There’s a new budget iPhone in town. Styled like its predecessors, the third-gen Apple iPhone SE introduces a handful of useful upgrades – including 5G connectivity and the latest Cupertino silicon.
Starting at £419/$429 for the standard variant, it’s easily the cheapest smartphone in Apple’s current line-up. But with an A15 processor inside, plus an improved camera system and better battery life than before, the updated iPhone SE doesn’t skimp on specs. In fact, on some counts, it beats both the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone 11 (the oldest full-fat iPhone that’s still officially available).
So if you’re looking for a cheap iPhone, should you opt for the iPhone SE? Or should you shell out more for a former flagship? Read on to find out which Apple handset offers better bang for buck.
Budget iPhone tech specs
|iPhone SE (2022)||iPhone 12 Mini||iPhone 11|
|Display||4.7in LCD, 326ppi||5.4in OLED, 476ppi||6.1in LCD, 326ppi|
|Processor||A15 Bionic||A14 Bionic||A13 Bionic|
|Cameras||12MP (rear), 7MP (front)||12+12MP (rear), 12MP (front)||12+12MP (rear), 12MP (front)|
|Battery||15 hours (video)||15 hours (video)||17 hours (video)|
|Security||Touch ID||Face ID||Face ID|
Price: it’s all in tiers
As above, the Apple iPhone SE (2022) starts at £419/$429 for the 64GB variant. That increases to £469/$479 for 128GB of storage space, or £569/$579 if you need the largest 256GB capacity. Those numbers make the third-gen SE Apple’s most affordable smartphone by a clear margin.
By comparison, the iPhone 12 Mini – a scaled-down version of the iPhone 12 from 2020 – starts at £579/$599 for 64GB of storage space, rising to £629/$649 for 128GB, topping out at £729/$749 for 256GB.
The iPhone 11 – released in 2019 and still available to buy directly from Apple – slots neatly between the two handsets. The 64GB version will set you back £489/$499, while the 128GB variant comes in at £539/$549. There’s no 256GB option.
Design: distinctive siblings
They might share a lineage, but there’s no mistaking these three devices. Each has a distinct design philosophy.
The iPhone 12 Mini adopts the retro-futuristic look still favoured by Apple for its current flagship devices. Aping the flat-panel chassis of the iPhone 4, it benefits from an aluminium frame and comes outfitted with a sturdy Ceramic Shield screen covering. As the Mini moniker suggests, its dimensions strike a balance between palm-filling and pocket-friendly, standing 131.5mm tall and fronted by a notched 5.4in display.
Its forebear – the iPhone 11 – takes a different approach altogether. Its styling represents the ultimate evolution of Apple’s sculpted glass concept. No flat sides here: it’s smooth, precision-milled curves all the way. Significantly taller than the Mini at 150.9mm, it features a 6.1in screen.
What about the SE? Despite the hardware updates, it sticks with the look of its predecessor – a look borrowed from the iPhone 8, first seen in 2017. It’s a shell that’s aged pretty well. There’s a certain timeless appeal to the aluminium and glass chassis, giving the SE nostalgia value. Plus Apple has upgraded the back panel with the iPhone 13’s tougher glass.
That said, there’s no escaping that the hefty bezels above and below the SE’s 4.7in display look distinctly dated in 2022. And because of those bezels, the iPhone SE is actually taller than the iPhone 12 Mini by 6.9mm, despite the former’s smaller screen. A small, affordable iPhone is no bad thing, but those chunky borders look like a clear waste of precious space in this era of all-screen smartphones. If you want an iPhone without them, you’re looking at the 11 or 12 Mini.
Display: small, medium & large
Apple’s affordable trio offer very different display options. The third-gen iPhone SE serves up the smallest screen of the lot, with a 4.7in panel that’s unchanged since from the previous edition (or the iPhone 8). It’s ideal for those who prefer a compact display they can easily reach a thumb across, but it’s also the clearest point of compromise on the SE. Yes, it’s perfectly serviceable for everyday use. It’s bright outdoors and sharp enough at 326 ppi. But there’s no OLED wow factor here: it’s LCD all the way.
In contrast, the iPhone 12 Mini ships with a 5.4in OLED Super Retina XDR display, with up to 1200 nits HDR maximum brightness. Translation? Deep blacks, vibrant colours and immersive contrast. It’s also significantly sharper at 476 ppi. That 5.4in dimension makes the iPhone 12 Mini the Goldilocks option for most people, offering more screen real estate than the iPhone SE, in a package that doesn’t dwarf your paw. It’s not really miniature, but not really massive – simply manageable.
As for the iPhone 11, it occupies a slightly odd position in 2022. It ships with the biggest screen of the three devices, measuring in at frame-filling 6.1in. But don’t let the Liquid Retina label fool you: the iPhone 11’s panel is still an LCD number. And its sharpness is identical to the SE at 326ppi. So if size matters, this is the affordable iPhone to go for – but only the 12 Mini will give you that crisp, delicious OLED experience.
