Apple’s iPhone SE is an unusual budget phone.
Other phone manufacturers try to match as many flagship features as they can on their affordable devices, while typically saving on the processor that powers them. Apple is doing it the other way round; the new iPhone SE looks the same as its two-year-old predecessor, and has roughly the same key features, including the single, 12-megapixel rear camera, and the 4.7-inch, LCD display.
But the chip that powers the new iPhone SE is Apple’s most powerful mobile chip, the A15 Bionic. With that single change, Apple manages to make this otherwise uninspiring phone relevant, and a great purchase, even though it’s slightly more expensive than the 2020 model.
More of the same, which is sometimes a good thing
In many ways, the new iPhone SE — which carries the same name as its two predecessors, so it’s often referred to iPhone SE 3 or iPhone SE (2022) — is the same as the old iPhone SE. The design, with massive bezels and Apple’s (once iconic, now absent on all new models) Home Button on the front, and a tiny, singular camera unit on the back, is so archaic that it feels sort of cool.
SEE ALSO: iPhone SE (2022) vs iPhone SE (2020): What’s new and different?
Sure, I’d like to have more screen real estate and other niceties of the newer models, but the iPhone SE is so thin, light, and practical, that I almost wished Apple made a flagship in exactly this size. For better or worse, the design and the size are exactly the same as on its predecessor; the only differences are the new, Midnight color for the iPhone SE (2022) and slightly reduced weight.
Remember when camera bumps were this small? Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Apple doesn’t give overly detailed specs sheets for its devices, but from what I can tell, the camera hardware — a 12-megapixel rear camera with an f/1.8 aperture, and a 7-megapixel selfie camera with an f/2.2 aperture — hasn’t changed. The display is, again, a 4.7-inch Retina LCD with a 1,334×750 pixel resolution. The phone comes with three storage options: 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB. The RAM may have been upped from 3GB to 4GB, but we won’t know that for sure until someone disassembles the new iPhone SE. We don’t know the battery capacity for the new device, but Apple claims new battery chemistry and the A15 chip provide it with more battery life, roughly a 15-20 percent increase over the 2020 model. I didn’t have enough time with the phone to thoroughly test battery life, but it seemed on par with the battery on my iPhone mini, which is good for one day if you’re not pushing it too hard.
The Home Button, too, is still here, and it still works great, making me pine for the precision and speed of button-based fingerprint sensors over Apple’s Face ID.
The good, ol’ Home Button still works well, though it does take up a ton of space on the iPhone SE’s face. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Of all the things that haven’t changed, the only one I truly minded was the display. I’ve become spoiled by the new iPhones’ fancy OLEDs, and the iPhone SE’s tiny (by today’s standards) LCD display was noticeably harder to use under bright sunlight, which I had plenty of during my time with the phone, and its black hues just weren’t as black as they are on an OLED display.
In terms of toughness, the iPhone SE is glass both on the front and back, and though the display isn’t protected by the Ceramic Shield tech we’ve seen on iPhone 12 and 13, the company says it features the “toughest glass in a smartphone.” That one’s hard to test, but recent iPhones have been pretty scratch resistant, and my SE was in perfect condition after a few days of use.
It’s worth noting a few things that also haven’t changed, but which are rarely seen on budget phones. The iPhone SE still supports wireless charging, just like Apple’s new models, and it has top-notch water and dust resistance, with an IP67 rating. Again, this is where the iPhone SE is totally different than the budget phones from other smartphone makers, which typically save on these features and the processor, but have massive displays and at least three rear camera modules.
The chip that tips the game in Apple’s favor
Apple’s main trick here is in equipping the iPhone SE with its latest and greatest mobile chip, the A15 Bionic. With this change, Apple achieves several goals at once. First of all, the iPhone SE is nearly as powerful and fast as Apple’s top models, and in fact faster than most other phones out there, no matter the price. That’s just a really cool feature to have on a budget phone, even if you don’t need that much power.
In actual use, I don’t really have that much to report here. Switching from the iPhone 13, my main daily driver, to the iPhone SE was seamless (except for the smaller display, which made me consider re-checking my eyesight). The iPhone SE was just as fast, and given that it uses exactly the same version of iOS; there was no discernible difference. I ran Geekbench 5’s CPU Benchmark to confirm this, and I’ve gotten a single-core score of 1,733 and a multi-core 4,736. On the iPhone 13, these results were 1,737 and 4,689 – essentially the same.
SEE ALSO: Apple iPhone 13 and 13 mini review: It’s all about the battery life
I also played a little Sonic Racing, Skate City, and Oceanhorn 2, and the games worked great, with gorgeous graphics and no slowdowns. The phone did get warm after about 10 minutes of gaming, but never worryingly so.
