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Apple iPhone SE Review: A Superb Smartphone for a Humble Price

Apple’s recently introduced $399 iPhone SE marks a turning point in consumer technology. It’s a smartphone that delivers all the tech that we care about, without making us pay through the nose for it.

Many of us have been waiting for this moment. Long ago, the technologies driving TVs and personal computers became so commonplace that good television sets and PCs became affordable for the masses. The ubiquitous smartphone, we presumed, would follow.

Instead, as the smartphone matured over the last decade and a bit, the opposite happened. The price tag for the iPhone, the most popular handset in the world, reached heights that were previously unimaginable. Last year’s new iPhones peaked at $1,449, compared with $599 in 2007. Yet budget phones ranging from $200 to $400 had major shortcomings like lousy cameras and slow chips.

The new iPhone SE’s lack of compromise is what makes it remarkable. Apple took all the best parts from its expensive iPhones — including a fast computing processor and an excellent camera — and squeezed them into the shell of an older iPhone with a home button and smaller screen. At the same time, it managed to include useful features that were previously exclusive to fancy new phones, like water resistance, wireless charging and so-called portrait photos.

That means state-of-the-art smartphone technology has finally come down to a modest price. It’s about time.

After testing the new SE for a few weeks, I can confidently say that this device is ideal for many people — especially for those who think about buying tech only when they feel they have to.

Justin Adler, 33, is one of them. He owned the first SE, which debuted in 2016, for years, subjecting himself to mockery from his techie colleagues in San Francisco who had much nicer phones. He recently bought the latest SE.

“I just never wanted to shell out $1,000 to replace something that was working perfectly fine,” he said. “I was the exact core audience of, if you haven’t upgraded your phone we’re going to give you the cheapest bait as possible.”

This new iPhone may suit you as well. Here’s what you need to know.

With the SE, Apple took the computing processor of the $699 iPhone 11 — the fastest on the market — and stuck it in a body that is practically the same as the iPhone 8 from 2017. In the process, the company also made significant improvements to the SE’s camera, which has a single lens but now relies on software and artificial intelligence to make photos look much better.

In past iterations of high-end iPhones, the devices had two camera lenses that worked together to produce the popular effect known as portrait mode, which sharpens a subject while gently blurring the background.

But in the iPhone XR from 2018, Apple used machine learning, which involved computers analyzing images to recognize people and properly sharpen them while blurring the background, to produce portrait shots of people using a single lens.

Apple has applied a similar A.I.-assisted approach to the SE, making portrait photos of people possible with a single lens on the cheaper device. In my tests, portrait shots looked excellent — on a par with similar photos taken with the iPhone 11. This is significant for a device of this price. (Google’s $399 Pixel 3A, my favorite Android phone, is also exceptional for its ability to take portrait photos, though that phone is much slower.)

Of course, Apple had to cut costs somewhere, so the cheaper iPhone SE’s camera lacks some frills seen in the iPhone 11 and $999 iPhone 11 Pro.

Specifically, Apple limited its machine-assisted image processing specifically to human subjects, meaning I couldn’t take artsy photos of my dogs. The camera also lacks the so-called ultra-wide-angle lens for taking shots with a broader field of view, as well as night mode, a feature to take better photos in the dark.

Credit…Brian X. Chen
Credit…Brian X. Chen

But if you are a casual photographer, you could probably live without those whiz-bang features and be happy saving lots of money by choosing the SE.

For what it’s worth, the shots I took in daylight of my corgi, Max, on the SE looked just as good as similar shots with the iPhone 11 and other phones on the market, like Google’s $399 Pixel 3A. They came out crisp with natural-looking colors and nice shadow detail.

The other feature that makes the SE cheaper is the first thing you will look at: the screen.

At 4.7 inches, the display is smaller than the jumbo 6.1-inch screen on the iPhone 11. But that may be a benefit. The 4.7-inch size is better suited to one-hand use, so it’s easy to use your thumb to reach from the home button to each corner of the screen. Also important, the phone’s smaller body fits more comfortably in a pocket.

The SE’s second big cost saver is the use of a home button for unlocking the device, rather than the face scanners seen on modern smartphones. The iPhone fingerprint scanners have always worked quickly and reliably, and so does this one.

It might be nice to have a face scanner, but many of us will probably be happy without the feature if it means saving some money. For comparison, I have given big minus points to $1,000 phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S10, for a lousy fingerprint reader and a subpar face scanner.

To fully understand the SE’s value, it’s important to note that this isn’t Apple’s first rodeo with a cheaper iPhone. Those past models were not as compelling when compared with their pricier counterparts. To wit:

  • The $549 iPhone 5C, introduced in 2013, came in colorful plastic and felt cheaper and slower than the iPhone 5S, the model with a sleek aluminum body that cost $100 more.

  • The $399 iPhone SE from 2016 had the design of older iPhones, with the same computing power as newer ones at the time. Yet that SE had a notably inferior camera and dimmer screen than its $649, bigger-screen counterpart at the time, the iPhone 6S.

This time, the new SE’s trade-offs seem trivial. No face scanner, shooting photos in the dark or humongous screen? Those are minor inconveniences when you are paying 40 percent less than for an iPhone 11.

I will note one big downside: The SE has significantly shorter battery life than the iPhone 11.

After a day of shooting photos and juggling work tasks, the SE battery needed to be replenished by dinnertime. With the more expensive phone, I had more than 25 percent battery by bedtime. So people who work long hours and rely on their phones would probably be happier with a high-end one.

I’m not the target demographic for the SE since I’m willing to pay for fancier features. I splurged on the $999 iPhone XS two years ago because I loved taking portrait photos of food and my dogs.

But there was something unique about the announcement of the SE that I found striking in a pandemic that has dampened most people’s enthusiasm for buying nice things.

When new iPhones are unveiled, I usually get questions from friends who work in tech and are giddy about shiny new gadgets. With the SE, I got text messages from people who hate talking about tech: a friend who is in her 60s and a self-proclaimed Luddite, and a family member who is an environmentalist. Both are using iPhones that are at least five years old, and both were relieved that their next phone won’t cost more than a month’s mortgage.

“It’s a slow burner that’s going to help Apple upgrade their base,” Carolina Milanesi, a consumer tech analyst for the research firm Creative Strategies, said of the SE. That includes people who hold on to phones for three to five years and those with hand-me-downs, she said.

Come to think of it, that’s most people I know.