This iPhone SE (2020) review isn't like what we'd write for any other modern-day smartphone. The iPhone SE (2020) is so different from other phones in its price range, in terms of features and target audience, that it almost seems as though it should be in a different product category. If you have a budget of Rs. 45,000, there are plenty of Android smartphones that may be more logical to buy. Although it's now the lowest priced current-gen iPhone in Apple's lineup, the iPhone SE (2020) is still hardly affordable by Indian standards. Think of it as a specialised tool for a specific purpose.
As someone who has bought and used the budget-minded iPhone 5c (Review), the original iPhone SE (Review) and the iPhone XR (Review) over the years, I have a particular interest in how this new entry-level model feels to use and what it brings to the table. In this review, I'll tell you what exactly you'll get for your money, and whether the iPhone SE (2020) deserves to be considered.
If you were hoping for a more affordable version of the iPhone 11 (Review) or even the iPhone XR, the new iPhone SE (2020) isn't it. The negatives seem to jump out almost immediately – its old-fashioned design, small screen, and single rear camera are laughable, on the surface, in a world with no shortage of feature-packed sub-Rs. 10,000 Android phones. Apple's official starting price of Rs. 42,500 for this model has already raised plenty of eyebrows, and many of you in the comments section have made fun of this. The jump to Rs. 47,800 for the 128GB version is not too drastic, but I don't think there'll be many takers for the Rs. 58,300 256GB version, which is the variant I tested for this review.
These prices are frustrating because this is meant to be Apple's latest push into cost-sensitive markets such as India, and once again our hopes of a genuinely affordable iPhone have been dashed. Of course, Apple's own premium positioning is made worse by recently raised taxes, import duties, and the US dollar exchange rate, which are out of the company's control. On the bright side, iPhone prices do tend to slide after a model has been on the market for some months, and both Diwali and Prime Day sales could see good deals on the phone.
At the moment the iPhone SE (2020) will compete with the iPhone XR, which costs Rs. 10,000 more on paper but has often been discounted to around Rs. 40,000. Ideally, the iPhone SE (2020) would have slotted in at around Rs. 30,000, replacing the iPhone 7 which still sells today. We do hope to see good deals on the new iPhone SE over the next year or so.
Maybe you've always wanted an iPhone but couldn't afford one, or maybe you're hanging on to an old or broken one and can't upgrade because every new model is too expensive. The iPhone SE (2020) should have taken care of these obvious targets, and in a world with no discounted iPhone XR, it would have. However, in some ways, the iPhone XR is a much more modern device (despite its older processor) and is much more satisfying to own and use.
The new iPhone SE doesn't feel like what an iPhone – or even a smartphone – should be today. You aren't quite getting the modern iPhone experience at a lower price. That said, it will serve the purpose of an upgrade and it does run the latest version of iOS with all the apps you could want.
So who would specifically choose the iPhone SE (2020)? The big potential target markets are people who want a very compact but powerful smartphone, and people who do not like change. Smartphone screens have ballooned of late, to the point that “phablet”-sized 6.5-inch screens are now the norm. There are no other modern phones that are as compact as the 4.7-inch iPhone SE (2020), and even the original 4-inch iPhone SE had fans because of its size and portability.
Also, modern phones rely on swipe gestures, which not everyone can habituate themselves to. The iPhone SE (2020) offers familiarity and continuity when everything else is changing so fast.
So far, I've seemed fairly negative about the iPhone SE (2020), but this is still a premium device. Seen on its own, there's a lot to like, and even some features that Android models at this price level don't offer.
First, let's talk about the look and feel of the iPhone SE (2020). It's very slick and does have Apple's typical attention to detail. The body (and much of what's inside it) is essentially identical to that of the iPhone 8 (Review), down to every last gram and millimetre. At 148g in weight and just 7.3mm thick, this is a tiny phone, and it's very easy to use with just one hand. It's so light that it slipped out of my pocket sometimes when I sat down, though thankfully the grip in the hand is good.
The front and rear are all glass, with the frame made of aluminium. Build quality does seem very good. I'm reviewing the all-black version today, but I do prefer the two-tone looks of the white and (Product)RED options. We particularly like the IP67 rating for water resistance, which is not common on Android phones at this price.
Then, there's Apple's current-gen A13 Bionic processor which is capable of on-device machine learning. This is the same chip that has been used in the far more expensive iPhone 11 Pro models, which says a lot about Apple's focus on delivering a certain level of performance and feature parity with all its new products.
