iPhone SE 2020 review: Good things come in small packages
In a world fast adapting to increasingly larger smartphones, Apple’s original iPhone SE from 2016 stood alone, catering to folks who wanted smartphone smarts and imaging prowess without the bulk. No surprises, the dinky device went on to become a hugely popular ‘affordable’ device in the Apple portfolio, more so as the rest of the lineup’s price tag crept north each passing year. The 2020 reboot of the iPhone SE refines that winning formula by taking the performance and software of the iPhone 11 series and squeezing it into a well-worn body of the iPhone 8 from 2017. The result is a phone with a compact form factor and the longevity of a new iPhone without forsaking basic hygiene like wireless charging and water resistance, all at a price that’s firmly in mid-premium flagship territory. Let’s break it down.
If you’re considering the new iPhone, we’ll need to address the elephant in the room – the SE’s arguably dated design. Inheriting the same basic design as the iPhone 8 (which in turn got it from the iPhone 6 from all the way back to 2014) has its obvious drawbacks. So, there’s the glass front and back sandwiching an aluminum frame along with a pandemic-friendly Touch ID fingerprint scanner in the home button – no Face ID facial recognition here. The 4.7-inch LCD screen is tiny in 2020, which in itself isn’t a bad thing for folks looking for a compact phone, but the presence of a thick bezels and a sizeable chin and forehead will give folks some pause, particularly those who’ve gotten used to the extra screen real estate all-screen designs afford. At 148g, it’s refreshingly light to carry around and use one-handed, while feeling as solid and well-built as any other iPhone.
Apple’s master stroke with the 2020 SE has been to kit it with the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11, which gives it two undeniable advantages. First, you get a chip which beats everything from the competition in terms of raw processing power, which is great for gaming, augmented reality and any other intensive application you decide to throw at it. The second is that a modern current-gen chipset almost guarantees you’ll be seeing iOS platform and security updates for your device of 4-5 years to come. The SE runs iOS 13.5 at the time of writing, and the experience is all very familiar save for the gesture controls from the recent iPhones. The chink in the armor is the battery life, which despite the all of Apple’s optimizations, is a 1821mAh battery at the end of the day. You’ll get through till the late evening if you’re using it moderately or are largely on Wi-Fi, but a solid session of battery draining games will induce battery panic even earlier. Wireless charging is a bonus in this price segment, and the 18W fast charging is nice, but the inclusion of a 5W charger in the box is a real pity.
Some pictures taken with the phone:
Now, by using the computing chops of the A13 Bionic, the SE sees a bunch of camera improvements to the single 12-megapixel rear camera that is largely similar to the one used in the iPhone 8. No, you’re not getting two or three lens that is now du jour in this segment. So, while you get the AI-assisted approach to blurry background portrait mode photos we saw on the iPhone XR (humans only, no objects or pets), you will miss the broader field of view ultra-wide lens as well as night mode, a feature introduced in the iPhone 11 to seriously amp up your low light shots. Don’t get me wrong – this is no pushover of a camera. The daylight photos rival the top-tier iPhones in terms of balance, detail and color accuracy, with grain and noise noticeable only when the light dims significantly. The selfie camera is ace too, with images exhibiting excellent details and exposure levels, only getting a bit soft in low light. In the video department, the iPhone is unparalleled in this price range, with up to 4K 60 frames per second video from the rear camera excelling in detail, dynamic range and image stabilization. For most casual photographers, the iPhone SE’s single camera results will give the similarly priced Android competition a run for their money.
iPhones don’t typically make a strong value-first proposition, but this one is different. After testing the SE for a few weeks, I found it to be a tantalizing proposition for many folks who want to ride the iPhone bandwagon but don’t want to cough up the otherwise stratospheric asking price. Be it the size or the performance, or the dependable camera, different aspects of the SE will appeal to different folks, but I was most struck by its clarity of purpose and lack of compromise in stuff that counts…and that may be the iPhone SE 2020’s biggest strength.
iPhone SE 2020
Pros: Good pricing for top-tier performance, compact design, wireless charging and water resistance, decent cameras, excellent build quality, software support
Cons: Big bezels, no night mode, no 5G, middling battery life, no headphone jack
Price: Rs 42,500 for 64GB onwards
Tushar Kanwar is a Bengaluru-based technology columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar