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Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen) review

The iPhone SE is missing a few flagship features, but it also comes without the same hefty price tag.

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0
£399
Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen)

Our review

The iPhone SE (2nd gen) is for those looking for an upgrade from an iPhone 8 or anything earlier. It also might tempt some Android fans looking for a taste of iOS at a smaller price tag.
Pros: Lightweight
Access the App store to plunder
iOS experience is seamless
Camera results excellent
Cons: Fairly short battery life
Uses some old screen tech
Portrait mode doesn’t work on pets and objects

The first iPhone SE was announced back in 2016 as a cheaper alternative to the flagship iPhones of the time, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Apple waited four years until releasing a successor, the iPhone SE (2nd gen), announced a few months after the iPhone 11 series.

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Like the first time around, the SE (2nd gen) is a smaller and more basic version of the 2020 iPhone line-up. It comes with many of the same features, but for a fraction of the price.

There’s more to it than just size though, the iPhone SE (2nd gen) does have its drawbacks, namely: a smaller battery, only one main camera, and no full OLED screen.

However, one all-important piece remains: the A13 Bionic chip, which is responsible for the phone’s performance. This chip not only unlocks much of the computational photography tricks which help make the iPhone SE (2nd gen) a tempting proposition, but it also helps to manage power consumption.

The iPhone SE (2nd gen) also offers all the standard iPhone features, like iMessage, FaceTime, the huge and brilliant app store, plus the constant iOS updates will ensure features are always up-to-date.

The A13 Bionic chip might’ve been taken over by the newer A14 model from the iPhone 12 line-up, but it can hardly be deemed dated, and it still succeeds on so many levels.

It boils down to one simple consideration: how much are you willing to sacrifice for a cut-price iPhone? Read on for our verdict on the iPhone SE. We’ve also put a number of other Apple handsets to the test: you can read our iPhone 12 review, iPhone 12 Pro review and iPhone 11 Pro review.

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Apple iPhone SE review: summary

Are you looking to upgrade an older iPhone model but don’t want to spend a fortune nor purchase something so large and chunky that you can barely wrap your hands around it? iPhone SE (2nd gen) is the answer. What you get here is an affordable Apple device that is far lighter than the alternatives yet still retains the quality and ease of use, even if it does omit a few flagship features.

Price: £399

Key features:

  • Glass and aluminium design
  • 4.7-inch retina display
  • A13 Bionic chip
  • 12MP wide camera
  • Portrait Mode and depth control on camera
  • 4K video
  • QuickTake – which means you can start recording by just holding down on the shutter
  • 1,821mAh battery
  • Touch ID
  • Water-resistant up to 1 metre for 30 mins
  • Apple Pay

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Access the App store to plunder
  • iOS experience is seamless
  • Camera results excellent

Cons:

  • Fairly short battery life
  • Uses some old screen tech
  • Portrait mode doesn’t work on pets and objects
Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen) homepage

What is the Apple iPhone SE?

The iPhone SE (2nd gen) squeezes in a lot of the tech seen in the flagship iPhone 11 series, most notably the much-celebrated A13 Bionic Chip, Apple’s custom-made chip that boosts performance by 20% and is 30% more efficient than its predecessor. Until the iPhone 12 Mini popped onto the scene, it was also regarded as Apple’s smallest phone, and it remains to be Apple’s most affordable recent phone. It’s not got the wow-factor of an edge-to-edge OLED screen, multiple cameras, or FaceID, but that seems a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things.

What does the Apple iPhone SE do?

  • Play mobile games with the A13 Bionic Chip
  • Can take vibrant photos and control the depth for amazing portraits
  • Shoot 4K videos with well-balanced exposure
  • Can be used in the rain
  • Wireless charging is on board
  • Makes use of Apple huge library of iOS apps

How much is the Apple iPhone SE?

The Apple iPhone SE retails for £399 and is available on Amazon.

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Is the Apple iPhone SE good value for money?

Its very raison-d’etre is that it’s incredibly good value for an iPhone. It’s powered by the same chip as the way pricier iPhone 11 Pro, which is well over double the price. Although there’s only one 12MP camera here, it’s really the computational photography that will make images sing, using several processes that help with colour reproduction and HDR. Other features like burst mode are ideal for action shots, and the level of detail is impressive. The important things that will allow you to get through a day smoothly with no niggles are all accounted for. And if you want your phone to work harder or perform better when it comes to low-light photography, or should you require the sharpest screen resolution, then you’ll have to look at pricier models.

Apple iPhone SE features and performance

While the design doesn’t look like a huge trajectory from the much older iPhone 8, it’s the A13 Bionic chip at its core, responsible for the performance boost.

Thanks to the extra power, it’ll compete with the iPhone 11 range in a number of ways, matching speeds when it comes to switching between apps, editing videos and photos, and multi-tasking between all of these things always feels fluid.

It’s possible to run AR apps and measure real-world objects, which is a great feature to have, yet we haven’t found much real-world use for it, though mapping the night’s sky for star constellations is appealing.

