Review: Apple's smaller iPhone SE gives plenty of bang for buck

Apple's reinvents its classic iPhone SE with a 4.7-inch screen.
The iPhone SE. Photo credit: Getty

Affordable isn't a word often associated with Apple products, but it accurately sums up the new iPhone SE.

Happily, as I've found out during testing, quality has not been compromised in favour of the NZ$799 price tag.

It's nowhere near as flash as Apple's beautiful and expensive premium devices, but it does manage to pack more into a smartphone than most 'ordinary' users will need - as long as they're seeking a smaller screen. 

The best bits

The new iPhone SE first isn't really a rehash of the popular 2016 classic. The 2020 version has the body and screen size of an iPhone 8 and the brains of an iPhone 11.

It uses an A13 Bionic processor - the same one that's in the iPhone 11 flagship, which should mean it's a top performer for years to come.

Compared to the iPhone 8, that's a 1.4x bump in processing power.

The casing is made up of aerospace-grade aluminium and durable glass. The screen is far bigger than its 2016 namesake at 4.7 inches rather than just 4. The Retina HD display hides the top and bottom black borders until the screen is active. 

The iPhone SE cameras are perfectly fine for everyday use. Like the iPhone 8, the iPhone SE has a 12MP rear camera and a 7MP selfie camera with f/1.8 and f/2/2 apertures. 

Upgrades include Portrait Mode and Depth Control for taking and adjusting bokeh pictures (where the background is purposely blurred) and Smart HDR to improve highlights and shadows.

Apple iPhone SE review.
Apple's new iPhone SE has the same look at the iPhone 8 and comes in red, white and black. Photo credit: Newshub.

Other features include Quicktake which gives the ability to record video without exiting the photo mode and improvements to video such as extended dynamic range for 30fps and cinematic video stabilisation for 4K video.

Some will enjoy the return of a physical home button that contains the fingerprint reader for unlocking the phone and authorising digital payments. 

There's no getting away from the small size of the phone but that's what made the original iPhone SE back in 2016 quite so popular. And interestingly, while the phone's screen is smaller, it doesn't feel ridiculously small for those used to bigger phones. 

I like the fact that the iPhone SE is available in a 128GB version, which is great for the storage of all those photos and videos if 64GB doesn't quite cut it and if 256GB is just too extravagant.

The bad bits

Those looking for a truly small screen, like the original, may not find the new iPhone SE's display small enough. 

The phone doesn't have the same camera night mode as newer models. That said, I felt it did do a slightly better job on some lowlight shots than on a family member's iPhone 8 Plus.

The return of the button doesn't appeal to me. It also means that the iPhone SE has the same button-based ways of doing things as older phones with Touch ID.

There's also no Face ID, which I personally really miss. It takes a while to charge, there's no headphone socket (although that's nearly always the case with new phones nowadays) and it doesn't support 5G. I also noticed when trying it out next to my iPhone 11 Pro that the speaker on the SE seems inferior when taking calls.

The verdict

This phone won't suit Apple fans used to more premium devices, but they're not the target market. For people with iPhones three or more years old, the SE will definitely appeal. It's a massive upgrade in power and punch in a familiar physical form.

If you're choosing between buying this and an iPhone 8 (which has now been replaced in Apple's line-up), there's no debate.

The iPhone SE comes in black, white and red, looks good, will last the distance and won't burn too big a hole in your pocket.