Apple iPhone SE review: A big case for the chotu (small) phone


It wasn’t long ago when we didn’t have luxuries like bezel-less displays, multi-camera systems, massive batteries apart from technologies like facial recognition on our phones. Back then a 4.7-inch iPhone was a travesty as you couldn’t touch all corners of the screen with your fingers. The iPhone 8 which was the last of the old-school iPhones was a more elegant weapon for a more civilised time. It did not have the stuff the iPhone X heralded; the features we are all used to in modern smartphones. The new iPhone SE is a throwback to the compactness and elegance of circa 2014 with the design Apple first adopted for the iPhone 6 and retained till the iPhone 8. But that throwback comes potentially with numerous drawbacks — the most important one being the size being alien to most users. 

But after having used this as my main device for more than a week with the context of having been a big-screened phone user for a good 5 years, I can say, this iPhone SE is the real deal for anyone who wants to buy a great phone that’s going to last them a while. I’m literally making a case for the Chotu phone — the iPhone SE 2020. 

What’s warped 

  • The size is what makes this phone wonderful. It’s elegant in its candy Apple red; weightless almost and as thin as a thin crust pizza. It’s almost like an assassin in your pocket. You don’t need to worry about your trouser going down because of the weight of the phone — it’s there yet not there. You don’t get this with modern smartphones. Oh hey, while doing this, it is built like a tank — aerospace-grade aluminium coupled with glass on the front and back which doesn’t get scratched easily and can survive the odd drop. It also adds IP67 water and dust resistance which you don’t get on phones at its price. 
  • Considering COVID19, the return of Touch ID and the home button makes this phone even more desirable and reliable. As far as fingerprint technologies go, nothing can touch Touch ID. Compared to the ultrasonic scanner on the Samsung Galaxy S10 and S20 series, it’s hilarious how good Touch ID is considering Apple hasn’t changed a thing in it since 2017 when it last used it on an iPhone. 
  • On one of the Android blogs, the headline read, the cheapest iPhone has a faster processor than the most expensive Android phone. Truer words haven’t been said – with the A13 Bionic at its core, the iPhone SE will demolish any Android smartphone in the performance table stakes. It can be said, it should be faster than even the iPhone 11 models as the screen is smaller and lower resolution meaning this phone is driving fewer pixels giving it more headroom. The biggest benefit of all this horsepower isn’t what you can do right now with this phone which of course is a lot, but rather it allows Apple to update this phone to multiple versions of iOS without slowing it down. Going by the track record of the iPhone 6S and iOS 13,  I feel that this phone will last them at least till 2024, if not 2025. 
  • The camera on the iPhone SE is better than you’d think it is. At warpcore, we shot a full music video using the phone at 1080p 30fps and the output blows away even the best Android phones like the Galaxy S20 and Mi 10. One can shoot even at 4K 60 fps which is astoundingly good. You can even fire up two cameras at the same time for high-quality video using something like DoubleTake – mind you all this is propelled by the A13 Bionic chip. I even shot a review of a phone using this app and the iPhone held its own; not getting too warm during the 20 odd minute shoot and also delivering great video. This cannot be replicated by other Android phones. If video is important to you, the only phones that shoot better video than the iPhone SE are the iPhone 11 models. 
  • For stills also, give it good light and it will take photos that are shockingly similar to the iPhone 11 but perhaps with better white balance. Its portrait mode is also brilliant – it again somehow works better with just a single camera system with better edge detection and support for all Portrait Lighting effects that even the iPhone XR doesn’t get. Even though it doesn’t have a night mode or support detect objects or animals in portrait mode but unlike Android, this stuff can be handled by great apps like Neural Camera and Halide. Fundamentally, it’s a very good camera system. Its size also helps taking better photos as one can stabilise the phone easily.
  • For the selfie gang too — there is a good front-facing camera system in place. It’s the same one as the iPhone X; a 7-megapixel shooter which can do the portrait mode jiggery without the Face ID tech, using just AI thanks to its prodigious A13 Bionic processor. The photos come out to be really good and it also doubles to be great for all kinds of video calls. The audio is also great here thanks to Apple’s faultless noise cancellation technology and microphones.
  • For most people, one of the bigger issues will be the size of the display and the way it looks because of the bezels. Its 4.7-inch display size is unique as literally no smartphone these days gets a screen smaller than 5-inches. In fact, most screens are bigger than 6-inches thanks to borderless designs. And that brings me to the other issue — the large borders on the top and bottom, which house the front-facing cameras and the home button. But as someone, who has used an iPhone 11 Pro as the primary phone for the last 6 months and also had much larger secondary phones like the Mi 10 with a 6.67-inch panel, this size is almost liberating. You’re not stretching your fingers to reach parts of the screen and one-handed use becomes a reality again. You can also get all your work done and type quite accurately. For the purposes of this review, I wrote two 1000 plus word reviews including this one on this phone predominantly. And after a while, you seriously don’t care for the bezels – the lack of them or the fact they are there. 
  • There are small things that make this phone a delight to use. The display remains one of the most colour accurate panels you can get. It also doesn’t do any kind of letterboxing on streaming services. You also get some of the best stereo speakers you can imagine getting on a smartphone. In fact, they sound loud and clearer than many other phones which is incredible as the small footprint of the iPhone means Apple has figured out a way to buck physics. The call quality is amazing on this phone — I found it to be better than the iPhone 11, perhaps it’s the size that’s playing this up as the microphone and the earpiece is where it should be unlike on modern smartphones. 
  • The battery life on this phone is superb. It will let you a single day with even heavy usage. Multiple times I managed to clock upwards of 5.5 hours of screen on time with WiFi and 4G enabled. The phone would generally last you through a 12-hour workday with ease leaving you with around 25% battery still in the bank at around 8 pm in the night. Even though it comes with the crummy 5-watt charger, it supports the 18-watt fast charger that the iPhone 11 supports. Those who want one should check out the charger by AMX labs which is lovely and much cheaper than Apple’s overpriced offering. Again, there is also support for wireless charging which is another unique facet of this rather affordable iPhone as even many Android phones at this price don’t support this feature. 
  • Getting access to iOS and Apple’s ecosystem alone is going to be a big win for many people. iOS is elegant, secure, reliable and the home to the best apps. Invariably you’ll get a major app coming first on iOS than Android. The iOS interface is also better tuned for the smaller screen so that makes things fun.  This is especially true for games as the graphics performance of the iPhone including the new SE along with the Metal framework allows for some rich games that either wouldn’t ever come to Android or will never perform as well on the platform because of its fragmentation. It also gives you free access to Apple services like Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade which both now have lots of cool content. 
  • At the end of it, the iPhone SE represents the best value for a smartphone in 2020, period. Yes, by that I mean, it’s a better value than most of those affordable Xiaomi Redmi smartphones as well. Why? It will mark of many checkboxes — it can be flaunted by virtue of being an iPhone, it is compact, its design may be dated but it’s also like a classic car, it’s the fastest phone you can get, it has good cameras, it has a good display, it’s well built and despite being just for Rs 42,500, it will get updates for the next 4-5 years while also being secure and being accepted in corporate endeavours. 

