Apple iPhone SE 2022 review: The value iPhone pick that needs more power
Quick verdict: There's nothing quite like the Apple iPhone SE 2022 in its price range, and if you want iOS, lots of processor power and upgrades for years to come, it could be good buy. However, its battery life is seriously compromised, and the design is showing its age.
- A15 Bionic blows everything in this price range of out the water
- Likely to get iOS upgrades for years to come
- Light in the hand
- It's got 5G
- Battery life is not good on first impressions
- 5G will kill the battery even faster
- Slow recharging
- Only a single camera lens
- Tiny screen, even relative to the iPhone 13 Mini
- Uninspiring colour range
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$0|
In most important respects, the iPhone SE 2022 is Apple's logical and timely upgrade to its low-cost smartphone range. It costs quite a lot less than a premium iPhone, but that means you don't quite get the full suite of premium iPhone features.
What you do get is the most powerful – in processing terms alone – smartphone money can buy in the mid-range right now. That's both important for having a snappy and responsive smartphone right now, but also into the future if you want to get the most value out of your phone purchase.
However, that has to be balanced against a very simplistic camera system that doesn't always compare well against what you could get for the same money on the Android side of the fence as well as battery life that simply doesn't measure up against our expectations.
Design: Simple is good, but small screens are not
Like the first- and second-generation iPhone SE models, the iPhone SE 2022 is built upon the chassis of 2017's iPhone 8. Apple has clearly recouped its investment in the factories that made the iPhone 8, and while that does mean it's a slightly dated design, it's a mix of good and bad news.
It's definitely dated. Bear in mind that the design of the iPhone 8 itself wasn't new in 2017. It's essentially the same design Apple used all the way back to 2014's iPhone 6.
The smartphone world was a different place back in 2014, and at that time, Apple could more easily get away with a phone with a 4.7-inch display. In 2022, it's a much more limited option, especially when you consider that the iPhone 13 Mini packs in a 5.4-inch display into a much smaller frame. You're also looking at a display that can't match up to the OLED found on the iPhone 13 devices, although it's fair to look at in isolation.
The use of the older design also means that we're back into the era when smartphones had significant bezels. This is a compromise that suits Apple better than it does consumers. It's not hard to see Apple's position here because it keeps the "premium" iPhone 13 design and features like FaceID as desirable upgrades while resting on factory tooling that would have been paid off many years ago. The profit margin must be intense.
Unless you own Apple shares (I don't), you probably don't care about that.
But the design does inform the utility of the iPhone SE 2022 because you end up with a small screen, small icons and less space for the display of web pages, social media feeds, games, video or anything else that you want to do on it.
The one nice upgrade here is in the covering glass on the back and front of the iPhone SE 2022, which is claimed to be as durable as that found on the iPhone 13 models. During my review period, the iPhone SE has slipped out of my hands a few times because I'm a klutz, but so far, so good. I wouldn't suggest that you test that to destruction unless you're planning on a viral video at the same time.
Getting the cheapest "new" iPhone also involves some old-school thinking when it comes to colour choices because you've only got 3 of them. Midnight as reviewed is your basic black with a slight blue that comes through in direct light, while Starlight offers a white/silver option and PRODUCT(RED) is exactly what you think it is.
I do like Apple's PRODUCT(RED) phones, but beyond that, black and white isn't a whole lot to choose from. The upside here I guess is that because the iPhone 8 design is so long in the tooth, it's very easy and quite cheap to pick up a phone case to change the colour at will.
Camera: Single camera shoots well… but there's still only one of them.
Apple calls the single-lens rear camera on the iPhone SE 2022 a "Superstar", and it's at pains to say that it feels like the camera system is all-new. I guess technically this is true because it's a fusion of an existing lens system, closely akin to that found in the iPhone XR matched up with the image-signal processing found in Apple's A15 Bionic chipset.
That being said, it's also an old camera system simply because it's a single-lens camera system.
It's ridiculously easy to pick up a phone with at least dual lenses for the same or less than you'd pay for the iPhone SE 2022. Again, Apple is playing a careful balancing game here because the next step up in current-generation iPhones only ships with dual lenses anyway, and it doesn't want to cannibalise sales of the iPhone 13 or iPhone 13 Mini.
Having a single lens isn't automatically a bad thing because it does make your shot selection quite easy. Want to take a photo? There's no question of which framing or zooming lens you need because there's only the one of them.
Apple makes the pitch that it's a great camera for everyday shooting situations, helped out by the post-processing power of the A15 Bionic to bring better HDR, focus detection and Apple's own deep-fusion technology. There are trade-offs here still though because you're limited to shots such as faces in portrait mode where the higher priced iPhones can manage a deeper range of focal techniques.
It's also not a great low-light performer, and here it's hard not to compare against Google's own efforts with its Pixel 4a and Pixel 5 phones – or even the Pixel 6 if I wanted to get picky. Those are phones that also rely on computational photography to boost low-light shots, but here the iPhone SE 2022 definitely feels like an older phone, not a modern flagship.
Apple iPhone SE 2022 sample photos:
Performance: A15 Bionic leaves every other mid-range phone in the dust
The real star of the show when it comes to the iPhone SE 2022 is the underlying processor. Apple could have made an even bolder positional statement with the iPhone SE 2022 by throwing in the A14 Bionic, making it an iPhone 12.
Instead, it's gone the whole hog with the same A15 Bionic processor as found in all the iPhone 13 handsets. While it doesn't specify this itself, it's running with 4GB of RAM and either 64GB, 128GB or 256GB of onboard storage.
