iPhone SE vs. Android: Can a $ 399 iPhone beat $ 3,000 on phones?

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When comparing phones, you generally want them to be in the same league. These days, that could mean 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 it's basically a waste of time facing the Galaxy S20. Ultra $ 1,400 vs. $ 400 Galaxy A51.

Update 5 // 23: New tests have been added to the Battery and charging section.

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

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

iPhone SE vs Android: design

IPhone SE looks and feels 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 part of its six-year design. The screen is small, the bezels are monstrous, and the start button is physical. It's been a long time since an Android phone of any reputation had a start button, and the SE looks and feels downright dated compared to the other phones here.

iphone se android 6s back Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (right) has extremely similar dimensions to the iPhone 6s.

I am not going to debate the designs of the other phones, but I will say this: Despite its old look, the iPhone SE is an extremely attractive phone with solid build quality and retro charm. Even older Apple designs are better than some of today's Android phones, and the glass back, aluminum sides, and carefully curved chamfers are satisfyingly symmetrical and ergonomically pleasing. The S20 and 7T are definitely one step ahead in the looks department, the Pixel 4 is a shake-up, but for a phone that hasn't been in style for years, the SE really isn't that bad.

Granted, it's not a phone for everyone, but those who like or can get past its dated Home button will appreciate its craftsmanship. The smooth glass back and brushed aluminum edges belie its $ 399 price tag, and the entire package feels like a premium phone. Its bezels are too big to compete with the other phones here, but there is a certain charm to the iPhone SE, and it's nice not to have to worry about palm rejection. There is also something to be said for a phone that fits in any pocket.

iPhone SE vs Android: screen

Right off the bat, the iPhone SE is at a disadvantage. While the Android phones here have high refresh rate OLED displays, the iPhone SE uses an LCD screen that pales in comparison to the other phones here:

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

iphone se android lineup Michael Simon / IDG

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

Apple labels the iPhone SE as a Retina HD display instead of Liquid Retina, but it's essentially the same display as the iPhone 11 with square instead of rounded corners. But for an LCD that is several years old, the iPhone SE's display is surprisingly good. The text is sharp and very bright, rivaling the maximum manual brightness that I could achieve on the 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 activated and a direct source of bright light applied, the results were dramatically 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 deliver fuller colors and impressive brightness. And they're far superior at the low end too, with incredibly deep blacks embarrassing the SE's LCS.

iphone se android stack Michael Simon / IDG

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

Then there is the size problem. The iPhone SE isn't just small for 2020, it looks comically small compared to the Galaxy S20 Ultra, and it's 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 the videos and websites feel very tight in comparison. Rumor has it that Apple is switching to an OLED line for the iPhone 12, the SE's LCD screen will quickly become obsolete, but overall it's a decent screen.

iPhone SE vs Android: performance

Frankly, the iPhone SE wouldn't be worth it (or compared to the phones here) if it weren't for its processor. Apple has put the iPhone 11 Pro's A13 processor inside the iPhone SE, making it one of the fastest phones ever made, and hands down the fastest for under $ 400.

I chose the three phones I made because they represent Qualcomm's Snapdragon vintage cream. The S20 Ultra uses the 865, the best on-chip system available, the OnePlus 7T works with the Snapdragon 855+, and the Pixel 4 runs the Snapdragon 855. Simply put, you won't find a trio of faster processors on any Android phone. But faced with the humble iPhone SE, the three phones simply can't stack up:

Geekbench 5 (CPU)

Galaxy S20 Ultra

Simple core: 901
Multi-core: 3245

Pixel 4 XL

Simple core: 724
Multi-core: 2529

OnePlus 7T

Simple core: 772
Multi-core: 2883

iPhone SE

Simple core: 1331
Multi-core: 3310

Before asking, those results are with all the latest patches and updates installed and after new restarts. I did them several times and got the best results. In short, there is no contest. The iPhone SE not only handles the best Android phones, it easily beats phones that cost double and triple. And when it comes to graphics, the iPhone SE is a beast.

