- Apple's $399 iPhone SE officially launches on Friday.
- CNBC's Todd Haselton has been testing it for the past several days. It's a fantastic phone at its price, and I think a lot of people will love it.
- He said it's the best iPhone for most people right now, given its incredible value.
- It has good cameras, the same processor as the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, wireless charging, fast charging, water resistance and more.
Apple unveiled the iPhone SE last week, the first time it has ever announced a phone without a glitzy press event.
It officially launches on Friday. I've been testing it for the past several days. It's a fantastic phone at this price. And it's the best iPhone for most people right now.
But it's also a tough time for any company to launch a new phone.
Millions of people are losing jobs around the world. We're stuck inside. We're frightened about the spread of the coronavirus. New iPhones may not be at the top of most people's minds. It could ding Apple's sales if people need to save money instead of buying a new gadget. The company already warned earlier this year that the pandemic would hurt iPhone demand and production.
Still, the iPhone SE is, by far, the best bet for people who are on a budget and need a new phone right now. And that's at least good enough news for Apple.
Here's what you need to know about it.
Most companies cut costs in budget phones by including slow processors and poor-performing cameras. Apple does something unique: It saves money by using the body of an older phone, in this case the iPhone 8, but packs it with modern internal components found in its best iPhone models. (In 2016, it did the same with the first iPhone SE by using the iPhone 5's body and internal components from the iPhone 6S.)
For the new iPhone SE, Apple added the same A13 Bionic processor found in its pricier models, the $699 iPhone 11 and the $999 iPhone 11 Pro. It's the most powerful iPhone chip Apple uses, and it's widely considered to be the fastest smartphone processor available today.
That means for $399, you're getting an iPhone that performs just as well as models that can cost a full $1,000. Not a bad value at all.
The iPhone SE is capable of running the same powerful games and apps as Apple's most expensive iPhones, and it will be supported by Apple's new software many years into the future. I played a few games, including the new "Beyond Blue" game in Apple Arcade, and Sky: Children of Light. They run just as well as they do on my $1,400 iPhone 11 Pro Max, just on a smaller screen. Given Apple's history of supporting older iPhone models, you can expect the new iPhone SE to last you at least three years before it starts feeling outdated
The cameras are great. Apple says the iPhone SE has the best single-camera sensor it has ever launched. That means it's better than the 2018 iPhone XR, which costs more. It's tough to disagree with Apple's claims: The pictures look really good, and Apple includes portrait mode (and all of the fancy lighting effects you can apply) on the front and back cameras.
I was so surprised at the clarity of a picture I took of myself (above) that I sent it to my colleague. I'm not used to this sort of picture quality from a $399 phone.
You don't get all of Apple's fancy stuff, though. The ultra wide-angle lenses and zoom cameras are saved for its more expensive phones.
Apple also kept other features that you'd normally see in a flagship phone. The iPhone SE is water and dust resistant, so you can accidentally drop it in a pool. It has decent stereo speakers that fire from the top and bottom of the phone, or left and right when you hold it in landscape. They're not amazing, but they sound clearer than you'd normally get from a single speaker at this price.
I also love that the iPhone SE includes wireless charging and fast charging. To use the fast charger, which will speed up how long you have to keep it plugged in, you'll need to buy a $29 18W plug. Apple includes a 5W charger in the box.
The screen isn't as sharp or colorful as Apple's iPhone 11 Pro phones, but it uses the same LCD display technology as Apple's iPhone 11 and iPhone XR. That includes TrueTone, a feature that automatically adjusts the white balance on the screen so it's more accurate and easier to view based on the lighting in the room. Movies are admittedly much smaller on this screen, but they still look good.
And speaking of a tinier screen, it's been a few years since I've spent a considerable amount of time with a 4.7-inch iPhone. Apple says it has sold more than 500 million 4.7-inch iPhones, including the super popular iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S. My wife, who is used to seeing me with Apple's really big phones, thought I was carrying the (much smaller) iPod touch when she first saw it. Anyway, I was fascinated by how small the phone felt given how much power it has inside.
Finally: you may have heard a lot about 5G. It's rolling out around the U.S. from the major wireless carriers and can offer much faster speeds depending on where you are. Don't worry about that right now. The iPhone SE supports the fastest Gigabit 4G LTE networks that are available everywhere and the newest Wi-Fi 6 standard where it's available. It's plenty fast and, in fact, where I live at home, faster than T-Mobile's 5G network because of the way it's rolling out right now.
In a year or so, 5G may be more important for future-proofing your smartphone, but don't stress about it today.
It's tough to be critical of an inexpensive phone with a great camera, powerful processor and features you normally find in phones at twice the price.
The battery is smaller than Apple's bigger phones, so you'll find it drains pretty quickly if you're playing lots of games and streaming movies. You'll get to the end of the day if you're spending more time just surfing the web and texting, so it's good enough for most people and I don't really have any complaints.
It also doesn't include the same U1 chip that Apple's iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro have. That really doesn't mean much right now, but Apple is rumored to launch something called AirTags which may let you use the U1 chip to find lost items attached to AirTags. It's totally possible the iPhone SE will still work with them using Bluetooth or some other technology, though. We don't know enough about AirTags or how useful they'll be yet.
And finally, there's no headphone jack. I ditched headphones years ago for AirPods and haven't looked back. But, if you're like my wife and still like using wired headphones, you'll need to use the pair in the box that plug into the charging port. You can also use an adapter for your regular headphones.
Should you buy it?
When I reviewed the iPhone 11 in September, I said it was the best iPhone for most people. But we're in a vastly changed economic situation. You may be saving pennies for food, your mortgage or rent. For $399, the iPhone SE is the new best iPhone for most people. It's an incredible value for something you'll use every day and will last you at least three years.
If you're planning to download a lot of apps and music for offline listening, I recommend stepping up to the 128 GB model for $50 more. Otherwise, just get the entry-level $399 64 GB model, which is decent amount of storage at this price.
If you want some fancier features like a bigger screen, face unlock and more camera options, then consider the iPhone 11 or even the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. Sure, those phones are better than the iPhone SE thanks to more advanced cameras, better screens and, in the case of the iPhone 11 Pro series, better materials. But you'll also pay a lot more for them.