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iPhone SE vs. iPhone X: Don't buy that refurbished phone just yet

Apple sells the iPhone X refurbished for $599. But is its 2017 flagship still better than its new budget iPhone SE?

When the iPhone X first debuted in 2017, it made headlines for several reasons. It was the first iPhone to have Face ID, the first to have an OLED display and the first to have an on-screen notch. At the time it was a top-of-the-class device. Now, three years later, it's just as reliable. Though Apple discontinued the iPhone X a mere 10 months after its launch, the company sells refurbished models at a heavy discount: $599 or £599 (64GB) and $699 or £699 (256GB). (Apple does not sell or ship refurbished iPhones to Australia, but that converts to about AU$940 and AU$1,100.) 

While this may be a tempting option for those looking for a cheaper iPhone, Apple also introduced a new iPhone SE this year for $399 (£419, AU$749). The iPhone SE's specs and looks are similar to the iPhone 8, which also came out in 2017, but it has plenty of new advantages of its own that make it a better buy than a refurbished iPhone X from Apple.

Angela Lang/CNET

Though it doesn't have a second telephoto lens and its screen isn't as brilliant as the iPhone X, the smaller iPhone SE still has a few upgrades that make it the better value-buy than a discounted iPhone X. That includes an A13 Bionic processor, dual-SIM capabilities and a handful of camera upgrades. (Neither phone has a headphone jack, BTW.) If you're looking for an affordable, brand new iPhone with up-to-date support, the iPhone SE should be your go-to. Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you own a working iPhone X, there's no reason to buy the iPhone SE. But if you're tempted to buy a refurbished one from Apple at the discounted price, I don't recommend it unless you just really want that second telephoto camera for some reason. For one thing, it's likely that software updates from Apple may not be as robust on a three-year-old device than on a new one. Second, if you do want all the aforementioned iPhone SE upgrades or a bigger screen, it's better to get a new iPhone 11, which costs the same as a refurbished iPhone X. Read our Apple iPhone X review.

For more details, read on for a deep dive into how the two iPhones stack up.

Design: iPhone X's bigger, sharper display

Despite being three years older, the iPhone X still looks modern and its stainless steel design comes off as more premium than the iPhone SE's aluminum body. Besides its obvious notch, the iPhone X is also bigger, and has a sharper display with a higher resolution and pixel density. It has an OLED screen too, as opposed to the iPhone SE's LCD display. In general, OLED screens are regarded to have better image quality and color contrast, but they also cost more and may suffer burn-in. The iPhone X's screen is notably brighter, especially at different viewing angles, and it's a tad more vibrant. I've been using an iPhone X for the past three years and haven't noticed any burn-in issues.

iphone-x-notch-6158

The notch on the iPhone X.

Josh Miller/CNET

The iPhone SE is Apple's only new iPhone that has a physical home button. Some people may prefer that because it's intuitive to use and you don't have to use swipe gestures to return to the home screen or call up recent apps like you would on the iPhone X. The home button also houses a fingerprint reader for unlocking the phone and authorizing digital payments through Touch ID. For biometric security, the iPhone X uses Face ID, or facial mapping sensors on the front-facing camera.

The iPhone X also has 3D Touch, an older feature that debuted in 2015 in the iPhone 6S. It allows access to additional menu options and commands whenever you hard-press your finger against the screen. Apple began to phase out the feature in 2018 with the iPhone XR, and it's now absent from new iPhones. Instead, the company replaced 3D Touch with Haptic Touch. Haptic Touch is on the iPhone SE and does pretty much the same thing, except instead of having to press down harder on the screen, you long-press on the item.

Both devices are rated IP67 for water protection. Both come in black and white but the iPhone SE has a third red variant.

Don't dismiss the iPhone SE's single rear camera

Since the iPhone X has a telephoto camera and the SE doesn't, it may appear that the X has the upper hand when taking photos. After all, the iPhone X can capture beautiful portrait shots with the blurred bokeh background, and it can pull off 2x telephoto zoom without loss of detail. It's also got digital zoom, which goes up to 10x for photos and 6x for video, zooms in closer than the iPhone SE (which has 5x digital zoom for photos and 3x for video). Lastly, its face-mapping selfie camera lets you use the fun Animoji and Memoji features.

