As the number of active Apple devices increases, so too do the different choices that the consumer has. The latest offering from Apple is the new iPhone SE 2020. This iPhone is a mix of the old and new: it retains the build size of the iPhone 8, but has the new A13 Bionic chip offered in the iPhone 11 series. It offers Bluetooth 5.0, but retains the Home button, which also includes Touch ID. The following review is written from the perspective of a braille and VoiceOver user.
There have been many reviews in the mainstream media already. Some examples include this positive review from Tech Crunch, a less- enthusiastic review from Wired, and this review from the Verge. What these examples all point to are that photos are not quite as detailed as what you find with the iPhone 11; the design is old-school; but that it is a great price for a budget phone. They all also point out that the iPhone SE lacks Face ID in favor of Touch ID, has a shorter battery life than the iPhone 11, and that it supports fast charging.
Though I understand how to use Face ID, and have trained others on how to do so, I have found it doesn't fit into my workflow as well as does Touch ID. As a braille user, I do not need to ever take my phone out of my pocket to unlock it. Almost everything a VoiceOver speech user can do with their touchscreen, I can do with my braille display connected via Bluetooth. With the iPhone XR, which I have used for quite some time, I had to either unlock my phone with Face ID, or type in my passcode manually using my braille display. In either case, those methods required more effort on my part and lead to less productivity. With the iPhone SE 2020, Touch ID is back, and I can resume unlocking my phone with ease. I have found that Touch ID with the iPhone SE 2020 is faster and more reliable than what I experienced with the iPhone 8. While Touch ID was just one of the reasons I was interested in checking out the iPhone SE 2020, trying to use Face ID with a face covering (though it can be done) made the experience even less pleasant for me.
Unlike the first generation of the iPhone SE, the 2020 model mirrors the outward appearance of the iPhone 7 and 8. Unfortunately, this includes the absence of a headphone jack. Not only does the iPhone SE 2020 not have a headphone jack, but Apple does not include a 3.5 MM to Lightning adaptor with this phone. I was also hoping that Apple would have retained the smaller iPhone 5/5S/SE build, as I have little use for the screen. That said, the iPhone SE 2020 is smaller than any of the other modern iOS devices Apple makes, so that is an improvement for me.
In my informal way of testing, I found that the sound from the iPhone SE was noticeably more clear than what I had on the iPhone 8. I determined this by having a friend use both phones with the same song and randomly choose which one I would hear first. He would play one for fifteen seconds or so, and then the other. After each pair of clips of audio, I would choose which I felt sounded better. In six out of seven instances, I chose the iPhone SE as sounding more clear. We reversed the experiment, and he picked the iPhone SE all seven times over the iPhone 8 in terms of better sounding audio.
Differences in Camera
As noted above, one of the compromises made with the iPhone SE 2020 is with the camera. Unlike the iPhone 11 series, the iPhone SE 2020 only has one back-facing camera and one front-facing camera. The reviews above, along with several others, say that the iPhone 11 series has more image stabilization and that those phones can take a picture that is more detailed than what you would get from the iPhone SE 2020.
To try and evaluate the cameras on a task many VoiceOver and braille users might use it for, I compared the cameras of both an iPhone SE 2020 and an iPhone 11 using the Voice Dream Scanner app. Though I did not formalize the experiment, I simply took pictures of documents using the same methods to center the text and take the pictures as I usually do. In all cases, though a word was misinterpreted from time to time, both phones seemed to perform evenly with one exception. When I did OCR in a darker environment, the iPhone 11 seemed to make less errors than the SE, but in both instances, I was able to get enough text to understand what was written on the paper I was scanning.
I also did some currency recognition using the Cash Reader application. Whether using the iPhone 11 or the SE 2020, I found that recognition was always accurate and occurred within two seconds on both devices. My informal conclusion is that OCR doesn't seem to work too much better on the iPhone 11 compared to the iPhone SE 2020. Unlike OCR with documents, the currency recognition still seemed just as reliable with the iPhone 11 as it did with the iPhone SE 2020.
Bluetooth and the A13 Bionic Chip
Though I did not have the borrowed iPhone 11 long enough to try all of the Bluetooth stuff I wanted to, I do have an iPhone 8. Both my iPhone 8 and the iPhone SE 2020 have Bluetooth 5.0, but the iPhone 8 has the A11 chip instead of the A13 which is found in the iPhone SE 2020. I've already discussed my challenges with Bluetooth in another article, so I will not do so at great length in this review. I have, so far, found that Bluetooth is more responsive on the iPhone SE 2020 model and that the connection drops less frequently on the new SE than it did on the iPhone 8 or XR. When I throw four or five devices at the iPhone SE 2020, the connection still is reliable, but I've found it is more solid if I'm only using three devices. I also found, however, that I still needed to turn off all other Bluetooth devices to transfer data from one iOS device to another.
The Thing That Bugs Me!
As a full-time braille user of iOS, all of my productivity is dependent on iOS's braille support. One large point against the iPhone SE is that there is not an option to run iOS 12. iOS 13 came with many features and some bugs; many of those bugs have been worked out during the iOS 13 release cycle, but one particularly nasty braille bug has not yet been resolved. When editing text that contains line brakes using a braille display, the cursor which is represented by dots 7 and 8 will often times disappear after a cursor routing button is pressed. This makes writing professional emails a major challenge, and it has been the reason I have stayed on iOS 12 and not upgraded to a newer device. It is also my understanding from many other deaf-blind braille users that they are not upgrading to newer phones for this exact reason.
Apple has said that the battery life of the iPhone SE 2020 is equivalent to that of the iPhone 8. Sadly, I would agree that my iPhone 8 and iPhone SE 2020 have about the same battery life; the issue with this is that the battery in my iPhone 8 is over two years old. It is still at 88% capacity, which isn't bad, but this seems to be what the iPhone SE will give you with a brand new battery at 100% capacity. That said, with Bluetooth and Wifi constantly running, I can still manage to get a full day out of the battery on the iPhone SE 2020. The difference, though, was that the iPhone SE 2020 charges at a much faster rate
If you are on a budget, the iPhone SE 2020 starts at $399 US, which makes it the cheapest model on the market. Though there are some compromises in terms of battery life and camera performance, your wallet will thank you for the cheaper purchase. On the other hand, for those using Braille Screen Input, the smaller screen may not offer enough real estate to type comfortably using this method. As a braille-only VoiceOver user, if the above-mentioned braille bug is rectified, the iPhone SE 2020 would be a strong contender for me. Though the battery life is less than an iPhone 11, the iPhone SE 2020 will still give me a full day of use in most cases, and I can carry around a battery pack to offset this challenge if I'm going to be away from electricity for longer than a day. Finally, the return of Touch ID is something that I'm very happy with. As someone who rarely uses my touchscreen, and who almost never takes their phone out of their pocket, it is fantastic that a modern device supports it.