Geekbench 5 (Calculate)

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

That doesn't mean that none of the phones here are slow. Far from there. Both the Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 7T have UFS 3.0 storage along with 12GB and 8GB of RAM, respectively, compared to the iPhone SE's 3GB. The Pixel 4, like the iPhone SE, has the advantage of being designed together with the same team that creates the Android operating system. But even with those perks, the iPhone SE is basically faster in every way.

geekbench 5 iphone se IDG

IPhone SE simply beat the best Android phones when it comes to processing speeds and graphics power.

And if you compared the iPhone SE to a $ 399 Android phone, the results would be uneven 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:

Simple core: 351
Multi-core: 1244
Calculate: 639

And those are good numbers compared to Galaxy phones with Exynos in that price range. But honestly, even if the upcoming Pixel 4a shared the same Snapdragon 855 processor as the Pixel 4, the iPhone SE would still run in circles around it. It even has Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), which you'll only find on the S20 here. Apple could have made sacrifices with 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 can buy at a ridiculously affordable price.

iPhone SE vs Android: battery and charge

Okay, the Android phones I looked at are much bigger, so they will have bigger batteries. Apple does not disclose the battery capacity of its phones, but through the interruptions it has been revealed that it has the same 1,821 mAh battery as the iPhone 8. By any metric it is incredibly small, but it is downright insignificant compared to the others here.

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

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

iphone se android ports Michael Simon / IDG

If you're going to use the Lightning port on iPhone SE for charging, you'll want to invest in a better adapter.

In my tests, I played a two-hour movie in the brightest setting with auto brightness off, and then the same movie with auto brightness on. This is the battery life of 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 need to fill the SE much more often than the other phones here. When that time comes, iPhone SE supports wireless charging, which is a rarity for such a cheap phone. (Case in point: the OnePlus 7T and the newer OnePlus 8 don't.) Charging speeds are acceptable, but the SE is still the slowest in this group, reaching 7.5W, half of what the Galaxy S20 (15W) offers and slower than the Pixel 4's maximum 11W speeds.

For wired charging, the iPhone SE comes with a 5W adapter in the box, which will take over two hours to fully charge your iPhone SE. That's fine if you plug it in before bed, but if you're looking for a quick charge before going out at night, you're going to want to plan ahead.

All other phones support fast charging out of the box and each destroys the SE's ready-to-use charging speeds. The OnePlus 7T can reach 30 W, the S20 reaches 25 W and the Pixel 4 gets 18 W, but the difference between them is quite minimal, with all of them filling between 40 and 50 percent of the battery in half an hour, as long as you're You are using the charger and cable. In a fair fight, SE really is fine.

That's because 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 search Amazon for a highly rated third-party option.

To keep things fair, I tested each phone with a 65W GaN Aukey PD charger with the same USB-C cable and an Apple USB-C to Lightning cable for the iPhone SE. All phones were less than 40 percent powered to ensure they charged as quickly as possible. This is what I observed using a power meter for 15 minutes of charging:

Galaxy S20 Ultra: 16% load, 9V, 15W
OnePlus 7T: 13% load, 5V, 10W
Pixel 4 XL: 24% load, 9V, 19W
iPhone SE: 28% load, 9V, 12W

Granted, the iPhone SE is rated on a curve as its battery is so small, but it can't be denied that these phones love their proprietary charging systems. With a standard charger and cable, which many people will use, you'll get solid charging speeds for all of these phones, including the iPhone SE, but by no means close to the stated claims that the OnePlus 7T and S20 boast.

iPhone SE vs Android: biometrics

IPhone SE is the only phone here (and really, anywhere) that uses a physical fingerprint scanner. I don't think Apple is capable of making a $ 399 iPhone with Face ID, so until the next version of the SE, this is a nice tradeoff. The Pixel 4 uses 3D face unlock and is almost as fast as it is on the iPhone 11. It's a little less convenient than a fingerprint sensor, since you need to look directly at your phone, but it's more secure.

iphone se android button Michael Simon / IDG

Yes, that's an honesty start button.

