Reviews

iPhone SE 3 review: Half iPhone 8, half iPhone 13

For the third-gen iPhone SE, Apple remixed the iPhone 8 design again with features like 5G, tougher glass, and improved camera image quality from the iPhone 13.

Raymond Wong / Input

I really thought Apple would have gone all-in on the iPhone X's design, gesture-based iOS, and Face ID by now.

This year will be the fifth year since the iPhone X debuted in the fall of 2017 without a home button as the future of iPhone. Tim Cook announced the iPhone X after introducing the iPhone 8/8 Plus, an evolutionary design of the iPhone 6, which instantly looked dated.

Here we are in March 2022 and Apple is selling a third-gen iPhone SE (that I'm going to call the iPhone SE 3) with the same design again. It's an old design — the eighth year if we go back to the iPhone 6 — that Apple boasts as iconic and enduring. (I agree.) But it's Apple's way of making a low-cost iPhone without giving people much of the iPhone 13/13 mini or iPhone 13 Pro/13 Pro Max's selling points.

Starting at $429, which is a few bucks more than the iPhone SE 2’s $399 price, the iPhone SE 3 is still Android's worst nightmare two years later. There's definitely a Samsung A-something or OnePlus Nord-whatever or Realme-whatachamacallit that costs the same or less and has more cameras or a bigger screen or a larger battery, but they're not iPhones. They don't come with iMessage or FaceTime or connect with an Apple Watch or get the most out of AirPods. The iPhone SE 3 is not for people who want the best iPhone or even the second- or third-best iPhone (Apple still sells the iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 new) — it's for someone who wants a cheap iPhone.

The iPhone SE 3 is still Android's worst nightmare two years later.

Naturally, people are going to say the iPhone SE 3 is great for children and parents — basically anyone who doesn't need all the bells and whistles. It's also good as a secondary phone or for people who prefer Touch ID. The fact is, it doesn't matter who Apple sells the iPhone SE 3, only that enough people bought the previous one and there's clearly enough demand for a low-cost iPhone for Apple to make a new one. It’s the gateway phone into the Apple ecosystem; once you’re in, it’s difficult to get out because of Apple services.

It speaks volumes that Apple can sell an old-looking iPhone with the same powerful A15 Bionic chip in the iPhone 13 devices that wipes the latest Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 in high-end Android phones like Samsung's Galaxy S22 family, throw in 5G, and improve the cameras just enough with features like Smart HDR 4 image processing, Photography Styles, and Deep Fusion, and enough people will still take it over a budget Android phone. The iPhone SE 3 is a good phone. Not the best phone. But still a very good iPhone.

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New bits

I'll save you all from reading a few hundred words on the design since the iPhone SE 3 looks and feels just like the iPhone SE 2. At least the design means compatibility with old cases!

There are only three physical changes you should be aware of. Number one: the iPhone SE 3 has tougher glass on the front and back. Apple says the glass is the same scratch-resistant glass on the iPhone 13 phones, sans Ceramic Shield which means it's only not as shatter-resistant. And number two: the iPhone SE 3 is somehow lighter at 5.09 ounces (144 grams) versus 5.22 ounces (148 grams) on the iPhone SE 2. Usually, the addition of 5G adds a small amount of weight; Apple managed to cut it. I'll wait for iFixit to tear down the iPhone SE 3 to see the changes, but I'm impressed. I'm betting the weight reduction is from the 5-nanometer A15 Bionic versus the iPhone SE 2's 7-nanometer A13 Bionic chip.

The iPhone SE 3 has a 4.7-inch LCD screen.Raymond Wong / Input
The Touch ID button lives another year!Raymond Wong / Input

Apple embracing more function over pure form with marginally thicker designs that are also heavier is a great and much-needed change from the weight loss era under Jony Ive, but it should still consider making thinner and lighter products so long as they don't compromise usability. (This is a long way of me saying the iPhone 13s are excellent but too heavy.)

I'll have had the iPhone SE 3 for just five days when this review publishes and while I can't confirm the toughness of the glass (plenty of YouTubers will be happy to drop theirs for views), both sides are still scratch-free.

iPhone 13 speed

The A13 Bionic chip in the iPhone SE 2 was faster than Qualcomm's best Snapdragon chip, the 865, at the time. The A15 Bionic chip — the same chip in the iPhone 13 phones — is the same story: more powerful than the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1 and Google's Tensor chip.

