iPhone SE 2020 review – tiny dynamite

Overall rating: 8.8/10

Pros:

  • Excellent performance 
  • Single camera is great in daylight
  • Best video capture in its category
  • Comfortable form factor
  • Touch ID
  • Excellent speakers and haptic feedback

Cons:

  • Display is too tiny
  • Bezels are too thick
  • Night Mode for enhanced Low Light photography is missing
  • Average battery life

Introduction:

The tiny 2nd generation iPhone SE, is a phone that has split opinions far and wide. Most Android users don’t see a reason why it needs to exist in 2020 while most iPhone users are hopping on an instant nostalgia trip. 

Clearly, the 2nd generation iPhone SE is an outlier in 2020 but should it be an outcast? Absolutely not. 

Design and display

The design is clearly a derivative of the iPhone 6 design ID. If you took a time machine and went back to 2016, the only design element distinguishing the iPhone 7 and the iPhone SE 2020 would be the centered logo. Evidently, Apple had to do this to reduce the Research and Development cost for an entirely new ID. This makes absolute business sense but does it hamper user experience in 2020? To a certain extent it does, especially if you’ve been using a bigger phone all along. 

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I really like the slim and light glass sandwich body, which by the way is surprisingly tough with IP67 certification. But yeah, phones are just too big and bulky these days and the iPhone SE is definitely a breath of fresh air. Especially considering you can actually use this phone with one hand without feeling like you are lifting weights *cough* Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra *cough.*

Having said that, however hard I tried, I couldn’t use the tiny display without making errors in typing on the keyboard. While quite a bit of that problem lies with my pudgy fingers, a large chunk of the issue is also embedded in conditioning. We’ve been conditioned to use big phones with big screens. 

That said, I am sure a lot of folks with smaller hands would find the size apt for a phone. This feels like a phone and not like a miniature tablet. 

By the way, the beloved Home Button with Touch ID makes a comeback on the iPhone SE. And along with it, the two massive bezels. To be honest, this bezel is definitely the biggest pain point when consuming content in landscape mode. It goes without saying that I don’t like the huge notch on the iPhone 11 series. But, rewinding back to the big bezel era is not doing the iPhone SE any huge favours. Coming back to the Touch ID, it is blazing fast and I didn’t miss Face ID at all. 

Anyway, as for the rest of the design, you get a lightning port at the bottom and a dual speaker setup where the earpiece works as the other channel. This stereo setup gets really loud and I doubt you can get any better in this price range. The other incredible feature of the iPhone SE 2 is the incredible taptic engine. The haptic feedback is just phenomenal. The only other phone that can come close to the iPhone SE is the Pixel 3a, which should be soon replaced by the 4a. Anyway, these are tiny additions that make for a proper flagship experience. 

Now, the 4.7-inch display on the front is an IPS LCD panel with support for HDR. The retina HD display is super crisp for this display size. You really cannot complain about it in daily usage. But, I saw a little bit of The Irishman on this tiny display with Dolby Vision and it was a funnily weird experience. But, for what it is worth, you are getting one of the best IPS LCD panels out there. 

Software

iOS 13.5 is iOS. Not much has changed except for the fact that I had to reconfigure my muscle memory to pull up the Control Centre from the bottom, double tap the Home Button to bring up the multitasking carousel, and more. But, the intended target audience (TG) would not be perturbed by this. And, I will talk about who is the intended TG at the end of the review. 

Camera 

With the iPhone SE 2020, Apple is sticking to a single camera setup on the rear but this 12MP sensor benefits greatly from the Neural Engine of the A13 Bionic. You get extended dynamic range and cinematic video stabilisation in 4K video recording. You also get Smart HDR, and all the cool Portrait features such as depth control pre or post shooting and all Portrait Lighting features as well. Anyway, I have a full comparison of the cameras against the Mi 10 and the Realme X50 Pro. Do go and check it out. 