But the iPhone SE can still capture great portrait photos using its software, and it has one major advantage that the iPhone X doesn't: the A13 Bionic processor. Thanks to this newer chip, the iPhone SE can capture brilliant photos with its 12-megapixel rear camera, which is comparable to the latest iPhone 11. This chipset also allows Apple to add camera upgrades under the hood that improves both photo and video quality. These include:

  • Depth Control for taking portrait photos and adjusting the bokeh effect
  • Smart HDR, to improve highlights and shadows
  • Red-eye correction
  • Quicktake, which lets you quickly record video without tapping out of Photo mode
  • Video improvements: Extended dynamic range for 30fps, cinematic video stabilization up to 4K (the iPhone X has up to 1080p) and stereo recording
  • Front-facing camera: Depth control for Portrait mode, cinematic video stabilization up to 1080p (the iPhone X has none) and one additional Portrait Lighting effect (high-key mono)

In general, unless you need a telephoto zoom or a more powerful digital zoom, the iPhone SE should satisfy most of your photographic needs despite having only one rear camera. For more on camera quality, be sure to read CNET's iPhone SE review.

Processor, battery, dual-SIM and memory

The iPhone SE is equipped with Apple's latest proprietary A13 Bionic chip. The iPhone SE clocked in similar results with the iPhone 11 on the benchmark tests 3DMark and Geekbench 5, which is to say that it also performed comparably to -- and at times better than -- other top-tier phones such as the Galaxy S20Pixel 4 and the OnePlus 8 Pro. And the iPhone SE's result for 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test was way higher (at 97,415 compared to 62,206) than the iPhone 8, which has the same A11 processor as the iPhone X.

Apple's A13 processor in the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max

Apple's A13 processor.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple never discloses its iPhones' battery capacities. The company does list the same 13-hour video playback time on both phones, though, and puts the iPhone X's audio playback at 60 hours compared to the iPhone SE's 40 hours. However, when we ran our own battery tests for video playback on Airplane mode, the iPhone SE lasted longer than the iPhone X by nearly 4 hours. (To be more specific, the iPhone SE lasted about 15.5 hours, while the iPhone X lasted 11.45 hours.)

The iPhone SE has options for a nano-SIM and an e-SIM too, meaning you can have two numbers on the same phone. Dual-SIM capabilities is also handy if you travel a lot and need a phone abroad, or you want to consolidate both your personal and business phones. And while both phones have a 64GB and 256GB memory option, the new iPhone SE has a third, 128GB model. That capacity is commonly seen as the "sweet spot" as far as storage goes. That's because 64GB may not be enough to hold all your photos and 4K videos, but 256GB may be too excessive. 

iPhone SE (2020) vs. iPhone X


Apple iPhone SE (2020) iPhone X
Display size, resolution 4.7-inch Retina HD LCD; 1,334x750 pixels 5.8-inch Super Retina HD OLED; 2,436x1,125 pixels
Pixel density 326ppi 458ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.45x2.65x0.29 in 5.7x2.79x0.30 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 138.4x67.3x7.3 mm 143.6x70.9x7.7 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.22 oz; 148g 6.14 oz; 174 g
Mobile software iOS 13 iOS 11 (can update to iOS 13)
Camera 12-megapixel 12-megapixel (standard), 12-megapixel (telephoto)
Front-facing camera 7-megapixel 7-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K
Processor Apple A13 Bionic Apple A11 Bionic
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 256GB
RAM Not disclosed Not disclosed
Expandable storage No No
Battery Not disclosed Not disclosed
Fingerprint sensor Home button No
Connector Lightning Lightning
Headphone jack No No
Special features Water-resistant (IP67); dual-SIM capabilities (nano-SIM and e-SIM); wireless charging Water-resistant (IP67); wireless charging; Face ID; Animoji