iPhone SE Review: Tiny Powerhouse Hobbled by iOS
When Apple announced the iPhone SE, i was intrigued. A mini phone, with long-abandoned touchID, the potential for a great camera, and a modern processor? Well, except for the mini phone part, all the rest sounded great. Plus, it's topical, so I ordered it and I've been using it as my daily driver for around 2 weeks. So I'm ready to give my full review of the iPhone SE 2020 edition.
I ordered the Product Red version of the iPhone and it is just gorgeous. Especially the aluminum rails encircling the perimeter of the phone looks really great. The front of the phone is your typical iPhone 8 - ginormous forehead, ginormous chin, and home button right where it should be. FaceID is nice, but call me an old man, I prefer having the home button there to use my fingerprint. Plus, in these days of masks everywhere, Touch ID works through disposable gloves, which is a win.
The volume buttons, mute switch, and power button are all very nice feeling with good tactile feedback. There is no headphone jack - just dual speaker grilles on the bottom of the phone though only one of them has a speaker behind it. The iPhone SE manages stereo output using the earpiece and one bottom firing speaker. Also on the bottom you'll find your lightning connector.
The display is a 4.7 inch LCD panel and the chipset is an Apple A13 Bionic right out of the iPhone 11. Our review unit has the base 64 GB of storage and 3GB of RAM. The camera is a single 12 MP shooter in the back with a 7MP selfie cam in front. We'll talk more about the camera later.
The battery is a tiny 1,821 mAh battery that supports fast charging, though only if you buy Apple's swanky 30W charger. I did not, so it takes around 2.5 hours to charge the phone with the included charger in the box. It takes 3 hours to charge wirelessly. Even with such a baby battery, I had little problem getting through entire days on a single charge. But, I was running on fumes by bedtime. Keep in mind though, I was in quarantine and home all day rather than on a network, so I could see this phone running down by dinner time if you're out and about.
The screen is also tiny by today's standards. When you play Call of Duty on the phone, it plays like a tiny little baby phone. It's basically unplayable, which is a shame because of all the flagships we've tested in 2020, the iPhone SE is the only one that never batted an eyelash at Call of Duty. This phone is a teensy weensy powerhouse, and I love that.
But now let's get to the part of the phone I don't love - iOS. I'm sure just about every part of iOS that I'm about to complain about could fall into the "you get used to it" category with enough time and enough exposure. I'm going to start with the war drum that I have been beating for years with iOS - the keyboard.
My biggest complaint about the iOS keyboard is the fact that there is no number row. In a time when people have to enter passwords for every single app they ever use, entering a password is borderline cruel on iOS. Yes, you can install third party keyboards like GBoard. Fine. But it's 2020, and it's way way way past time for Apple to update its keyboard.
Add to that, there's no punctuation on the keyboard, except certain times like entering an email address. Some apps even have the ability to alter the keyboard slightly. For example, Twitter adds a hashtag and @ symbol to the keyboard, but that's actually a worse experience. Keyboards and especially virtual keyboards rely on muscle memory to type, and that memory will get screwed up every time you enter a new app. Gboard gives you a period and from that icon, you can get other punctuation. On iOS, you need to hit the number key to switch to numbers and only then do you get other punctuation. Do you want to know why kids today don't use punctuation in texts and emails? Bingo.
But even beyond the keyboard, iOS's flat refusal to allow you to put your icons where you want them is maddening enough, but also limiting icon placement to just four columns is almost criminal. Sure on the iPhone SE's tiny screen, there's barely room enough for a fifth column. Even my old eyes can see smaller icons. At least give me the choice.
Notifications are really just ok on iOS, except for the fact that there is no notification on the phone to tell you you have a notification. They just sit there in the upper shade waiting for you to swipe down, without actually tell you you need to swipe down. Once you do, you can tap or swipe them to open the app. You can only clear them with a clumsy swipe left, tap a button sequence. Notifications are just not good and for me, they're almost the center of the smartphone experience. Apple has a lot of work to do here.
