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The iPhone SE: An upgrader’s guide

When it comes to iPhone upgrades, Apple is incremental. So are iPhone reviews. Those of us who review iPhones are, for understandable reasons, focused on what’s new between this year’s model and the last.

Fortunately, Apple’s release of a new iPhone SE in March 2022 is an opportunity to zoom out and take the long view. Most people don’t buy a new iPhone every year. The primary upgraders to the third-generation iPhone SE will be coming from older models. So here’s an attempt to provide a little more of a big-picture overview for owners of older iPhones who are wondering what’s new in the iPhone SE.

Consider the iPhone mini

Before we compare the new iPhone SE to older models, we want to put in a plug for a phone we love, the iPhone mini. (You can buy the 2021 model iPhone 13 mini or the 2020 iPhone 12 mini.) The iPhone minis offer a second ultra-wide camera, two more hours of battery life, support Face ID (rather than Touch ID), have the harder Ceramic Shield glass on their front, are compatible with MagSafe accessories, offer a larger and higher-quality OLED screen… and for all that, they’re smaller and lighter than the iPhone SE.

If you like a small phone, the iPhone mini is pretty great and has features the SE doesn’t, and when this story was posted, you could get an iPhone 12 mini model for only about $170 more than the iPhone SE. But if your heart is set on the iPhone SE, read on.

Upgrading from an iPhone 6

Both the iPhone SE and the iPhone 6 have a lot in common: the same general dimensions, displays, and Touch ID on the home button.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, which is four or five times faster than the iPhone 6S’s A8 chip. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE, which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming four more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those four additional hours of time are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery. The iPhone SE can also be charged wirelessly via a Qi-compatible charging pad, and also supports fast charging over USB.

The iPhone SE’s front-facing camera is improved, with 7-megapixel resolution. The rear camera is dramatically improved to 12 megapixels (versus eight on the iPhone 6). It offers optical image stabilization and supports Portrait Mode, a camera mode that interprets the foreground and background of images and can artfully blur the backgrounds of your photos. It also supports Deep Fusion, a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them.

Night mode time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second. The phone can shoot video in 4K resolution. Videos are captured with stereo microphones rather than in mono. The camera’s flash now supports Slow Sync, which captures images longer outside of the moment of flash to properly expose well-lit highlights and dim backgrounds. Smart HDR 4 is an upgrade to the ability of the camera to take photos in high-dynamic-range situations (where some areas are very bright and others very dark).

The iPhone SE’s display has True Tone, a technology that lets the iPhone adapt the white point of its display to room light—so “white” on the iPhone will look like other white objects in whatever room you’re in. And videos can be played back in Dolby Vision or HDR10 formats for higher dynamic range.

And the iPhone SE has an IP67 rating for splash, water, and dust resistance—in other words, it should survive in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. Apple will still ding you if you submerge your phone and it breaks, but the point here is that it’s much less likely to break if you drop it in a puddle accidentally.

Finally: You are going to lose your headphone jack! If you still rely on wired headphones, you can buy an adapter to connect them via Lightning.

Upgrading from a first-generation iPhone SE

The third-generation SE is quite a bit different from the first-generation model, which was based on the iPhone 5 body style. This one’s more in the iPhone 6 family, with rounded edges, and some people will tell you it feels a little bit slippery. (If you’d like a phone more like the first-generation SE in style, might we again recommend the iPhone 12 mini or iPhone 13 mini?) The new iPhone SE is larger: half an inch taller, a third of an inch wider, and an ounce heavier. The screen is 4.7 inches diagonal, so there’s more screen space, and the screen is brighter and offers a higher contrast ratio. At least the Touch ID button is the same.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, which is more than three times faster than the original model’s A9 chip. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE, which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming two more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those two additional hours are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery. The iPhone SE can also be charged wirelessly via a Qi-compatible charging pad, and also supports fast charging over USB.

The iPhone SE’s front-facing camera is improved, with 7-megapixel resolution compared to only 1.2 megapixels on the original. The rear camera has a wider aperture, letting in more light. It offers optical image stabilization and supports Portrait Mode, a camera mode that interprets the foreground and background of images and can artfully blur the backgrounds of your photos. It also supports Deep Fusion, a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them.

Night mode time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second. 4K video can now be shot at 60 frames per second, up from 30 on the iPhone 7. Videos are captured with stereo microphones rather than in mono. The camera’s flash now supports Slow Sync, which captures images longer outside of the moment of flash to capture both well-lit highlights and dim backgrounds. Smart HDR 4 is an upgrade to the ability of the camera to take photos in high-dynamic-range situations (where some areas are very bright and others very dark).

The iPhone SE’s display has True Tone, a technology that lets the iPhone adapt the white point of its display to room light—so “white” on the iPhone will look like other white objects in whatever room you’re in. And videos can be played back in Dolby Vision or HDR10 formats for higher dynamic range.

And the iPhone SE has an IP67 rating for splash, water, and dust resistance—in other words, it should survive in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. Apple will still ding you if you submerge your phone and it breaks, but the point here is that it’s much less likely to break if you drop it in a puddle accidentally.

Finally: You are going to lose your headphone jack! If you still rely on wired headphones, you can buy an adapter to connect them via Lightning.

