Huge bang for your buck, small screen

A photo of the iPhone SE surrounded by Apple objects

The iPhone SE is the best and only cheap iPhone you can buy.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

It’s been a long time since I’ve handled an iPhone, ten years to be exact. So much has changed in the walled garden ecosystem, but so much has also improved.

Although I have no intention of leaving the Android universe, I was curious to get my hands on the iPhone SE because of the disaster it spells for mid-tier Android devices. It’s an iPhone with the company’s latest mobile silicon in an affordable package, which means performance-wise it’s on par with the flagship. iPhone 13. That makes the iPhone SE a heck of a deal at just $430, and you won’t find an Android device capable of such processing prowess at the same price.

Its biggest flaw is the screen. The iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch LCD screen is too small and doesn’t seem any bigger than the iPhone 4S I left behind a long time ago. Perhaps you will see it as an advantage rather than a weakness. If so, you’ll find everything else about the new iPhone SE to be an enjoyable experience, even its sleek camera system.

Sound familiar?

The iPhone SE is Apple’s smallest phone. From an aesthetic point of view, it remains unchanged from the last iPhoneSE, to the frame. The iPhone SE looks like the iPhone 8, with the Touch ID button on the front and the singular camera lens on the back. It comes in three colorways, including Midnight, (Product)RED, and Starlight, which is the one Apple sent us for review.

A photo of the iPhone SE in a person's hand

The iPhone SE fits nicely in the palm of your hand, but it could use a slightly bigger screen.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The iPhone SE packs a paltry 4.7-inch screen with a resolution of 750 x 1334. To Apple’s credit, the screen looks good even though it’s not as deep in contrast or dynamic than the OLED screen of the iPhone 13. To offer a comparison, Android devices like the Google Pixel 5a and recently announced Samsung Galaxy A53 5G, all priced the same as the iPhone SE, come with a 6.34-inch OLED and 6.5-inch Super AMOLED, respectively. Samsung’s display also runs at a 120Hz refresh rate compared to the iPhone SE’s 60Hz.

There were times when I thought the iPhone SE experience would have been easier to use if there was a bit more screen to work with. Pokemon Go, for example, sailed on the iPhone SE with its A15 Bionic chip. But there was very little trail for me to wrap my finger around and throw a Poke Ball. Not to mention that other app buttons felt too small to press, especially with my current state of long claws, which makes it a little harder to type on a small screen with the pads of my fingers. I even struggled to enter the passwords because of how precisely I had to type a certain character, lest my fingernail get in the way.

Reading articles also felt cramped on the iPhone SE, even with mobile Safari’s excellent Reader View. I have no problem reading smaller fonts, but I thought about my family members who I would be buying this iPhone for and how they need large print to see what’s on the screen . It’s a bit tedious to read with such a small window.

Despite the small screen, I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the glass back of the iPhone SE, even though it has a vintage look. It offers a premium touch to the device that the Pixel 5a and Samsung’s affordable phones don’t yet provide. They eschew high-end materials on the chassis in favor of other capabilities.

A photo of a person grabbing the iPhone SE

The third-generation iPhone SE is small enough that I can wrap most of my hand around it.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

Impactful and powerful

Apple’s A15 Bionic chip performs well. The company’s in-house processor has outpaced every Android smartphone we’ve reviewed since the iPhone 13 launched last year, including Qualcomm’s newest mobile chip, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1. You won’t find this hardware in an Android device at an equivalent price, making the iPhone SE even more impressive.

The synthetic benchmark numbers for the iPhone SE 5G were on par with the iPhone 13, and I can confirm that they reflected real-world usage. The iPhone hovered over apps and scrolled through TikTok and Instagram Reels with ease. It also handled my aforementioned AR-enabled pocket monster catching game well, and I had no problem switching between apps quickly.

The iPhone SE is not for power users, but its battery can sustain a full day of active use. Apple claims the iPhone SE can handle up to 15 hours of video playback, and our tests produced similar numbers. It lasted just under 14 hours in a ramshackle session. That’s about four hours less than the Pixel 5a’s 18-hour battery life.

