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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.

Apple iPhone SE 2020

Apple took the wraps of the 2020 iPhone SE this week.

It’s the second iPhone to carry the SE label. The new iPhone SE feels more up to the minute today than if Apple had launched it a couple of months earlier.

That’s because it is a lower cost iPhone. New Zealand prices start at $800 for a 64GB version.

Money is going to be tight for many people in the coming months. Phones are a necessity. There will presumably be less appetite for advanced features.1

The best stuff is under the bonnet

The price is lower. It is the cheapest new iPhone model now on sale. The outside resembles an iPhone 8. Yet the inside includes much of the technology found in premium models.

It’s not so much there are compromises. It’s more than the iPhone SE does not include the fancy high end features that bump up the price of a phone.

Apple could sell these by the container load. It looks like being the right product at the right time.

Bionic

In Apple’s words, the iPhone SE is ‘built on the chassis of the iPhone 8’. The processor is the A13 Bionic chip that powers the high-end iPhone 11 Pro. When that model was release only six months ago it was the most powerful phone processor on the market.

Going with the A13 Bionic chip in an $800 phone makes the iPhone SE excellent value. The chip handles many high end tasks. It works wonders with photography. Among other things, it means the phone can handle AI and augmented reality.

The rest of the specification is higher than you might expect. There is Wi-Fi 6 and support for gigabit LTE data traffic, although not 5G. That’s not the problem you might think it could be.

While 5G is being rolled out everywhere, there’s not much a phone user can do with 5G that they can’t do with 4G. Only hard core geeks would notice any difference.

The iPhone SE comes with dual sim and eSim support. There is wireless charging and fast charging. The base model has 64GB of storage.

This all adds up to a significant upgrade to anyone coming from a two year old iPhone.

Apple iPhone SE white

Smaller, hand-sized

One important aspect of the iPhone SE is its size. Most of the world is moving towards huge displays. Apple has stuck with a 4.7-inch screen. This means there is less viewing room, but it also means most people can use the phone one handed.

There has been talk about large phones being sexist as woman’s hands are smaller than men’s. Maybe. The reality is that most men also have to use two hands to drive a modern flagship handset. Heaven knows we even call them handsets under those conditions.

Some people will see the smaller screen size as a reason to avoid the SE. Many more will delight in having a more pocketable phone.

There are a couple of echos of older iPhone designs in the SE. It has a Touch ID button. This means there are large bezels above and below the display. High-end iPhones have not had these for a couple of years now. It’s unlikely anyone will view having Touch ID instead of Face ID as a compromise.

If there is a compromise, it lies in the camera technology. The iPhone SE has a single 12 megapixel camera. Android phones in the same price range tend to have two or three cameras.

Yet even here, things are not straight forward. Apple’s A13 Bionic chip is so capable and the software driving Apple cameras is now so advanced that, in practice, users won’t be at a disadvantage. For almost everyone in the SE target market, the new camera will be a significant upgrade.

Where the iPhone SE fits

The biggest danger for Apple is the iPhone SE will cannibalise sales of other models. There are Apple customers who bit the bullet and paid a king’s ransom for recent iPhone models because they needed the iOS integration more than the premium features they were also paying for.

Some iPhone buyers who were considering buying second hand may now reconsider. Apple dominates the second hand phone sector. The arrival of the SE may have a knock on effect that goes well beyond the iPhone world.

For all the reasons noted above, Apple has delivered the right phone at the right time. There will be other iPhone models later this year. Although that’s uncertain given events elsewhere. Yet the shine went off the premium phone market well before lockdown and economic uncertainty appeared.

It’s hard to judge how the market will turn out. Apple has enjoyed mixed success with lower priced iPhones in the past. Yet given the need to trim budgets while staying productive, the iPhone SE has turned up when it is most needed.


  1. Yes, you can pay less elsewhere and still get a good phone. There are huge productivity gains for people already invested in Apple to stick with iOS. ↩︎

Apple’s iPhone 11 is all about the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a phone and said much the same thing. So let’s put it another way: Apple’s iPhone 11 is even more about the camera.

You can’t miss the cameras on Apple’s iPhone 11. Two lenses and a camera bump dominate the phone’s rear.

Not so long ago camera bumps were controversial. People fretted they spoiled the clean lines of otherwise near pure metal-glass slabs.

Bump baby bump

Apple’s earlier camera bumps were small. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the entire bump, including the non-bump flash, measures around 30 by 10mm. On the iPhone XS Plus the bump is more like a 25 by 10mm strip. The iPhone 11 bump is 30 by 30 mm and squarish.

iphones 7 Plus XS Max 11
iPhone bump evolution: 7 Plus, XS Max, 11

This physical dominance reflects the camera system’s importance. Yes, that’s what Apple calls the collective photography components in the iPhone 11. Camera system may be marketing, but it makes sense.

Speaking of marketing, Apple’s iPhone 11 message is all about the photography.

That should not surprise anyone. Two years ago I wrote that modern phones were all about the camera. It was true then. It is more true today.

It’s a camera

Strip away the marketing and Apple’s iPhone 11 is a camera packed in a phone’s body. It is an excellent camera that happens to sit alongside a terrific phone and pocket computer.

Great though it may be, all that non-camera stuff is almost a footnote.

By camera standards it is tiny. 1

While the hardware is clever, it’s clear from the size and depth there is more to picture quality than optics. A lot of smart software does the heavy lifting.

iPhone 11 photography in practice

What does this mean in practice? To understand take a look at this example shot I took one night in December from a Coromandel Beach.

Mercury Bay Moonlight December 2019
A casual iPhone 11 shot. Click on this to see a larger version.

It’s stunning, but it shouldn’t be. I’m no photographer. Before we go on, let’s make one thing clear, I wasn’t making an effort to take a great picture to show off the iPhone 11. This was a casual shot taken on the spur of the moment.

While walking home from dinner, I noticed the moon coming out from behind the clouds. I took the camera out, stood on the beach and that was it.

The iPhone did all the hard work. My role was choosing the scene, holding the camera and timing my click to take the shot between the flashes of the lamps on the harbour buoys. It was that easy.

Sure, it wasn’t pitch black at the time, but it was dark. The naked eye couldn’t pick out the plants in the foreground, let along the individual blades of grass.

It looked more impressive when I got back to my room and looked again at the shot. It seemed like a professional picture. Sure, experts can nitpick this statement. Over the years I’ve edited newspaper sections and magazine. I’ve hired professional photographers. From my editor’s point of view it looks like a professional photo.

Night mode

What I didn’t know at the time, I only had the phone a few days, is Apple’s camera system includes a night mode. It is automatic and kicks in when needed.

Night mode simulates long exposure: one, two or three seconds depending on conditions. In the case of my picture, that’s important because the navigation buoys in the harbour flick light on every second or so. The window between them is shorter than the camera needs for a long exposure shot.

Night mode isn’t to everyone’s taste. There may be times you don’t want or need it. That’s cool. It’s possible to turn it off. This works in much the same way as the automatic flash, which can kick in as needed. Again, you can use a manual setting to turn it off.

When I take night time pictures with my digital SLR, I need a tripod to keep the camera still. My hands shake too much for a traditional long exposure shot. That’s not necessary with the iPhone 11. Look again at the example, it’s crisp and clear.

iPhone 11 makes bad shots harder

As my trip went on, it became clear. The iPhone camera system makes it hard to take bad shots. Of course, you can still take terrible shots if you work at it. My point here is that casual, off the cuff snaps often come out looking great.

For a second example take a look at the shot of three chilli bottles. I made no effort to compose something artistic. All I did was line up the bottles so I could remember what sauces to buy later.

Three Chilli Bottles
Another casual iPhone 11 shot that you wouldn’t expect to look good.

It’s not art, it’s an aide-mémoire. And yet somehow it’s also a bit, well, artistic.

Keen price

The iPhone 11 has been my day-to-day phone now for about four weeks. Before that I was using the iPhone XS Max. The 11 is a little smaller, but otherwise on a par with the XS Max. It costs about $1000 less. With iPhone 11 prices starting at $1350, it compares well with Android flagship phones.

The two other big brands in New Zealand: Samsung and Huawei, also have great cameras on their top phones.

Each brand has its own set of camera strengths and weaknesses. They are all good.

That said, for my needs, Apple’s iPhone 11 (and 11 Plus) have the best all-round mix of features, function and usability.

Soon, I’ll write a more comprehensive overview of my iPhone 11 experience. There are other surprises worth sharing.

Like most, but not all, product reviews on this site, I didn’t buy the iPhone 11. Apple gave me a loan unit. It’s a bright red model and will go back to the company. For the record I own an iPhone 7 Plus.


  1. It may not do everything my digital SLR can do, distant wildlife close ups remain tricky, but it can handle most of my work photography needs and then some. ↩︎

https://brooksreview.net/2019/11/why-you-should-ditch-your-laptop-for-ipad-pro/

Ben Brooks argues that you should ditch your laptop for an iPad Pro. He says the iPad has shown it is a better tool than a laptop.

Up to a point I agree with Brooks. The iPad Pro can be a better work tool than a laptop in many circumstances. One day it may always outperform the more traditional computer format all the time.

The gap between what you can do on an iPad compared with what you can do on a laptop has almost closed. Every new version of iOS makes the gap smaller. That will accelerate now Apple has split iPadOS from iOS.

iPad Pro not there yet

But we’re still not all the way there yet. Some tasks are still better done on the laptop. Take, for example, troubleshooting a web page. Despite there being excellent iOS web inspection tools, my favourite is Inspect Browser, this still works better on a laptop with a desktop-style browser. Doing this work on an iPad is clumsy and feels wrong. 

Apart from anything else, some web pages still force the iPad to a mobile version. This makes troubleshoooting hard. Although you can now demand the desktop page.

On the other hand, there are tasks that are better on an iPad Pro than on a laptop. I’m a journalist, I write for a living, all day most days. Writing is arguably better on an iPad Pro than a laptop.

I was surprised to find the iPadOS version of Microsoft Word is a better user experience than the MacOS version. This could be in part because the iPad version is simpler.

I no longer use my MacBook as a portable. When I’m on the move the iPad is my preferred device. I fly with it, take it cafes and to meetings. Soon I will drop the MacBook, but not yet.

iA Writer 5.2 Macos white screen

iA Writer 5.2 Macos white screenLeft to my own devices I prefer to use iA Writer over any other writing tool. It’s been my main word processor for the past seven years.

This might sound odd because iA Writer isn’t a word processor. It is a simple text editor app that runs on both iOS and MacOS. I have installed it on my MacBook, iPad and iPhone.

Late last year the software was updated to version 5.2. While iA Writer was already my favourite writing tool, the newest version makes for a better experience.

That’s because the update addresses the one aspect of the software I wasn’t comfortable with.

Stripped down

Unlike word processors and other fancy writing tools, iA Writer has a stripped down interface. I’m using it now to write this post on my Mac.

All I can see on the display is the Mac’s built-in menu bar across the top. A blank screen that I’m filling with my words and a small status bar at the bottom of the display. It’s the nearest digital equivalent to writing with a manual typewriter on a blank sheet of paper.

If that’s too much, you can enter a full screen mode and the menu bar disappears from sight. There’s also a focus mode that can hide everything except the paragraph or sentence you are working on.

No fiddling with iA Writer

This simplicity allows me to focus on writing. There’s a wonderful passage of text written by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams where he describes the creative ways he prevaricates with his work. It involves tinkering with fonts, type sizes, widths and so on.

The mere presence of all those options can be a distraction. iA Writer does away with it. As every long-term Apple user understands, restricting your options can boost productivity.

While, on one level, this iA Writer approach has always worked well for me, it has, at times been a problem. In the earlier versions of the software those choices were too restrictive. The text size was fixed and there was a strict monospace Courier-like typewriter typeface.

Legibility

Good in theory, but in practice we reached a point where I was struggling to read my text on the screen.

I have an eye problem and every so often have restricted vision, to get around it I need larger, clearer typefaces. When that wasn’t an option with iA Writer I found myself using different writing tools. The, now apparently defunct or neglected Byword was a solid alternative with variable fonts and text sizes.

iA Writer addressed these issues with the last two releases of the software. Version 5.2 builds on version 5. There are now three typeface choices: Mono, Duo and Quattro. As the names suggest the first is monospaced, the second uses up to two spaces and the third can use as many as four.

There’s a lot of nerdy material on the iA Writer website about fonts. It all boils down to the newer options making it much easier to read your words on the screen.

Uno, Duo… Quattro

The most recent typeface, Quattro combines the benefits of fixed and proportional spaced fonts. It is particularly easy on my eyes. Better still, it is legible if I need to read or write on a smaller screen, say an iPhone.

iA Writer has always done a good job of exporting to Microsoft Word. The latest version improves this functionality. If you want you can write documents with footnotes, tables or even inline images and convert them to Word .docx format. This is essential for my work as almost every client expects to see a Word document.

The software also integrates with other services. The only one I use all the time is the post to WordPress option. This was sometimes a little tricky with earlier versions of iA Writer but has been good since version four.

Sharing an iA Writer strength

You can also save documents as HTML, which is powerful when fixing web copy. As you might expect with a made-for-Apple app, iA Writer deals brilliantly with the internal Apple sharing functionality. They work well with the iOS Files app and on both operating systems with iCloud. One neat aspect of this is that I can draft a post on my Mac and then edit on an iPad or iPhone later. You can also link them both to Dropbox.

When I first purchased iA Writer for iOS, the price was, from memory, US$3. That was an introductory deal. It later moved to $5. Today it is US$9. The MacOS version has increased more in price, today it is US$29. Get it from the app store. You have to buy the app again when there’s a major upgrade, but the price is low enough for this to not be a deal breaker.

There is a US$20 Windows app and a free one for Android. There are trial versions at the iA Writer web site.

One last thing. iA Writer stores documents as plain text, but it uses Markdown formatting. This is a simple way of adding headers, bold, italics, hyperlinks and so on to you text. These show up in the text editor as punctuation marks. You can then create a preview to show how the document looks after converting it to HTML, Word format or whatever. It might sound off-putting, but in practice it’s easy to use.