iPhone SE 3 review roundup: Ample power combined with aging features

iPhone SE 3 review roundup: Ample power combined with aging features

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iPhone SE
iPhone SE 3 is exactly what you would expect from a new iPhone SE.
Photo: Apple

With less than a week to go until Apple’s third-generation iPhone SE makes its official debut, the first reviews are out. They have plenty of great things to say about Cupertino’s most affordable handset — and more than a few complaints.

While everyone is praising the handset’s super-speedy A15 Bionic, welcome 5G connectivity, and even its single 12-megapixel camera, most reviewers agree that its “tired design” is in dire need of a refresh.

iPhone SE 3 review roundup

iPhone SE 3 looks exactly like iPhone SE 2, which looks exactly like iPhone 8. Its external hardware is five years old now, and while recycling it over and over again helps bring down the price of iPhone SE, we’re all sick of seeing it.

It’s particularly difficult to look at (and use) in a world that’s now filled with edge-to-edge smartphone screens with beautifully slim bezels. And it’s now one of the only modern devices with a physical Home button.

Design

“It’s a tired design straight out of 2017 that makes an already-small screen feel even smaller than it could be,” wrote Allison Johnson for The Verge, who describes iPhone SE’s “retro design” as “a bit too vintage for most of us.”

“Picking up the iPhone SE 2022 for me is like taking a trip back in time,” wrote Mark Spoonauer for Tom’s Guide. When watching a YouTube video, “the black bars above and below the action proved distracting. I wanted to pinch-to-zoom to make the picture bigger.”

“The design, with massive bezels and Apple’s (once iconic, now absent on all new models) Home Button on the front, and a tiny, singular camera unit on the back, is so archaic that it feels sort of cool,” said Mashable’s Stan Shroeder.

Apple has made one subtle design improvement that isn’t obvious at first glance: iPhone SE now features Ceramic Shield glass, like later models, so it should be better at withstanding drops without a case. It is still IP67-rated for water resistance.

Display

Another thing that remains the same in iPhone SE 3 is its 4.7-inch display. It’s certainly not a bad screen, reviewers say. But again, in 2022, it’s starting to look a little dated — and it’s getting difficult to use.

“The SE’s screen feels cramped with the large forehead and chin space above and below the display,” wrote Patrick Holland for CNET. “Colors look good on the SE. The amount of detail and contrast Apple is able to get out of this screen is impressive. Yet for a $429 phone, I wished the display would get brighter, especially in sunlight.”

“Of all the things that haven’t changed, the only one I truly minded was the display,” added Mashable. “I’ve become spoiled by the new iPhones’ fancy OLEDs, and the iPhone SE’s tiny (by today’s standards) LCD display was noticeably harder to use under bright sunlight, which I had plenty of during my time with the phone, and its black hues just weren’t as black as they are on an OLED display.”

“Let’s just say that watching shows and movies on the iPhone SE 2022 is not exactly immersive,” said Tom’s Guide. “This 4.7-inch LCD panel has a resolution of 1344 x 750 pixels, so it’s not full HD … Still, the iPhone SE 2022’s display performed well in our lab tests.”

Performance

Perhaps the biggest reason to buy iPhone SE 3 is its A15 Bionic chipset. That’s the same package that powers iPhone 13, which means you get top-notch performance that makes everything you do feel snappy and smooth. iPhone SE also matches iPhone 13 with 4GB of RAM — up from 3GB in iPhone SE 2.

“In day-to-day use, the SE behaves like a phone with a top-tier processor,” said The Verge. “Apps open quickly, and even the graphics-intensive Genshin Impact runs smoothly. There’s not a lot that the SE can’t do that a $1000-plus phone can.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised by how fast the iPhone SE 2022 is, as it packs the same A15 Bionic chip that’s inside the iPhone 13,” said Tom’s Guide. “But that doesn’t make its performance any less impressive. I had a blast playing the Marvel Revolution game as Captain America, fighting multiple enemies with my shield along with flashy special attacks … The action was quite fluid and the graphics spectacular.”

iPhone SE 3 is “faster than most other phones out there, no matter the price,” added Mashable. “That’s just a really cool feature to have on a budget phone, even if you don’t need that much power … Switching from the iPhone 13, my main daily driver, to the iPhone SE was seamless.”

Camera

Unlike it’s siblings — and most other smartphones, even at entry level — iPhone SE 3 sticks with a single rear-facing camera with a 12-megapixel lens. That’s mostly the same setup as iPhone SE 2, but thanks to that A15 chip, image processing has been improved, which does mean (slightly) better pictures.

“You won’t find too many phones with a single rear camera these days, but even though the hardware is old, image quality is certainly good enough for day-to-day snapshots,” said The Verge. “It can even do decent-looking portrait mode photos with a single lens.”

“However, in very low light, the SE doesn’t do as well,” The Verge continued. “That’s because there’s no night mode, a feature available on many other midrange phones sold in 2022 like the Samsung Galaxy A52 5G, Motorola Moto G Stylus 5G, and of course, the Google Pixel 5A.”

“In daylight, the photos taken from the iPhone SE were practically indiscernible from the ones taken with the iPhone 13 — they were sharp with accurate, punchy colors,” said Mashable. “Portraits were great-looking, even those taken in Portrait Mode … But I was even more impressed with color accuracy.”

“Overall, photos taken in bright light and in medium lighting (like indoors at a restaurant) look good,” said CNET. “In darker situations, photos from the SE look soft from the noise reduction. It’s a bummer that the SE doesn’t have a night mode.”

Battery life

iPhone SE 3 has a slightly bigger battery than iPhone SE 2, while its A15 chip is more efficient than the predecessor’s A13. Even with energy-hogging 5G in use, then, the newest model offers passable battery life.

“I didn’t have enough time with the phone to thoroughly test battery life, but it seemed on par with the battery on my iPhone mini, which is good for one day if you’re not pushing it too hard,” said Mashable.

iPhone SE 3’s bigger battery “results in an extra two hours of charge for most users, according to Apple, which checks out with my experience,” said The Verge.

“Battery life is 12 hours, which is notable considering the more powerful CPU and eye-brow singeing 5G connectivity, but it’s not in the same league as the handsets in the iPhone 13 family,” wrote Lance Ulanoff for TechRadar.

iPhone SE 3: The verdict

iPhone SE is much of the same, then — and that’s to be expected. But as usual, Apple’s improvements hit its most affordable handset where it needs them most. It’s faster than ever before — as fast as iPhone 13 and faster than even newer Android flagships — with 5G connectivity.

Even its camera, despite using the same hardware as the previous model (as far as we can tell), is better as a result of A15’s improved image processing. And yet, despite all of that, battery life is slightly better — although not amazing — than in earlier 4.7-inch iPhone models.

“If you know in your heart of hearts you won’t mind a small screen for at least the next few years, and you just want a reasonably priced device that gets you through your day without any trouble, then this is the iPhone for you,” concludes The Verge.

“On its own, the iPhone SE is a compelling choice simply because it’s so different from other budget phones,” said Mashable. “It’s tailor-made for people that want a small, simple, powerful phone with Apple’s trademark quality, that they won’t have to replace too often.”