Here are some Geekbench 5 single and multi-core scores that confirm the performance on the iPhone SE 3 isn't throttled:

  • iPhone SE 3: 1,730 / 4,744
  • iPhone 13 Pro Max: 1,737 / 4,854
  • Galaxy S22 Ultra: 1,194 / 2,820
  • Pixel 6 Pro: 1,016 / 2,749

Strange as it was for me to use a home button, Touch ID, and pull up Control Center from the bottom instead of from the upper right, iOS 15.4 is super responsive. Apple bumped up the 3GB of RAM on the iPhone SE 2 to 4GB on the iPhone SE 3. Hands-free “Hey Siri” is snappy to process my requests. iOS 15.4 is just tuned very well for the iPhone SE 3. The A15 Bionic also used the Neural Engine to enable features like Live Text which might as well be magic.

iOS 15.4 is so well optimized to run on the iPhone SE 3.Raymond Wong / Input

Genshin Impact plays smoother than on the Pixel 6 Pro; there are fewer frames dropped. Yeah, the iPhone SE 3 does get warm when I taxed the chip and battery life does take a dip faster, but for a phone of this size, both are surprisingly well balanced. Apple says the iPhone SE 3 lasts two hours longer than the iPhone SE 2. I can't say I felt that it did, at least not with 5G turned on; I had my personal T-Mobile SIM card in the iPhone SE 3 so it was pulling down fast data all over New York City. Turning off 5G and settling for LTE might have resulted in actually seeing those two extra hours of battery life, but I don't live that way.

The iPhone SE 3 only supports Sub-6 5G and not mmWave 5G like the iPhone 12 series and iPhone 13. That means no access to Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband (not the be confused with the iPhone’s close-range Ultrawideband wireless technology used for things like AirTags and digital car keys) only its C-band spectrum which is Sub-6. As I said, the lack of mmWave isn’t a dealbreaker given how botched the rollout of mmWave in the U.S. has been. Few people will cry over the lack of mmWave in any phone, iPhone or not.

Great photos

The 12-megapixel rear camera has some features from the iPhone 13/13 Pro like Photographic Styles, Smart HDR 4, and Deep Fusion.Raymond Wong / Input

Once again, the camera is a remix on the iPhone SE 3. There's a 12-megapixel camera on the back and a 7-megapixel camera on the front. No ultrawide or telephoto on the rear is a dealbreaker for me, but most people are fine with the single rear camera given the price. Tons of budget and midrange Android phones have two or three cameras, but the image quality on most of them stink. Bad processing mixed with third-rate sensors or modules (like a useless monochrome sensor) give the illusion that they offer a lot more than they really do. I'll always recommend a first-rate main camera over several mediocre ones.

The iPhone SE 3 has a really good rear camera. The single camera can't compare to the versatility of the triple-lens camera on the iPhone 13s, but the image quality is solid. It's another testament to the image processing pipeline made possible by Apple's system-on-chip (SoC). The A15 Bionic enables Smart HDR 4 image processing that's nearly as good as on the iPhone 13s, Photographic Styles (see comparisons in my iPhone 13 Pro review and how to use them here), and Deep Fusion (a first for the iPhone SE). The latter is the only one I was unable to activate when shooting comparisons between the iPhone SE 3 and green iPhone 13 mini.

Sharper details

In the below comparison of some delicious oysters, you can see sharper details even without zooming in. The oysters have more clarity, the ice is more defined, and the highlights are better exposed. At a glance, though, you might miss the differences.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

Tighter focal length

It rained on Saturday and droplets are always a good way to do smartphone camera tests. The iPhone 13 mini’s main wide camera has a 26mm focal length versus the iPhone SE 3’s 28mm focal length. From the same distance, the iPhone SE 3 takes photos that are just slightly more zoomed. Again, the iPhone 13 mini camera takes sharper pictures, but only if you look for the subtle details.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

Consistent colors

Here’s a nice color test — looks about the same on both the iPhone SE 3 and iPhone 13 mini. Apple is really good at color calibration for its iPhone cameras and the consistency here between these two iPhones shows in the pictures. You can also see the slightly wider focal length on the iPhone 13 mini; it’s also got an ultrawide lens where the iPhone SE 3 doesn’t.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 mini (ultrawide)Raymond Wong / Input

Deep Fusion comparisons

New on the iPhone SE 3 is Deep Fusion (aka “sweater mode”), which works automagically at mid-level luminance. So not quite bright, but not dark. In my Galaxy S20 Ultra review, I showed comparisons that proved Deep Fusion does work and it’s the sauce that allows iPhone cameras to compete with larger sensors with more resolution. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Deep Fusion to ever activate on the iPhone SE 3. Below is a photo of a camera shot with both the iPhone SE 3 and iPhone 13 mini. Looking at the metadata of both images using Metapho, the iPhone SE 3 pic is not “deeply fused” while the iPhone 13 mini picture is.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 mini (Deep Fusion)Raymond Wong / Input

I took several additional comparisons and couldn’t get the Deep Fusion to kick in on the iPhone SE 3. Below is a set of shots of clothes in a closet. No lighting inside, just ambient light from a standing floor lamp in the corner across the room. The iPhone SE 3 didn’t turn on Deep Fusion. The iPhone 13 mini detected a lower-than-normal amount of lux and turned on a 3-second night mode exposure. Turning off night mode, the iPhone 13 mini took the middle photo which is deeply fused according to Metapho. It’s odd that I couldn’t get Deep Fusion to work when it clearly should have.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 mini (Deep Fusion)Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 mini (night mode)Raymond Wong / Input

