Now that Apple’s new iPhone SE is finally here , it poses some interesting questions for would-be iPhone buyers.
At $399, it’s by far the cheapest new, non-refurbished iPhone you can get directly from Apple. Up until yesterday, that was the iPhone 8, but that phone is no longer available. The iPhone SE is a far more powerful device and offers vastly better value.
On the other hand, we have the iPhone 11, which starts at $699, a pretty phenomenal price point given its stellar camera and a set of features that’s not very far from the $999 iPhone 11 Pro.
In the middle, there’s still the iPhone XR, which costs $599 and is actually less powerful than the iPhone SE in some regards, but its fancy design makes it nearly indistinguishable from the iPhone 11 .
So, the question a lot of potential buyers will be asking is this: Is the extra $200 or $300 worth it, or should you just get the cheapest iPhone?
Display and size
Most people, I bet, will make the decision by just looking at the phones. Yes, they are very different. The iPhone SE has an ancient design: a square display surrounded by massive bezels, with a Home button underneath. It contrasts strongly with the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11’s notched display. There’s also a big difference in size. The iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch display, while the other two devices sport a 6.1-inch display.
If you can’t get over that, then the iPhone SE might not be a good fit, but I still think you should consider it. First of all, the big, notched display looks fancier, but the boring old square display is ergonomically a more sensible option. Would you like your TV to have a large notch on one side? You probably wouldn’t.
Second, the iPhone SE’s display, while smaller, isn’t technically any worse than the display on the other two devices. All three phones have LCDs with a 326 ppi resolution, a 1,400:1 typical contrast ratio, True Tone support and 625 nits of max brightness.
Last but not least, consider the sizes. The iPhone XR and iPhone 11 are exactly the same size: 5.94 x 2.98 x 0.33 inches. The iPhone SE is considerably smaller, narrower and thinner, at 5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches. In the store, bigger might appear better, but long-term, your hands might thank you if you choose a smaller phone.
Speaking from personal experience, I switched from an iPhone X to the much larger iPhone 11 Pro Max, and while I do like the bigger display, the smaller phone felt a lot better in my hands. Half a year in, and I’m still constantly reminded of that.
Processor and storage
In this department, the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 are exactly the same. Both come with Apple’s latest A13 Bionic chip, and 64/128/256GB of storage, with upgrades to more storage costing exactly the same: $50 and $150. The iPhone XR has the older, A12 Bionic chip, and only comes with 64GB and 128GB of storage.
The A12 chip on the iPhone XR isn’t bad by any means, but it’s not as future proof as the A13. Also, if you’re aiming for maxing out storage, the iPhone XR isn’t the best option.
It’s worth noting that the processor is especially important when it comes to gaming. If you play a lot of games on your phone, both the iPhone SE and the 11 are better options than the iPhone XR.
There’s one unknown here: We don’t know how much RAM the iPhone SE comes with. Typically, though, Apple’s phones handle most tasks well with far less RAM than similarly priced Android phones. In other words, the number might not matter much.
The problem with comparing the three phones’ cameras is that we don’t know, exactly, what the iPhone SE’s camera is like in real life.
On paper, the iPhone XR and the SE’s single rear camera have very similar specs, but Apple says that the iPhone SE’s camera is actually better thanks to the new A13 chip. It certainly has more Portrait mode options, and Apple’s spec sheet indicates that only the SE’s camera has a sapphire crystal lens cover, meaning it should be harder to scratch.
The iPhone 11’s dual camera is by far the best, with two distinguishing features: ultra-wide mode and Night mode. The first one is nice, although most users can probably live without it. Night mode, however, is huge. You’ll feel the difference while taking night panoramas, in those half-lit indoor shots, and while goofing around with your friends in dusky bars (yes, one day we’ll go to bars again). In my opinion, basically every user will notice a big difference here, and it’s probably the biggest reason why you should consider splashing an extra $300 on an iPhone 11.
Note that it should be possible to get a faux Night mode on the iPhone SE with a third-party app. The phone seems to have the specs to power it; but there’s no telling on how well a third-party app will work.
While I can’t say much for video quality, it’s worth noting that all three phones can take 4K video at 60fps. For mobile videographers, that with (cheap) 256GB of storage, is probably a winning combo.
A few words on the selfie camera. There are fairly big differences here between all three models. The iPhone SE has a 7-megapixel camera that can do portrait shots, but it’s not a TrueDepth camera, meaning those portrait shots likely won’t be as good as they are on pricier iPhones (also, no Animoji). The iPhone XR does have a TrueDepth camera, but it’s also a 7-megapixel one. The iPhone 11 has a 12-megapixel, TrueDepth selfie camera, which makes it a clear winner here.
As is the case with the cameras, talking about battery life is hard without testing the iPhone SE. This is because Apple’s battery specs for different iPhone models aren’t exactly standardized.
For example, the company says the iPhone SE’s battery lasts “about the same as iPhone 8.” The iPhone XR generally “lasts up to 1.5 hours longer than iPhone 8 Plus” and the iPhone 11 lasts “up to 1 hour longer than iPhone XR.”
We’ll leave the minutiae for our review, but it’s safe to say that the iPhone SE will significantly lag in the battery life department behind the two other phones. This is disappointing, given that Apple positions it as a gaming device — it certainly has the chip to power games, but you’ll likely be tethered to a charger during longer gaming sessions. If you’re not a heavy phone user, you won’t mind, but everyone else should perhaps wait for some real-life testing to reveal how good the iPhone SE’s battery life really is.
The Face ID face recognition system, which the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11 have, is very different from the fingerprint scanner on the iPhone SE. However, after using them both for a quite a while, and switching between phones with different biometrics often, my verdict is that you’ll get used to both of them equally.
In other words, the difference is there on paper, but in real life, scanning your thumb on the iPhone SE’s Home button while paying for a frappuccino (again, we will do such things again one day) is just as easy as double-clicking the iPhone 11’s side button and letting it scan your face.
But if you’re used to a fingerprint scanner, and you really don’t like change, you might want to get the iPhone SE.
The price differences are obvious — $399 vs. $599 vs. $699 — but it’s worth looking into them if you’re looking to buy a phone with more than the base 64GB of storage.
For example, an iPhone SE with 256GB of memory costs $549, meaning it’s still cheaper than both the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11 with 64GB of memory. If you feel you’re going to need more memory (perhaps for those storage-hungry games or for shooting video), this makes the iPhone SE an exceptionally good deal.
The “cheap” side of Apple’s iPhone lineup has become complicated in a good way. There are a lot of interesting choices from $399 to $699, but as you’ve seen above, there’s a number of small but important differences separating these phones. Choice is good, but it can be confusing, so here’s a TLDR:
Buy the iPhone SE if..
- You want the cheapest possible entry into Apple’s ecosystem of apps and services.
- You want a future-proof phone.
- You care more about power and utility than fancy looks and a versatile camera.
- You want a cheap way to get an iPhone with 256GB of storage.
- You want to shoot 4K video on a budget.
Buy the iPhone XR if…
- You want the iPhone 11’s design but $699 is just a tad too much.
- You don’t mind that there’s a $399 iPhone with a faster processor and a better camera out there.
- Battery life is important to you.
Buy the iPhone 11 if…
- Camera quality and versatility is paramount.
- You fancy the notched display.
- Battery life is very important to you.
- You want a phone that’s very close to the iPhone 11 Pro for $300 less.