iPhone SE vs Android: can a $ 399 iPhone really exceed $ 3,000 in Android phones?

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When you compare phones, you usually want them to be in the same league. These days, it could mean that there are a few hundred dollars separating the models – like the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro, or the Galaxy S20 + and the OnePlus 8 Pro – but everyone knows that the $ 1,400 Galaxy S20 Ultra will beat a $ 400 Galaxy A51.

But Apple’s new iPhone SE is a different color horse. Yes, it’s Apple’s budget phone and costs over a thousand dollars less than the more premium Galaxy S20, but it also has a bunch of the latest Apple technology. And, you know, it’s an iPhone.

I did the unthinkable and compared it to three of the best Android phones available today: Galaxy S20 Ultra ($ 1,400), Google Pixel 4 ($ 900) and OnePlus 7T ($ 600). Add it all up and you’ve got $ 3,000 in Android phones versus a $ 399 iPhone. But what should have been a ridiculously one-sided battle was surprisingly close.

iPhone SE vs Android: design

The iPhone SE looks like an old phone. Like the iPhone 8, the SE is extremely similar to the hardware introduced with the iPhone 6 in 2014 and you can feel every bit of its six-year-old design. The screen is small, the glasses are monstrous, and the home button is physical. A reputable Android phone has not had a home button for a long time, and the OS looks and feels downright outdated compared to the other phones here.

iphone se android 6s back Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (right) is extremely similar in size to the iPhone 6s.

I’m not going to debate the designs of other phones, but I will say this: despite its old appearance, the iPhone SE is an extremely attractive phone with solid build quality and retro charm. Even old Apple designs are better than some of today’s Android phones, and the glass back, aluminum sides and carefully curved chamfers are pleasantly pleasing symmetrical and ergonomic. The S20 and 7T definitely have a head start in terms of looks – the Pixel 4 is a boost – but for a phone that hasn’t been in fashion for years, the SE is really not that bad.

It’s not a phone for everyone, of course, but those who like or can get past its outdated home button will appreciate the skill. The smooth glass back and polished aluminum edges support its price of $ 399, and the whole thing feels like a premium handset. Its glasses are way too big to compete with the other phones here, but there is a certain charm to the iPhone SE – and it’s good not to have to worry about palm rejection. There’s also something to say about a phone that fits in any pocket.

iPhone SE vs Android: display

From the start, the iPhone SE is at a disadvantage. While the Android phones here all have high refresh rate OLED screens, the iPhone SE uses an LCD screen which is dim compared to the other phones here:

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 6.9 inch Quad HD + Dynamic AMOLED, 120 Hz, 3200 × 1440, 511 ppi
Pixel 4 XL: 6.3 inch Quad HD + P-OLED, 90Hz, 3040 × 1440, 537ppi
OnePlus 7T: 6.55 inch Full HD + AMOLED, 90Hz, 2400 × 1080, 402ppi
iPhone SE: 4.7 inch HD IPS LCD, 60 Hz, 1334 x 750, 326 ppi

range android iphone se Michael Simon / IDG

There is a difference of 2.2 inches between the screen of the iPhone SE and that of the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Apple calls the iPhone SE a Retina HD display rather than Liquid Retina, but it’s essentially the same display as the iPhone 11 with square corners instead of rounded. But for an LCD screen that is several years old, the screen of the iPhone SE is surprisingly good. The text is crisp and very bright, rivaling the maximum manual brightness I could achieve on other screens using the same all-white image.

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 610 nits
Pixel 4 XL: 745 nits
OnePlus 7T: 870 nits
iPhone SE: 740 nits

However, with adaptive brightness turned on and a direct source of bright light applied, the results were radically different.

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 1275 nits
Pixel 4 XL: 1075 nits
OnePlus 7T: 1275 nits
iPhone SE: 840 nits

With adaptive brightness enabled, OLED displays can take advantage of advanced algorithms and a higher contrast ratio to provide more complete colors and impressive brightness. And they’re far superior at the bottom as well, with incredibly deep blacks that shame the SE LCS.

iphone se android stack Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone is the thinnest phone here, but not much.

Then there is the problem of size. The iPhone SE is not only small for 2020, it looks comically small compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra and is more than an inch and a half smaller than the average Android flagship. Even the 5.8-inch screen on the iPhone 11 Pro looks monstrous in comparison, and videos and websites feel very cramped in comparison. With the rumor that Apple is moving to a fully OLED line for the iPhone 12, the SE’s LCD screen will quickly become obsolete, but overall, it’s a decent display.

iPhone SE vs Android: performance

Frankly, the iPhone SE wouldn’t be worth its price (or compare to the phones here) without its processor. Apple has placed the A13 processor from the iPhone 11 Pro in the iPhone SE, making it one of the fastest phones ever made and certainly the fastest for less than $ 400.

