iPhone SE (2022) Review: Powerful and affordable
The iPhone SE (which still allegedly stands for “special edition”) has always sat in an interesting place in the iPhone lineup — and the 2022 iPhone SE third generation is no exception. Picking up where the 2020 iPhone SE left off, the modern SE is putting its focus very clearly on the budget side of the market.
This year, Apple has chosen to again load the now-dated iPhone 8 chassis with borderline absurd internal specs — namely the A15 Bionic chip. The idea here is to give the affordability-focused portion of the market a flagship mobile chipset, while cutting enough corners to keep the price comfortable.
But it brings up the main question that I’m going to tackle in this review: Is the iPhone SE usable for enough people in 2022? When taken at face value, the spec sheet definitely offers a lot. There’s plenty of processing power, and thanks to that processing power, there’s also Apple’s 16-core neural engine to run photo processing (two of the most important use cases of any smartphone). Even the home button, while old school at its core, provides consumers something that many have been missing— a fingerprint reader. But are the sacrifices too much to keep the phone relevant? Is the small battery enough to keep up? Is the 4.7-inch LCD panel too cramped for modern use? I got my hands on an iPhone SE in the new Starlight color to answer some of these questions.
Design and form factor
If you’re someone who needs everyone around you to know that you have the latest and greatest phone, then the design of the iPhone SE 3 is not going to do you any favors. Apple’s technique for budget phones is to take just about literally the same chassis of an old phone — in this case, the iPhone 8 — and fill it with updated internals. As such, the SE 3 looks just like an iPhone 8. The big bezels, including a thick forehead and chin, are there. The glass back and rounded aluminum sides are there. There’s still only a single-camera system on the back. In short, the phone looks like an iPhone from five years ago.
Coming from the larger, notch-laden iPhones of the past few generations, this screen really does feel like a jump backward.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The lineup this year features three colors. There’s the tried-and-true Product Red color that’s pretty much the same as previous models. But this year, the black and white colors are called Midnight and Starlight. This may seem like Apple color-naming nonsense, but users of the Apple Watch Series 7 will know that Starlight and Midnight are the closest you’ll get to “neutral” metallic colors with the latest Watch without being exactly true “black” and “white.” The Starlight color (which I now have on both the SE 3 and my Apple Watch 7) is actually very slightly warmer than a true silver—featuring a hint of gold. At first, I didn’t like this tint because it was hard to match to as many colors as a straight-ahead silver, but it’s really grown on me. It’s more interesting than a typical, light-colored aluminum, but not as loud as Apple’s bolder anodized colors.
My least favorite feature of this phone, and the aspect you’ll probably notice first, is just how dated the display feels. You can make the argument that the budget space justifies a smaller, non-OLED panel, but when most Android phones in this price range give you inches more real estate and a lot more brightness, it’s frankly hard not to notice.
Coming from the larger, notch-laden iPhones of the past few generations, this screen really does feel like a jump backward. Everything is just a little smaller because of the abandoned real estate at the top and the bottom. The keyboard took getting used to, and the text felt a little too small to be comfortably legible. The LCD Retina display on this phone, though decently sharp at 326 pixels per inch, just didn’t get as bright as I was hoping (Apple claims you’ll get about 625 nits in most scenarios).
Of course, it’s still Apple, so it’s not like the display is bad. In fact, those budget Android phones I mentioned above? They typically look washed out and fuzzy, with fewer pixels and far less true-to-color performance. Apple basically always does displays well, and this one will definitely look nice once you get used to the size. But right out of the box, there was definitely an adjustment period.
On the flip side, my favorite feature of this phone is just how fast it performs. And that makes perfect sense because this phone features Apple’s brand-new A15 Bionic chip with a six-core CPU and a four-core GPU — the same performance spec as the iPhone 13 lineup (including the 13 Pro). This processing power feels snappy and responsive as it is, but there’s something even more dramatic about seeing a phone with 2017 bezels chew through intensive mobile games with ease.
The other benefit to the presence of the A15 chip is that this phone will last for more years. Because it’s the newest chip, you’re also guaranteed to get support and updates to new versions of iOS for years to come. This factor is the single best selling point for a budget phone in this class because you won’t need to replace it for a long time.
This phone features Apple’s brand-new A15 Bionic chip with a six-core CPU and a four-core GPU — the same performance spec as the iPhone 13 lineup.
Then there’s 5G. Most modern iPhones support 5G, but in this affordable end of the smartphone market, having 5G capabilities is a really nice cherry on top. Now, most of us are still going to use Wi-Fi at home and in the office, so your mileage will vary on just how important this feature is to you. At launch, the new SE only supports the lower-level Sub-6 5G, but the wider-band spectrum protocol is expected to roll out via software updates down the road. I was happy to have the boosted speeds when I was out and about, but in my case, I’m not sure that 5G is the big selling point here.
