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We’re the Android Police, and Google’s mobile operating system is our raison d’être, our bread and butter, the most essential and integral part of our site’s very existence. Still, it doesn’t exist in isolation. Apple’s iPhones continue to dominate the US market, and the new iPhone SE might have some of us wondering if the grass is any greener with iOS these days. That’s subjective, and I can’t really answer that for you. But I can say that the 2020 version of the iPhone SE pushes its $400 price tag further than any mid-range Android phone, and in the last month, I’ve grown to appreciate its value even more — though coming from Android, it is a dysfunctional relationship.
We reviewed the 64GB model in
Design, hardware, what’s in the box
Physically, the 2020 iPhone SE is just about identical to the iPhone 8 — you can even use the same cases, so if you’re looking to pick up one of the expensive leather ones, you should snag an iPhone 8 case somewhere on clearance. The iPhone’s general design is ubiquitous, so I won’t rehash it here, but there are a few benefits that bear repeating.
As with OnePlus’ phones, you get a hardware switch that flips you into a silent/vibrate mode. The home “button” isn’t actually a button in the traditional sense, either. Like the iPhone 7/8, it doesn’t actually move. Instead, Apple’s crazy-good haptics just make it feel like it does. I’ve never experienced that feature before, and I absolutely love it. You can also tune it to be slightly weaker or stronger, if you like.
It also has a glass back, which helps with wireless charging. While I wish it was matte/etched glass, this is probably going to end up in a case, where it won’t matter. That’s kind of a pity, given that Apple’s industrial design is so nice.
See that bevel on the face of the aluminum body, where it meets the screen? It is perfectly that size all the way around the screen — immaculately precise design.
Apple’s hardware quality here is stellar, with a precision in fit and finish that some Android phones which cost twice as much still don’t approach — which I frankly resent. Everything fits together meticulously and exactly, with no gaps, warp, or the smallest piece even the slightest bit out of place. Eyes closed, this doesn’t feel like a $400 phone at all. Although I do really like the machined plastic Google went for with the Pixel 3a, the iPhone SE is unarguably, physically nicer — and it’s IP rated, the Pixel isn’t.
Overall, nothing about the hardware screams mid-range, even though the $400 price tag does, with one exception: The screen. It’s fine, but everything about it feels antiquated in 2020. It’s pretty small, with a dated 16:9 aspect ratio, chonky bezels, and a lowish resolution. The fact that it’s older hardware from the iPhone 8 doesn’t offend me — Apple’s IPS displays are quite good, well-calibrated, and contrast isn’t a problem, even at night — but the Pixel 3a has a bigger and sharper display with a more modern aspect ratio and better contrast. The upcoming Pixel 4a looks set to beat the SE there as well.
Outdoor screen visibility is fine. Though I wish it got brighter, even in direct sunlight, its 600+ nits of brightness were acceptable. I’m also entirely sold on the benefits of the True Tone ambient color temperature matching, which tunes the screen’s color balance to match your environment. It’s a trend that Apple started, and which Android devices like the Pixel 4 and OnePlus 8 Pro have also picked up, and it’s great on the iPhone SE.
If you can get past the screen (which is a legitimate “if”), there’s one last potential issue: There’s no headphone jack. While that’s a fight we’ve long-since lost in the flagship space, it’s more of a standard feature on mid-range devices, and even Google’s Pixel 3a has one, as will the upcoming 4a. “Courage” or not, some folks considering a phone at this price point might be upset at the omission.
Apple’s standard wired Lightning connector earbuds that it comes with are offensively decent, but you don’t get a 3.5mm headphone adapter dongle — which would have been a nice touch. Outside the usual Apple sticker/warranty cards and twisted wire SIM ejector tool, you get a USB Type-A to Lightning cable and a paltry 5W charger. Some might accept that given the price, but is a bit of a joke when any other $20 charger beats it. It charges faster when using Apple’s 18W charger.
Software, performance, and battery
We’re an Android-centric site, with mostly Android-using readers, and that means iOS is more of a hurdle to clear than a benefit. Even with the latest version of iOS 13, that remains true. While it’s one thing to use iOS on a secondary device like a tablet — where, frankly, it’s your best option — making the switch from Android is a tougher sell.
iOS is still limiting if you’re coming from Android. The iPhone home screen feels like it stepped right out of Apple’s keynote back in 2007 — except it’s 2020. All your apps are just sort of dumped on your home screen, where you have to shuffle them off into folders or hide the ones you use less on other pages — without the convenience of an app drawer sorted as you like it for tracking them down later. It also lacks real widgets, if you happen to use any. But, there’s a pane on the left of the home screen that you can load with mediocre widget-like approximations.