Even budget phones have started to adopt on-screen fingerprint scanners like the Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 7T, so the technology should be mature by now. But while on-screen scanners look good and allow edge-to-edge designs, they are not as fast as physical fingerprint scanners. My iPhone SE unlocked in a fraction of a second every time I tried while the two phones with on-screen sensors sometimes had issues. As a non-scientific test, I set up 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 good or pretty as an on-screen 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 fastest way to implement biometric unlocking on a phone.

iPhone SE vs Android: OS updates

The merits of iOS versus Android will be debated forever, so I'll leave that argument for another day, but one thing is clear: You will still receive updates for your iPhone SE in 2024. And you can probably install iOS 18 as well. That the Galaxy S20 Ultra folks are spending $ 1,400 is lucky to get Android 12 in two years.

iphone se android size Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE will continue to receive updates long after the S20 is EOL.

There is no contest here. I admit that Android phone makers have greatly improved by pushing updates in a timely manner and communicating 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-cost deals only receive quarterly updates.

iPhone SE vs Android: camera

The newest iPhone is always at the top of the smartphone pile when it comes to taking photos, but the SE is a new iPhone in name only. That doesn't mean it has a bad camera, but it's a far cry from the multiple camera modules on the iPhone 11 Pro and Android phones here. You're getting a capable camera, but I don't think we'll see any photos of the iPhone SE in Apple's upcoming Shot on iPhone campaign.

iphone se android cameras Michael Simon / IDG

Can a camera take nine?

The biggest gap between the iPhone SE and the other phones here is with low-light photos. Apple did a lot of Night Mode on the iPhone 11, and rightly so, the algorithms on the iPhone 11 do a remarkable job of extending capture time and amplifying exposure to reduce noise and increase brightness in challenging light.

Without night mode, the SE has issues like Apple phones used to, and the results are dark and grainy. They are acceptable 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 has left it out, as the camera and chip seem technically capable of handling it.

iphone se android photo compare dark Michael Simon / IDG

When the light goes out, the shortcomings of the iPhone SE come to light.

Even with a single lens, the iPhone SE can take portraits, but like the iPhone XR, it only works with people. It's another weird limitation that other inexpensive single-camera 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 had impressive performance. In the photos below, the iPhone SE handled the bright background flawlessly and even did a better job with my son's skin tones, particularly his rosy cheeks.

iphone se android photo compare portrait Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (left) is just as good at taking portraits as the S20 Ultra even with a single camera.

The iPhone has always had a tendency to reduce color in photos in favor of real-world precision, and the iPhone SE doesn't stray from that lane. In the photo below, the OnePlus 7T somewhat oversaturated green and added a cool tint to the wall, while the SE maintained color accuracy and proper white balance.

iphone se android photo compare color Michael Simon / IDG

The iPhone SE (left) did a better job than the OnePlus 7T in handling color in this shot.

The results look somewhat subjective, but the SE does its best to properly capture the scene. And in the right light, it's just as good of point-and-shoot as the other cameras here.

iPhone SE vs Android: Conclusion

I can't imagine someone with a thousand dollars to spend on a new smartphone opts for an iPhone SE instead of the iPhone 11 Pro or one of the Android phones here, but if they do, they'll get a phone that's faster, easier to save and much capable of taking very good photos. More importantly, if you're on a budget, it's an extremely attractive option, no matter what platform flag you fly under.

iphone se android again Michael Simon / IDG

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

The speed of the iPhone SE is simply mind boggling. In the same design as my old iPhone 6s, I hope it's unintelligent, but the SE flies through tasks and apps with ease. I didn't expect it to compare to the other phones here in all categories, but its tremendous performance is revealing and makes up for some of the areas where it falls a bit short, namely the screen and battery.

In short, Apple's commitments to the SE are smart. Yes, it is an older design and lacks some of the latest iPhone technologies, but it's a $ 399 phone that won't feel slow after a year or two or four, which is more than you can say for any price. Android in that price range: and even some that are much more expensive.

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