How clever does a smartphone really need to be? A look at my Screen Time app tells me that 85 per cent of my phone usage is spent either watching YouTube, listening to music, or scrolling through Twitter.
So, I skipped the new iPhone 13 to spend a month with the latest iteration of the iPhone SE instead – a handset that’s less than half the price of the newest, smartest iPhone available – to find out whether it’s time for a rethink when it comes to how much I spend on my phone.
What are the upsides?
A quick read of the spec sheet tells you this isn’t just old tech repackaged at a reduced price. Apple equips the iPhone SE with the same chipset, the A15 Bionic Chip, that it uses in its latest, most powerful phones. This means there’s absolutely nothing wrong with how the phone performs. Apps load in an instant, the touchscreen never hangs and there hasn’t been a website or a game that has caused the phone to stutter. Plus, it’s technically powerful enough to handle editing photos and even 4K video.
It’s a similar story for the camera, which punches way above its weight, thanks to the chipset inside. The A15 has what Apple calls a Neural Engine, which is there to help your iPhone understand the world around it.
In terms of photography, this means that, in theory, your phone’s camera can tell the difference between the blue in the sky, and the blue in something like a road sign, and then tune one or the other independently depending on which ‘photographic style’ you’ve chosen.
There are four styles to choose from: Rich Contrast, Vibrant, Warm and Cool. You might, for example, want to capture a photo with a warmer looking sky, but that doesn’t mean you want every single blue in the image to become more saturated – this is what the Neural Engine figures out. Similarly, Apple says the same tech improves the way your camera captures skin tones too. In practice, it’s hard to fault.
The camera also pulls off Apple’s newest software trick: point the lens at a document, poster or sign, and the camera will give you the option to copy the words off the live view and paste the text into a note, document or email. It’ll even recognise when a line of text is actually a web link, and invite you to click it to head to the address.
On top of a powerful CPU, you’re also buying into Apple’s OS, which is clean, simple and easy-to-use. It also comes with powerful privacy tools that can help keep nosy apps at arm’s length. Plus, the phone offers wireless charging and waterproofing, which you don’t often find in similarly priced Android devices.
If you’re downgrading, the first thing you’ll notice is the display. Compared to the edge-to-edge screens we’ve become used to, the black bars at the top and bottom that frame the display feel like a step back in time. On its own the screen is bright and crisp, but put it next to an OLED display you’d find on a flagship phone and the iPhone SE’s LCD is notably less vibrant.
Ultimately, it’s the size of the screen (4.7”) more than the picture itself that would potentially put me off the device long-term: it’s just a touch too small for long stints on YouTube or a video game.
The storage on the base model, 64GB, is a little on the shallow side. The battery life also falls a little short of what you’d hope for, occasionally needing a recharge before the day was out.
As a point-and-shoot camera, we like the iPhone SE, though it’s worth noting you’ll be missing out on a few features. There’s no zoom or wide-angle lens, and there’s no dedicated night-mode, which means photos taken in low light can come out blurry and lacking definition.
For the tech-obsessed, the iPhone SE might not be tempting enough for a downgrade. The iPhone 13 mini is probably a better option, if you’re hoping to save some money and aren’t willing to sacrifice that much screen space. For rest of us, this SE is a great option. In fact, I think there are two groups who Apple might have in mind with this phone: our parents and our kids.
The display, though small, is perfectly good for my mum or my nieces, who don’t (yet) spend hours on their phones. The iPhone SE is easy to use, will look after their privacy and will be good enough to take and send all the pictures they take, without breaking the bank. Most of the tech that’s been omitted to make the phone affordable is superficial, while core components are powerful and, to a degree, future-proof.
Ultimately, at half the price, it doesn’t feel like you’re getting half the phone.
Xioami 11 Lite 5G NE
Xioami is the go-to brand if you want to spend less but still want a smartphone that looks good and is equipped with solid tech inside. The sleek, slim design together with the big AMOLED display makes this feel like it’s a flagship phone. Plus, the chipset inside should be powerful enough to last a couple years (though it’s not nearly as powerful as the A15). The triple camera setup allows for a dedicated nightscape mode which is uncommon at this price level.
A great all-round alternative, if you prefer Android to iOS.
OnePlus Nord CE 5G
This phone punches well above its weight in almost every way. It might not look as slick as the Xioami, but there’s a powerful chipset inside, fast-charging feature and a decent-sized battery. There’s plenty of storage on board, and a camera capable of delivering 64MP photos.
If you want to watch videos or TV on your smartphone, then the Nord CE might be best option in this price range, with its 6.43in AMOLED display and HDR support.