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The iPhone SE (2022) can't compete with the best budget Android phones
Premium iPhones and some of the best Android smartphones might grab all the attention, but mid-range devices remain the bread and butter of all smartphone brands. Even Apple, the poster child of luxury electronics, with the associated price tags, has long had a relatively affordable handset or two in the mix. The launch of the iPhone SE line solidified that stance with a price and feature set that positioned it as the perfect first iPhone, an iPhone for kids, or even as a second phone.
However, a lot has changed in the years since the iPhone SE originally hit the drawing board. For one, there is no dearth of high-quality Android smartphones in the $300 to $500 segment. Moreover, it is possible to pick up an older iPhone with a much superior feature set for not much more money. All this to say, I’ve spent the last two weeks with the iPhone SE (2022) pondering over how to accurately gauge the handset. There’s more to the phone than the hardware proposition would suggest, and that requires taking a long and hard look at the bigger picture, which is what we’re going to do here. For a full deep dive into the iPhone SE (2022) be sure to check out our in-depth review.
Vintage looks don’t do the iPhone SE any favors
Calling it a design dated is one thing but the latest iPhone SE looks nigh identical to the iPhone 8, complete with bezels the size of thumbprints. On more than one occasion, I had friends asking me why I was still using a five-year-old phone. Carrying a 2017 design all the way through to 2022 is just not acceptable, even at this price tier.
There's little justification for the iPhone SE's vintage looks beyond forced product segmentation.
It’s not that hard to theorize why Apple made this decision. The recently launched glitzy lineup of displays and Macs shows that the company isn’t exactly lazy when it comes to fresh designs. The only plausible answer is forced product segmentation. Clearly, Apple doesn’t want to associate the forward-looking design of the iPhone 13 series with an affordable product. Regardless of the thought process, the new iPhone SE looks positively ancient against budget Android phones, let alone pricier ones.
The only saving grace here is the inclusion of Touch ID. Apple’s fingerprint scanner is ridiculously fast and accurate. It’s also a rather big benefit with mask mandates still in place in several countries. Yes, I know that Apple has finally added mask support to Face ID. No, it isn’t as accurate as Touch ID, nor does it work if you are wearing sunglasses.
Anyway, what’s here is premium enough. From the quality of the buttons to the use of “ion-strengthened glass,” it’s all plenty good. But plenty good just isn’t enough when you are competing against surprisingly well-designed alternatives.
In fact, even the iPhone SE’s IP rating isn’t much of an incentive anymore, with several alternatives like the Pixel 5a or Samsung Galaxy A53 5G claiming the same. It’s all very lukewarm, which is to be expected since we’ve seen this same phone in some shape or form since 2017.
That same sense of meh-ness continues over to the display. Yes, there’s a market for smaller phones with less screen real estate, but 4.7-inches is just too small. Even the actual iPhone Mini in Apple’s lineup sports a larger screen. My experience with the 60Hz retina, sub-FHD, LCD panel has been a mix of frustration, and joy. But mostly frustration.
You see, the tiny display and accompanying form factor have made the iPhone SE my preferred device for carrying about on a run. It slips seamlessly into my pocket. As a second phone for occasional calls, that tiny form factor is a boon. However, most people will not be buying this as a second device and certainly not as a dedicated device for carrying about at the gym. Even with my tiny hands, typing anything longer than a few sentences results in hand cramps. Watching Netflix is possible, but certainly not enjoyable. And games? You’d better be ready to squint if you want to make out any on-screen text.
That age-old design is also hamstrung by a lightning connector and its accompanying slow charging speeds — but that’s not really a fresh concern. Thankfully, frugal battery usage and the tiny display mean that the phone easily lasted a full day of use for me. In fact, most days, I was able to push this to two days. But before you get excited, that’s mostly because the display is too small to encourage hours of reading or frenetic gaming. Heavier tasks will most definitely take a proportionately large bite out of the battery.
The inclusion of wireless charging is yet another nice-to-have, though I’m certainly perplexed by the lack of MagSafe compatibility. The iPhone SE presents itself as the perfect opportunity to take MagSafe mass-market, especially with accessories like the wallet. Some might say that it shows a lack of courage from Apple. Heh.
You’ve seen better camera systems
I’m not really whether sure to laugh at or applaud Apple’s gutsy move to continue shipping the iPhone SE with one single camera. Yes, you heard that right. No ultrawide, no telephoto, and certainly no macro lenses. What’s even more audacious is that the camera isn’t exactly cutting edge either. We’ve seen devices like the Pixel a series bring flagship-grade imaging to mass-market prices. That’s just not the case here.
It’s certainly a serviceable camera, but a class leader it ain’t. The single 12MP shooter is exactly the same as we saw on Apple’s 2020 iPhone SE, and the accompanying selfie camera has an equally paltry 7MP resolution. Images are fine — good, even, in the right settings — but what would have qualified as one of the leading cameras in the segment back in 2020 just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The competition has caught up and exceeded it.