Although, let me break down the camera performance for you now:

  1. The single camera takes great pictures in daylight. It has crisp details, excellent colours, and superb dynamic range. I don’t think any phone can match the iPhone when it comes to colour reproduction and dynamic range in this price range. But, when it comes to fine textures and details, the 48MP and 64MP’s pixel-binned samples tend to be crisper at close crop. 
  2. Portraits look exceptional on the iPhone and the portrait lighting features too. 
  3. I missed Deep Fusion tech when shooting indoors because the shots don’t look as crispy. Also, there is no dedicated Night mode while shooting pictures on the iPhone SE. However, you can rectify that by using the Neural Cam app. At least, there is a workaround. 
  4. When it comes to video recording, at 4K 30fps, the iPhone SE with its extended dynamic range, cinematic stabilisation, excellent sound recording, is completely unmatched in this price range. It does lose out on the dynamic range improvements at 4K 60fps but the footage still looks phenomenal. That’s not it though, with the power of the A13 Bionic, you can use apps like Double Take to capture videos using the front and the rear cameras at the same time. But, do note that the front camera can only shoot up to 1080p 30fps videos.  
  5. Selfies are a little too cropped in but they are crisp only when you have ample light. They become too soft in less than ideal lighting conditions. Furthermore, Portrait selfies do look good in good lighting conditions. 

While mostly everything is great about the iPhone SE’s camera setup, I do terribly miss a dedicated telephoto and wide angle lens. A couple of compromises you will have to live with. 

Performance

Apple has played a masterstroke with the internals of the iPhone SE 2020. The main reason why I was so excited to test this phone out is because it comes with the A13 Bionic inside. This is the same chipset used to power the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max. So, the kind of power that you get from Apple’s most affordable iPhone in 2020 is just nuts. I mean, for a display this tiny, I feel the A13 Bionic is overkill. But, you can never have too much power. 

I was having a blast playing Grid, What’s Up Golf, and Sayonara. The casual games market on iOS is just crazy good plus graphically-intensive games play really well too. I know all you guys care about is PUBG and this phone is excellent for it. The only problem is the screen is tiny for FPS/TPS games that require multi-touch inputs in landscape mode. But do note that the phone has a tendency to get warm after about an hour of gaming. 

Apart from raw performance, you also get excellent AR support for all the cool apps available on the store. I did talk about the speakers but if you do listen to music using headphones, the iPhone SE 2020 offers incredible audio fidelity. Not the best but almost on par with many good phones out there. 

Battery life and call quality

The tiny battery inside the iPhone SE lasted me around 5hrs of SoT or close to 18 hours on a single charge. This is not great for a flagship phone in 2020 but it is not as bad as i expected it to be either. So, if you can live with this and roam around with a battery case, maybe this will work for you. 

Now, the one area where the iPhone SE is absolutely unbeatable is the call quality. I had a rock solid earpiece experience with crystal clear sound. And, the network stability was pretty good for Airtel 4G in Delhi NCR. 

Who should buy the iPhone SE 2020?

Okay, let’s conclude by defining the target audience who should buy the iPhone SE 2020. Anyone who is using an older iPhone 6, 6s, 7 or 8, should absolutely make the switch. Firstly, the familiarity of the design will be comforting. Secondly, you will get a more powerful processor with far more future updates. And finally, it won’t even break the bank at around 39k – after discounts – for the base variant. 

The second target audience would be first time iPhone users who want to try it but don’t want to spend too much. They could’ve been using a mid-range Android device.

Now, obviously you have a plethora of alternatives in the Android space. The Samsung Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite, Realme X50 Pro, iQOO 3, and the OnePlus 8 immediately come to mind. But yes, the OnePlus 8 is the phone that can match the iPhone’s level of polish and finish in both hardware and software. 

When it comes to design or display, I have no doubt in my mind that the OnePlus 8 is better. Especially the 90Hz refresh rate is the kicker. Plus the SD865 chipset is as good as the A13 Bionic when you talk about raw power. However, the camera setup on the iPhone is bound to be better with better dynamic range performance and video recording. But yes, the OnePlus 8 will give you more versatility in shooting. Overall, if you want a big screen experience the OnePlus 8 is the one for you. And, if you want your phone to take great pictures, like em small, or if you want an iPhone then you can’t go wrong with the iPhone SE. Both are great phones in their own right, to be honest.

So, what do you guys think? Let’s invade the comments section. 

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?