What’s not 

  • The battery life of this phone is inferior to most top tier modern smartphones. It’s workable but it’s average or slightly above average. That’s about it. If you’re looking for epic battery life, then the iPhone SE isn’t the phone for you. It also doesn’t get fast charging out of the box because of that 5-watt charger. 
  • Haptic Touch doesn’t work well on the small screen. One does feel the lack of 3D Touch on this phone especially while editing text on the smaller screen. There is a lag that’s not there in 3D Touch which makes a world of difference. Perhaps, Apple needs to get back 3D Touch or maybe it can improve Haptic Touch with just software. 
  • The cameras aren’t versatile. You don’t get a telephoto or an ultra-wide-angle camera. The bigger problem is that you don’t get night mode which is crippling as the low light performance takes a big hit. Generally, the iPhone SE is best used in good light or well lit indoor scenes. 
  • It goes without saying that the design of this phone is not cutting edge. You don’t get a huge screen nor does the screen pop or has insane levels of brightness. If you’re looking for a more 2020 centric design and screen then perhaps this isn’t the phone for you. 

Should you buy it? 

For most people, the average consumer in the words of the great Walt Mossberg, there is a big case in favour of the chotu (small) iPhone. It’s the best phone for the lowest common denominator — be it an Android faithful or a longtime iPhone user. Sure it’s old school charm may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no denying the fact that it’s arguably the most well-rounded smartphone you can get for less than Rs 50,000. When one takes into account that Apple provides updates for more than 4 years and the fact that it has a processor that’s even faster than the MacBook Pro – it represents the best value on any smartphone right now. If you’re in the market for a great smartphone and you’re not the type to buy a new phone every second year — then this is the one for you, and now me.