First iPhone SE reviews: Victory in value

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It might even make you miss the Home button.
Photo: Apple

The iPhone SE, with its iPhone 8 form factor, proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks. With the first reviews for the new handset having hit the internet, pundits are in agreement that, well, the iPhone SE is pretty darn great.

In fact, if Apple’s made any kind of misstep it may have been showing us that you can get a pretty amazing iPhone for the price of a mid-level handset. Here’s what the initial reviewers are saying:

Old body, new innards

The iPhone SE is a Frankenstein’s monster of a whole bunch of phones. It’s a sequel to 2016’s iPhone SE. And an upgraded iPhone 8 in form factor. With a bunch of features and internals taken from the iPhone 11 — including the impressive A13 Bionic chip.

Of course, whether you like the design depends on how fixed you are on the edge-to-edge display and Home button-free iPhone X and beyond. In Apple terms, it just works — but not everyone is ready to go back to the past.

As CNET reviewer Patrick Holland writes:

“The new phone has Apple’s old-school forehead and chin bezel above and below the screen. This makes the SE look, well, old. This is the one of the few things that I’m not too thrilled about. It’s not ugly, it’s just dated. And that might appeal to some people, but not me.”

It might make you miss the Home button

Getting rid of the iconic Home button was bold when the iPhone X first did it. We’re used to it now, the same way many of us have resigned ourselves to USB-C over MagSafe and no headphone jack. That’s helped by the fact that Apple’s newest phones are pretty fantastic. But iPhone SE users might remember why they fell in love with the Home button to begin with.

In an 8/10 review Wired‘s Lauren Goode notes that:

“I’ve realized I miss the home button. I’ve gotten very used to the nearly bezel-less build of the iPhone 11, and using Face ID to unlock the phone, to log into various apps, to buy something online. But the home button—which uses Touch ID for all of those tasks in the absence of Face ID—was never broken. The iPhone 11 is such a lineless black slab that I don’t know which way is up half the time. The iPhone SE reminded me that buttons are good.”

(And, yes, even those who aren’t super keen on the old design returning acknowledge that the Home button was pretty awesome.)

iPhone SE is probably zippier than you expect

As Joanna Stern writes for the Wall Street Journal:

“There were a few things I missed about my iPhone 11 during my week of testing. Performance wasn’t among them. Powered by the same A13 Bionic processor, the SE was just as snappy to launch apps and handle games.”

And here’s CNET, which found performance on par with the most recent iPhone 11 series devices:

“App launches were peppy, playing games like Sky: Children of Light and Doomsday Vault were a breeze. Editing photos was easy and I could even use graphics-heavy AR apps such as Wonderscope, which transformed my bedroom into a training ground for ghosts.”

The display is good, although not OLED

Here’s Todd Haselton for CNBC:

“The screen isn’t as sharp or colorful as Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro phones, but it uses the same LCD display technology as Apple’s iPhone 11 and iPhone XR. That includes TrueTone, a feature that automatically adjusts the white balance on the screen so it’s more accurate and easier to view based on the lighting in the room. Movies are admittedly much smaller on this screen, but they still look good.”

The camera impresses

On paper, the iPhone SE has the same camera as the iPhone 8. But thanks to its new processor and software it’s got access to some of the nifty recent camera improvements. These include the likes of Smart HDR for photos, Quick Take filming and Portrait Mode on both front and rear cameras. (No Night Mode, ultra wide-angle lens or zoom lens, though.)

Here’s the Wall Street Journal again:

“When I compared portrait shots taken with the $999 iPhone 11 Pro to those from the iPhone SE, I was hard-pressed to figure out which ones looked better. In fact, in one setting, the iPhone SE did a better job than the 11 Pro at figuring out where my head ended and the tree behind me started.”

Especially given the price, the cameras gain a considerable amount of praise. The iPhone 11 Pro camera is good for a phone costing $1,000. A $400 phone that does something similar? Now that’s impressive.

Not one for those who upgrade every year?

Remember how the Mac was the computer for the rest of us? That’s what the iPhone SE is — at least, with the “us” being those who don’t obsessively upgrade their phones every year. The WSJ review notes that:

“It’s for people like reader Carol Morton with a cracked, four-year-old iPhone 6s. Or Daniel Ford, whose ancient iPhone 4 miraculously still works but doesn’t download the latest apps anymore. Or Cherine Trombley, owner of a first-generation iPhone SE from 2016. It’s even for Paul Fenton, whose kids want him to finally get rid of his Jitterbug flip phone.”

What might surprise many is how many people may actually be perfectly well-served by the iPhone SE. Even hardcore techies. Here’s Wired:

“I’m here to tell you that you don’t need the most expensive iPhone …  If Apple’s new iPhone SE proves anything, it’s that you can get an excellent mid-range iPhone, one with the processing power of a top-of-the-line smartphone, for $400.”

Are you planning to buy an iPhone SE?

Is this a handset you’re itching to get your mitts on? Let us know in the comments below.

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