Final Test Results: Apple iPhone SE

This $429 smartphone offers all the basics in a pocket-friendly package

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iPhone SE Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports

Bigger isn’t always better. If you’re on a limited budget or you’re simply opposed to paying a premium for a smartphone, the new 4.7-inch iPhone SE might reel you in. Starting at just $429, it’s nearly $300 less than the iPhone 13 mini

The iPhone SE lacks many of the premium features found in the iPhone 13 line, including various optical camera lenses and an OLED display. But Apple didn’t skimp on the hardware required for 5G connectivity or the model’s processing power, outfitting it with its latest A15 chip.

Those are the two big advances on the 2020 iPhone SE, which performed reasonably well in CR’s tests, especially given the low price.

Apple credits its home-brewed processor with providing the new phone with better battery life, as well as a speedier and smoother experience when launching apps, gaming, or tackling routine productivity tasks. And indeed, the new SE outlasted the 2020 model in our labs, delivering 30 hours’ worth of battery life versus 25.5 hours. It also earned admirable scores from CR’s testers for zippy performance and touch-screen ease of use.

The model is available in three colors: black (Midnight), white (Starlight), and red (Product[RED]). The storage capacity varies from 64GB to 128GB to 256GB.

Wondering if this budget phone lives up to the iPhone brand? Here’s more on what it can do and how it performed in our labs.

Display and Design

In an age where phones are getting bigger and bigger, the iPhone SE certainly looks and feels small.

The 4.7-inch screen (measured diagonally) is just a tad bigger than a 3-by-5-inch index card. Some would say that’s tiny and cramped. Others might call it compact and pocketable.

It’s easy to use one-handed, although pecking away at the on-screen keyboard wasn’t as precise for me as it is on my 6.8-inch Galaxy S21 Ultra. It’s fairly comparable to typing on the 6.1-inch iPhone XR, though, which I find surprising. So keep in mind that those inches aren’t nearly as significant to keyboard spacing when measured on the diagonal.

iPhone SE and iPhone XR
The 4.7-inch iPhone SE (left) compared with the 6.1-inch iPhone XR.

Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports

More on Smartphones

The large bezels at the top and bottom of the phone give it a retro look and may seem like a waste of space, except that the iPhone SE uses the once-common touch ID button at the bottom, which could appeal to certain folks. I personally like using touch ID instead of Face ID to unlock the phone.

When it comes to brightness, the iPhone SE’s display is luminous enough to be legible even in direct sunlight. I was able to read articles and watch Apple TV+’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” on a cloudless afternoon in my backyard without trouble.

In CR’s tests, which evaluate resolution, crispness, readability, and brightness levels, the iPhone SE’s display earned a Very Good score.

Comparing the black-and-white movie on the LCD display to the OLED display on an iPhone 13 Pro Max, however, was revealing. On the iPhone SE, the movie had a starker, high-contrast look while on the 13 Pro Max it had more levels of gray, showcasing the artistic look the filmmakers were probably aiming for.

The movie still looked good on the iPhone SE, but if you enjoy using your phone to watch films with subtle or moody lighting, this is something to keep in mind.

iPhone SE Camera

Apple didn’t upgrade the camera hardware this year, so you’ll find the same single 12-megapixel wide camera on the back and 7-megapixel camera on the front. And any phone with a single-camera setup on the back is going to be challenged to meet the photography standards of today’s top-tier phones, which have as many as four cameras with various lenses that work in concert.

Without an optical zoom lens, the SE has to rely heavily on the processor and software to define the contours and textures of your subject, and that’s difficult to do with real precision. So it’s no surprise that I found weak spots in the SE, particularly when it came to low-light situations.

Ultimately, though, the still image quality (for the front and back cameras) and video quality are Very Good, according to our testers. And that means many people will be happy with the snapshots the phone produces—especially at this price range.

Here’s a shot of my dog in my living room. As you can see, the phone captures the details of his curly hair and the different shades of apricot in his coat. I snapped the picture fairly quickly and think it’s worthy of sharing on Facebook, not to mention here with CR readers.

photo of dog laying on carpet taken with iPhone SE
The iPhone SE captures some details and textures without zooming in.

Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports

Here are two photos of a plant at my desk, using the new Photographic Styles feature available on the updated iPhone SE. It’s not a filter you apply after taking the photo, but rather an option you select before pushing the shutter button.

comparison of two photos of orchids for color differences
A still photo with the Photographic Style applied (left) vs. the warm style.

Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports

The model’s enhanced Portrait Mode works similarly to the version of old, but there are new style and setting options for things like fine-tuning the background blur and the subject’s color tone.

portrait of person sitting on leather couch holding phone taken with iPhone SE
Automatic background isolation in the iPhone SE's enhanced Portrait Mode.

Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports Photo: Melanie Pinola/Consumer Reports

What’s Missing

Beyond the features mentioned above, the updates to the iPhone SE are relatively minor, though I did enjoy playing with the Live Text feature available through the iOS 15 upgrade. With it, you can use your camera to copy text, open websites, and more.

I found it handy for copying passages in a book of short stories I’m reading for a class. It could also be useful for archiving recipes from cumbersome cookbooks or calling a phone number printed on a sign.

But it’s worth noting what you don’t get with this budget phone that you would get with an iPhone 13: Face ID, premium glass and stainless steel materials, water resistance up to 6 meters (the SE is rated water-resistant up to a depth of 1 meter for up to 30 minutes), a storage capacity of 512GB, and MagSafe compatibility (although the SE is compatible with Qi-wireless chargers). 

Should You Buy the iPhone SE?

That’s the big question. 

If you want to leave Android behind or you have an iPhone that’s so old it can’t run iOS 15, the SE is the cheapest way to get a brand-new phone from Apple. And, with these upgrades, the model ranks among the best budget phones we’ve tested.

But you may also want to consider the iPhone 11, which costs $499 and has a larger 6.1-inch screen and two 12-megapixel rear cameras (wide and ultrawide). Just note that it uses the older A13 chip and doesn’t support 5G.

Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

As a service journalist, my goal is to help people get the most out of their technology and other tools. Prior to joining CR, my work appeared online and in print for publications including The New York Times, Wirecutter, Lifehacker, Popular Mechanics, and PCWorld. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or chasing the puppy. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).