Last week, Apple released a long-coveted throwback to iPhones of old. The new iPhone SE is smaller and lighter than its contemporaries, brings back the familiar home button we lost in favor of Face ID, and costs a fraction of a price of the other models on the iPhone lineup. And it has honestly exceeded my expectations.
My first impression: It's adorable! Which is not a characterization I would use to describe the iPhone 11, my previous iPhone model of choice. At 4.7 inches, it is markedly smaller than the iPhones I've grown accustomed to, and refreshingly lighter in my pocket. While it lacks the same hardware as the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, and therefore can't support the same breadth of camera capabilities nor Face ID unlocking, it operates on the fastest chip ever used in a smartphone, performing right on par with the iPhone 11 models that cost twice its price. After testing it out for a week, here is a breakdown of its most important features.
Perhaps the biggest differentiator between the new iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro is that the SE has only a single rear camera, as compared to the iPhone 11's double rear cameras and the 11 Pro's triple rear cameras. Still, though, the SE can achieve a shocking amount of the same photo features, including slo-mo, time-lapse, high-quality video capture at 4K up to 60fps, Quick Take for instant video while in photo mode, Portrait Mode on the front camera, Depth Control to blur backgrounds, and portrait lighting effects like stage light and studio light, which it achieves with its 12MP wide-angle camera, A13 Bionic chip, and Smart HDR, the technology used in the iPhone 11 to recognize people and create better shadow and highlighting.
Notably absent from this camera system is the ability to use Portrait mode for pets (though you can use it for humans, importantly), as well as Night mode, one of the most impressive features of the iPhone 11 lineup, which basically brings flashlight-level brightening effects to dark environments. The SE camera can still, however, photograph in relatively low light. As a pretty average iPhone camera user, it's not often that I'm messing around with lenses or in need of an ultra-wide lens for my daily photography needs. For this reason, I honestly didn't notice a difference between the SE's camera features and the iPhone 11's whatsoever, and I'm willing to wager than most iPhone 11 users wouldn't notice a difference either.
The Size & Feel
While at first this phone made my hands feel giant (they're not, for the record), I grew used to it very quickly, to the point where my 6.1-inch iPhone 11 now feels clunky and hard to grip. It measures 4.7 inches across like the iPhone 8 — bigger than its 4-inch SE predecessor. With white, black, and (PRODUCT)RED offerings, the color lineup isn't as comprehensive or grand as what we saw with the iPhone 11, but like the iPhone 11 lineup, the new SE is made of glass and aluminum, has a Retina display (just HD, as compared to Liquid Retina HD or Super Retina XDR), and is water- and dust-resistant. As is the case with the iPhone 11 lineup, there's no headphone jack, and it can also charge wirelessly with Qi-certified chargers. While its battery life is shorter than that of the iPhone 11, it can still support ample listening and watching — up to 40 hours of audio and up to 13 hours of video.
The aforementioned A13 Bionic chip is the fastest chip to ever power a smartphone, which makes the SE's performance just as powerful as the iPhone 11's and ideal for gaming, AR, video editing, and other machine learning-powered actions. And this is evident in practice. Sky: Children of the Light, iPhone's game of the year last year, looks just as sharp on the SE as it does on the iPhone 11 to my eye. All in all, the SE feels just as luxe as the SE — not obviously $300 cheaper.
Say goodbye to Face ID
The new SE has a home button, unlike the iPhone 11 lineup, to be used for Touch ID. Which means we're back to using our thumbs to log in to apps, unlock our phones, use Apple Pay, and fill in passwords. This also means no Animoji or Memoji (except for in their sticker form). So no recording yourself talking as the poop emoji, unfortunately, or FaceTiming as an owl. Other than that, it supports iOS 13, which means you get all the usual iPhone fare you're used to, like Dark Mode and cycle tracking.
I thought I'd miss Face ID most with the new SE, but it turns out I actually missed being able to unlock my phone with just my thumb — a task you can accomplish, refreshingly, without having to bring the front camera up to your face. No facial recognition also means no more of those annoying instances where your iPhone doesn't recognize you while you're wearing your glasses and retainer.
If you're an Apple stan who requires the latest model and are looking to upgrade from your iPhone 11, you're better off skipping this one and waiting until the next model likely drops in September, as is customary for Apple. But if you're looking for a smaller iPhone that you can count on to fit in every pocket you own, and you're not on board with dropping close to one grand on a phone, the SE is your gal. Especially if you can part with the iPhone 11's more heavy-duty camera system. Without Apple's full arsenal of offerings, this makes for the perfect cheaper version of the iPhone — except you likely won't even notice the typical offerings that it's missing. Minimalism...but make it complete with all the most important iPhone features, including the fastest-ever processing chip.
At $399, the new iPhone SE is the same price as the original SE from 2016, and is also available on a monthly plan of $9.54/month or for $229 with a trade-in of an older model. And considering its starting price is $300 less than the iPhone 11's $699 price tag despite the two models sharing many of the same hardware features, it's a pretty impressive price point.