a rat race in 2020. Some want to make the most powerful phone, some the ultimate all-screen one. Some want to put in gobs of RAM and megapixels, others want to achieve lightning fast charging. The idea is simple. Throw in as many specs and features as you possibly can and see what sticks.

While conventional brands like Samsung continue to charge a hefty premium for some of these innovations, new-age brands like Xiaomi and OnePlus have been challenging that status quo through their aggressive pricing, a strategy that has given rise to the so-called “flagship killer“.

In either case, it is a win-win situation for buyers because they can cherry-pick what suits them best. But there is another side to this story, one that is also accentuated by the ongoing pandemic. Even as the shelf life of smartphones is declining across retail — as they are fast replaced by newer models — the reverse is true for buyers who would rather have something reliable that they can hold on to for longer. Specs matter, but experience matters more.

Suddenly, you are left with fewer options and that is something to think about. The iPhone comes to mind as a compelling option, but iPhones are usually an expensive proposition unless you go for an older model. Apple wants to change that notion with the new iPhone SE.

It is easy to decode an iPhone — it just works.

The iPhone SE brings that reliability — and quality — to a more accessible price point and even though it has some caveats, I am happy to report that it is my favorite phone of the year. That is the kind of impact this phone has made on me.

Design, build quality – and display

iPhone SE design is a throwback to the iPhone 8. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The original iPhone SE from 2016 — and not the all-plastic iPhone 5c — was the first truly affordable iPhone. It came with a premium all-metal design and powerful hardware. It was reliable and very solid. It was one of the best phones that you could buy back in the day. From an India context, it was special also because it was one of the first few iPhones to be locally assembled here.

The idea behind the iPhone SE, in addition to being an iPhone for the masses, was that there was still demand for a smaller screen iPhone even as the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus (launched the same year) would cater to those looking for more. The way we use our phones has changed dramatically since then. Screens are getting bigger — it is also possible to fold them now. Apple’s own iPhone 11 Pro Max stands tall at 6.5-inch. Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra are touching the 7-inch mark. But that is not to say that people do not want a smaller phone anymore.

The iPhone SE in 2020 has a bigger screen than the original but having said that, it is still the only phone in the market today trying to make a case for pocketable phones that you can easily operate with one hand — every other like-minded phone is just faking it.

The phone has wide chunky bezels. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

The body of the iPhone SE is around 5.5-inch. Now, there are two things to know about it. One is that you can’t really call it tiny anymore — the original iPhone SE was tiny. This means typing is much easier on it. The other is that it has wide chunky bezels, so the actual viewing real estate becomes smaller (4.7-inch). Yes, the iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch screen. Depending on how you see it, it’s either good news or downright ridiculous. I like it.

The reason behind the iPhone SE’s unique form factor — for a 2020 phone — is that its design is a throwback to the iPhone 8 from 2017. It is the same exact phone. Do I wish Apple had updated its iPhone 8-esque design, shaved off the bezels, and made it look like a 2020 iPhone? Absolutely. Is it a deal breaker? Well, no.

Come to think of it, the design of the iPhone SE is classic Apple. It is a design that Apple knows so well, it could do it with a blindfold. And the thing about classic Apple is that it can never go out of fashion. Naysayers will not necessarily agree with that because Android phones have finally come of age when it comes to looking good, but iPhones have always looked good — and the iPhone SE looks very, very good.

Plus, no other phone in and around its price has a similar high-quality fit and finish. It is also IP67-certified which makes it water resistant to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. That’s still a rarity among budget and mid-range phones.

Touch ID makes a comeback. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Just like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE is also made of glass and metal. It has the same straight lines and rounded top and bottom, and yes, there is also the all-familiar Touch ID “physical” fingerprint scanner, in the all-familiar position below the main display. I use an iPhone XR as my daily driver, and believe me when I say this, I have missed Touch ID and I am glad that it is still around.

