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Apple iPhone SE 2020

Looking for mid-range phone? You’d need to be deep into Android or have an irrational Apple aversion to walk past the 2020 iPhone SE.

For a start it is a bargain at NZ$800. In effect, you get the brain of a 2020 iPhone 11 in the body of a 2017 iPhone 8.

That makes it competitive with a slew of mid-priced Android phones.

Android competitors

The same money would buy the somewhat ordinary Oppo Reno2. Spend another $50 and you could get a Samsung Galaxy S10e. Pay $100 less and you could have a Huawei Nova 5T.

That $800 buys all the power of a top level iPhone costing three times as much.

If you’ve put up with Android because the iPhone was out of your price range, the SE is a get out of gaol card.

It will also appeal to iPhone upgraders who have squeezed years out of earlier models.

High performance

Inside the case you get the same Apple A13 Bionic processor that is used in the iPhone 11. It’s not crippled in any way. You get all that power. It means apps perform much faster than on any other phone in this price range.

There is a small downside. The A13 Bionic processor chews through battery life. You’ll still get 24 hours between charges. The phone comfortably makes it through a working day with plenty left over for leisure. But it doesn’t have the iPhone 11’s ability to go two days without a charge.

Apple only includes a 5W charger in the box with the iPhone SE. That means it takes longer to charge than you might expect. If you have a compatible USB-C charger with a higher rating, it will charge the phone faster.

The iPhone SE does have Qi wireless charging. It’s a little slower than the 5W charger, but not noticeably so.

Apple iPhone SE 2020 colours

iPhone 8 body

Compared with the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE feels small and light. It weighs 148g compared with 194g for the iPhone 11. In practice that’s a bigger difference than you might imagine.

Physically it is much smaller than the iPhone 11. It fits comfortably in my hand and it is just about possible to operate one-handed. That probably means women and people with small hands will struggle.

The iPhone 8 body means you get the familiar home button. And there is Touch ID. It feels solid enough. That light weight, thinness and small size does not mean flimsiness.

Like the iPhone 8, the SE screen doesn’t extend to the top and bottom of the phone front. So there is no need for a notch.

Screen small by 2020 standards

By 2020 standards the amount of screen real estate left over is small. Most modern phones have a screen that extends across the entire front face.

The iPhone SE has a 4.7 inch display which is fine for everyday use. You could watch movies or streaming video, but this is not the best phone and certainly not the best iPhone for that application. Yet it is more than enough for FaceTime or other video calls.

If it’s more than three years since you upgraded you’ll find the design comforting, even familiar.

Usually reviews of mid-range phones talk in terms of compromise. The focus is on what you don’t get when you spend less. It might help to flip this logic on its head and think instead in terms of the extras, say, iPhone 11 buyers get that SE buyers down.

iPhone 8 camera

Apple has used what amounts to the same camera system found in the iPhone 8 in the SE. It is a single lens with a 12-megapixel sensor.

While the camera hardware hasn’t changed from the iPhone 8, the processor and software driving it has. You get all the processing power and intelligence of the iPhone 11.

There are times when it is hard to tell the difference between ordinary day time shots made on the two phones. The detail is good, colours are nicely reproduced.

Things start to diverge in low light conditions. Yet there is clearly more noise than you would find taking the same shot on an iPhone 11. The contrast is less striking and you may need to tinker a little to brighten up images.

The SE does well. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better phone camera at this price. It does especially well with video. You’ll notice the quality difference between this and an iPhone 11, but if you’re coming from any phone that is more than two years old you’ll take much better pictures.

All 2020 iPhones come with the same version of iOS. In this case iOS 13.4 was installed but upgraded to 13.4.1 during setup.

The main difference between using iOS 13.4 on the 11 and the iPhone SE boils down to using the home button instead of the flip up from the bottom gesture on iPhones without a home button. I found this hard going as I had become so used to the new user interface.

A couple of points not covered above. Like all modern iPhones, there is no headphone jack. Apple includes a pair of earbuds with a lightening connector in the box. You can, of course, use Bluetooth headphones with the SE.

iPhone SE 2020 verdict

Apple says the iPhone SE is winning customers from Android. I’ve also seen a lot of talk among New Zealanders who own older iPhone models but don’t want to spend $3000 on a flagship phone, upgrading to the SE.

Both stories make sense. This may not be the most exciting iPhone from a technology point of view, but it is the iPhone a lot of people have been waiting for. Not everyone wants a fancy top-of-the-line engineering marvel. Some people just want a good phone.

For now, it is the best mid-price phone deal on the market. You can’t buy more phone at this price. As it says at the top of this post, if you have $800 to spend on a phone, you’d need to have a good reason to dismiss the iPhone SE.

For the last four or five years camera upgrades have dominated new phone launches. Now Apple is doing the same with the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro which comes with added lidar.

The processor upgrade in the 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro is incremental. Apple has done much more with the rear camera. Or, to be more accurate, cameras. The cluster includes two cameras and a lidar sensor.

For the last five years, phone upgrades have centred on beefed up cameras. This follows that path.

The iPad’s main wide angle camera is like the 28mm equivalent camera on the earlier 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It has 12 megapixels. If there’s a performance difference, I can’t see it.

By tablet standards it’s still a great camera although it’s not as good as the camera on the iPhone 11. You wouldn’t expect that.

Apple 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro ultra wide camera

 

 

Second rear camera

There’s also a 10 megapixel ultra-wide angle camera. It’s the first time the iPad has had a second camera. For the most part it helps the iPad Pro take better pictures in poor light conditions.

