Apple iPhone SE Review: A phone for the anti-consumer

Apple has a new, cheaper iPhone in stores Friday that packs the bare essentials of what we need in a smartphone. The latest iPhone SE has a bright screen, a nimble processor, a quality camera and a robust battery life. It also makes phone calls.

But for most of us, that won’t be enough.

Year after year, the majority of customers gravitate towards the more expensive iPhones, ranging from $700 to $1,100. Even if we get superfluous features that we rarely use, for many of us a phone is more than just a phone. Instead, it’s an investment in the way we work, entertain, and connect with loved ones. Some of us are even ready to go into debt which has become a status symbol.

That’s all to say that Apple’s budget iPhone SE is for a specific type of customer: the anti-consumer. You’ll likely want this $430 phone if you meet any of the following criteria:

  • They don’t care about whiz-bang features like ultra-fast cellular speeds.

  • You’re right, smartphone technology has been around for so long that you should be paying less for it today.

  • You don’t care what the number of camera lenses or pixels on a screen tells your friends and colleagues about your wealth.

  • You only upgrade to a new phone when you really feel you need it.

In short, the latest iPhone is for those who just want a no-frills phone that performs well and at a reasonable price. If this is you, here’s what you need to know about it.

For this budget iPhone, Apple has taken the best bits from its pricier iPhones and squeezed them into the shell of an older iPhone with a home button and smaller screen.

Let’s start with the highlights.

Like fancier iPhones, the new iPhone SE offers connectivity to 5G, the latest mobile network. In my testing of the device in the San Francisco Bay Area, 5G data speeds were up to 20 percent faster than 4G. It’s not stunning, but it’s a nice feature as 5G networks become more widespread.

The new iPhone also has the same processing processor as the more expensive iPhone 13 models. The cheaper phone’s processing power matched that of the iPhone 13, according to speed test app Geekbench. That meant apps and games opened in a snap and ran smoothly.

The iPhone SE’s battery was another strong point. The previous generation of the phone from 2020 had a below-average battery, which died around 7 p.m. every day. I found the new model had enough battery life to last until bedtime.

Equally important to know is what the new iPhone lacks compared to the fancier models. Here’s some good news: In my testing, the compromises were small.

One of the iPhone SE’s most notable omissions was compatibility with an ultra-fast variant of 5G known as “millimeter wave.” Hyped by carriers like Verizon and AT&T, this data connection can deliver speeds high enough to download a feature-length movie in seconds.

The problem is that 5G millimeter wave technology travels short distances and has trouble penetrating walls and obstacles. As a result, finding a connection at all is rare. People buying an iPhone SE probably won’t even know it’s missing.

The more noticeable downside of the latest iPhone is the camera. The fancy camera system on more expensive iPhones has multiple lenses that can capture more light.

In my tests, the iPhone SE took clear and vibrant photos in daylight, but it didn’t fare as well in more difficult lighting conditions. In a photo of my dogs on a shadowy trail, the iPhone SE produced an image with less detail and unnatural colors compared to the $700 iPhone 13 Mini. The iPhone SE camera also lacks the special night mode found on fancier iPhones for shooting in the dark. However, using Flash is always an option.

The most obvious difference was the screen. The iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch screen felt restricted and looked dimmer compared to pricier iPhones with displays ranging from 5.4 to 6.7 inches. That was probably the differentiator – if your eyesight isn’t great or you spend a lot of time streaming video, you’ll probably prefer a larger screen.

While there are some compromises in spending less on a smartphone, the new iPhone delivers more than satisfactory results. The $700+ iPhones are better, but not 60 percent better.

It is worth remembering that there are other strong phone competitors in the iPhone SE price range. That includes Google’s $400 Pixel 5A, which has different pros and cons. In my tests, the Google phone has a slightly larger screen and takes better photos in low light. But the Pixel phone wasn’t as fast as the iPhone SE, and it might not last as long given Google guarantees Software updates for the device only until 2024.

In the end, though, both phones excelled at doing what we’ve come to expect from them – connecting to the internet, making calls and taking photos – at a fraction of the price of their higher-end counterparts. At a time when the cost of almost everything seems to be skyrocketing, this is something to celebrate. Apple iPhone SE Review: A phone for the anti-consumer

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