The iPhone SE 5G doesn’t support MagSafe wireless charging, which is a shame if you were hoping to get them. MagSafe PopSocket Accessories (I was). However, it is compatible with Qi wireless charging, of which there seems to be an endless number of accessories.

The third-generation iPhone SE has also received an upgrade to 5G. I’d avoid any phone that doesn’t have 5G compatibility at this point because it’s becoming more ubiquitous than ever. The iPhone SE does not support Verizon’s mmWave 5G spectrum, but it’s not as available as the carrier claims. Yet there is more mid C-band spectrum spreading across the continental United States, and the iPhone SE is fully capable of taking advantage of that.

Finally, it should be noted that the new device comes with IP67 water resistance, which should give you peace of mind if you spend your mornings splashing around in a pool.

A camera that does it all

A photo of the back of the iPhone SE 5G

The iPhone SE’s main camera is capable if you have the right lighting.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

Unlike its iPhone 13 sibling, the iPhone SE has only one rear-facing camera. It’s a 12-megapixel lens that works like the last-gen iPhone SE lineup. But with the help of the A15 Bionic chip inside, the camera can produce sharper and more color balanced photos.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a Google Pixel 5a on hand to compare the iPhone SE’s night photography. But based on the test photos I took and my previous experiences with the mid-range Pixel lineup, the iPhone SE isn’t made for taking photos in the dark. It doesn’t pick up ambient lighting unless you set the focus point first, and there’s no way to keep the shutter open for an extended period of time.

Two sample photos of the iPhone SE

The iPhone SE can shoot in low light, but it really depends on where you choose your focus point. These two photos were taken a few seconds apart.
Picture: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

But if you want a smartphone to take pictures of your loved ones, the iPhone SE will do. It quickly focuses on your subjects and I was impressed with its ability to capture a still shot while I was actively walking. However, it had trouble catching my fidgety daughter in low artificial light, so you’ll want to take plenty of photos to make sure you get a shareable shot.

On the front, there is also a 7-megapixel FaceTime camera. It’s fun to take selfies with the iPhone SE’s new photography styles, a feature that Apple introduced starting with the iPhone 13. If you plan to take a lot of photos, you’ll want to invest in a cloud plan because the iPhone SE only offers 64 GB of storage. at this price. It’s an extra $50 if you want 128GB of storage or an extra $150 for 256GB.

A very good deal

A photo of a thud touching the home button

The iPhone SE uses Touch ID instead of Face ID.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The iPhone SE 5G comes with iOS 15.4 loaded right out of the box, making it the cheapest way to enjoy everything Apple’s mobile operating system has to offer. This includes new privacy and security features and new emojis, in addition to iOS 15 already useful existing capacities. iOS 15 will even ask you to allow an app to send notifications, a feature that Android still working.

Unfortunately, the part of iOS 15.4 that you can’t test is the ability to use Face identification with a mask. The iPhone SE only offers Touch ID to secure the device.

A photo of a person holding the iPhone SE

It would be a budget iPhone if the screen was just a bit bigger.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

The $430 iPhone makes perfect sense in a world dominated by low-cost Androids. It’s the cheapest entry point into the Apple ecosystem and an easy way to keep even the less tech-focused members of your brood bonded together.

Unlike the Android ecosystem, Apple controls when the iPhone receives software updates, which bodes well for long-term support. Apple still provides software support for the original iPhoneSE launched in 2016, and this third-generation iPhone SE will likely be on a similar schedule. And since this particular iPhone is on the same proprietary processor as its more expensive flagship counterpart, it’s totally worth the bang for your sub-$500 dollar.

If what you want is a barebones iPhone that will see you through the next two years, the iPhone SE is that for now. It’s small, unassuming, and has all the brains of the regular iPhone 13. The only problem is that you’ll have to lower your expectations for the main camera, as it’s without the software wizardry that makes the iPhone 13 series so capable in low light. But for people who can’t handle the small screen, the only alternative without running full Android is to consider the iPhone 13 Mini for an extra $200.

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