The inclusion of the A15 Bionic also makes the iPhone SE a future-proof purchase. Buyers will get six years of support, which is forever in the world of smartphones, and it probably won’t be too slow if it lasts you that long. You simply cannot get this on any budget Android phone, so if you’re planning to get the iPhone SE (as you should) because it’s a simple, affordable, no-nonsense phone that you won’t have to replace in a year or two, this is the most important feature for you.
The new iPhone SE also gets 5G. I suspect that, for many buyers of this device, this will not be a major selling point, but you can never say no to faster internet.
Thin, light, and rounded at the edges, the iPhone SE is a welcome change from the far heftier iPhone 13. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Finally, the A15 Bionic allowed Apple to improve the iPhone SE’s photo and video capabilities without making (major) changes to the actual camera hardware.
Computational photography, pushed to the max
How much can you squeeze from a single, 12-megapixel camera by using the A15 Bionic’s power to improve the photos? Quite a lot, actually.
For a couple of days, I carried my iPhone 13 and the new iPhone SE on me at all times, capturing every interesting scene I saw. In daylight, the photos taken from the iPhone SE were practically indiscernible from the ones taken with the iPhone 13 — they were sharp with accurate, punchy colors. Zooming in, I’ve seen some oversharpening, but that’s an effect you get from all iPhone cameras, not just the one on the SE.
Perfect colors, tons of details, excellent textures — you’d never notice this photo was taken by a $429 phone. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Portraits were great-looking, even those taken in Portrait Mode. This is where Apple’s A15 Bionic chip steps in — even without a dedicated depth sensor, the iPhone SE’s camera was able to accurately separate the subject from the blurred background. But I was even more impressed with color accuracy, especially when it comes to skin tone, even in artificial light.
I’ve taken a photo of this same scene with a far pricier Android phone that I cannot name, but I can say that the iPhone SE did a better job at reproducing skin color.. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
This was true for selfies as well. It’s amazing that even the most affordable iPhone without Face ID tech does a better job of portrait selfies than most Android phones I’ve used. In darker conditions, selfies would get a yellow tint that’s, again, typical for most iPhones.
No depth sensor, no problem: With the help of A15 Bionic, the iPhone SE’s camera manages to accurately separate the subject from the background in this selfie. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
The iPhone SE’s rear camera does alright, but it’s not the most versatile out there. You can forget about niceties like an ultra-wide mode, optical zoom, macro mode, and night mode.
In this evening photo, the SE does a decent job. The photo is actually a bit brighter than a similar one taken with the iPhone 13, but the iPhone SE’s result has more noise. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
That last one is a bummer. I can live without ultra-wide mode and optical zoom, but the fact that the iPhone SE has no Night Mode was disappointing. The good news is that the iPhone SE isn’t completely helpless in the dark. Even without Night Mode, it will churn out a decent photo in a poorly lit room, or even at night if there’s any sort of light source nearby. In total darkness, you’ll get a totally dark photo; don’t expect to be taking photos of the stars with this thing.
This is the darkest that the iPhone SE’s camera will go and still produce decent results. A lot of detail is lost, especially in the darker parts of the scene, but overall, the photo is usable. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
While the spec sheet on the iPhone SE’s cameras doesn’t sound impressive, like all iPhones, this one is also very good at one simple, yet very important thing: you can fire up its camera, point it at anything, and nine times out of 10, it will produce a good-looking photo or video. You don’t need to tinker with the settings, switch to a different mode, or hold your hand very steady to get good results. This is where Apple wins over so many Android-based competitors.
Should you upgrade?
Still relevant — thanks to the chip that powers it. Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
At $429, and with no charger in the box, the new iPhone SE is a slightly worse deal than the 2020 model. Then again, it’s not as big of a difference as to make it a bad purchase. With the new iPhone SE, you get Apple’s latest chip and all the bells and whistles that come with it, as well as a few top features that are uncommon on budget phones, such as wireless charging. On the other hand, the rest of the hardware is roughly the same, and even the A15 chip cannot elevate the iPhone SE’s singular camera unit to the quality you get on pricier iPhones. The whole package is remarkably similar to what you got with previous iPhone SE models: longevity and power on the cheap, without the fancy bits.
If you have the original iPhone SE from 2016, then the new iPhone SE is the perfect upgrade for you.
If you already have the 2020 iPhone SE, you probably don’t need to upgrade. To me, the biggest selling point of the iPhone SE is that it can easily last four, five, or even six years, and upgrading won’t get you any major new features. If you have the original iPhone SE from 2016, then the new iPhone SE is the perfect upgrade for you.
On its own, the iPhone SE is a compelling choice simply because it’s so different from other budget phones. It’s tailor-made for people that want a small, simple, powerful phone with Apple’s trademark quality, that they won’t have to replace too often. However, prospective buyers should also look into other budget phones from Apple, such as the iPhone 11, which starts at $499 and has a mode modern design, bigger display, and dual rear camera with night mode, but lags two generations behind with the A13 Bionic processor.