Now, to be fair, on the software side, apple also does a lot of things really well, like swiping up from the bottom for the control center, and the integration between all devices int he apple ecosystem. Copying text from a mac and pasting it on the phone is pretty damn cool, i don't care who you are. Plus, consider the fact that if history is any indication, this phone will get five years of operating system updates. That's insane. The best Android phones will get maybe three if you're lucky? If you want a long-time phone companion with all the best software that Apple can provide - and a lot of it is really good - then yeah, the iPhone SE is a win.
So if you're firmly embedded into the Apple ecosystem, this phone makes sense. If you are, you don't care about the keyboard, or the notifications, or any of the other numerous bugaboos I have with the software that have been editorialized to death at this point. Good for you!
Camera and Other Notes
The performance on this phone is top notch. As mentioned this phone can pump out games like Call of Duty Mobile and even Fortnite without so much as a stutter. Basic operations on the phone are lag free. This is all powered by that A13 silicon inside, and Apple has a long history of optimizing the crap out of its silicon. It actually makes its own silicon and knows exactly what it can do. And this phone is 100% a smooth operator in that regard.
The cameras on this phone fall into the just good department. They're not great by any stretch of the imagination. There is a single 12MP camera on the back and 7MP camera on the front. Both are capable of grabbing great images in bright daylight. In particular, the rear camera gets really good natural bokeh when doing macro shots. Both cameras perform well in sunlight, but as with most smartphone cameras, once the sun goes down, so too does the quality. In particular highlights get completely blown out and there is a ton of grain in the shadows. In daylight, this isn't an issue. But that's to be expected on most smartphone cameras.
Portrait mode on both cameras performs very well. Apple throws in those special lighting effects on its portrait mode including stage lighting etc. They're neat in a party trick kind of way. Portrait mode still has trouble with hair, and in particular ponytails. The iPhone SE considers pony tails part of the background, not part of the subject.
Video is very good on this phone. I shot a few samples in motion on my bike in both 1080P and in 4K and they're very, very smooth. Unfortunately, I can't quite do a hand-held pan shot for like a product video. If you're looking to video a moving subject this is a great camera to do that with. The camera picks up a lot of detail. But for stills, the camera underperforms.
I should also point out that I really only noticed this stuff once I moved the photos to my computer and blew them up to 100% on my 24" monitor. On social media, these shots are mostly very good - if you're posting photos to Facebook. If you're planning on printing them out - not so much. But nobody should ever print anything anyway. So let’s wrap it all up. Who is this phone for?
Well, it’s for iPhone people who long for the hearty days of TouchID. It’s for people who want to get into the iOS ecosystem but don’t want to pay through the nose for the priveledge. It’s for people who don’t really want to play games. People who just want a small reliable phone that fits easily in their pocket and will last for years. This phone is all of that, and at $400, that’s a lot of bang for buck.
I can tell you it’s not for me. By the time my review period was over, I was aching to get back to the safety of Android. It just boggles my mind that for as much as Apple knows about software, like getting computers and phones to work together so seamlessly, they really leave a lot to be desired when it comes to customer experience. It’s as if no one at Apple has ever heard of Android and can’t admit that maybe some things Google does are demonstrably better.
Personally, I’m happy for my iPhone experience, and frankly I think Apple should emulate me by picking up a competitor’s phone and trying it out. Sometimes you have to read the other team’s playbook. IOS is a good operating system for those who know and love its quirks. So is Android, and trust me, Android has quirks folks.
So for me, the last two weeks have been very valuable. I re-learned Apple’s phone OS, and refreshed my memory on its ups and downs. So, should you get one? If you fall into any of the categories I laid out, then the iPhone SE 2020 is a great little phone. It’s just not my great little phone.
If it is for you, you can pick it up at Amazon.