There's no doubt that the processor is extremely powerful, and you're unlikely to face slowdowns for years, if at all. That said, while Apple might use the same SoC that's in its flagships, the company doesn't talk about detailed specifications, and reports of an underclocked A13 Bionic seem to have some merit.
AnTuTu for iOS gave us a score of 370,086 while an iPhone 11 Pro managed 432,358. These scores also shouldn't be compared to those of Android devices since AnTuTu is platform-specific. For reference, an iPhone XR managed 366,781 points and the original iPhone SE scored 153,907 using the same version of the benchmark..
Geekbench 5 showed single-core and multi-core score of 1,326 and 2,894 respectively. As for graphics, GFXBench (optimised for Apple's Metal framework) ran an a solid 60fps across all scenes, including the high-end Aztec Ruins scene. This isn't too surprising considering the low screen resolution, and again, shouldn't be compared to the performance of Android devices.
We played PUBG: Mobile and Asphalt 9: Legends. Both ran very smoothly at High graphics settings. We did feel that the screen was a little cramped, but the size of the body relative to the screen let us get a better grip than we're used to.
The display, while relatively tiny and low-res, offers excellent colour reproduction and viewing angles. Apple's True Tone feature adjusts the colour temperature automatically based on ambient light. You get HDR10 and Dolby Vision, plus Haptic Touch (but not physical 3D touch like on the iPhone 8) for contextual actions which are tightly integrated with iOS.
Other niceties include dual-SIM functionality (with one physical Nano-SIM slot and one eSIM), Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5, NFC (though Apple Pay doesn't work in India yet), and stereo speakers. We're quite pleased to see wireless charging. Although the cameras are the same as those on the nearly-three-year-old iPhone 8, they're still pretty great, and we'll have more on their performance later.
The primary advantage of iPhones is the iOS ecosystem, which is user-friendly and simple, at the cost of some customisability. The design is largely consistent and easy to live with, and scales down nicely to the smaller iPhone SE (2020)'s screen. Our unit was running iOS 13.4.1 and received the update to 13.5.1 during our review period. You don't get some of the neat features that Android custom skins offer, such as app cloning or a secure storage area, which would have been nice to have.
Apple regularly promotes its security and privacy policies as being tighter than Android's, and promises not to scoop up personally identifying information for profiling and advertising purposes. Apple has a strong track record with software updates, and you're pretty much guaranteed at least the next three major versions of iOS at no extra cost. iOS is also free of third-party bloatware and spam, which some expensive Android phones still inflict on buyers.
These are factors that should be considered when deciding whether the iPhone SE (2020) is good value for money compared to Android devices at the same price level – many people focus on hardware specifications without factoring in the cost of software development.
iOS is also now tightly integrated with a number of online services. If you're an existing iPhone (and Mac and/or Apple Watch) user, you've probably sunk quite a bit of money into iOS apps. That and the value of continuity through iCloud, iMessage, FaceTime, AirDrop, Siri, HomeKit, Apple Arcade, and Apple Pay (where applicable) over time are the primary factors that will keep you on the platform. The (relatively) affordable iPhone SE (2020) is a key part of that strategy, even though many services will cost you extra in monthly subscription charges.
In my experience with the iPhone SE (2020) over the course of a few weeks, I set about discovering how its compromises will affect potential buyers. Most importantly, the tiny screen is not great for content consumption. It's nice that there's no notch, but the size and the 750x1334-pixel resolution don't make for a very crisp experience. Information density is low, and games and videos aren't very enjoyable.
Battery life isn't great. We could comfortably get through a full day of use with a little bit of video recording and lots of audio and video streaming, but there wasn't enough left over for the next morning. Apple doesn't publish battery capacities but the trusted iFixit teardown tells us that it's 1,821mAh – paltry by today's standards. The A13 Bionic SoC contributes to power saving in day-to-day use, but the screen is a big drain. Our HD video loop test ran for only 8 hours, 42 minutes, which is well below average.
Apple still ships only a 5W charger in the box and you'll have to use your own if you want to benefit from 18W fast charging. Apple claims that you can get a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes with an 18W power source, which we couldn't test. Some people will also be put off by Apple's proprietary Lightning cables.
