A strong case against $1,000 phones

What do you look for in a new iPhone? The top of the list likely includes battery life and camera quality. There are a bunch of other specs and features you’d probably put down lower on the list: speed, screen quality, size, extra cameras, and so on.

But the most important thing for that list comes not from the specs, but from the fact that you’re looking for an iPhone — something with access to iMessage, FaceTime, a huge library of great apps, reliable software updates, and more. You could cross-shop with Android phones, but the switching cost is getting higher every year.

That’s why I’m glad Apple has resurrected an old idea and released another iPhone SE. It starts at $399 for a model with 64GB of storage. For people who want an iPhone, it makes buying a brand-new phone for less than $700 a whole lot easier. Before this week, you’d be choosing between refurbs or switching over to Android.

Pointing out that the iPhone SE is an iPhone is redundant, but it’s important for people who don’t want to switch. It’s also a guarantee of a base level of quality. That makes this review simple: how much are you giving up when you’re only paying $399?

Less than you might guess.

If you have ever held an iPhone 8, iPhone 7, iPhone 6S, or iPhone 6, then you already know the basic shape of the 2020 iPhone SE. It has a 4.7-inch screen with big bezels above and below, a big circular home button on the bottom with a fingerprint sensor embedded in it, and nicely curved corners and edges. It’s what you probably still think of as the canonical iPhone, even though the new ones have bigger screens, Face ID, and those notches. Apple’s had this design since 2014, and it’s sticking with it. Keeping that design is likely a big reason for the low cost. There’s no need for Apple to retool its factories to build it.

I get all of that, but I also get that this design looks tired in 2020. There are many comparably priced Android phones that have managed to reduce their bezels. That’s not just an aesthetic consideration, either. Smaller bezels mean you can fit a bigger screen in a smaller phone body.

The bezels are a bother, but the build quality is not. Apple’s long history with this phone design means that it’s rock-solid. There’s no flex, no gross seams, no gaps. The 4.7-inch LCD display is as good as ever, with True Tone to help color-match your surroundings.

It’s an iPhone, and there’s a comforting sense of familiarity to it.

For those of you hanging on to the original iPhone SE in the hopes that Apple would make another small phone: I acknowledge you and your sadness. This is simply the way phones are these days. I will say it’s a very common experience for people to resist bigger screens and then love them when they finally give in, but that may not be yours. If it helps (it won’t), there aren’t any good tiny Android phones right now either. As with the iPhone 7 and 8, the home button isn’t a physical button, but simply a spot on the bottom that gives you a tactile tapback when you press it. I’m happy to say that Apple hasn’t skimped on the haptics on this phone: they feel great.

It’s only IP67 water resistant, so it’s okay to get wet, but don’t leave it in water for too long. It’s glass on the back, too, to enable wireless charging. Both are relative rarities at this price point.

The last hardware thing I’ll note is there is no headphone jack. It’s only worth pointing out because most inexpensive Android phones still do offer a headphone jack. Apple includes Lightning EarPods in the box but not an adapter. It also has Apple’s standard dinky 5W charger, so while the iPhone SE supports fast-charging, the included charger doesn’t.

Inside that familiar shell, there are two major upgrades to the iPhone SE: the processor and the camera. Let’s talk processor first.

It has the A13 Bionic, which is impressive because it’s the same processor as the iPhone 11 Pro. There is no faster processor in a smartphone for any price. So yes, the iPhone SE is fast, but that’s not why the processor matters.

The processor is important because it ensures that the iPhone SE will get OS updates for many years to come. I still have the original iPhone SE, released in March 2016, and Apple supported it with the latest iOS update last year. Four years later, and that iPhone has the most up-to-date software.