Cameras: two against one
One area where Apple’s former flagships have the clear upper edge is in the camera department. Both the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone 11 share the same pair of 12MP rear cameras. One is a standard wide-angle snapper, the other an ultra-wide for capturing more of a given scene. They use the same front-facing sensor as well. The only major difference? The iPhone 12 Mini can capture Dolby Vision HDR video.
No such luck for the latest iPhone SE: it’s still equipped with the same single sensor on the back, which means you’re stuck with a single focal length. That said, its 12MP f/1.8 wide-angle camera has been capturing solid snaps since it launched on the iPhone 8.
Apple has also promised improvements to “computational photography”, courtesy of the new A15 Bionic processor inside the third-gen iPhone SE. These include Smart HDR 4 for sensitive colour and contrast adjustments, support for Live Text content detection in the Camera app, plus improved noise-reduction when recording video in low-light.
How the updated iPhone SE’s camera performs in real world conditions will have to wait for our full review. As we learnt from the previous generation of the iPhone SE, the processor has a big impact when it comes to image processing and quality. With just a single sensor, the SE will never be as versatile as the iPhone 11 or 12 Mini – nor will it deliver the same depth of field effects in Portrait Mode. But there’s every chance it will still be capable of capturing excellent images in most conditions.
Performance & battery life: close run thing
Just as the last iPhone SE launched in 2020 with a processor borrowed from its contemporary flagship stablemate, so its successor comes equipped with Apple’s latest A15 Bionic processor – a chip it shares with the range-topping iPhone 13.
That gives the third-gen iPhone SE some serious performance potential. While it’s almost certain to have less RAM than the iPhone 13 (we can’t be sure, because Apple is famously coy about memory figures), that A15 silicon inside means the cheapest iPhone in 2022 will be no slouch when it comes to multi-tasking, gaming and image processing.
The A15 Bionic chip also puts the new SE a generation ahead of the iPhone 12 Mini, which relies on Apple’s A14 processor, and two generations ahead of the iPhone 11. How big will the power difference be in real terms? It’s tricky to say without a side-by-side test, especially when you factor in the potential for different RAM values. The biggest gains from the upgraded chip will likely come in the efficiency stakes, with the A15 demanding less power from the SE’s battery.
Speaking of which, Apple claims that improved battery chemistry, the efficient A15 chip and “tight integration” with iOS 15 mean the upgraded cell inside the iPhone SE can now match the iPhone 12 Mini on longevity. Apple doesn’t publish mAh capacities for the cells in its smartphones, but both devices are quoted as good for up to 15 hours of video playback. Only the iPhone 11 trumps that, promising 17 hours.
Features & perks: saving face
One of the headline additions to the third-gen iPhone SE is 5G connectivity, which allows the most affordable iPhone in 2022 to connect to the fastest mobile data networks (where available). This brings it bang up to date with the iPhone 12 Mini, which also features 5G connectivity. The iPhone 11 is the loser here, with no 5G.
Both the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone SE (2022) ship in 64GB, 128GB and 256GB storage capacities, while the iPhone 11 tops out at 128GB. All three models support both wireless and fast charging, with a compatible adapter, and all three devices run iOS 15, Apple’s latest software version.
As the presence of a Home button suggests, the updated iPhone SE still relies on Touch ID for security. There’s no support for Face ID – so you’ll need your fingerprint ready to unlock it. Cynical upselling or a clever cost-cutting compromise? Probably a bit of both. Those who continue to enjoy the form factor of the iPhone 8 will probably still be happy to use the familiar fingerprint sensor setup. And those who want a full-screen phone with Face ID can stump up for the iPhone 11 or iPhone 12 Mini instead.
Initial verdict: which cheap iPhone is better?
Spec sheets fully considered, picking between the three cheapest iPhone models in 2022 is no mean feat. The iPhone SE (2022), the iPhone 12 Mini and the iPhone 11 are still available directly from Apple – and the price difference between their 64GB versions spans just £110. Yet each represents a distinctly different proposition for a budget iPhone.
The iPhone 12 Mini is very much a modern smartphone. It’s got a full-frontal display, Face ID, dual-camera setup, 5G connectivity and a speedy processor. And its dimensions strike a neat balance between portability and usability. It’s clearly the best option for those happy to part with £579 (which pushes the definition of affordability by anyone’s standards).
The updated iPhone SE is a different breed altogether. Its throwback shell is bigger than the iPhone 12 Mini’s, yet it features an LCD screen that’s less vibrant and smaller by 0.7in. But it also delivers just enough highlights to make it very tempting for the price tag: 5G, 15-hour battery life and Apple’s latest A15 processor. If you’re upgrading from anything older than an iPhone X, the SE is now an even more compelling choice for those who don’t want to break the bank.
Then there’s the iPhone 11. Still attractive, still powerful, equipped with the same cameras as the iPhone 12 Mini and benefitting from a bigger 6.1in screen (albeit an LCD one). If you want the full-size iPhone experience and don’t need the absolute latest in performance, this former flagship represents tempting value. The budget iPhone choice is yours.