In ample lighting, the iPhone SE captures well-exposed shots. You can’t fault Apple’s color science either with the true-to-life rendition and slight skew towards warmer colors. However, the older sensor is starting to show its age with detail or the lack thereof. HDR performance is good, but not quite as good as on more premium iPhones or even some Android devices. I observed noticeable blooming around edges in a number of instances with harsh lighting.
I was also left scratching my head looking for a night mode. The iPhone SE just doesn’t have one. Images in dim lighting are usually sharp but introduce noise and visible grain to compensate for it. They’re also, predictably, not very bright.
The selfie camera on the iPhone SE isn’t bad all things considered. There’s a considerable amount of detail, but the warm color tones we’ve come to associate with iPhones just seem a bit exaggerated here. The phone didn’t handle my skin tone all that well either and opted for a darker rather than true-to-life shade. Similarly, portrait mode on the selfie camera is alright, but perhaps a touch too aggressive in how quickly it introduces bokeh fall-off.
Everything about the iPhone SE comes across as the bare minimum needed to ship the product, and this extends to the cameras.
Overall, the camera system on the iPhone SE is fine. Decent even. But you simply can’t shake the feeling that Apple approached the phone with the mindset of delivering the minimum viable hardware. From the dated primary sensor to the lack of secondary sensors, it is no longer enough for a phone that costs north of $400.
Performance for days
The one aspect of the phone I truly have nothing to complain about is performance — at least once you get past the fact that the base storage is just a bit too meager at 64GB. The iPhone SE is a pocket rocket with the same processor as the pricier iPhone 13. The phone handles everything you throw at it with ease. Benchmarks, games, and apps are no concern at all. Feel like cranking up Genshin Impact to the highest settings on your budget phone? Go for it.
The tremendous performance seems a bit wasted on the iPhone SE (2022).
That processor upgrade to the A15 Bionic, however, seems a bit wasted here. In fact, I’m convinced that the upgrade is simply a result of Apple wanting to simplify its supply chain. Sure, you can game on the iPhone SE, but it just isn’t a comfortable experience. The screen is also too small to use for any form of productivity app. Now, I’m not complaining about getting more power for the money, but I’d take a pause if performance was the principal reason for you to consider the iPhone SE.
There is, of course, some advantage to that chipset. The iPhone SE is likely to get updates for many years to come. Apple is already pushing updates to phones that are six or seven years old. The updated chipset might push that number higher. You’re more likely to run down the battery on the phone before you start seeing any performance constraints. There’s certainly value in buying a phone that will be on the latest and greatest software for years to come, but, as we’ll talk about soon, there are better ways to achieve that goal.
On the connectivity side, the iPhone SE (2022) brings all the essentials, including 5G (sub-6GHz only). Notably, you don’t get ultra-wideband support. This isn’t terribly surprising for a regular budget phone, but consider UWB tech is essential to the AirTags experience, it’s an odd omission if the phone is intended as a cheap gateway into Apple’s walled garden.
A fine budget iPhone, but Android does it better
The iPhone SE is a good iPhone, but it isn’t the phone most people should buy, for more reasons than one. There are compact phones, and then there are phones that are objectively uncomfortable to use. The iPhone SE falls in the second camp. It’s not unusable, but there’s nothing enjoyable about texting, gaming, reading, or viewing media on such a small screen. There’s a reason why larger displays are commonplace — they reflect common smartphone usage patterns and user preferences.
It’s not just the display or design that is holding back the iPhone SE either. The camera system is yet another relic of the past. There’s just no flexibility here and the arbitrary holding back of features like a night mode are, simply put, shocking.
The iPhone SE (2022) just isn't great value.
But the biggest reason not to buy the iPhone SE (2022) is that there are better phones you can get for your money.
Right at the top of our list is the Pixel 5a ($449). Google’s affordable smartphone gives you modern conveniences like 5G support, exemplary cameras, and the latest version of Android. Splurge a bit more, and the Pixel 6 ($599) isn’t far from reach either. Powered by the flagship-grade Tensor SoC, the phone also packs a top-tier camera system, and software support straight from Google.
The Samsung Galaxy A53 5G ($449) is yet another phone that joins the mix of smartphones to consider. The phone nets you a large AMOLED display, a power-packed Exynos processor as well as a quad-camera setup. Additionally, with four years of OS updates and five years of promised security patches, this Android mid-ranger should last you well for years to come.
Also read: The best iPhone SE (2022) alternatives
Furthermore, if you really want an iPhone and won’t settle for anything else, there are still better options. For $70 more, you can get yourself an iPhone 11 ($499) that gives you a much more modern design, as well as conveniences like Face ID, and a significantly better camera system. Shop around for deals and the iPhone 12 Mini ($599) might also be within reach. Both devices are well worth splurging a bit extra on and will still get you years of software support.
All that to say, the iPhone SE (2022) just isn’t great value. At $429, there would still be enough of a price difference to make a case for the phone despite its ample limitations. However, as it stands, the phone cuts just way too close to Apple’s older phones and much better-equipped Android smartphones.