The home screen does have these snazzy numbered indicators which kind of serve as notifications, but not all apps use the counters for the same sorts of things, so you’ll probably end up ignoring them outside specific apps. Sadly, they’re sometimes the only visual indication you have outside the Notification Center of pending notifications, though — more on that later.
The in-page search workflow in Safari, for example, is obnoxious, and it’s hard to find on your own — just one example of iOS making things harder by making them simpler. (It’s also in the share menu, which is fewer steps, but as unituitive to find.)
Many apps also feel kind of simplified on iOS. While some developers load up iPad OS tablet versions of their apps with more complicated interfaces and more easily accessed tools, many iOS developers keep their apps for phones simple. For some folks, that’s a blessing, but if you actually appreciate menus loaded up with more advanced features in Android, it’s a curse. It makes finding specific tools a nightmare — if they’re still there, they’re hidden away in really unintuitive places. Tracking down apparently “niche” tools (like in-page text search in Safari, for example) can be obnoxious.
iOS’s Notifications are also years behind Android. If you don’t see them come in, you get no ongoing visual indicator that they’re waiting for you up in the status bar. However, your iPhone is really happy to continuously tell you who your carrier is, just in case you forgot. (I guess carrier advertising is more important to Apple than its customer’s timely communications or productivity.)
Worse, iPhones maintain two separate lists of notifications: the “Notification Center” (accessible via a swipe down) and your lockscreen. These lists will have different things in them. Ostensibly, the lock screen notifications are temporary, disappearing once you’ve seen them, but I’m not sure that’s a workflow that actually works in practice. You’re not memorizing everything you see as it comes in, the list should be persistent everywhere until you directly interact with it.
Notifications also don’t have anywhere near the flexibility when it comes to actions that they do on Android. And, they’re a pain to individually dismiss, with different actions depending on the direction you drag — you either have to do an unintuitive (and annoying) way-too-fast fling left, or drag and tap to dismiss them tediously one at a time, or simply settle with dismissing all of them at once. You can’t do the Android-style notification-as-a-to-do-list paradigm on iOS.
While you can also see notifications indirectly via the red notification badges on the home screen, you’ll probably ignore most of them because so many third-party apps use those incorrectly — after a while, they’ll just blend in, and you can’t see them if you’re in another app, anyway.
You’ll come to resent everything about notifications on iOS if you’re coming from
the future Android. In this work-from-home era, it’s one of the platform’s biggest drawbacks — you will miss stuff.
“Reachability” is an annoying feature that shrinks your lockscreen’s notification area. It’s apparently on by default and way too easy to trigger accidentally; You’ll want to turn it off.
Using an iPhone for the first time since 2012 this last fall/winter, I was stunned at how unstable it had become. While iOS 13 has gotten better with time, and it shows greater stability for me on the iPhone SE now, I still see more app freezes, crashes, and general software-related issues on iOS 13 than I have on any recent Android device. Big-name apps would entirely lock up or stutter in a way that interfered with normal use probably once every other day for me on iOS, though that rarely happens to me anymore on Android.
Even if you can get used to all those changes, iOS still suffers from other, long-standing platform limitations that can be deal-breakers. You can’t really replace Safari as the default browser, so you’ll use it no matter what: In-app browsers are all Safari, and third-party browsers are just Safari with a skin. Third-party keyboards are also third-class citizens, and you’ll be forced back to Apple’s keyboard for things like password entry fields, which is utterly ridiculous. Apple needs to seriously chill out on the platform’s near-anti-competitive restrictions — they aren’t helping anyone.
Some folks coming from Android can adapt to these kinds of limitations on iOS, but it will still mean giving up on Google’s deep services integrations in exchange for Apple’s — and, most of the time, Apple’s aren’t as good. I was able to get by, but I’m not sure everyone that’s used to Android can.
There is one huge benefit to iOS though, and that’s updates. Apple will probably support this phone for the next five years — and maybe longer. If you pick up some used or older Android flagship at around this price, you’ll be lucky to get a year of security updates.
