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Apple iPhone SE 2020 first impressions: This could be the mid-range phone to beat

By Kenny Yeo - 22 Apr 2020

Apple iPhone SE 2020 first impressions: This could be the mid-range phone to beat

The iPhone SE is back.

At long last, Apple finally has a new entry-level iPhone. The original iPhone SE was introduced in March 2016 and was discontinued about 2.5 years later in September 2018. Since then, Apple never really had a successor, until now.

On paper, the new iPhone SE looks like the result of a parts bin raid. Physically, it’s identical to the iPhone 8 to the point where the two can even share phone casings. It features the same A13 Bionic processor that’s currently used in the iPhone 11 and iPhone Pro phones. And it has the same camera system as the iPhone XR. I don’t see the problem with raiding the parts bin as long as the parts are good and the price is right.

Ah, yes, price. With prices starting at S$649, the new iPhone SE is considerably cheaper than the other iPhones in Apple’s stable. The next most affordable iPhone, the iPhone XR, starts at S$979 – that’s S$330 or 50% more. The iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro starts at S$1,149 and S$1,649 respectively.

iPhone starting prices
Model iPhone SE iPhone XR iPhone 11 iPhone 11 Pro iPhone 11 Pro Max
Starting price S$649 S$979 S$1,149 S$1,649 S$1,799

Incredibly, it’s priced even lower than the old iPhone SE, which launched at S$658 and only came with a miserable 16GB of storage (the 64GB version, which was the version that was actually usable, was S$828). This new iPhone SE starts with 64GB right out of the box, which isn’t a lot, but it’s certainly more reasonable and in line with the other iPhones. If you want more storage, the 128GB version is S$719 and the range-topping 256GB version is S$889 – all well under S$1,000.

Apple will donate a portion of sales from PRODUCT(RED) products toward a Covid-19 relief fund.

The new iPhone SE comes in three finishes: black, white, and (PRODUCT)RED. I only have the (PRODUCT)RED model with me and I haven’t seen the black and white models in the flesh so I can’t comment on how they look. Regardless, since they are physically identical to the iPhone 8, this means they have thick bezels above and below the display. It doesn’t matter which finish you pick, the bezels are black. And even if you aren’t obsessed with screen-to-body ratios, those bezels are jarring on a phone released in 2020.

Aluminium and glass are used in the construction of the new iPhone SE.

The iPhone SE may be Apple’s most affordable phone but it doesn’t feel anything like it.  The body is aerospace-grade 7000 series aluminium and the back of the phone is glass. The overall fit and finish are typical Apple, which is to say it’s very high. The back of my phone is very red. According to Apple the colours of the new iPhone SE are achieved using a seven-layer ink process. At any rate, I think the PRODUCT(RED) model looks stunning. Black and red is always a winning combination.

The new iPhone SE feels refreshingly small in the hand.

The display is 4.7 inches large. Though it’s larger than the old iPhone SE (4-inches), it’s small by today’s standards. How many phones can you think of today with a display smaller than 5 inches? It’s Retina HD, so it has a resolution of 1,334 x 750 pixels, which gives it a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch. Like most Apple devices, the display looks good with vibrant and accurate colours. It supports Apple’s TrueTone technology, and also Dolby Vision and HDR10 content.

In the hands, the iPhone SE feels refreshingly small and thin, but that’s probably partly because I’m coming from an iPhone 11 Pro Max. While the display is small by modern-day standards, it’s still too large to be used comfortably with one hand – or maybe I just have really short thumbs.  I suppose that’s why some people have such an affinity for the old 4-inch iPhone SE.

Touch ID features on the iPhone SE.

Below the display is the familiar Touch ID button. In case you have already forgotten, it uses your fingerprint to unlock the phone and other stuff like Apple Pay. It looks like a relic from the past, with most phones having already moved on to facial recognitions systems or in-display fingerprint sensors, or fingerprint sensors positioned at the rear of the phone. That said, it’s very effective and fast, and it's easily one of the best fingerprint scanners in the business.

The iPhone SE is powered by the same chip in Apple's flagship phones.

Speaking of effective and fast, the Apple SE is powered by the A13 Bionic chip, which is the same chip that powers the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. It’s the most powerful smartphone chip in the market and this gives the new iPhone SE a huge leg up against the competition, which mostly relies on Qualcomm’s midrange Snapdragon 600 and 700 series chips. It’ll be interesting to see the benchmark scores of this new iPhone. At any rate, and as you’d expect, the iPhone SE feels fluid and fast. Apps open quickly and there’s nary a hint of stutter. It also runs games smoothly.

The new iPhone SE may only have a single camera but it benefits from Apple's latest image processing pipeline.

On the camera front, it has a single 12-megapixel wide camera with an f/1.8 aperture and optical image stabilisation. It might be the same camera system as the iPhone XR but it benefits from more advanced image processing thanks to the A13 Bionic chip. And so it has access to Apple's new Smart HDR algorithm, Portrait mode, Portrait Lighting, and it can also shoot 4K videos at up to 60fps. However, it can’t do Night Mode and, despite having the A13 Bionic chip, it also can’t do Deep Fusion photography. It’s a bit too early to tell since I have only just had the phone for a few days, but the photos look solid. The front camera is also carried over from the iPhone XR and shoots at 7 megapixels.

On paper, the iPhone SE looks like it could be the mid-range phone to beat.

Price, performance, and photography aside, the iPhone SE also has other features that I think a lot of people would want and appreciate like wireless charging, support for the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, and decent water and dust resistance. Based solely on first impressions, the new iPhone SE looks like it will be more than enough phone for a lot of people – as long as they can get past its dated looks. Of course, we’ll have to test it thoroughly before we can say for sure, but for now, this phone looks mighty promising.

The new iPhone SE is available for pre-order now and goes on sale 24 April 2020. Stay tuned for our full review.

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