Apple shook things up almost 4 years ago with the introduction of the iPhone X, an all new design that dropped alongside the iPhone 8. Since then, it’s carried on with new design, but 2020’s 2nd Gen iPhone SE brought back the older style for a more affordable alternative to the iPhone 11 family. Now Apple’s done it again with the iPhone SE 2022, with an asking price of just $429. But how long can Apple keep putting out the same old smartphone with little more than a new processor inside? Let’s take a close look and see what value Apple is delivering this time around.
iPhone SE (2022) – Photos
iPhone SE 2022 – Design and Features
The iPhone SE 2022 will look pretty familiar to anyone who’s seen an iPhone in the past eight years. The design was first introduced on the iPhone 6 with some tweaks and tuning up to the iPhone 8 that the iPhone SE 2022 is now virtually identical to. It’s the same aluminum framed phone with a glass sandwich design that we’ve been seeing for years, for better or worse.
The “for better” aspect of the design is that it’s going to be comfortable in the hand and familiar for a lot of people. It has a Touch ID home button at the bottom that’s quick to use and easy to reach, of course that means no Face ID for colder months when you might be wearing gloves. Apple may be boasting the “toughest glass in a smartphone” here, but it curiously hasn’t mentioned the Ceramic Shield protecting the latest flagship iPhones against falls, which the company claims is “tougher than any smartphone glass” – so which is it, Apple? Is Ceramic Shield not technically glass? Technicalities aside, the design is thankfully easy to hold and manage one-handed, and it fits nicely into pockets, so maybe the fall risk is somewhat mitigated.
The “for worse” is that Apple’s design is dated in a way that would never fly over on the Android side of the fence. If an Android smartphone maker tried to cart out this design on a $429 device, it’d be laughed off the face of the planet. Even the cheapest Android phones nowadays have done away with the thick bezels found on the iPhone SE 2022. For $429, I expect a large, pixel-dense, OLED display on Android. Meanwhile Apple delivers the same 4.7-inch, 1334 x 750 Retina IPS display it's been wielding for almost 8 years. Even the iPhone 7 offered the 625-nit brightness (good, but not stunning) that’s still on offer here. Newer displays are so much better, and the slow pixel response time is actually a bit glaring in some cases here, like scrolling. The iPhone SE 2022 looks even less attractive when you realize the iPhone 12 mini and 13 mini are both smaller (and the 12 mini can be cheaper if you get it refurbished). Even next to my almost five-year-old OnePlus 5, the iPhone SE 2022 display falls short.
The screen is the centerpiece of the phone, and it’s a bit of a double-edged blade. It’s actually a bit refreshing to have a display that’s so easy to navigate with one hand. But I really feel the squeeze for a lot of content. The keyboard is cramped vertically and horizontally, and webpages struggle to display much at once. If a video or pop-up comes onto the screen, it’s just about game over until it’s closed, and the small buttons can make it hard to achieve.
For folks whose priority is a small phone, maybe this is it. For folks whose priority is value and a good screen is a big part of that equation, the iPhone SE 2022 decidedly isn’t it. Streaming videos on the phone feels cramped, with low detail and none of the pizzazz of an OLED’s infinite contrast ratio. Though the speakers offer decent sound, they’re a bit grating at higher volume levels and even easier to accidentally cover up with a hand.
Beyond the looks and display, the iPhone SE 2022 has its Lightning port in the same old spot, supports wireless charging (thanks again, iPhone 8), can hold up under a meter of water for 30 minutes (good, but a far cry from the six meters the iPhone 12 and 13 manage or the two meters the iPhone 11 boasted).
The real big add for the iPhone SE 2022 is 5G support. This new model can connect to the Sub-6 5G networks that carriers are rolling out all over the place, though not mmWave. Perhaps the main benefit here is that the iPhone SE 2022 will therefore get better support as it ages. It’s not like it needs to use the high-bandwidth of 5G for 4K video streaming or anything like that.
iPhone SE 2022 – Software
The iPhone SE 2022 comes running iOS 15, Apple’s latest version of the mobile operating system. This gives it software parity, if not feature parity, with even the most expensive iPhones, and that’s no small benefit. Apple’s long-term support for its devices helps customers use their phone over the long-run without needing to upgrade simply because software updates – and in turn security updates – have stopped coming to the device. The phone also supports Focus Mode to eliminate distractions (though the hardware switch for Silent Mode could also help there), and convenient dictation through Siri with on-device processing. That latter feature is fairly quick and accurate, but pales in comparison to Google’s recent dictation offering on the Pixel 6 line. Apple’s dictation is as lacking in punctuation as its touchscreen keyboard, something Google impressively nails.