If you can abide iOS, the iPhone SE is upsettingly snappy. While I did notice some stutters in a few apps, the A13 Bionic is a very quick chipset, even if it’s allegedly underclocked for the iPhone SE (a rumor which might not be true). Games were fast, fluid, and pretty. I even got my first solo mobile Fortnite victory on the SE — I usually lose when playing on a phone. Everything, from starting apps to a bit of light photo editing, was as fast or faster than the latest Android phones.
Bluetooth audio performance was okay. I did experience a couple of stutters and drops in dense, radio-congested environments, though. I also noticed that music would blast from the phone for a split second after turning off headphones sometimes, which was annoying.
Battery life is inconsistent, ranging from 6-3 hours of active use for me before it gives up the ghost. I’m pretty light on my devices, so I usually got closer to 5 hours of screen-on time from a given charge. If you do anything intensive like play demanding 3D games, it’s happy to suck that tiny 1,800 mAh cell dry even faster. The phone also gets pretty toasty when fast-charging, or if you do super intensive stuff. At least it tops up quickly if you spring for the 18W fast charger.
All that considered, I can see battery life becoming a problem for most people within a year or two as capacity diminishes over time. However, Apple charges $50 for a battery replacement and $130 for a screen replacement. (Note that uBreakiFix charges $70 and $110 for each for the Pixel 3a.) With Apple stores that can do repairs basically everywhere and prices that low, it’s not as much of a concern, but definitely a number to factor into ownership.
The iPhone SE has just one rear-facing primary camera: A 12MP f/1.8 affair that’s purported to be identical (or, at least, very similar) to the iPhone 8’s. There’s no wide-angle or telephoto to go with it, which isn’t unexpected at this price point.
In good lighting, the iPhone SE’s camera nails photos, though I am not personally a fan of some of the subtleties of Apple’s processing. Edge sharpening feels overly aggressive and contrasty for me, and color is just a bit too saturated sometimes for my tastes. But, these are subjective and minor points. I did notice that it got a bit hazy when lighting was at just the right angle, but it wasn’t a frequent problem.
Note that all iPhone SE samples were captured in HEIC (the default format) and converted to JPEG in Lightroom because the internet isn’t really compatible with Apple’s favorite format.
While some cameras force an excessive HDR effect for exaggerated dynamic range, I find Apple’s approach pleasantly restrained. Still, sometimes it crushes shadows just a bit more than I expected, and it can overexpose scenes in a way I don’t like — but that’s a perspective that’s easily colored coming from a Pixel’s relative under-exposure.
More objectively, I did find the iPhone to show muddier processing under indoor lighting than I expected, making unfocused areas a bit messy, rather than accepting some mild noise, which I would have preferred and which Google’s Pixels, including the Pixel 3a, are more willing to do.
Left: iPhone SE (2020). Right: Pixel 3a.
In low-light, the iPhone SE’s performance is less consistent. While sometimes it’s able to brighten a very dim scene better than a Pixel, I find the Pixel beats it when it comes to detail and dynamic range in more challenging situations. And once you bust out the Pixel’s Night Sight, any edge the iPhone might have in brightening a super-dim scene is lost: The iPhone SE doesn’t have Apple’s Night Mode.
Left: iPhone SE. Middle: Pixel 3a. Right: Pixel 3a Night Sight.
Frustratingly, sometimes the iPhone’s camera interface will imply it’s finished taking a photo before it actually is, so you’ll want to hold still for a bit at night even after it looks like it’s done, because it occasionally isn’t — or you risk getting a blurry photo.
Overall, the Pixel 3a is a better camera, but the iPhone SE is still no slouch, and most folks will find it fine. Honestly, the worst thing about the camera was the lack of a power button shortcut, like you usually get on Android. Here, double-pressing that button does precisely nothing, though it is used for accessing Apple Wallet on “Touch ID”-less iPhones like the 11. Still, as someone that uses a camera more often than contactless payments, I wish Apple would rethink a power button camera shortcut — it’s a great feature.
Should you buy it?
Almost across the board, the iPhone SE beats the current Pixel 3a, which is our favorite mid-range phone. It has an IP rating, the Pixel 3a doesn’t. It has a flagship chipset, the Pixel 3a doesn’t. The SE has wireless charging, amazing haptics, and ambient color-adapting True Tone. The Pixel 3a might have a better camera and potentially better battery life (depending on how you use it), but that’s not enough in its favor. In almost every other metric the 2020 iPhone SE meets or exceeds not just the Pixel 3a, but every other mid-range Android phone at the $400 price — outside the question of software, anyway. And it looks like the SE will probably beat Google’s upcoming Pixel 4a, too.
