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Tested: Is a $400 iPhone SE really faster than the most powerful Android phone?

Apple's CEO claims that the $400 iPhone SE is "faster than the fastest Android phones." Is that true? Let's find out.

Published onJune 1, 2021

The inclusion of the A13 Bionic processor in the iPhone SE has caused Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to boast: “It’s an unbelievable offer. It’s, if you will, the engine of our top phones in a very affordable package. And it’s faster than the fastest Android phones. And so it’s an exceptional value.”

“It’s faster than the fastest Android phones,” is quite a statement, but is it true?

Our verdict: Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: New is new, again!

This specific iPhone is full of contradictions. It is an iPhone, yet it is priced like a mid-range Android device. It’s new, yet it looks like the iPhone 8 from years ago. The device has mostly lesser specs (only one camera, just a 4.7-inch display, and less than Full HD screen resolution), yet it has Apple’s latest processor, the A13 Bionic — and it’s this last feature that makes the new iPhone budget choice quite remarkable.

At the other end of the scale, you have a device like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra — a performance king in the Android world when the iPhone SE was released. Here you won’t find any contradictions. It has the best of everything Samsung could squeeze into it. A 120Hz, HDR10, QHD display, at least 12GB of RAM, a minimum of 128GB of internal storage, a plethora of camera lenses and sensors, 8K video recording, the top Qualcomm Snapdragon processor at the time, support for 5G, and so much more.

No compromises, no contradictions, and, according to Apple’s CEO, no chance of beating a $399 iPhone.

Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra

Is the iPhone SE really faster than the fastest Android phone?

iPhone SE back crop

I am not taking Tim Cook’s word for it. I want to see some numbers. The video at the top of this article is a Speed Test G run between the iPhone SE (2020) and the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra to see whether the over-spec’d Android phone comes up short against the cut-price phone from Cupertino. Budget vs ultra-premium. Galaxy vs iPhone. Who wins?

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the results are quite damning.

Speed Test G SE 2020 vs S20 Ultra 720p results

The $399 iPhone SE clearly beats the $1,399 Galaxy S20 Ultra overall. But, it isn’t all bad. Looking at the CPU time, which involves tasks that rely heavily on the CPU (single-threaded and multi-threaded), the S20 Ultra actually won; 38.5 seconds vs 39.5 seconds.

However, things start to go downhill from here. The iPhone SE won the mixed CPU/GPU section convincingly by 4.3 seconds and managed a frame rate of 34 frames-per-second (fps) during the smoke particle test, compared to just 23fps for the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, even though the S20 Ultra was running in 720p. Apple’s handset also won the GPU test by 2.7 seconds. The iPhone SE peaked at 23fps during that test, while the S20 Ultra managed just 18fps max.

Related: iPhone SE: The right phone at the right time, and that’s bad news for Android

Geekbench tells a similar story. The single-threaded score for the Galaxy S20 Ultra is 913, more than 30% lower than the iPhone SE’s 1,328. However, the S20 Ultra does bounce back with a good multi-threaded score of 3,303, a number Apple’s option can’t beat. It scores 2,673.

AnTuTu paints a more favorable picture for S20 Ultra, giving it a score of 547,698 compared to 375,748 for the iPhone. Digging a bit deeper into the AnTuTu scores for the iPhone SE shows that it suffers during the multi-threading testing, something confirmed by Speed Test G and Geekbench. More about that later.

Apple A13 Bionic vs Qualcomm Snapdragon 865

Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 in plastic case
David Imel / Android Authority

Even though the Galaxy S20 Ultra has better specs in just about every department, when it comes to performance, this is about the processor in the budget iPhone versus the processor in the previous flagship Samsung.

There is no denying it; the A13 is a great processor. Inside there is a hexa-core CPU setup with two high-performance cores (codename Lighting) and four energy-efficient cores (codename Thunder). There is also a four-core GPU, which owes its heritage to Imagination’s PowerVR GPUs. It is a 64-bit processor using the Arm instruction set and built on TSMC’s second-generation 7nm process node. The A13 Bionic was first used in the iPhone 11 series, and now it has found its way into the iPhone SE.

Read next: Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 vs Kirin 990 vs Exynos 990: How do they compare?

Apple’s processors have been at least a couple of generations ahead of the Android competition for several years. It all started when Apple announced its 64-bit A7 back in 2013, while the rest of the smartphone market was still using 32-bit processors. Since then, Qualcomm, Samsung, HUAWEI, and MediaTek have all been playing catchup. Qualcomm has been slowly chipping away at Apple’s lead, and as the CPU section of Speed Test G shows it is gaining ground. However, Apple’s processors are still in front.

There are many different reasons why the A13 has the edge over the Snapdragon 865, including the design of the microarchitecture, the design philosophy, and details like the amount of onboard cache. The A13 is thought to have 29.5MB of cache memory, including the L1, L2 CPU caches, and the System Level Cache (SLC). The Snapdragon 865 has 10MB of caches. These differences result in different die sizes (how big the chip is) and therefore the cost. The Snapdragon 865 is 83.54 mm2 compared to the 98.48 mm2 of the Apple A13 Bionic. This means the A13 is actually more expensive than the Snapdragon 865 — yet another iPhone SE contradiction.

iPhone SE vs iPhone 11 Pro Max: Is it just as powerful?

Since the new SE has the same processor as the iPhone 11 series, it must offer the same performance, right? Maybe. Looking at Geekbench 5, the iPhone 11 Pro Max scores 1,327 for the single-threaded performance, and the iPhone SE scores 1,328. Nice. But when you look at the multi-threaded performance, then the scores start to diverge. Geekbench 5 gives 3,494 to the iPhone 11 Pro Max but only 2,673 to the iPhone SE. That is a drop of 23%. This means that the iPhone SE isn’t “faster than the fastest Android phones.” In fact, this particular aspect of the performance is 20% down compared to leading Android phones.

The story is repeated with AnTuTu: 505,552 for the iPhone 11 Pro Max, but only 375,748 for the SE — a drop of 25%. Looking at the “CPU Multi-Core” breakdown, AnTuTu scores the iPhone 11 Pro Max at 84,782 whereas the iPhone SE gets just 58,349 — a 30% dip.

SpeedTest G SE 2020 vs iPhone 11 Pro Max results

The iPhone SE completes Speed Test G in one minute 15 seconds compared to one minute and 14.5 seconds for its bigger sibling. But as the Geekbench and AnTuTu scores show, the A13 in the iPhone SE doesn’t perform the same as the A13 in the iPhone 11 series. Speed Test G actually shows the same thing. The GPU section of the test is a complex “fly over” written in Unity. The iPhone 11 Pro Max is faster by half a second.

The iPhone SE should actually beat the iPhone 11 Pro Max... but it doesn't.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But the iPhone 11 Pro Max has a screen resolution of 2,688 x 1,242, whereas the SE iteration (and its small 4.7-inch display) has a screen resolution of just 1,334 x 750. That means the iPhone 11 Pro Max is pushing around 233% more pixels than the SE (1,000,500 pixels vs 3,338,496 pixels). The iPhone SE should have beaten the iPhone 11 Pro Max significantly, but it didn’t.

It’s all about heat

Gray Galaxy S20 Ultra next to Red iPhone

Why does this iPhone have a better single-threaded performance than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, but a lower multi-threaded score? Why does the iPhone SE complete the Unity test in Speed Test G slightly slower than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, yet has a significantly lower screen resolution? As I said, the iPhone SE is full of contradictions.

Related: Imagine, for a second, if Android OEMs released an iPhone SE-style phone

There are several possible answers. The A13 processor in the iPhone could be under-clocked compared to the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Maybe a different CPU clock frequency, a different GPU clock frequency, or even a different RAM frequency. There could be less L1, L2, or SLC on the A13 in the iPhone SE. It is hard to know, and Apple sure won’t tell.

Remember, these are passively cooled devices, no fans.

However, I think it is about cooling. This iPhone is a much smaller device. Smaller means there is less surface area to dissipate heat. When the processor gets warm, iOS is forced to lower the clock speeds until the temperature drops. Remember, these are passively cooled devices with no fans. Using the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 Pro Max side by side for the last few days, it is clear that the Apple handset is running warmer to the touch. Also, my initial testing of the performance of the SE when running hot shows a significant performance drop. When my testing is complete, I will make a video on the Speed Test G channel.

So, while the iPhone SE can sprint out of the gate faster than the Galaxy S20 Ultra, it seems that after the first few meters, it slows down, particularly when all the CPU cores are being used simultaneously. In the end, it manages to get over the finish line ahead of the S20 Ultra, but that seems to depend on where you draw that line.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 in all colors
iPhone SE
iPhone 11 power in an iPhone 8 body.
The iPhone SE offers the power of an Apple flagship, for less than half the cost.
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