One of the advantages of iPhones is that many of the useful apps are built-in as soon as you set up the iPhone SE (2nd gen), and it’s a doddle to download more from the App store and customise the home screen to suit your needs.

There’s no 5G on board, which is something that many new phones (even within this price range) do offer, but it does have Wi-Fi 5 and 4G LTE, which deliver speedy downloads.

The 4.7-inch Retina HD screen does date the phone somewhat, with the black bezels flanking the ends of the screen. The iPhone 12 Mini, which is ever so slightly smaller, has a full screen and is more in keeping with Apple’s recent aesthetic and most modern smartphones. Bezels are a thing of the past.

There’s an argument to say the smaller screen makes it easier to handle, and at 148g, it’s really very manageable.

Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen) camera

Apple iPhone SE camera

Smartphone manufacturers get a bit carried away when it comes to cameras, adopting a ‘more is more’ attitude. Thankfully, that isn’t the case with the iPhone SE (2nd gen).

Apple has done something clever while keeping hardware to a minimum, with only a single 12MP sensor linked to an f/1.8 aperture lens with OIS, there’s no ultra-wide or zoom lenses, yet it’s the image processing that pits the phone’s photography skills above many other smartphones in this price range.

iPhone SE offers 5x digital zoom, but it’s the bokeh and depth control that achieve professional-looking portraits in good daylight, that is. Things are a bit blurrier at night without depth-sensing technology. Portrait mode won’t work for your furry friends; sadly, it’ll only detect humans.

Colour reproduction is excellent, with images looking vibrant, and it’s got a knack of balancing exposure, managing to capture cloud details in the sky while still capturing detail in the foreground.

The 7MP front-facing camera is adequate and is also capable of Portrait Mode, but it doesn’t do the job quite as well.

Shoot 4K video up to 60fps, and you can always stick to HD video, which should be ample for most needs unless you want something of a really high production value, where an iPhone SE probably wouldn’t be what you’d use.

There are loads of fun features like capturing a timelapse video with stabilisation, and by simply holding down the shutter button in photo mode, you can create instant videos.

Apple iPhone SE battery life

The 1,82mAh battery within the iPhone SE (2nd gen) isn’t quite the same as seen in the iPhone 8, but it’s still quite small. The iPhone 11 rocks a 3,046 mAh battery for comparison.

The point of the Bionic chip is that it’s more power-efficient, meaning you can do more with less. That being said, a full day with the iPhone SE (2nd gen) is just about doable, but if you’re a power-user, shooting and watching videos and spending many hours chopping between apps, then you might find you’re in the danger zone before bedtime.

If battery life is the most important factor, an equally excellent value iPhone would be the iPhone XR which has superior battery life but not nearly as good a processing chip.

You only get a 5W charger in the box, which won’t win any awards for speedy charging. For an extra £29, you could purchase an 18W USB-C power cable, which will charge the iPhone SE rapidly, going from empty to about 50% in only 30 minutes.

This is probably the only area that’s quite disappointing, as we’d like to think most smartphones last a day without needing to reach for the charger.

Apple iPhone SE design and set up

Setting up an iPhone SE (2nd gen) is much like setting up any iPhone. The experience is seamless; whether you’re starting new or switching from an old iPhone, simply transfer over the features and apps, you still require via iCloud.

Many of the apps come pre-loaded, so after a charge and a few minutes selecting language and preferences, you’re ready to go. The pre-installed apps take up about 4GB of storage, and storage capacity comes in either: 64 GB, 128 GB or 256 GB.

There’s no Face ID, but the fingerprint scanner is lightning fast, and you’ll be asked to set this up, as well as selecting a PIN if you choose to do so.

You’ll find some EarPods in the iPhone SE box that use the Lightning connector, which will alleviate those who’ll bemoan the missing 3.5mm headphone jack.

There’s no OLED display, and you’d only really expect that from high-end models, but the Retina HD display does the job. Colours are bright, and although the resolution isn’t up to much on paper (1334 x 750), in reality, it’s not so noticeable or lacking in any way.

The iPhone SE (2nd gen) comes in black, white or Product Red, where every sale contributes directly to the Global Fund to combat COVID-19.

Our verdict: Should you buy Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen)?

The iPhone SE (2nd gen) is very much for those looking for an upgrade from an iPhone 8 or anything earlier. It also might tempt some Android fans looking for a taste of iOS, who might’ve been discouraged by Apple’s high price tags.

Battery life on the iPhone SE (2nd gen) is good. The camera is excellent in good conditions, it’s lightweight, comfort alone is a bit of a sore spot for Apple, but the excellent A13 Bionic chip keeps things stable in the hand and offers a plethora of apps and iOS fun at your fingertips.

Rating:

Features: 4/5

Battery: 3/5

Design: 4.5/5

Camera: 4/5

Overall star rating: 4/5

Where to buy the Apple iPhone SE (2nd gen)

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For more reviews, product guides and the latest news, head to the Technology section. Looking for more Apple product reviews? Read our Apple Watch SE review next.