Honestly, I’m upset that there isn’t a $400 Android phone that’s as all-around good as the new iPhone SE, but Apple is just able to compete with its economy of scale here in a way that Android manufacturers can’t.
(I should also note, it’s a different comparison outside the US in other international markets, where Android phones are cheaper and more plentiful, and the iPhone is much more expensive.)
That said, it’s not for everyone, and iOS is a very tough pill for some of our readers to swallow. I’m hardly an objective source on the matter (just check our site name and URL), but I do think Android beats iOS when it comes to functionality in many ways. Still, this is exceptional hardware you’re getting for just $400, and not everyone is so picky about software.
If you can accept iOS, and the screen or battery life concerns don’t bother you, this is a very good phone.
Buy it if
- You’d like to give iOS a try.
- You’re on a budget but…
- You want a phone with excellent performance and hardware (outside the screen, anyway).
Don’t buy it if
- Android is bae.
- You want a bigger screen/phone.
- Battery life is a high priority.
- You can spend more than $400
Where to buy
The iPhone SE is available starting at $399 at the retailers below:
One month later
If anything, I like the iPhone SE more over time, since I’ve kept it in my pocket when I’ve had a choice for most of the last month, even with alternatives like the S20, OnePlus 8 Pro, and Pixel 4 on my desk. But it’s a dysfunctional relationship, and I have some fresh complaints when it comes to both hardware and software.
For one, the fingerprint sensor has become a problem. I have pretty calloused thumbs, and while some sensors (like the optical reader that OnePlus uses) work for me perfectly, more than half the time, the SE ends up forcing me to use my PIN to get in. Touchscreen sensitivity in certain spots along the sides of the screen (like the back button that’s inconsistently placed in the top left corner of some apps, for example) has also been an issue, requiring three or four taps sometimes before it will register — maybe caused by overly-aggressive touch rejection along the edges.
Less reliable than I’d hoped.
On the software side, iOS seems to find new ways to frustrate me almost constantly. While I’ve already gotten used to missing notifications (sorry anyone that texted or emailed me in the last month), new nitpicks have surfaced, like inconsistencies with how iOS handles volume when streaming via Chromecast. Sometimes I can control external and internal volume separately, but sometimes I can’t, and randomly ‘casting volume control breaks — it’s never clear why that is. And even just the simple act of scrolling can be frustrating on an iPhone. Android is happy to lock your motion into a single axis of movement if it’s mostly in one direction up or down, but iOS and Safari will randomly decide to allow side-to-side motion in pages where it shouldn’t, resulting in a messy and wobbly experience when all you want to do is read an article.
But by far my biggest frustration this month has been just opening stuff in the right apps. Android seriously spoils you, being able to hand any content from one app to almost any other in a single tap via the intents system is legitimate magic. iOS won’t let me reliably open links or media directly into third-party apps in most cases, which is especially annoying for things like Twitter and YouTube, where I’ll often be dumped to the mobile site in either an in-app browser or Safari. A handful of apps like Slack are smart enough to have their own separate app integrations you can manually configure for specific types of links, but it’s far from the simple and universal experience you get on Android, and it makes a legitimate dent in my productivity constantly trying to work around it.
Just let me open this page in the Twitter app, please. (Tapping “Twitter” in that row of apps offers to compose a new tweet pointing to this link — not what I want.)
Still, if you can be flexible and give up on or don’t need some of Android’s better tools, the iPhone’s other benefits probably make up for those drawbacks, especially if you live outside the technology-as-a-novelty bubble, where everyone is constantly chasing the Hot New Thing. For the majority of people, for whom upgrades are driven by necessity rather than desire, this is the phone to buy, and if my mom or neighbor needed a new phone today, this is the only one I’d recommend to them. $400 today will probably last you five years — show me a value like that in any Android phone without mucking about with ROMs. And that’s further ignoring the much better service you’ll get from the company if anything goes wrong while it’s under warranty.
This is the phone for the silent, infrequently upgrading majority, and I bet it’s the phone that ends up in my pocket if a vacation ends up being possible any time soon. I just hope its success makes it clear to Google, Qualcomm, and Android manufacturers that we need to see a better commitment to updates from Android as a platform.