Night photography

Moving on to some night shots, the iPhone SE 3 holds up alright. Details aren’t as crisp as the iPhone 13 mini, which turned on a 1-second night mode exposure, but acceptable for a $429 phone. You’ll really see the difference in clarity in the building details; the iPhone 13 mini is slightly brighter thanks to night mode and the processing is less mushy. Sucks there’s no night mode on the iPhone SE 3.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

Another set showing how the iPhone SE 3 and iPhone 13 mini take night photos. It’s obvious which one is better.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

Selfies

Sorry y’all gotta look at my mug. But I did it for science to test the Smart HDR 4. My skin looks realistic in both images with good tones and details. The 7-megapixel selfie camera on the iPhone SE 3 has a much tighter 32mm focal length compared to the iPhone 13 mini’s 23mm. You can fit more in the iPhone 13 mini picture, but I actually prefer the tighter framing on the iPhone SE 3 — looks more like a proper portrait.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

On the topic of portraits, here’s how the iPhone SE 3 handles portrait mode photos compared to the iPhone 13 mini. Pretty neck and neck unless you pixel peep. The iPhone 13 mini just edges out the iPhone SE 3 with better background isolation.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 miniRaymond Wong / Input

And finally, a selfie at night comparison. You can see the iPhone SE selfie falls apart at night. In comparison, the iPhone 13 mini turned on night mode, and the superior image quality speaks for itself.

iPhone SE 3Raymond Wong / Input
iPhone 13 mini Raymond Wong / Input

There are also a few other camera upgrades on the iPhone SE 3 versus the iPhone SE 2. The selfie camera captures 1080p slo-mo at 120 fps. Though there's no night mode on the iPhone SE 3, there is a night mode time-lapse when you've got it on a tripod.

If you want the benefits of a larger image sensor (better low-light photos as a result), night mode, Cinematic video recording mode, an ultrawide, optical zoom, HDR video recording, macro mode, and more, you should look into the iPhone 13/13 mini or iPhone 13 Pros. The iPhone SE 3 camera is basic, but very good basic.

The Classic

Green iPhone 13 mini (left) vs. Midnight iPhone SE 3 (center) vs. gold iPhone 13 Pro (right).Raymond Wong / Input

The iPhone SE 3 is not fooling anyone into believing it's the most cutting-edge iPhone. (Though the A15 Bionic chip absolutely is the fastest.) It's also impossible to stack up against every budget or midrange Android phone because its biggest strengths like iOS and iMessage are Apple-exclusive. It's a pointless exercise. Android phones will have better screens (OLED, high refresh rates, more storage, etc.!) but the software is not iOS. That matters a great deal at this price point since having the best camera system or the biggest, brightest display aren’t the main selling points.

There are a few things that would have made the iPhone SE 3 even more of a value. Keeping the $399 pricing is one or increasing the 64GB base storage to 128GB is another. The iPhone SE 3 comes in a 256GB model, something that the iPhone SE 2 didn't have, but that costs extra. I know lots of people would have liked to see a display larger than 4.7 inches. Can we get an iPhone SE based on the iPhone 8 Plus? Night mode would have been awesome; the iPhone SE 2 achieved portrait mode without dual cameras and the Pixel 5a with 5G has Night Sight using only software. Surely, Apple can leverage the A15 Bionic’s ISP and 16-core Neural Engine to get night mode working on the iPhone SE 3 (unless it’s a major battery issue). The iPhone SE is all about value and Apple could've gone a few extra steps to drive that home.

My ideal iPhone SE would be an iPhone mini.

It's most telling who Apple is targeting the iPhone SE 3 at. Just look at the comparison charts that the company used during its Peek Performance keynote: up to 1.8x faster CPU than the iPhone 8, up to 2x faster than the iPhone 7, and up to 3x faster than the iPhone 6S. Same for the GPU comparisons. Basically, the iPhone SE is targeted at anyone who has one of these ancient iPhones that still run iOS 15. The iPhone 6S, a 7-year-old device, is still chugging along. If the iPhone SE 3 supports iOS 22 seven years from now, man, that's going to be some longevity. I can guarantee you any budget or midrange Android phones past, present, and near future will have long stopped getting updated and likely be in landfills in 2029 when the iPhone SE 3 is on its last legs.

Technically, the SE in iPhone SE stands for "Special Edition" but in my circle, everyone refers to it as "small edition" because it's the smallest iPhone in Apple's lineup. Though the screen is 5.4 inches on the iPhone 13 mini, the dimensions are actually smaller than the iPhone SE 3's. My ideal iPhone SE would be an iPhone mini, which would still fit as the smallest iPhone Apple sells (if the iPhone 8 design is ever retired). But until that day, the classic iPhone 8 design lives another year through the iPhone SE 3 — a good entry-level iPhone, but one that might leave you pining for just a little more.