I chose the three phones I chose because they represent the cream of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon. The S20 Ultra uses the 865, the best system on chip available, the OnePlus 7T is powered by the Snapdragon 855+, and the Pixel 4 runs the Snapdragon 855. In other words, you won’t find a trio of faster processors in n ‘ any Android phone. But unlike the modest iPhone SE, the three phones just can’t stack:

Geekbench 5 (CPU)

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Single-core: 901
Multicore: 3245

Pixel 4 XL

Single-core: 724
Multicore: 2529

OnePlus 7T

Single-core: 772
Multicore: 2883

iPhone SE

Single-core: 1331
Multicore: 3310

Before asking, these results are with all the latest patches and updates installed and after further reboots. I have run them several times and got the best results. In short, there is no competition. The iPhone SE not only manages the best Android phones, it easily beats phones that cost twice and three times more. And when it comes to graphics, the iPhone SE is a beast.

Geekbench 5 (Calculation)

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 3085
Pixel 4 XL: 2149
OnePlus 7T: 2675
iPhone SE: 6413

That’s not to say that any of the phones here are slow. Far from there. The Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 7T both have UFS 3.0 storage with 12 GB and 8 GB of RAM, respectively, compared to the 3 GB of the iPhone SE. The Pixel 4, like the iPhone SE, has the advantage of being designed alongside the same team that makes the Android operating system. But even with these benefits, the iPhone SE is basically faster in every way.

geekbench 5 iphone se IDG

The iPhone SE simply beat the best Android phones in terms of processing speed and graphics power.

And if you compare the iPhone SE to a $ 399 Android phone, the results would be out of balance to the point of being absurd. You do not believe me? Take a look at the Geekbench 5 scores for the Pixel 3a, which is widely regarded as the best budget Android phone you can buy:

Single-core: 351
Multicore: 1244
Calculate: 639

And these are good compared to Galaxy Exynos phones in this price range. But honestly, even if the next Pixel 4a were to share the same Snapdragon 855 processor as the Pixel 4, the iPhone SE would still revolve around it. It even has Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), which you’ll only find on the S20 here. Apple could have sacrificed the speed of the SE with an A12 chip or even the A10 Fusion that powers the 9.7-inch iPad and no one would have cared. Instead, it delivered the fastest phone you could buy at a ridiculously affordable price.

iPhone SE vs Android: battery and charging

Certainly, the Android phones that I have reviewed are much larger, so they will have larger batteries. Apple does not disclose the battery capacity of its phones, but thanks to teardowns, it has been revealed that it has the same 1821 mAh battery as the iPhone 8. By any metric incredibly small, but it is downright puny compared to the others here.

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 5,000mAh
Pixel 4 XL: 3,700mAh
OnePlus 7T: 3,800mAh

It is also small compared to other Apple offerings. The iPhone XR has a battery of 2,942 mAh, the iPhone 11 of a battery of 3,110 mAh, the iPhone 11 Pro of a battery of 3,046 mAh and the iPhone 11 Pro Max of a 3,969 mAh battery. And in this case, size really matters. The battery life of the iPhone SE is acceptable as it will likely allow most people to spend a day in normal use, but it won’t blow anyone up. And if you plan on using it for a good amount of streaming or navigation, you’ll want to have a charger nearby.

android iphone ports se Michael Simon / IDG

If you plan to use the Lightning port on iPhone SE to charge, you will want to invest in a better adapter.

In my tests, I played a two hour movie on the brightest settings with auto brightness on, then the same movie with auto brightness on. Here is the battery life used by each phone:

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 23 percent
Pixel 4 XL: 35 percent
OnePlus 7T: 29 percent
iPhone SE: 46 percent

Even with far fewer pixels to push, you’ll have to rank the SE much more often than the other phones here. When that time comes, the iPhone SE supports wireless charging, which is rare for such a cheap phone. (Example: the OnePlus 7T and the newer OnePlus 8 do not.) Charging speeds are acceptable but the SE is still the slowest in this group, exceeding 7.5 W, half of what the Galaxy S20 supply (15 W) and slower than the maximum speeds of 11 W of the Pixel 4.

For wired charging, the iPhone SE comes with a lame 5W adapter in the box, which will painfully take two hours and more to fully charge your iPhone SE. It’s fine if you plug it in before bedtime, but if you’re looking for a quick charge before leaving for the night, you’re going to want to plan ahead.

All other phones support ready-to-use fast charging and each destroys the SE’s charging speeds. The OnePlus 7T can reach 30W, the S20 reaches 25W and the Pixel 4 gets 18W. The difference between them is quite small, all filling between 40 and 50% of the battery in half an hour, but they highlight Apple’s stubborn refusal to give up the 5W charger, which also comes with the iPhone 11.

The good news is that the iPhone SE supports 18W fast charging, but you’ll need to buy a charger capable of 18-watt speeds and a USB-C to Lightning cable. You can buy both on Apple.com for $ 48, but you’d better check out Amazon for a highly rated third-party option.

iPhone SE vs Android: biometrics

The iPhone SE is the only phone here (and really, anywhere) to use a physical fingerprint scanner. I don’t think Apple can build a $ 399 iPhone with Face ID, so until the next iteration of the SE, that’s a good compromise. The Pixel 4 uses 3D face unlock and it’s almost as fast as on the iPhone 11. It is slightly less practical than a fingerprint sensor since you have to look directly at your phone, but it is more secured.

iphone se button android Michael Simon / IDG

Yes, this is an honest welcome button to kindness.