As for the display itself, it is HD IPS LCD with Apple’s True Tone technology. Like other Apple “retina” LCDs this one is also plenty sharp with soothing colours and adequate viewing angles — even for a 720p. There is no 3D touch like the iPhone 8. This has been replaced by haptic touch — like it is in some of the newer iPhone including the iPhone 11. There is also no tap to wake (only raise to wake) and I wish Apple had found a way to add it somehow.

Performance – and experience

The iPhone SE is a recycle iPhone 8 alright, but it is made of good recycled parts — and that is what really counts. The biggest reason to buy the iPhone SE will be its powerful hardware though. Apple is not cutting any corners here. The iPhone SE has the same core hardware or system on chip as the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, aka the A13 Bionic. There’s 3GB of RAM and up to 256GB of non-expandable storage.

Any iPhone powered by Apple’s A13 Bionic with its custom CPU and GPU (and neural engine) can wipe the floor with any new Android phone out there rocking the latest and greatest Qualcomm/Exynos/Kirin chip — with power to spare. 3GB RAM might look (and feel) measly on Android, but it will be more than enough for literally anything and everything that you will ever throw at it including high-end gaming. The 720p resolution also helps but the real star of the show is Apple’s software. That is what makes that solid hardware tick.

Out of the box, the iPhone SE runs iOS 13 (13.4) but iOS 14 is now rolling and let me just come out and say it — I love it. I think it is the best piece of software that Apple has ever made for the iPhone.

iOS 14 is now rolling for iPhone SE. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Thanks to iOS 14, you can now add widgets to your iPhone home screen. Apple has also made it easier to pick and drop widgets to the home screen through features like widget gallery and smart stack, both of which are designed to curate relevant widgets for you. The number of apps that can do all this is few at this point of time, but it is growing. The fact that Googleyes, Google — made a better search widget for the iPhone speaks volumes about developers wanting to be there on the iPhone.

Moving on, there is also a new App Library view in iOS 14 that automatically organizes all your apps into categories and lists. This is also updated depending on app usage. That is a lot like what Android already does through its app drawer and it is surely nice to see Apple bringing something like it to the iPhone.

iOS 14 also brings floating windows for phone calls (including FaceTime) and Siri. Plus, there is an all-new picture in picture view for videos that you can also resize at will. As if all this was not enough, iOS 14 also allows iPhone users to use third party browsers and email apps over the usual defaults — you see how I saved the best for the last here!

There are other features in iOS 14, some India-specific ones as well, and you can read more about them here, but the crux of the whole thing is that Apple is finally giving iPhone users greater flexibility much like their Android counterparts — but it is doing all this seemingly without compromising on its core tenets of privacy.

Apple is going to support it for as long as it supports the iPhone 11. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

I have been an Android user for the greater part of my life but then when I finally chose to switch to iOS, I found myself converted simply because everything felt so smooth, so tightly knit together it felt like the hardware and software were in unison — complimenting each other in all the right ways. Then when I used it for an extended period, to see how it holds up, I found myself converted for good. The only thing I was probably missing was some of the customization, but I think Apple has been listening — and trying to find workarounds those shortcomings and iOS 14 is clearly a step in the right direction. But what I am really trying to say is that even though I keep switching phones from time to time to make reviews like these possible, I almost always end up coming back to an iPhone and every time I do that, it feels just the way it felt the day I picked it up the first time — it feels like home.

That is the kind of reliability not many Android phones can vouch for, even today. And none can guarantee an upwards of four years of major updates. That is what adds value to an iPhone. An iPhone ages gracefully and that is the reason why users can hold on to them for so long. It is not for select iPhones either but all of them mostly which makes an even bigger case for the iPhone SE because its newer hardware means Apple is going to support it for as long as it supports an iPhone 11 — at least.

Camera

The A13 Bionic and its eight-core neural engine also brings high-end photography elements to the iPhone SE even though it has the same 12MP f/18 main camera with OIS as the iPhone 8. You can say that the camera on this one is kind of, sort of closer to the iPhone XR in terms of functionality, with the exception that like the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE also has access to Apple’s next-generation Smart HDR.

