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iPhone SE 2 Review

Is the affordable iPhone SE the true iPhone for everyone?

Verdict

This is a fantastic upgrade for those with an iPhone 8 or older, and you will notice big changes, and a lot of familiarities, in the switch. It’s also just a downright excellent buy if you want a phone that’ll perform fast and take excellent pictures for years to come. 

Pros

  • At $399/£419 this is an excellent buy
  • Flagship performance should keep this speedy for years
  • Great photos in daylight situations
  • Impressive video capabilities
  • Offers a strong proposition for those who don’t want big phones

Cons

  • Battery life is far from excellent
  • A new design would’ve been welcome

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £419
  • 4.7-inch display
  • A13 chipset
  • 12MP f/1.8 camera
  • iOS 13
  • TouchID

Apple’s latest phone might not have been the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, but the new iPhone SE 2 is the perfect phone for the current uncertain time.

Apple has taken the body of the iPhone 8, mixed in internals from its iPhone 11 Pro and released it as its most affordable phone you can buy at the moment. Some may call it lazy, but those people won’t have used the iPhone SE 2.

iPhone SE 2 price and release date

The iPhone SE 2 is the cheapest new iPhone around, but it’s significantly more expensive in the UK than it is in the US. Here are the iPhone SE 2 UK prices and configurations:

  • iPhone SE 2 (64GB) − £419 ($399 in the US, which is approximately £320)
  • iPhone SE 2 (128GB) − £469 ($449 in the US, which is approximately £400)
  • iPhone SE 2 (256GB) − £569 ($549 in the US, which is approximately £440)

The original iPhone SE was available for just £379 at launch, which sounds scarcely believable next to today’s sky-high smartphone prices. Of course, that was way back in 2016, when even the price of the year’s flagship handset (the iPhone 6S) was a mere £539.

The iPhone 8, which has now been discontinued by Apple, originally started at £699 (64GB) in September 2017. However, it’s still available from third-party retailers and will be cheaper than ever.

The iPhone SE 2 was available to preorder from April 17 and started shipping to buyers on April 24.

Design – The iPhone SE 2 design is so familiar, maybe too much so

When I unboxed the iPhone SE 2, I put it up against the iPhone 11 Pro Max and couldn’t quite believe the sheer size difference. The SE 2 feels miniature next to the comparable beast of the Pro Max, almost toylike in its size.

And while the size won’t be for those who watch lots of movies or YouTube on their phones, or edit snaps or play hours and hours of games on the go, it’s refreshing using a device that doesn’t dominate my hands.

iphone SE 2 vs iPhone 11 Pro Max

iPhone SE 2 (left) vs iPhone 11 Pro Max (right)

This is a true one-handed phone that sits right in the middle of my palm. My thumb can stretch from one side of the 4.7-inch display to other with ease – a feeling I haven’t had on a new phone in a long time.

However, the design remains my biggest qualm with the SE 2. It’s just so…familiar. I’ve used this phone on so many different occasions throughout the past six years, and it looks just like the iPhone 6 from 2014. Thick, chunky bezels surrounding the display? Check; Rounded corners? Check; TouchID home button? Check; Glass back? Check.

It would have been great to see Apple try a little harder with the design; stretching that screen out more or using some of the tricks it has learned with the TouchID-less iPhones of the last few years. Taking that SE branding brings back memories of the gorgeous iPhone 5 era design, with its clinical metallic look – it would have been far better to see some of that inspiration infused here, especially as the rumoured iPhone 12 series is said to have some of that design DNA.

At least the red-on-black of my review unit is a lovely colour combination. It’s also available in black and white, all with a black front. 

Like the iPhone 8 which this mirrors, there’s an IP67 rating for water resistance and a distinct lack of a 3.5mm jack.  

Screen – Don’t want a big screen? The iPhone SE 2 is ideal

The quality of the LCDs Apple has used in its iPhones have always been exceptional. Even though the resolution here is fairly low, at 4.7-inches, it looks sharp and detailed in all manner of situations.

Everything about the display feels very much like the iPhone 8, and it’s a world away from the 120Hz quad HD panels you’ll find on Android flagships in 2020. Still, it’s bright and colour accurate, and packs True Tone for kinder colours and has great viewing angles. There’s also no notch digging into the screen, just a rectangular 16:9 panel – hello 2016.

It is very small, though. That might be a bonus for some and the single biggest reason for skipping this device for others. A larger, possibly 5.5-inch Plus version was rumoured but, currently, it’s not available, and it seems we might be waiting until 2021 for that device to appear. 

Performance – The iPhone SE 2 feels like it’ll last for years with ease

It might look like a phone that wouldn’t feel out of place in 2016, but it’s got the guts of a £1000 device straight out of 2020. Like the iPhone 11 Pro Max (a phone that can cost up to £1500 in the UK), the iPhone SE 2 packs the supremely-capable A13 Bionic chipset. There is also, according to Geekbench benchmarking app, 3GB RAM.

Reports have suggested that the chip is underclocked somewhat, and the below benchmarking scores do represent a slight difference when compared to the iPhone 11 series, however you’re still getting the fastest mobile chip out there in a £400 phone – that’s impressive stuff.

Geekbench 5 dual core Geekbench 5 dual core AnTuTu
Samsung Galaxy S20 919 2765 487,678
Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 890 2679 484,448
Huawei Mate 30 Pro 749 2910 452,421
iPhone 11 Pro 1334 3552 558,778
iPhone SE 2 1337 2828 433,304

 

Along with handling any game on the App Store or Apple Arcade with ease (nothing I played had even the slightest hint of lag), this chip should ensure performance is fast for years and years – something you just don’t get with similarly priced Android phones.

