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The new iPhone SE in the author’s hand (supplied)
The new iPhone SE in the author’s hand (supplied)

TechMay 2, 2020

Review: The iPhone SE is the best deal in tech right now

The new iPhone SE in the author’s hand (supplied)
The new iPhone SE in the author’s hand (supplied)

Apple’s newest phone is a great value lockdown tech upgrade, says Henry Burrell.

Since its debut in 2007, the iPhone has become one of those purchases that we justify despite its high price.

“I need it to do my job!”

“I don’t like Android!”

“Treat yourself!”

A smartphone is an indispensable and necessary utility, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are those of us that use this as an excuse to buy the most expensive and flashy model possible when one much cheaper will do.

There are many mid-range, reasonably priced Android phones on the New Zealand market from reliable manufacturers like Samsung and Oppo. But if the iPhone is your thing (and for 42% of New Zealanders it is), then you’re usually stuck paying through the nose to keep your digital life under Apple’s digital wing. The iPhone 11 starts at $1,349 and the 11 Pro at $1,949.

So, it’s with pleasant surprise that the new $799 iPhone SE (that Apple lent me to test) is a little different to the iPhones we are used to destroying our bank balances with. It’s the smallest iPhone Apple sells but has the same processor as the iPhone 11, a home button, and will get software and security updates for at least four years – longer than any Android phone can promise.

Like any iPhone it’s not exactly the definition of “affordable”, but at $799 it’s a pretty great value upgrade if your current phone is on its last legs (you can also subsidise the cost by buying it on a 24 month contract). Now that we are living in the age of the coronavirus pandemic and purse strings are tighter, I think it’s the best deal in consumer tech right now.

I’m not suggesting that the iPhone SE is a bargain or that it’s the best phone on the market as neither of those statements are true. But it is a rare moment of reasonable product pricing from a company that also sells a set of six computer wheels for $1,219.

Technology can only get so good each year and most people won’t upgrade needlessly every 12 months. But there also comes a time when our phones run out of storage, the battery only lasts three hours and the screen is a spiderweb of splintered glass that you’re always a week or two away from getting fixed.

The iPhone page on the Apple Store demonstrates how the new iPhone SE compares in size to the original SE and the iPhone Pro Max

The iPhone SE has a 4.7in (12cm) screen that’s positively tiny compared to most other phones. It comfortably fits in a hand or pocket and looks exactly like an iPhone 8, which looked like an iPhone 7, which borrowed most of its looks from the iPhone 6. That means the front of the phone is pretty indistinguishable from an iPhone from 2014.

This will upset gadget nerds but is cause for celebration if you don’t care if your next phone looks like your old phone. You might even want it to look the same. Maybe you don’t want an iPhone that’s too big for your front pocket or one that you have to unlock with your face.

If you have an iPhone 7 or 8, upgrading to the SE will get you a phone that you can use your current case with, which you’ll want to do as the back is made of glass to allow for wireless charging compatibility. The SE also has a better camera than those phones, able to take fancy blurred portrait photos of people, but it stops short of being able to do this for objects and pets, a feature reserved for the pricier iPhone 11.

At this time of lockdown, you may be more concerned with the front facing camera, which performed admirably in the several FaceTime, Zoom and Houseparty sessions I have had over the past few days. The phone may be diminutive, but it is powerful enough to keep up with whatever I’ve thrown at it.

Photos that I managed to take on my government sanctioned walks were very impressive for a phone of this price and highlights how you don’t need to fork out an additional wad of cash for an iPhone 11. All you gain by doing that in reality is longer battery life, the one thing I found average with the SE.

The pessimists among you might note that you’re used to charging your iPhone halfway through the day anyway, but the SE will get you through without having to do that unless you’re glued to your timeline of choice for five hours straight.

If you do, then the screen you’re staring at cleverly and subtly changes colour tones depending on the ambient light to give you the best possible look. Apple’s A13 processor is very fast and is good enough now to keep the phone ticking over for several years of strain. The phone even comes with at least 64GB storage (you can pay extra for 128GB or 256GB), far more than the 8GB or 16GB you may well have if your current iPhone keeps telling you it has run out of room.

With Apple’s great software setup process, you can even have the SE looking exactly the same as your old phone with an identical home screen, apps and wallpaper a mere hour or so after you take it out the box. It moves all your messages and contacts over and stays logged in to most of your apps, meaning you don’t have to remember a billion passwords. This is quietly a new iPhone’s killer feature – feeling as if you haven’t even bought a new phone at all.

At a time when the world is changing and your smartphone is more than ever a lifeline, it’s kind of comforting to know that if you upgrade to the iPhone SE it’ll be far better than your old phone, but it will also slot into your life without you really noticing anything has changed.

Keep going!