Apple iPhone SE (3rd gen) Review: SE stands for Speedy Entry-level

Apple has essentially repeated the playbook of second-generation iPhone SE with this third iteration.

Like the iPhone SE (2nd gen) launched in 2020, the third-generation iPhone SE is a dead ringer for the iPhone 8. If I can line up all these three iPhones side by side, you can be forgiven into thinking they are the same iPhones. In case you are wondering, the original iPhone SE looks like the iPhone 5s.

Apple iPhone SE (3rd gen). (Photo: Trevor Tan)

PRICE: S$699 (64GB), S$769 (128GB), S$939 (256GB, version reviewed); available in Apple Store on Friday Mar 18
PROCESSOR: A15 Bionic six-core chip with embedded neural engine
SCREEN: 4.7-inch LCD (1,334 x 750 pixels), 326 pixels per inch
REAR CAMERA: 12-megapixel wide-angle f/1.8
FRONT CAMERA: 7-megapixel f/2.2
WEIGHT: 144g

It is inside the phone where you will find the significant upgrade. The new iPhone SE has the same A15 Bionic chip of the flagship iPhone 13 series. Yes, despite its “miniature” status, it packs probably the most powerful smartphone chip currently in the market. It also supports 5G connectivity.

Like its predecessor, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) features a glass front and back with a colour-matching aluminium band and chassis. It comes in red, starlight, and midnight (version reviewed).

Apple iPhone SE (3rd gen) comes in three colours. (Photo: Apple)

The midnight model looks to be darker than the black model of its predecessor. But the rear glass surface continues to attract fingerprint and smudges. But you can use the same case on the new phone to protect its rear, if you are upgrading from the second-generation iPhone SE.

Otherwise, the new iPhone SE has the same rounded edges and a 4.7-inch TrueTone display, which adjusts white balance onscreen to match the colour temperature of the light around you. The display also features P3 wide colour gamut for colour accuracy. The display continues to have thick bezels at the top and bottom to house the microphone/front-facing camera and Touch ID button respectively.

Can you tell the difference? [L to R] The midnight iPhone SE (3rd gen) vs the black iPhone SE (2nd gen). (Photo: Trevor Tan)

I dubbed the second-generation iPhone SE as the “iPhone 9” that was never launched. Now, I think the iPhone SE (3rd gen) is the “iPhone 9S”. Or, you can think of it as basically an iPhone 8 Mark III.

However, like the iPhone 8 or its predecessor, its compact size makes it great for one-handed use. This is especially great for those with small palms or joggers who prefer to run while holding their smartphones.

Moreover, if you prefer Touch ID to unlock your iPhone, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) is the only iPhone to have this feature. Frankly speaking, it is rather satisfying to be able to unlock an iPhone with your thumb since all of us have to wear a mask when we are outside in this pandemic.

Unlocking the iPhone SE (3rd gen) using the home button. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

Yes, we can use the Apple Watch to unlock the iPhone with Face ID. Or with the upcoming iOS 15.4, Face ID will detect our eyes to unlock it. But it is just not as seamless and easy as using your finger or thumb.

The iPhone SE (3rd gen) has the same 12-megapixel (MP) wide-angle rear camera and 7MP front-facing camera as its predecessor. This is a bold move, as it is rare in today’s smartphone market to have a single rear camera. Even some entry-level Android smartphones have rear triple-camera system. In addition, the new iPhone SE does not have Night mode found in its flagship cousins.

But unlike its predecessor, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) comes with Deep Fusion technology that uses advanced machine learning to process photos for optimised quality and details. It also features Smart HDR (high dynamic range) 4 that is said to use intelligent segmentation to apply different adjustments for colour and contrast. And it supports Portrait mode on both its rear and front-facing camera.

With the lack of Night mode, the night shots are understandably inferior. You can clearly see the increase in noise levels and loss of details in the night scenes shot by the new iPhone SE.

But in bright sunlight, the photos shot by the iPhone SE (3rd gen) are almost as good as its flagship cousins with sharp details and accurate colours. The HDR level is on par with discernible details in its shadow areas. The only difference is the more accurate blues in the sky shot by iPhone 13 Pro Max.

The Portrait mode also offers some great images even with the front-facing camera, as you can see from the example below.

This photo is taken in Portrait Mode using the new iPhone SE’s front-facing camera. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

But on the downside, the Portrait Mode in iPhone SE (3rd gen) requires a human to be detected in order for the bokeh effect to work. So you cannot be photographing flowers with bokeh effect. Overall though, the camera performance is not bad for its price.

In the Geekbench 5 benchmark test, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) scored 1,700 (single-core) and 4,543 (multi-core), compared to its predecessor’s score of 1,331 (single-core) and 3,072 (multi-core).

+ Most affordable iPhone
+ Superb performance given its price
+ Top-notch one-hand handling
+ Convenient Touch ID
+ Good camera performance

– Not cheap
– Same old design
– Battery life could be better
– Rear camera lacks Night mode

In fact, it nearly matches its flagship cousins in terms of processing speed. It only scored slightly lower than that of the iPhone 13 Max’s score of 1,737 (single- core) and 4,757 (multi-core).

Not to mention, it is better than Samsung’s latest flagship Galaxy S22 Ultra, which scored 1,197 (single-core) and 3,183 (multi-core).

As such, playing your favourite games such as Pokemon Go, Asphalt 9 or PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds Mobile, or running any apps on this iPhone feel buttery smooth without any lag.

Playing any game on iPhone SE (3rd gen) is a breeze without any lag. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

According to Apple, the new iPhone SE will offer two more hours of video playback compared to its predecessor.

In our usual video loop test, the new iPhone SE lasted 9 hours 20 minutes. That is nearly three hours more than its predecessor’s 6 hours and 30 minutes battery life.

While this is quite a generational improvement, most smartphones in this price bracket can easily outlast the new iPhone SE by virtue of being bigger and thus having a larger capacity battery.

For normal usage, it should last you a working day. But if you are playing Pokemon Go on its monthly Community Day, a power bank will be needed.

The new iPhone SE is the most affordable iPhone right now. But it is not exactly cheap, especially when you compare the feature-to-price ratio with mid-range Android smartphones.

That said, while its price range of S$699 to S$939 might seem pricey, it might not cost you anything if you sign a telco contract.

If you can overlook those premium flagship features, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) is for you. (Photo: Trevor Tan)

Plus, with the latest A15 Bionic chip, 5G support and Apple’s software support for years to come, it might even save you more money in the long run as you resist the urge to upgrade.

If you can overlook the lack of an optical zoom camera, 120Hz display as well as other bells and whistles, the iPhone SE (3rd gen) is definitely the one for you.

FEATURES: 7.5/10
DESIGN: 7.5/10

Trevor Tan

Started out with dreams to become a street photographer, Trevor Tan somehow became a tech journalist with over 16 years of consumer tech experience. Maybe he plays too much video games and buys too many new gadgets.
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