Even low-budget phones have started adopting on-screen fingerprint scanners like the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the OnePlus 7T, so the technology should be mature by now. But while the built-in scanners display well and allow for almost edge-to-edge designs, they’re not as fast as physical fingerprint scanners. My iPhone SE unlocked in a fraction of a second every time I tried it while the two phones with built-in sensors sometimes displayed difficulties. As a admittedly unscientific test, I set a stopwatch for a minute and timed how many times I could lock and unlock each phone with the same finger:

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 29
Pixel 4 XL: 33
OnePlus 7T: 28
iPhone SE: 42

Apple’s Touch ID sensor may not be as cool or pretty as an integrated scanner, but physical scanners are simply superior to virtual ones. You can find it without looking, you don’t have to wait for the screen to turn on, and they are more reliable. The iPhone SE’s physical scanner may not be pretty, but it’s still the quickest way to implement biometric unlocking on a phone.

iPhone SE vs Android: operating system updates

The merits of iOS over Android will be debated forever, so I’ll leave this argument for another day, but one thing is clear: you will still receive updates to your iPhone SE in 2024. And you can probably install also iOS 18 on it. That people on the Galaxy S20 Ultra spend $ 1,400 have the chance to get Android 12 in two years.

iphone size android Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE will still receive updates long after the S20 ends.

There is no competition here. I’ll admit that the Android phone makers have done a lot better to push the updates in a timely fashion and communicate to customers what they are going to get, but even the best Android phone in the iPhone SE price range, the Pixel 3a, only guarantees two years of version updates and three years of monthly security updates. And Samsung’s low-priced offers only receive quarterly updates.

iPhone SE vs Android: camera

The newest iPhone is still at or near the top of the heap of smartphones when it comes to taking photos, but the SE is a new iPhone by name only. That doesn’t mean he has a bad camera, but it’s far from the multi-camera modules of the iPhone 11 Pro and Android phones here. You get a capable camera, but I don’t think we’ll see iPhone SE photos in Apple’s next Shot on iPhone campaign.

android cameras iphone se Michael Simon / IDG

Can a camera take nine?

The biggest gap between the iPhone SE and other phones is that of photos in low light. Apple has done much of the night mode on the iPhone 11, and rightly so: the algorithms in the iPhone 11 do a remarkable job of extending capture time and increasing exposure to reduce noise and brightness in a difficult light.

Without night mode, the SE struggles like Apple phones, and the results are grim and grainy. They are passable in most cases, but compared to the phones here, especially the Pixel 4 XL, there is no competition. Night mode is the main thing I miss with the SE, and it’s frustrating that Apple omitted it, because the camera and the chip seem to be technically capable of handling it.

iphone se android photo compare dark Michael Simon / IDG

When the light goes out, the defects of the iPhone SE become apparent.

Even with a single lens, the iPhone SE can take portraits, but like the iPhone XR, it only works with people. This is another strange limitation that other single budget phones don’t have, but the SE takes fantastic bokeh photos of humans. Even compared to the S20 Ultra, which has four cameras including a dedicated depth sensor, the iPhone SE has performed impressively. In the photos below, the iPhone SE handled the bright background without a hitch and even did a better job with my son’s skin tones, especially his rosy cheeks.

iphone se android photo compare portrait Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (left) is as good for portraiture as the S20 Ultra, even with just one camera.

The iPhone has always tended to reduce the color of photos in favor of real-world accuracy, and the iPhone SE does not stray from this path. In the photo below, the OnePlus 7T slightly oversaturated the green and added a cool hue to the wall while the SE maintained color accuracy and an appropriate white balance.

iphone se android photo compare color Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (left) has done a better job than the OnePlus 7T with color management in this photo.

The results seem somewhat subjective, but the SE does its best to capture the scene correctly. And in the right light, it’s as good to aim and shoot as the other cameras here.

iPhone SE vs Android: Conclusion

I can’t imagine that someone with a thousand dollars to spend on a new smartphone would actually opt for an iPhone SE rather than the iPhone 11 Pro or any of the Android phones here, but if they do, they will get a faster phone, more pocket, and a lot capable of taking great photos. Most importantly, if you’re on a budget, it’s an extremely attractive option, no matter which platform flag you’re flying under.

iphone se android back Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE costs hundreds of less than the OnePlus 7T, the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Pixel 4 XL.

The speed of the iPhone SE is simply breathtaking. With the same design as my old iPhone 6, I expect it to be pokey, but the SE easily navigates through tasks and applications. I didn’t expect it to stack on top of other phones here in all categories, but its exceptional performance is revealing and makes up for some of the areas where it falls short, the screen and the battery.

In short, the compromises Apple made with the SE are smart. Yes, it’s an old design and it lacks some of the latest iPhone technology, but it’s a $ 399 phone that won’t feel sluggish after a year or two or four, which is more than you can tell for any Android price in this price range… and even a few that are much more expensive.

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