Apple‘s new $429 iPhone SE launches Friday.
I’ve been testing it for the past several days, and it’s a good option for people who just need an iPhone without all the fancy stuff you’ll pay for on the iPhone 13, such as a nicer screen and better cameras.
The iPhone SE is $30 more than the identically named model that launched in 2020 for $399. It offers more than that model, including support for faster 5G cellular, stronger glass, and the same high-speed processor that appears in the more expensive iPhone 13 (which starts at $699 for the Mini model). But it seems inflation and supply chain constraints could also be playing a role. I think Apple could really have boosted the appeal by dropping the price a bit, considering consumers are getting squeezed everywhere else right now, from the grocery store to the gas pump.
The iPhone SE isn’t as popular as Apple’s other phones. According to Counterpoint Research, the 2020 version of the iPhone SE accounted for 12% of all iPhone sales from its launch until Q4 2021. The addition of 5G, however, could make it a compelling option in international markets such as Europe and China where Apple didn’t yet have a low-priced 5G phone to compete with budget Android devices.
Here’s what you need to know about it.
Apple’s strategy for the iPhone SE is to take the same body and screen from older phone models to save on costs, while adding in the latest processor and cellular chip to keep it up to date. That means it can still run all the latest games and apps that you’d expect from any new iPhone — I played Disney’s Melee Mania, for example — without any slowdown that you might otherwise see in a phone that’s a few years old.
It’s got the same body design as the iPhone 8 from 2017, which looks a bit out of date but also means it’s the only iPhone you can still buy with a fingerprint-reading home button instead of Apple’s Face ID unlock system, which is only now getting support for face masks.
I love the size. I normally carry Apple’s much bigger iPhone 13 Pro Max, which feels a bit like a brick next to the iPhone SE. I’d turn to the iPhone SE to toss in my pocket for a run, and it was a lot easier to use to watch movies with one hand while lying down without worrying about it dropping on my face. The stereo speakers are good, too. But if you have the budget, the iPhone 13 Mini is the same size with a way better screen, slightly longer battery life, and nicer cameras.
The 5G works well, too. It doesn’t support some of the fastest mmWave networks that other iPhone and Android devices can, but those networks aren’t widely available anyway. More importantly, it does support the new C-band networks that are being rolled out by Verizon and AT&T, as well as T-Mobile‘s solid nationwide 5G network. So, while 5G still isn’t a must-have for most people, it’s great if you need to download a big playlist or a couple of TV shows before you hop on a flight. In my tests, T-Mobile’s 5G network hit about 300Mbps at home, which was faster than my Wi-Fi in parts of my house.
The camera is good but it’s definitely one area where you can feel the cost savings. It’s got the same lens as the 2020 model but still takes slightly better pictures thanks to the image signal processor that comes with the latest A15 chip. Portrait shots, which nicely blur the background of your subject, can be taken of people, but it doesn’t detect pets for those images. There’s no night mode, which means shots taken in the dark aren’t as clear as they are on Apple’s more expensive phones. But it took nice, clean shots and did a good job capturing the deep reds of some tulips. The front-facing camera is solid for selfies with nice color and tone balance.
Finally, while it’s not as water-resistant as Apple’s other iPhones, it can still survive a dunk in the bath or a spill without any worry, and has the same strong glass as other iPhones to help prevent shattering if you drop it. It doesn’t feel cheap like some low-cost Android phones, which often use plastic instead of glass and metal.
The iPhone SE isn’t really made for power users, and that shows in the battery life. It’ll get you through a day if you’re making phone calls and surfing the web, but don’t expect it to last all day if you’re doing a ton of gaming or more processor-intensive tasks.
It looks the same as the iPhone SE from 2020, which looked the same as the iPhone 8 from 2017. It does look dated, and there are lots of phones with nicer screens that reach the top and bottom of the phone.
The screen is adequate, but won’t wow you like the brighter and faster screens on Apple’s more expensive phones.
I like that it supports wireless charging if you have a Qi charging pad around the house, but it doesn’t support Apple’s newer MagSafe pucks, which magnetically attach to the back of the phone and charge even faster wirelessly.
Finally, while most people looking for a budget phone are probably fine with 64GB of storage, I recommend spending $479 for the model with 128GB if you plan to download and save more apps, movies and games.
Should you buy it?
People always ask me what iPhone they should buy. My response is usually to ask another question: What do you want to do with it?
If you just need an iPhone that can run every app and the latest software, then the iPhone SE is a great buy for the price. It’s a huge upgrade for folks coming from similar devices, like the old iPhone 8. It’s also a great first phone for teens — these days, a lot of kids get their first phone when they’re in middle school.
But if you have a bigger budget, I still think the best phones for most people are the $799 iPhone 13, or the smaller $699 iPhone 13 Mini if you like that size. You can unlock those phones with your face, they have nicer screens, they take better pictures, and they have better battery life.
If you want to go all-out with the smoothest, brightest screen and nicer stainless steel materials, then the iPhone 13 Pro models are your best bet.