So even though you will not be able to use as many features, particularly Apple’s impressive Night Mode, the all-round output should be good — at least on paper. It supports Portrait Mode, using both rear and front (7MP) cameras, though it only works on human faces — and not, say, your pets. Like the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE also supports six Portrait Lighting effects. Plus, it can record 4K videos @60fps with stereo sound.

iPhone SE has the same 12MP f/18 main camera with OIS as the iPhone 8. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

Aside from some of the limitations I just mentioned, those that you will notice only if you have used an iPhone 11, the iPhone SE cameras are quite good especially in good lighting. When lots of light is available — think, sunny outdoors or even well-lit indoors — the quality of photos shot with it are at par with much more expensive phones including the iPhone 11 when it comes to quality and detail. Colours are nice, warm and pleasing to the eyes — which is a hallmark iPhone trait.

The level of detail goes down as the intensity of light goes down though and because there is no dedicated night mode here — which is surprising because you would assume it has the necessary hardware to pull it off — low light photos are quite frankly speaking, disappointing next to competition. Also, while I like how the iPhone SE shoots more natural-looking selfies and portraits (that can be a hit and miss sometimes), 7MP simply does not make the cut in 2020.

But where it fails to impress in low light and often at selfies, it more than compensates for by shooting the best-in-class videos. No other phone comes close and that is across varying light scenarios.

Battery life

Apple says the iPhone SE should last you about the same as iPhone 8 which means clearly it is not the phone’s big USP feature. Battery life will be good or bad depending on your use case. While expecting a full day’s worth will be wishful thinking, Apple’s intelligent optimizations mean the iPhone SE will not die on you abruptly. Also, as a measure to ensure battery health, Apple limits charging to around 80% in iOS that you can choose to opt out of whenever you want.

Still charging over Lightning. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

As for real-world stats, as I mentioned, this varies. You can get close to a full “working” day doing just the basics which is making calls, texting, some video calling, and web/social media browsing. Gaming and content streaming, even using the camera for a longer duration, takes a major hit out of the phone’s battery so that is something to consider if you are planning to buy the iPhone SE.

Apple compensates for that through 18W fast charging — which is sadly, still using Lightning — and probably segment first, wireless charging. You need to get a compliant charger for both but I think it is a long-term investment for something that is going to stay with you for a long time — I think, you should do it.

Should you buy the Apple iPhone SE?

The iPhone SE starts at Rs 42,500 for the base variant with 64GB storage going all the way to Rs 58,300 for the top-end model with 256GB storage. There is also a 128GB version of the iPhone SE that is available for Rs 47,800.

Here is what you are getting for that kind of price:

  • It is an iPhone
  • It works like an iPhone
  • It is more affordable than any other iPhone
iPhone SE is made in India. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)

If you are wondering why I did not mention any specs or chalked out the pros and cons, well, they do not really matter. You can go on and spend a lakh on a brand-new iPhone 11 Pro Max, and sure, it will give you all the specs — and modern design — you will ever need, but again not everybody has that kind of money. You can alternatively get an Android phone jam-packed with those specs South of Rs 45,000, but again, none can come close to the experience and support that Apple is going to give you with the iPhone SE.

In the middle of all the hullabaloo, Apple has come out with something totally out of the blue. And by doing that, it is also sending out a message. In a world that is changing so quickly, Apple wants you to just sit down, take a minute, reflect on the good old days, when phones did not need just crazy specs to make an impact. They did that by sticking to the basics and doing them well. I guess the SE now stands for “setting (an) example” and that is what makes it so special.

Anybody can buy the iPhone SE and while there is a learning curve for someone who maybe switching from Android or a bigger screen, the transition is smoother than one would imagine. As for everything else, Apple will have you covered. PS. The new iPhone SE is now also made in India.

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