Upgrading from an iPhone 6S

Both the iPhone SE and the iPhone 6S have a lot in common: the same displays, Touch ID on the home button, and a single 12-megapixel camera.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, which is more than three times faster than the iPhone 6S’s A9 chip. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming four more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those four additional hours are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery. The iPhone SE can also be charged wirelessly via a Qi-compatible charging pad, and also supports fast charging over USB.

The iPhone SE’s front-facing camera is improved, with 7-megapixel resolution. The rear camera offers optical image stabilization and supports Portrait Mode. This camera mode interprets the foreground and background of images and can artfully blur the backgrounds of your photos. It also supports Deep Fusion, a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them.

Night mode time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second. 4K video can now be shot at 60 frames per second, up from 30 on the iPhone 7. Videos are captured with stereo microphones rather than in mono. The camera’s flash now supports Slow Sync, which captures images longer outside of the moment of flash to capture well-lit highlights and dim backgrounds. Smart HDR 4 is an upgrade to the ability of the camera to take photos in high-dynamic-range situations (where some areas are very bright and others very dark).

The iPhone SE’s display has True Tone, a technology that lets the iPhone adapt the white point of its display to room light—so “white” on the iPhone will look like other white objects in whatever room you’re in. And videos can be played back in Dolby Vision or HDR10 formats for higher dynamic range.

And the iPhone SE has an IP67 rating for splash, water, and dust resistance—in other words, it should survive in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes. Apple will still ding you if you submerge your phone and it breaks, but the point here is that it’s much less likely to break if you drop it in a puddle accidentally.

Finally: You are going to lose your headphone jack! If you still rely on wired headphones, you can buy an adapter to connect them via Lightning.

Upgrading from an iPhone 7

Like the iPhone SE, the iPhone 7 is a throwback to an earlier era of iPhones. Both phones have a lot in common: the same displays, Touch ID on the home button, and a single 12-megapixel camera.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, which is three times faster than the iPhone 7’s A10 Fusion chip. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE, which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming two more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those two additional hours of time are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery. The iPhone SE can also be charged wirelessly via a Qi-compatible charging pad, and also supports fast charging over USB.

The iPhone SE supports Portrait Mode, a camera mode that interprets the foreground and background of images and can artfully blur the backgrounds of your photos. It also supports Deep Fusion, a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them.

Night mode time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second. 4K video can now be shot at 60 frames per second, up from 30 on the iPhone 7. Videos are captured with stereo microphones rather than in mono. The camera’s flash now supports Slow Sync, which captures images longer outside of the moment of flash to capture both well-lit highlights and dim backgrounds. Smart HDR 4 is an upgrade to the ability of the camera to take photos in high-dynamic-range situations (where some areas are very bright and others very dark).

The iPhone SE’s display has True Tone, a technology that lets the iPhone adapt the white point of its display to room light—so “white” on the iPhone will look like other white objects in whatever room you’re in. And videos can be played back in Dolby Vision or HDR10 formats for higher dynamic range.

Upgrading from an iPhone 8

Like the iPhone SE, the iPhone 8 is a throwback to an earlier era of iPhones. Both phones have a lot in common: the same displays, Touch ID on the home button, and a single 12-megapixel camera.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, 75 percent faster than the iPhone 8’s A11. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE, which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming two more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those two additional hours are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery.

The iPhone SE supports Portrait Mode, a camera mode that interprets the foreground and background of images and can artfully blur the backgrounds of your photos. It also supports Deep Fusion, a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them.

Night mode time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second. 4K video can now be shot at 60 frames per second, up from 30 on the iPhone 7. Videos are captured with stereo microphones rather than in mono. Smart HDR 4 is an upgrade to the ability of the camera to take photos in high-dynamic-range situations (where some areas are very bright and others very dark).

The iPhone SE’s display has True Tone, a technology that lets the iPhone adapt the white point of its display to room light—so “white” on the iPhone will look like other white objects in whatever room you’re in.

Upgrading from an iPhone SE (2nd generation)

Like the third-generation model, the second-generation iPhone SE is a throwback to an earlier era of iPhones. Both phones have a lot in common: the same displays, Touch ID on the home button, and a single 12-megapixel camera.

Here are the big differences: The third-generation SE has an A15 Bionic chip, 15 to 20 percent faster than the second-generation iPhone SE’s A13 Bionic chip. And the new SE supports 5G cellular networks, so it may be faster than the older SE, which only supports 4G LTE. (Unfortunately, the new SE doesn’t support 5GmmWave, an ultra-fast short-range version of 5G that brings broadband speeds to limited areas.)

The new SE offers improved battery life, with Apple claiming two more hours of video playback. Keep in mind that an older iPhone will have a well-loved battery that will provide a lot less usage time than a brand-new one would, and those two additional hours are when compared to the previous model when it had a brand-new battery.

The third-generation SE’s camera supports Deep Fusion, which is a feature that Apple says enhances extremely detailed images (of sweaters and dogs, for example) by seamlessly capturing multiple images and blending them into one. It also supports Photographic Styles, a feature introduced in 2021 that lets you set some general preferences for the iPhone’s imaging pipeline, so all the photos you take can have a certain look to them. Night mode Time-lapse, which allows you to take time-lapse videos in low-light settings, is supported on the new SE, as is slo-mo video at 1080p and 120 frames per second.

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