There's no 3.5mm audio socket. You don't get Apple's secure and convenient infrared Face ID camera array, which also also means you can't create Animoji or Memoji characters. 5G is not supported. There's no U1 ultra-wideband transceiver for precise location detection, which other current iPhones have. Many people will be disappointed with the cameras, and we'll get to that shortly.
Most importantly, the iPhone SE (2020) feels painfully dated. Despite its high-end construction quality, there's no getting over the giant forehead and chin on the front, which feel like wasted space in an age of all-screen phones. The design dates all the way back to the iPhone 6 from 2014. The small screen will constrain anything that the powerful SoC can do, including augmented reality apps, 3D games, and even general productivity.
If you think you'll be frustrated by any of these factors now, imagine how you might feel in three to five years, when your iPhone SE (2020) will still be within its usable lifespan. If you intend to use your phone for that long, it might be worth spending more on an iPhone XR now.
You get only one 12-megapixel f/1.8 rear camera and 7-megapixel f/2.2 front camera, which will put a lot of people off. I would have liked wide-angle or telephoto capabilities, but I can certainly live without the nearly useless low-resolution depth sensors and macro cameras that Android manufacturers seem to love so much.
The cameras of the iPhone SE (2020) combine old hardware with new software. You get exactly the same sensor and lens specifications as on the iPhone 8, but the A13 Bionic SoC allows for some surprising new features and capabilities. There's quite a long list, actually: you get a portrait mode with manually variable depth and studio lighting effects using software, smart HDR, extended dynamic range in video, and selfie video stabilisation.
The iOS camera app is the same as what you'd see on the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro series. Apple now makes more controls accessible in the viewfinder, including photo aspect ratio and video framerate, though this comes at the cost of UI clutter. The primary modes include Timelapse, Slo-Mo, Portrait, and Pano. There is unfortunately no Night mode, like on the iPhone 11 and above.
As for quality, the iPhone 8 was no slouch and so the iPhone SE (2020) isn't either. The single rear camera is remarkably capable. Daylight samples came out looking crisp with well-balanced colours and exposures. Focus wasn't always perfect, but when it was, the level of detail in even tiny subjects and fine textures was excellent. Portrait mode works best when the phone detects a face, but even natural depth of field is quite pleasant when there's a gap between a subject and the background.
Unfortunately quality wasn't as good at night. Quite a few of our shots showed motion blur due to hand shake or moving too soon after hitting the shutter button. Detail was somewhat murky, and we have definitely seen better from other phones in this price segment. The camera seemed to do okay with might landscapes in which there was some ambient light.
Video recording goes up to 4K at 60fps, though the default is a more useful 1080p at 30fps. We found video quality to be excellent, with smooth stabilisation even when we were walking, and punchy colours that were also balanced nicely. Even at night, we were able to pick out detail in reasonably well-lit areas.
The front camera is good, but not great. You get portrait lighting and variable aperture effects, and thankfully no beautification. Depth sensing is quick, and the saved results are more accurate in terms of edge detection than what you see in the viewfinder. You can even adjust portrait lighting after taking a shot.
There's much more to iPhones in general and the iPhone SE (2020) in particular than meets the eye, but that doesn't fully excuse its high price and odd combination of current-day and recycled features. It's undeniably frustrating to have to pay so much and not feel that typical excitement about a fresh product that can do fascinating new things. While the original iPhone SE felt modest and humble to me, this new model just reminds me that I can't afford something nicer.
Apple knows that many people are willing to pay more for the iPhone experience, ecosystem, and brand than they would for an Android phone. The real question is whether the iPhone SE (2020) offers good enough value, starting at Rs. 42,500. I don't really think so – a price closer to Rs. 30,000 would have worked much better in India, despite how spec-conscious buyers here are, and I hope that this phone does soon go on sale for around that much.
There are plenty of highly capable Android phones at this price level including of course the OnePlus 8 (Review), Samsung Galxy S10 Lite (Review), Realme X50 Pro 5G (Review), and Xiaomi Mi 10 5G (Review) If you're even considering buying this phone though, you don't want any of them – you want an iPhone. The SE (2020) will fulfil that purpose, but it won't be totally satisfying. I'd suggest the iPhone XR which is often discounted to this price level, unless size is really an issue. If you are set on the iPhone SE (2020), you should wait a few months for the price to drop, which it inevitably will.
Is iPhone SE the ultimate 'affordable' iPhone for India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.