There's a good chance that the iPhone SE 2022 will see every single upgrade that the iPhone 13 models do. Apple typically runs 4 or more years of upgrades for its handsets and sometimes more.
While that's now being promised for Android phones to an extent, Apple's hardware control means that you should see those upgrades on day one, not months later as and when hardware makers and telcos line up their upgrade schedules.
Predictably, the Apple iPhone SE 2022 is an absolute rocket of a phone when it comes to benchmark performance. The A15 Bionic is the best-performing chip in any phone we've tested to date, and it isn't even close. Here's how the iPhone SE compares using Geekbench 5's CPU test against similarly priced handsets as well as its predecessor:
Here's how it compares using 3DMark's GPU benchmark:
Apple's tight control over both hardware and software gives it a supreme edge in performance terms here, although again, it is a rocket ship that does sometimes rattle against the sides of its poky little prison. While there's not much that won't run on it – some iOS apps that rely on multi-camera set-ups would be the only apps I can think of that might struggle or run in a compromised capacity – the smaller display means that they have a lot less impact than on a properly sized iPhone.
Storage on the iPhone SE 2022 is an odd range of choices. It's not hard to suspect most buyers will go for the cheapest 64GB option at $719, although there are 128GB and 256GB variants as well. However, at that top-tier storage price, you're within striking distance of the iPhone 13 Mini's price point and above what you'd pay for a dual-lens Apple iPhone 11 through Apple right now.
The iPhone SE 2022 is also Apple's lowest cost 5G capable handset. Where it offers a range of 5G models worldwide for the iPhone 13 handsets, even though we don't get mmWave 5G here in Australia, the iPhone SE 2022 is a sub-6GHz phone no matter where you are.
My own tests on Telstra's 5G network in Sydney using Finder's Broadband Speed test consistently hit 200-300Mbps down, which is bang on target for most 5G phones right now. While it's nice to see a 5G-capable iPhone at this price point, there's a definite price to pay when it comes to using 5G, and that's predictably paid in battery life.
Battery: Bigger battery but actual battery life is still poor
Apple makes a point of never actually stating real-world battery capacity figures. Teardowns of the iPhone SE 2022 suggest that it's packing a 2,018mAh battery, up from the 1,821mAh power pack in its predecessor.
Apple's own claims for the iPhone SE 2022 are that it can manage up to 2 hours more than the iPhone SE 2020, iPhone 8 or iPhone 7 for video playback in either a streamed or local capacity. Specifically, Apple claims of up to 15 hours of local video playback and up to 10 hours of streamed video playback on the iPhone SE 2022.
That's useful data because it's fair to reckon that this kind of age gap in phones is where you might be looking to run with an upgrade.
However, it's also carefully chosen data because the sad reality for older iPhones is that their battery life was and is sub-par. All of those phones tended to struggle to get through a day's battery life, and sometimes a whole lot less. The A15 Bionic might be more battery efficient, and the screen is small, but it's also packing a more powerful chip and the battery-sapping capability of 5G.
Battery life usage is always relative, and if you're only a light user who prefers iOS to Android, you really shouldn't have too many problems with the iPhone SE 2022 on a day-to-day basis.
However, if your usage is moderate or heavy, and especially if you're going to use 5G, you've got a bigger problem on your hands. Time and time again during my review period, the iPhone SE 2022 would run out of juice before the end of the working day.
To give this a relative picture, I ran it multiple times through Finder's streaming battery test. That should give a good relative picture because it's precisely the kind of usage scenario that Apple itself uses to state the battery endurance of the iPhone SE 2022.
Here, I want to see at least 90% remaining battery from a fully charged phone for the phone to have a chance of lasting a full day on a charge. Here's how the iPhone SE 2022 compared:
That's a painful battery life figure to look at because at best you're talking about 5 hours of streaming YouTube, not Apple's 10 hours.
Recharging is via Lightning cable or Qi wireless charging, but as is Apple's style of the time, you won't get a charger of any type in the box. Apple claims you can top up the iPhone SE 2022 to 50% of battery in 30 minutes with a 20W charger. That'll be another $29 hit to your wallet if you want the Apple charger.
Should you buy it?
- Buy it if you want in on the iOS world at a more moderate price.
- Don't buy it if you're not willing to carry a charger or battery pack with you.
The iPhone SE 2022 is the iPhone for those who want to stay in the Apple world without breaking the bank. It's great value in a performance sense because it is basically the iPhone 13 in a cheaper phone body. If your iPhone 7 or older is starting to creak around the edges, the difference in performance that you'll feel will be intense. As a bonus, you would be buying a phone that should be good for some years to come thanks to Apples' general update schedules.
However, if you're not wedded to the iPhone world, it's worth looking around – especially if you hate having to reach for a charger or battery pack before the end of the day.
iPhone SE 2022 review: Pricing and availability
The Apple iPhone SE 2022 retails in Australia from 18 March 2022 at $719 for a 64GB model, $799 for a 128GB model or $969 for 256GB. It's also available on contract terms from a variety of telcos.
Power, storage and battery
How we tested
The iPhone SE 2022 was extensively tested over a 2-week period, using a model loaned by Apple for review purposes. It was benchmarked with industry-standard benchmarks and Finder's own battery test to get an evaluative and comparative picture of its overall performance.
The camera was extensively tested and compared against other phones in its price bracket as well as other available iPhone options consumers could choose to buy. A wide range of apps, including web browsing, email, social media, gaming and photo manipulation apps were tested on the iPhone SE 2022 during the review period.
The reviewer has more than 2 decades of tech product reviewing under his belt and is a multi-time Australian IT Journo award winner, including awards for best reviewer and best technical journalist.