In practice the two cameras work together much of the time.

Taking pictures with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro is unwieldy compared with the iPhone. Using on screen controls also gets in the way. And it feels a bit odd standing there with a magazine-size device shooting images.

Wide-angle lens

The wide angle lens makes this even harder when focusing on near objects. That’s because a lever effect comes into play, so a small movement moves the camera target a fair distance.

No doubt there are enthusiasts who swear by the iPad Pro camera and do amazing things with it. For me, it is for opportunistic snapshots. I also use the iPad camera as a replacement for a scanner. It does a great job of capturing images sitting on my desk.

On the front of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a seven megapixel camera for selfies and video conferencing. It’s limited when compared to the rear cameras, but is great for FaceTime or Skype calls.

Video conference camera better than laptops

I’ve been using it while working from home. The picture quality is way better than you get on a MacBook or, for that matter, most Windows laptops.1

The only issue with the front camera is that sits at the top of the display when you hold the iPad in portrait mode. This is the same as the camera on an iPhone.

It makes sense when you are using the tablet as a tablet. Yet when it is sitting on your desk, perhaps with an attached keyboard, the camera is off the left hand side.

The software is clever enough to adjust the image so that when you look face on at the iPad in landscape mode, it centres your image. If you want to look people in the eye, you need to remember to stare at the lefthand edge of the display.

Measuring with lidar on a 2020 12.9-inch iPad Pro

Lidar

When Apple told me there was a lidar sensor, my first thought that it would gauge depth. This would help with photography. Although that’s possible and, in theory, could be a future software update, it’s not why Apple included the sensor.

For Apple, lidar is all about improving the augmented reality experience. You can use it to accurately measure the space around you.

The iPad has a new iPadOS measuring app that uses this. More often lidar is used in conjunction with augmented realty apps and games. You might, for example, have AR games characters running around your living room.

Lidar technology is used by autonomous and semi-autonomous cars to map the immediate world around them. The iPad version works up to 5 metres which is more than enough inside most homes, but is less useful out of doors.

There’s no question this technology is clever, but I consider it a nice-to-have feature. It is far from essential as things stand right now. That could all change with the arrival of new applications that make use of it. Nothing springs to mind, but if it did I’d be a wealthy software entrepreneur not a journalist.


  1. The iPad Pro video calling experience is vastly better than calling on any laptop. This alone could justify the expense of buying a 2020 iPad Pro. ↩︎

Apple’s 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch brings a useful speed bump, overhauls the main camera, adds full mouse and trackpad support.

This is part one of a series of posts looking at the new iPad Pro.

The 2018 re-imagining of the iPad Pro was a huge leap forward for tabletkind.

Apple created a laptop replacement that keeps the advantages of a tablet. The result was to deliver a productive computing experience. It has little in common with the Windows alternatives, yet is still capable of serious work1.

This year’s update builds on that. Most, but not all, of the hardware changes are incremental. We will look at the big changes in future posts. What has changed since 2018 is that iPadOS has come of age. The software is now far better suited to mobile computing.

All the best things about the 2018 iPad Pro remain. The design remains stunning.

The screen is still beautiful. In use it is nicer than any other tablet display I’ve seen. There is next to nothing in the way of bezel, that’s the thin strip surrounding the display. Apple’s designers squared off the edges and went for rounded corners. It feels so right that it’s hard to envisage what a better design could look like.

Apple 2020 iPad Pro

Bionic

While the A12Z Bionic system on a chip is faster than its ancestor, few will notice much improvement. The 2018 model used the A12X. Like its predecessor there are eight cores divided into two groups. It uses four cores for high performance, four for efficiency.

The A12Z is not a Great Leap Forward, more a pigeon step in the right direction. No-one is going to upgrade their iPad Pro for a better raw computing performance.

I noticed a little more power with graphics-oriented tasks like photo-editing. There was extra speed when working with audio applications. Other high performance tasks were also a tad faster than before. While the responsiveness was noticeable, it wasn’t enough to measure. It felt better, but I can’t put numbers on it.

When it comes to everyday tasks like browsing or writing; I couldn’t see a difference.

That’s not to say the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch isn’t fast by today’s computing standards.

The 2020 iPad Pro not as grunty as the new MacBook Pro. But that’s a high octane laptop for power users. It performs very well compared with the 2019 MacBook Air which uses the Intel Core i3 processor.

2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch battery life

I’ve used the 2018 iPad Pro as my main portable device for over a year. When I’m not pushing it hard, the battery can last for as long as 12 hours continual use.

iPad battery life is dependent on the task in hand. Run high end software and you might only get six hours of intense computing.

With basic tablet tasks, the 2018 iPad Pro is good for a full day and then some. I could get 10 hours. When taking meal breaks into account there’s enough to get me from Auckland to Singapore2.

There is a fraction less battery life in the 2020 iPad Pro 12.9-inch. It can still cope with a full day’s everyday work with a little left over. I managed a little over nine hours. Thanks to the Covid–19 lockdown, I didn’t get to test this on the road.

You might get the impression from above that the performance is good, but not outstanding. After all, we’re talking about an incremental speed bump when compared to a two year old iPad.

This fails to take into account how far the 2018 iPad Pro was ahead of its time. When Apple launched the 2018 iPad Pro, it was, according to some benchmarks, the fastest portable computing in the market. The 2020 is still blistering fast by everyday laptop standards.


  1. It’s remarkable how unlike the two are considering most of the time they are used for similar tasks. ↩︎
  2. I doubt I’ll be doing that again any time soon. ↩︎

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