As the iPhone has scaled to newer and newer generations, often featuring bigger chassis and more demanding displays, the batteries that Apple has included in these phones have also grown. While Apple is known for efficiency and power preservation in its custom chips, there’s no way around one simple fact: The battery on the new iPhone SE is just too small to keep up with the A15 Bionic chip.
Turning to the marketing materials, I was skeptical when I saw that Apple promises 15 hours of video playback on a single charge — though that number shrinks to 10 hours if you’re streaming the videos you’re watching. I think this is misleading because video streaming, while intensive, isn’t necessarily the most intensive thing you’ll be doing.
Take the 5G connectivity, for instance — the availability of near-Wi-Fi 6 levels of speeds will certainly expose the battery as a choke point if you do a lot of heavy media consumption, browsing, and file sharing on the go. And, if you do choose to use the next-level GPU here for some demanding mobile games, the A15 chip is going to eat half your battery for lunch in a matter of hours. There is wireless charging on deck (though no MagSafe), which is nice, but the slower charging speed just wasn’t super helpful as the battery was drained. During an average day, I was coasting below 10 percent right around dinner time.
The camera system on the third-gen iPhone SE is a tale of two variables: Old hardware, new software. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, because most of the image processing bells and whistles are only possible due to the neural engine on the A15 chip. But the single 12 megapixel, f/1.8 wide-angle lens is the same camera we saw on the original iPhone 8, which had me skeptical before I received the phone. Don’t underestimate the software wizardry of Apple here, though; the portrait lighting and new filter modes that come layered on top of the stock camera app allowed me to snap some pretty compelling (and decidedly modern-feeling) images.
The performance is obviously best with enough light, but there isn’t a true Night Mode, I found that even lowlight pictures looked better than I remember from this generation of lens. Another thing to note on the still photos: While you can tap into Portrait mode, due to the fact that there aren’t two lenses, Apple restricts this fake-bokeh magic trick to human subjects. As you can see, my dog was not pleased.
It’s refreshing to see that the new SE packs such a processing punch for well under $500.
Then there are the video capabilities. You can record at 4K resolution at up to 60 frames per second, and there’s even an option to extend the dynamic range at lower frame rates. This meant that my quick little social media videos—or more accurately the videos of my cat being a doofus — were crisp and modern. This is all thanks to that A15 chip and sheds light on yet another reason Apple put all of its upgrade eggs into the processing basket.
While $429 isn’t exactly a budget price point for smartphones as a whole, it’s hard to overstate just how affordable the SE is for an iPhone. Apple has become synonymous with luxury, and for better or worse, you often can’t get a modern-feeling phone for less than $900. So it’s refreshing to see that the new SE packs such a processing punch for well under $500. It’s true that there are Android phones, particularly from the likes of Samsung and Poco, that give you better hardware, but there’s one thing they don’t give you: The Apple ecosystem. If you’re looking for a truly Apple experience, with all the seamless Mac integration and all the glory of blue-bubble text messages, then this is your bottom-dollar option, aside from the secondhand market.
Hot take: This phone is good. Hot question: Is it good enough? I spent the better part of a week with this phone, and I struggled with a seesaw of emotions regarding whether this is a good phone in 2022. On the one hand, it’s super fast and could handle nearly everything I threw at it just as well as my iPhone 11 or my fiancé’s iPhone 12. I even enjoyed having access to Touch ID again on my main phone. On the other hand, the screen — though bright and sharp enough — felt really cramped for modern standards, and the battery likely won’t keep up with heavier apps in the long run. So I can see this being an easy recommendation for people who want two things: An iPhone capable of running the latest iOS, and a little bit of cash left over after they buy it. If they want more than that, it becomes a tougher sell.
Is there a better alternative?
The market for affordable iPhones outside of the new SE is just not there. If you want a small iPhone, the 12 and 13 Minis will fit that bill nicely, and if you want a cheaper iPhone, you’ll have to roll the dice on the secondhand market. This is quite simply the only truly affordable new phone sold by Apple (save for maybe the last dregs of the iPhone 11 sold on Apple’s site).
If you’re willing to sever your ties with the ecosystem and go Android, there are actually a few alternatives. There’s the Google Pixel 5a with 5G support and excellent image processing. Or there’s the Galaxy A32 with its own 5G suppor, plus a few Galaxy-level additions and a better display. But all of this will come with the same inherent quirks of the patchwork Android support market, and they most certainly won’t come with that Apple polish.