Note: This review was first published on 24 Apr 2020.
After dominating the sales charts of high-end phones, Apple is finally turning its attention elsewhere. The iPhone SE is back. And even though it doesn’t possess bleeding-edge tech and is the result of a parts bin raid, it’s exciting for two reasons. The first is that it is genuinely affordable. Affordability is a relative term but a starting price of just S$649 means the iPhone SE is either comparable to or undercuts many of its rivals. What’s more instructive to me is to consider that the most expensive version of the iPhone SE, the one with 256GB of storage, is still well under S$1,000.
The second reason is that this new iPhone SE is powered by the A13 Bionic chip, Apple’s latest and greatest smartphone processor. This means that it should perform just as well as Apple’s much more expensive iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro. But perhaps more importantly, it also should also mean that it will run rings around – no, wipe the floor with – any similarly-priced Android alternative. Imagine Mercedes stuffing its biggest and baddest AMG engine into its cheapest A-Class. That is what's happening here.
And so it is for these two key reasons – and many more as you will see later – and in these austere times that the iPhone SE is precisely so intriguing.
The iPhone SE may be Apple’s most affordable phone but it doesn’t feel anything like it. Unlike some brands that have resorted to cost-cutting measures like using plastic for the body, Apple is sticking with aerospace-grade 7000 series aluminium and glass. The overall fit and finish are typical Apple, which is to say it’s very high. According to Apple, it uses no less than a seven-layer ink process to achieve the final colours on the iPhone SE. Three finishes are available: white, black, and PRODUCT(RED). And it doesn’t matter which finish you pick, the front of the phone is black.
The iPhone SE is physically identical to the iPhone 8 to the point where the two can even share phone casings. This has a few important consequences. The first is that it has a, by modern standards at least, small display. Specifically, what it has is a 4.7-inch Retina HD display – identical to the iPhone 8. Resolution is 1,334 x 750 pixels, which sounds underwhelming but actual pixel density is 326 pixels per inch and that’s the same as the iPhone 11’s Liquid Retina display.
|Model||iPhone SE||iPhone 8||iPhone XR||iPhone 11||iPhone 11 Pro||iPhone 11 Pro Max|
|Name||Retina HD||Retina HD||Liquid Retina||Liquid Retina||Super Retina XDR||Super Retina XDR|
|Resolution||1,334 x 750 pixels||1,334 x 750 pixels||1,792 x 828 pixels||1,792 x 828 pixels||2,436 x 1,125 pixels||2,688 x 1242 pixels|
|Pixel density||326 ppi||326 ppi||326ppi||326ppi||458ppi||458ppi|
|Max brightness (typical)||625 nits||625 nits||625 nits||625 nits||800 nits||800 nits|
The second is that it has really thick bezels above and below the display. I touched upon this in my earlier first impressions piece but it’s worth mentioning again because even if you aren’t obsessed with screen-to-body ratios, those bezels are incongruous on a phone released in 2020. If cut-price Android phones today can already have nearly bezel-less displays, surely Apple can do better? Thinner bezels don’t just look nicer, it also means a smaller and more pocketable phone.
Fortunately, the display is pretty good. Obviously, it can’t compare against the Super Retina XDR display on the iPhone 11 Pro, but it’s still good. It’s crisp, sharp, and bright enough in all but the harshest of sunlight, and crucially, the colours look accurate and vivid. It also has TrueTone technology, which colour corrects the display based on the lighting in your environment.
Below the display is the familiar Home button with Touch ID. Having been accustomed to Apple’s Face ID authentication system, this feels like a relic. For longtime iPhone owners, Touch ID will be familiar, but owners coming from a Face ID phone like the iPhone X, XS, or XR, will need to relearn the gestures. At any rate, Touch ID remains wicked fast and in today’s world where masks are a constant, Touch ID is much more reliable.
And finally, like the iPhone 8, there’s no headphone jack. Luckily, Apple provides Lightning headphones, which are passable. This isn’t something that bothers me since most flagship-class handphones today have already done away with headphone jacks, but headphone jacks are something still is found on a lot of affordable Android phones, so I think it’s worth pointing out. The Google Pixel 3a XL, for instance, has a headphone jack; and so does the Samsung Galaxy S10e.
And if we are talking about things the iPhone SE lacks, it's worth mentioning it doesn't have expandable storage like most Android phones do. But this has been the iPhone way ever since day one. So make sure you order your iPhone SE with the amount of storage you think you'd need for your apps. If you ever need more storage in the future, one thing you can do is to get iCloud storage and upload your photos to the cloud to make space.
As dated as the iPhone SE looks, it’s nice to see that it comes with modern features that will be appreciated by many users. The first worth mentioning is that it is IP67 water and dust resistant. This means it can be submerged in up to a metre of water for up to 30 minutes. This shouldn’t be overlooked since it means a little rain or an accidental splash of water won’t send you panicking and rushing for the hairdryer. And in today’s world where cleanliness is of utmost importance, it’s easier to sanitise the iPhone SE more thoroughly.
Next is wireless charging. Sure, you could always plug in the charging cable and it’s certainly quicker to charge with the cable, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of wireless charging. It’s so much easier if you just want to give your phone a quick mid-day juice up.
Stereo speakers feature on the iPhone SE. This shouldn’t be overlooked and I use the speakers on my iPhone a lot to play podcasts and listen to the odd song while I’m doing chores or in the shower. It’s not as loud or as full sounding as my iPhone 11 Pro Max’s speakers, but it’s easily above average. It also makes me wonder when will Apple finally make stereo speakers standard on all of its iPads – only the iPad Pro has stereo speakers – but I digress.
The last feature I want to talk about is support for Wi-Fi 6, which the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro already have. This new wireless standard uses LTE technology and promises better network performance by increasing the throughput to each connected device and supporting more connected devices. You can read more about it here and here.