There’s other modern internals too, like WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5. You probably don’t have a WiFi 6 router yet, but it’s here for whenever you do. 5G is the obvious miss, and if you’re after this phone for the long-term, you’ll probably wish it was included. At least the 4G speeds and reliability are excellent, as are voice calls. On the Vodafone network in the UK, I found the iPhone SE 2 actually gave me better-sounding calls than the iPhone 11. 

I have said on many occasions that I prefer FaceID to the fingerprint-based TouchID, but the latter is all that’s available here and it’s faster than ever. The already fast capacitive sensor paired with the A13 makes for an unlocking experience that might not be as slick as FaceID, but it’s a lot faster. TouchID here puts any other fingerprint unlocking system to shame, especially the still fairly poor in-display versions used frequently on Android devices.

iphone SE 2 back

The iPhone SE 2 looks very familiar

Camera – Photos show the power of the A13 Bionic

The iPhone SE 2 takes fantastic daylight pictures, many of which are virtually impossible to differentiate with those shot with the iPhone 11 Pro. If you’re coming from any iPhone prior to the iPhone XR, you’ll notice huge differences here, particularly around dynamic range and accuracy of the images.

The single 12-megapixel sensor with a f/1.8 lens is similar in terms of spec to the iPhone 8 (it seems, anyway), hinting that much of the improvements come directly from the A13 Bionic chipset.

Pictures in well-lit situations such as landscapes, portraits and general daytime are great, matching far pricier devices. There’s a distinct similarity to higher-end iPhones, with the same high level of detail and rich, but not too overly saturated, colours. The A13 allows for Apple’s Smart HDR features which ensure shots aren’t blown out by, say, a bright sky, and again the effect is close to that of the pricier iPhones.

The single-camera array does mean some the phone loses that hit of versatility you get either with a wider lens or one that’s zoomed in a bit further. The digital zoom is rubbish (as it is on every phone) so you only have one focal length to play with. There is a portrait mode, though, a nice addition that again uses the power of the A13 to offset the lack of a dedicated secondary sensor. This portrait mode does a good job at cutting around faces and has a soft blur effect – shame it doesn’t work on anything other than people.

iPhone SE photo sample iPhone SE photo sample

I have been less impressed with the low-light performance. Up against something like the Pixel 3a (available for a similar price) the iPhone SE 2 churns out disappointingly lacklustre photos when lighting is poor. Images are noisy, lack detail and there’s no dedicated night mode to speak of. It seems that while the A13 Bionic can make this hardware perform better when shooting in daylight, it can’t work that same magic at night. Still, they do remain far better than the majority of options at this lower price.

iPhone SE 2 low light

iPhone 11 Pro Max low light

iPhone SE 2 low light

iPhone 11 Pro Max low light

Video recording is the best, by some distance, of any phone at this pricer and superior to far pricier Android phones. It can be shot up to 4k 60fps (4k 24fps is supported too) with great detail and very steady footage. The 7MP front camera is again very good, and the portrait selfies are great.

Battery life – The iPhone SE 2 will get you through the day

Apple claims the iPhone SE 2 will last you about the same amount of time as an iPhone 8 – a phone we felt had merely average endurance. Battery life in smaller phones hasn’t come on too much since those days, and I have been able to get through a day without reaching for the charger. Just.

Of course, as this review is being written with the majority of social activities off-limits, my use of phones has changed. Hitting the iPhone SE 2 hard with long bouts of gaming does deteriorate battery fast, often very fast. But then leaving the phone unplugged overnight saw the percentage drop by 2 points – standby time is excellent again here. This certainly isn’t a phone you can hammer and expect to last into day two, and it’s nowhere near as long-lasting as the iPhone 11 Pro.

Yep, it still charges via Lightning

Apple doesn’t include a ‘fast’ charger with the iPhone 11, so it’s not surprising to see the typical 5w plug in the box. You can though use a faster charger, like the 18w plug Apple also sells. Using this I got from 0-50% in just over 30 minutes.

Wireless charging isn’t always a feature you’ll at this price, but you will find it on iPhone SE 2. 

Software – iOS 13 is here as you’d expect

iOS 13 here is like iOS 13 anywhere. Apple always does a great job at ensuring parity between all of its devices and all the big, flagship additions like dark mode is here.

Like the iPhone 11 range, there’s no 3D Touch – and Apple has removed some of the long-press support in areas like expanding notifications. Notification management remains an issue on iOS as a whole, and this makes it a little worse.

Yet it’s really services where Apple is impressing. Apple Arcade (£4.99/$4.99 after a free month) is packed with excellent titles that all run like a charm here (even if the screen isn’t ideal for gaming) and Apple TV+ (free for a year if you buy an SE) is starting to look like a worthy streaming service.

And, of course, you’ll get updates – far more updates than is usual with phones in this price range. iOS 14 is a given, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get iOS updates for years down the line.

iphone SE 2 back

Should you buy the iPhone SE 2

There will be people who instantly discount the iPhone SE 2 – and that’s fine, it’s not for everyone. Yet mocking it feels downright stupid. This is a clever release by Apple as the iPhone SE 2 is a phone that a lot will love.

Not everyone has upwards of a grand to spend on a phone or huge months outlays, and even those that do might not feel the differences between this and the iPhone 11 are worth it. Here you’re getting a great camera, quality display and everything that comes with the truly unmatched iOS ecosystem for $399/£419 – that’s excellent value in anyone’s eyes.

You’re also getting benefits like 4K60fps recording, an IP67 rating and Qi charging – all features often left out to accommodate a more budget price.

This is a fantastic upgrade for those with an iPhone 8 or older, and you will notice big changes, and a lot of familiarities, in the switch. It’s also just a downright excellent buy if you want a phone that’ll perform fast and take excellent pictures for years to come. 

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