In search of the perfect compact phone: iPhone SE (2020)
But first, a little disclaimer: I’ve been an avid and devoted Android fan ever since Symbian pushed up the daisies. I’ve never touched an iOS device before, neither have I displayed or felt any negativity toward that segment. And while this article won’t be the trivial “switch to iOS”, I’ll add little remarks here and there, concerning my first iOS experience. You can also check our full review of the iPhone SE (2020) following the link below. Here we go!
The iPhone SE (2020) is similar in size to the Galaxy S10e. The iPhone SE feels ever so slightly smaller than the S10e, and thinner too. A quick glance at the specs confirms that. Both phones employ the glass sandwich design with aluminum frames and slight camera bumps on the back. The aluminum frame of the iPhone SE (2020), however, has a matte finish, which makes the phone a tiny bit grippier than its Samsung rival.
The build quality of the iPhone SE is excellent – you don’t feel like holding the cheapest of Apple’s recent models at all. I was pleasantly surprised by the tactile feedback when hard pressing the home button. Honestly, it made me smile, Apple got that right. Looking at the screen while the SE turns on, makes me feel like I’m back in time and it’s 2016 again. The huge bezels give this phone a retro look. It’s kinda strange when the mobile phone world has moved to notches and punch-holes ages ago. But we’re not here to talk design, we’re searching for a modern “mini”, so let’s move on.
Weight and pocketability
Sometimes, a few fractions of an inch make a big difference. While the Galaxy S10e was a joy to carry around, the iPhone SE feels even more pocket-friendly. Both phones weigh almost the same – 5.22 oz vs 5.29 oz in favor of the iPhone SE. Oddly enough, the lighter and more compact SE feels sturdier in the hand. My strive for perfection is never satisfied, though. Holding the thinner iPhone SE bites into the palm of your hand slightly more than the Galaxy S10e, despite the rounded sides. The curve radius is smaller on the sides of the SE, which is a possible explanation.
I like the feel of the back glass on the iPhone more, compared to the one on the S10e. The coating is different and sliding your finger on the glass feels smoother and doesn’t produce screeching noises (which was the case with the S10e). In the pocket, both phones feel exactly the same. You won’t feel much of a difference until you reach in to pick one. If weight and size are the main factors in your search (assuming you’re searching for a mini too), you’ll be equally happy with either of these phones.
(My) Thumb comfort, one-hand operation
I’m exactly 5’8” tall and my hands are medium-size. I had some issues with the fingerprint scanner position on the S10e and the bigger screen prevented me from reaching every corner with my hand. At least, not without adjusting my grip and moving the phone about in my palm. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect to be able to make a call and then operate the phone without constantly shuffling it in my hand.
Well, good news! The big bezels of the iPhone SE, as archaic-looking they may be, benefit the thumb comfort and one-hand operation. All screen corners are within reach, and even the fingerprint scanner can be accessed without much of a stretch. When holding the phone in your right hand, your thumb lays right on the power button, and you can adjust the volume with your index finger. If you’re a lefty, things are vice-versa. The iPhone SE (2020) is winning this round, but it’s at the expense of screen estate. 4.7-inches versus 5.8 for the S10e. It’s a big tradeoff and you should think twice before making a decision. Speaking of screen estate, time to check this 4.7-incher.
Typing and media consumption
Typing on the iPhone SE is okay – doable with one hand, and comfortable when using both your thumbs. I noticed something strange – when in a horizontal position, the keyboard doesn’t stretch all the way to the sides. I couldn’t find a fix in the settings and left it as is. Although, it would’ve been nice to have bigger keys. You can always opt for a third-party keyboard if the default one bothers you too much.
Watching videos on the 16:9, 4.7-inch display is a pleasant and familiar experience. No cutouts and black lines, and you can hold the phone comfortably without obscuring the view. That being said, the S10e display is a gorgeous piece of technology, punch-hole or not. The AMOLED vs IPS LCD debate is a topic for a different article but it suffices to say that both displays have their positives and negatives. The 16:9 aspect ratio is still going strong, and although things are changing in a more cinematic direction (21:9 anyone?), there’s still plenty of content that looks better on a 16:9 screen.
iOS and the iPhone experience
I think it’s really difficult to stay objective in the Android vs iOS debate, no matter how hard you try. Pointing flaws in either system will inevitably anger someone. I tried to approach this without any prejudice. First of all, It took me a good half an hour to become accustomed to the way things work on iOS. I can’t say that iOS is better or worse than Android, just different. Gestures are executed in a different manner – on Android swiping is more sensitive to finger position. When swiping on iOS I feel I have a wider margin of error, it doesn’t require such level of precision which on the other hand makes it easier most of the time.
The other big difference is that Android looks more customizable on the surface. It’s not that iOS lacks the options, it’s just that they’re buried in the menus, keeping the front end of the OS simpler. Again, it’s a different approach, and I can see the appeal. When I was much younger, I liked to tinker with things, but as the years progressed, I started to appreciate when things just worked with the least amount of intervention. So, yeah – I can get used to iOS, and I can go back to Android, no problem. I guess I need more time in the ecosystem, to be able to find all the nuances.
This is the place where things get nastier. The iPhone SE (2020) keeps the battery capacity of its iPhone 8 parent while slapping a powerful chipset on. It’s like putting a V12 engine in your Ford Fiesta but keeping the fuel tank at 12.4 gallons. When pushed hard, the phone couldn’t last a full day. We did an iPhone SE battery life test and my recent experience just cemented the numbers. It’s a shame, really. A bigger and more potent battery would’ve made this phone so much better. But it is what it is.
The other thing that boggles me is the fast charging technology of the iPhone family. Things are capped at 18W, and to fully charge this 1821 mAh battery, you have to stay plugged in for 2 hours. You can check the iPhone SE fast charging test we made, but coming from a phone with a 4200 mAh battery, which fast charges at 40W to 70% in 30 minutes, I can’t accept Apple’s performance here. Charging and battery life are key and if you spend twice as long on the cable, it’s a major inconvenience. It’s time for Apple to step up its game.
What I like about the iPhone SE 2020
- Nice tactile feedback
- Capacitive fingerprint reader
- No notches and/or punch-holes
- Loud and clear sound for such a small chassis
- It’s fast (not much of a surprise here)
- Screen brightness is top-notch
- Pocket and one-hand friendly
- The camera is actually descent
What I don’t like
- Dated design
- Some settings are buried in the menus
- No multi-camera wizardry
- iPhone 8 with an upgraded chipset and a few tune-ups
- Huge bezels equal smaller screen (for the body)
- Battery life is mediocre at best
- Ancient fast-charging technology (18W really?)
Have I found the perfect compact phone?
Not so fast. Yes, I like the iPhone SE (2020). But I know exactly why. I’m longing for something that’s gone, obviously. Otherwise, why would I like a 3-year-old design? On the other hand, many people gave iPhone SE the positive nod too. So, there might be a niche for compact phones after all. The iPhone SE (2020) is almost as nostalgic as I am, but I don’t think it’s the answer. If I really wanted an old phone, I could’ve just got a refurbished Xperia XZ2 Compact and get it over with. Its internals are the same age as iPhone SE’s, barring the chipset. It’s more compact, has a bigger screen and a bigger battery. Or maybe the compact phones will make a triumphant return after the initial success of the iPhone SE 2020? I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer...