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iPhone SE (2022) review: A pint-sized powerhouse

The new iPhone SE delivers best-in-class performance and great photos for an affordable price, if you can live with a small screen

iPhone SE 2022 back of phone Midnight model
Editor's Choice
(Image: © Future)

Our Verdict

The iPhone SE 2022 is the fastest phone you can buy under $500 and it delivers great photos from its single rear camera. It's also the best small phone, but there are better affordable options if you want a bigger screen and longer battery life.

For

  • Fastest performance for the money
  • Very good photo quality
  • More durable design
  • Compact and easy to use with one hand

Against

  • Small display with big bezels
  • No Night mode for camera
  • Doesn't support mmWave 5G

Tom's Guide Verdict

The iPhone SE 2022 is the fastest phone you can buy under $500 and it delivers great photos from its single rear camera. It's also the best small phone, but there are better affordable options if you want a bigger screen and longer battery life.

Pros

  • +

    Fastest performance for the money

  • +

    Very good photo quality

  • +

    More durable design

  • +

    Compact and easy to use with one hand

Cons

  • -

    Small display with big bezels

  • -

    No Night mode for camera

  • -

    Doesn't support mmWave 5G

The iPhone SE 2022 is a phone that crams modern guts into a classic design that's so small it’s almost quaint. And despite the retro vibes the end result is pretty compelling for those on a budget.

For $429, you get 5G connectivity and the same A15 Bionic processor that's in the iPhone 13, which means you'll enjoy best-in-class performance and great looking photos. Apple also promises two hours of extra battery life with the new iPhone SE 3 versus the previous iPhone SE 2020 along with a more durable design. And while you don't get Face ID, some may prefer the familiar Home button with Touch ID for quickly unlocking your phone. 

You’ll need to accept some trade-offs to get an iPhone this affordable, such as the chunky bezels, lack of Night mode and no Verizon Ultra Wideband. But as you’ll see in my iPhone SE 2022 review, there’s no denying the appeal of carrying around a phone this compact that’s so freakin’ powerful and capable. It's easily one of the best cheap phones around. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Cheat sheet

iPhone SE 2022 back of phone

(Image credit: Future)
  • The iPhone SE 2022 delivers flagship-level performance, thanks to its A15 Bionic chip, so you should expect iPhone 13-like speed when multitasking and playing games.
  • 5G performance is solid. We saw close to 195 Mbps downloads on T-Mobile. But you don't get Verizon Ultra Wideband support. 
  • 4.7 inches is tiny for a phone display in 2022, so you really need to want a small phone if you're shopping for the iPhone SE. 
  • The overall camera quality from the new iPhone SE is excellent and in many cases beats the Pixel 5a. But we wish there was a Night mode. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Release date and price

iPhone SE 2022 display outside in sunlight

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone SE 2022 is available to order now, with the release date set for March 18. The starting price for the new iPhone SE is $429, which is $30 more expensive than the previous iPhone SE 2020.

There are three storage options to choose from for the iPhone SE 3. There’s 64GB for the base price, or you can pay $479 for 128GB or $579 for 256GB. See our iPhone SE deals page for all the latest discounts. Just keep in mind that you may have to wait for your iPhone SE to arrive, as pre-order deliveries for the iPhone SE 2022 have already slipped to late March. 

And you if you're still undecided, you might want to opt for the refurbished iPhone 12, which Apple has just started selling. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Specs

iPhone SE (2022)
Starting price$429
Display4.7-inch LCD (1344 x 750)
CPUA15 Bionic
Storage64GB, 128GB, 256GB
Rear cameras12MP (f/1.8)
Front camera7MP (f/2.2)
Size5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches
Weight5 ounces
ColorsMidnight, Starlight, (PRODUCT)RED

iPhone SE 2022 review: Design

iPhone SE 2022 back of phone against stone

(Image credit: Future)

Picking up the iPhone SE 2022 for me is like taking a trip back in time. There’s a Touch ID button instead of Face ID, and the bezels around the display take up a lot of room compared to, say, the iPhone 13 mini or Google Pixel 5a (check out our iPhone SE (2022) vs. Google Pixel 5a face off).

Then again, this phone isn’t designed for me. It’s for people who like small phones and are probably stepping up from the iPhone 8 with the same size display and nearly the same design.

iPhone SE 2022 Touch ID button

(Image credit: Future)

And this is definitely a compact device, weighing just 5.09 ounces and measuring 5.45 x 2.85 x 0.29 inches. It makes my iPhone 13 Pro Max look like a skyscraper, and I did appreciate using a phone I could easily slip in my pocket without being noticeable. I also liked that I could do pretty much everything with one hand. 

The iPhone SE 2022 is IP67 water resistant, which I tested by dropping it into a fountain. And this handset is more durable than the previous model because it uses the same tough glass as the iPhone 13. 

Apple sent us the Midnight color of the iPhone SE 2022, which is a deep Navy that shifts colors in sunlight to a lighter blue. There’s also Starlight (a take on off-white) and Product Red. The materials used to make the iPhone SE 2022 included carbon-free aluminum, a first for Apple.

If you're worried about durability, the iPhone SE 2022 has been put through some drop tests, and it performed nearly as well as the iPhone 13. It survived two of the three drop tests with only minor scuffing. In those two tests, the new iPhone was dropped face-down from 6 feet onto a sidewalk and also dropped on its side from the same height. The only drop test that damaged the iPhone SE (2022) occurred in the back-down drop test from 6 feet. Still, you'll want to consider one of the best iPhone SE (2022) cases for your phone.

iPhone SE 2022 review: Display

iPhone SE 2022 Obi Wan Disney Plus on display

(Image credit: Future)

Let’s just say that watching shows and movies on the iPhone SE 2022 is not exactly immersive. This 4.7-inch LCD panel has a resolution of 1344 x 750 pixels, so it's not full HD, and it's impossible not to notice the large bezels when watching movies and videos on this phone. 

When watching the Obi-Wan Kenobi trailer on YouTube, the iPhone SE 2022 did a fine job rendering the warm colors of Tatooine and concerned grizzled look of Ewan McGregor, but the black bars above and below the action proved distracting. I wanted to pinch-to-zoom to make the picture bigger. 

One could argue that the Pixel 5a is for a different target audience with its 6.34-inch display, but you can't ignore that you can get a much bigger full HD OLED screen for just $20 more. 

iPhone SE 2022 next to Pixel 5a

(Image credit: Future)

Still, the iPhone SE 2022's display performed well in our lab tests. The panel registered 114.7% of the sRGB color gamut and 81.2% of the more demanding DCI-P3 color space. That's good, but behind the 119.3% and 84.5% turned in by the Pixel 5a. However, the new iPhone SE still wins on color accuracy with a Delta-E score of 0.21 (where 0 is perfect); the Pixel 5a scored 0.32. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Cameras

iPhone SE 2022 rear camera

(Image credit: Future)

The bad news is that the iPhone SE 2022's camera hardware has not changed. You get just a single 12MP rear wide camera, so there's not ultra-wide lens, which you'll find on the iPhone 11 ($499) and Pixel 5a. And the front camera continues to be have a fairly low-resolution 7MP sensor.

The good news is that the addition of the A15 Bionic processor opens up new camera features and capabilities through computational photography. This includes Smart HDR 4 for handling tricky lighting while providing better rendering of faces, Deep Fusion for better details and textures and Photographic Styles for giving you more creative control. 

To test out the iPhone SE 2022's camera I took a series of photos and compared them to the Pixel 5a. Overall, the new iPhone SE performed well, but the lack of a Night mode is a major drawback, and the Portrait mode is still fairly limited. 

In this photo of flowers taken indoors, the iPhone SE 2022 has a slight edge because it delivers a brighter yellow and blue, and there's a bit more contrast in the photo. But the two cameras are fairly evenly matched when it comes to detail. 

The iPhone SE 2022 generally does a good job capturing this eagle statue in tricky lighting conditions, as there's a heavy mix of sun and shadows. I prefer the warmer tone of the iPhone's shot, but the Pixel 5a better exposes the eagle itself, as you can more easily make out the feathers and beak. 

You should know that the iPhone SE 2022 requires that you get really close to your subject if you want to take a portrait. And that's because it has to make due with a single lens and use focus pixels (Apple's name for phase detection auto-focus) to blur out the background. Other phones with dual real cameras let your subject stand a bit further back.

In terms of image quality, though, I like how the iPhone SE renders a brighter image of my face here (without blowing it out) in direct sunlight. And you can make out the subtle pattern on my hoodie. I really like the Pixel 5a's portrait here as well, as I pop out even more from the background with a more pronounced bokeh effect. 

I wouldn't expect too much from the iPhone SE 2022's 5x digital zoom. In this shot of some Canadian geese you can see that the 7x zoom of the Pixel 5a brings you closer to the subject. And in this case the iPhone's tendency for warmer shots works against it, as the ducks don't stand out as much. You can also make out a bit more detail in the feathers in the Pixel's shot and the wood in the foreground. 

The iPhone SE 2022 impresses a bit more in this photo of fruit taken indoors. The lemons, oranges and Apples appear brighter, and there's more depth to the shot. The Pixel 5a's image, while colorful, looks a bit flat and dim by comparison. 

Where the iPhone SE 2022 falls down is its lack of Night mode. It simply can't take longer exposures like the iPhone 11 and iPhone 13 mini. And the Pixel a series has been offering a Night mode for years. 

Take this photo of Star Wars figurines in a room that has a bit of ambient light coming from a window off to the right. Darth Vader and Han Solo look much brighter in the Pixel 5a's shot, and the green decorative plant in the background is easier to see. 

And you can forget about shooting in the dark with the iPhone SE 2022 unless you use the flash. You can barely tell the figurines are there when we closed the curtains in the same room while you can still discern them in the Pixel shot — although it's pretty grainy. 

I then took the iPhone SE 2022 outdoors to see how it fared with only a bit of light. The answer is not well. Without a Night mode you can make out the bushes and bench, but the Pixel 5a's shot is way brighter, especially in the boxwoods and bricks, as well as the curtains in the window. 

Despite having a low-res 7MP front camera, the iPhone SE 2022 captured a fairly sharp and colorful selfie here. My face has more of a contour effect than I'd like, but there's a good amount of detail in my hair, jacket and hoodie, and the blue sky looks richer in the iPhone's shot vs. the Pixel 5a. While the Pixel's photo is a bit softer, I prefer how it handles the shadows as they're less severe. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Video

The iPhone SE 2022 can capture 4K video at up to 60 fps, and I put it to the test against the Pixel 5a shooting this footage of the Raritan Bay at a nearby park. The iPhone's video is warmer and has more contrast, bringing out a bit more detail in the wood by the shore.

However, the Pixel 5a's clip looks brighter, and as a result the white points of the waves look a bit crisper, as do the Canadian geese on the beach and in the water. The footage is a bit more washed out, but you can make out more detail in the rocks as I pan all the way to the right. While the iPhone SE's zoom is more limited, the Pixel 5a's is jumpy and quite fuzzy at the max level. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Performance

iPhone SE 2022 playing racing game

(Image credit: Future)

I shouldn't be surprised by how fast the iPhone SE 2022 is, as it packs the same A15 Bionic chip that's inside the iPhone 13. But that doesn't make its performance any less impressive.

I had a blast playing the Marvel Revolution game as Captain America, fighting multiple enemies with my shield along with flashy special attacks. And then I took on Red Skull and his face had a scary amount of detail. The action was quite fluid and the graphics spectacular. 

On Geekbench 5, which measures overall performance, the iPhone SE 2022 turned in a single-core score of 1,718 and a multi-core result of 4,482. The iPhone 13 turned in comparable but even slightly lower scores of 1,684 and 4,129. The Google Pixel 5a, which is powered by a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chip, mustered a single-core score of just 569 and and multi-core score of 1,595. 

On the 3DMark Wild Life Benchmark, the iPhone SE 2022 reached 50 frames per second and a score of 8,352. The iPhone 13 was slightly higher at 55.9 fps, but the Pixel 5a was way behind at just 10 fps and a score of 450. 

The biggest performance gap between the iPhone SE 2022 and Pixel 5a came with our video encoding test, in which we transcode a 4K clip to 1080p using the Adobe Premiere rush app. The new iPhone SE needed just 27 seconds, compared to nearly 2 minutes for the Pixel 5a. 

So how about 5G? It's important to note that the iPhone SE 2022 does not support mmWave technology, so you can't tap into Verizon's high-speed Ultra Wideband network. But you'll be able to connect to sub-6GHz 5G networks from all the major carriers, as well as C-Band 5G as that rolls out. 

Using the Speedtest.net app on T-Mobile's network, I got over 100 Mbps downloads in New York City new Bryant Park and as high as 86 Mbps in central New Jersey. That's not super fast, but it's marginally better than LTE. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Battery life and charging

iPhone SE 2022 Lightning port

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone SE 2022 is rated to deliver up to 2 hours of longer battery life than the previous iPhone SE, thanks to a slightly larger battery and efficiency gains from the A15 Bionic chip. 

The new iPhone SE 3 lasted 9 hours and 5 minutes on the Tom's Guide Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over 5G at 150 nits of screen brightness.  That's actually a bit less than the iPhone SE 2020's runtime of 9:18; however that was over a 4G LTE connection, which uses less power. The 5G-enabled Google Pixel 5a lasted a longer 9 hours and 45 minutes.

On the plus side, the iPhone SE can charge fairly quickly if you have a 20W Apple charger. We got to 61% in 30 minutes, which is better than Apple's 30-minute claim. 

iPhone SE 2022 review: Verdict

iPhone SE 2022 home screen front

(Image credit: Future)

The $429 iPhone SE 2022 is a phone that straddles the future and the past. The A15 Bionic chip inside this phone delivers flagship power for hundreds less than the iPhone 13. And the image quality is mostly excellent despite being limited to a single rear camera. I just wish Apple found a way to include a proper Night mode.

And yet the design of the new iPhone SE looks like a throwback with its small 4.7-inch display and huge bezels around the display; the iPhone 13 mini shows that you can cram a larger 5.4-inch display into a small phone, but it costs $699. 

If you're not insistent on buying an iPhone and living in the Apple ecosystem, the Google Pixel 5a is arguably a better bet, offering a larger 6.34-inch display, Night mode and considerably longer battery life for $449. But it's also not nearly as fast as the new iPhone SE.

Overall, the iPhone SE 2022 mostly succeeds in terms of providing a great value. But next time I'd like to see a design that better matches the cutting edge vibe of the internals. 

Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.