iPhone SE 2022 – Gaming and Performance
Even if the design of the iPhone SE 2022 is decidedly a 2006 Honda Civic, the A15 Bionic chip inside is a brand-new, turbo-charged V8 engine, except it’s somehow fuel-efficient in this metaphor. Regrettably, there’s not a lot of room in the trunk with a starting capacity of just 64GB
Apple’s latest chip is a powerhouse, even if it’s not a huge leap over the A14 Bionic chip that came before it. The A15 is a beastly chip with a six-core CPU, four-core GPU, and 16-core neural engine. It breezed through everything in the iPhone 13, and it’s asked to do even less heavy lifting on the iPhone SE 2022. Of course, that does beg the question: why include it? It’s not doing any mind-bending blending between multiple cameras, processing high-quality gameplay at high resolution and frame rates. Sure it makes the phone snappy, but so did the A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE 2020.
That performance displays itself adeptly in Thatgamecompany’s Sky, which ran without a hitch in the high performance mode. But that’s no surprise with it barely rendering at more than 720p visuals. The phone gets a bit warm with all that processing going on and so little mass to distribute the heat, though. That performance is also hard to get hyped about when it’s output on such a basic display. I’ve used the less powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 870 chipset toward more impressive results on similarly affordable phones, like the $499 Black Shark 4 and ~$300 Poco F3, which get the leg up because they opted for big, fast AMOLED displays, and neither of those phones are new.
The small battery also takes a beating when it's actually challenged with a workload. Just 30 minutes playing Sky with the display at 50% brightness saw a full 20% of the battery drained. Streaming TV shows doesn’t hit the battery nearly as hard, as a 35 minute episode of Our Flag Means Death only sipped 5% of the battery with the screen and volume both set at about 50%. In regular use, texting and browsing a bit throughout the day, the phone readily holds up to a full day or even two, so it won’t fall short for casual phone users.
iPhone SE 2022 – Camera
Normally, a new iPhone’s cameras are something to get excited about. After all, they get some of the latest software upgrades powered by Apple’s impressive processors. That’s not the case here. The iPhone SE 2022 has one basic camera on the back and another on the front.
Sharpness is certainly on offer, as both the rear and front cameras snap a crisp image with plenty of detail. The rear camera captures them at 12MP while the front camera is a more modest but acceptable 7MP. There’s no extra zoom or ultra-wide lenses on offer here, so the shooting possibilities on the iPhone SE 2022 are particularly limited. Without different lenses to combine together, the iPhone SE 2022 doesn’t let the A15 Bionic stretch its legs much with fancy camera features like Cinematic Mode.
Instead, the most the camera is doing is some Deep Fusion to make fine details pop a little bit more, applying SmartHDR4 (though I haven’t noticed it livening up my images), or applying Apple’s Photographic Styles, which are little more than swappable, customizable photo filters. Sometimes those fine details seem to get over-processed, as all the edges in one of my swamp shots appear to have their contrast ramped up.
iPhone SE (2022) – Camera Samples
The best thing the iPhone SE 2022 offers from its main camera that you usually won’t find on cheap Android phones is strong low-light performance. The wide apteruate and Apple’s strong image processing see to that, helping avoid noisy images with a bunch of blur from a long exposure. That helps keep it from getting absolutely trounced by the Pixel 5a 5G in the camera department (though an upcoming Pixel 6a may be a different matter), but it’s still a poor showing. In all the years Apple’s been churning out phones with this design, it really couldn’t figure out how to give it the second rear camera that the Plus models got?
Video recording is another strength here. Though the options are still limited by the single rear sensor, the A15 Bionic has no trouble capturing 4K60 footage. I usually see budget phones hitch now and then trying to record at higher quality, but the iPhone SE 2022 doesn’t. So when you want to catch your pet doing something cute or a friend doing something silly, the video will keep up.
Apple’s under-the-hood upgrades for the iPhone SE 2022 ensure it has more than enough power for everything that might get thrown at it, but the phone is largely too simple to need most of that performance. Two years ago, a new iPhone SE may have made sense, but now Apple’s “mini” iPhones fit the small mold better with a design that’s up to date and more features. This leaves the iPhone SE 2022 feeling like it’s meant for people who want the cheapest new phone they can get but are locked into iOS. The older iPhone 12 Mini feels like a huge upgrade for the price bump, even if it has a technically inferior chipset. Meanwhile, Android phones at this price are doing much more exciting things.