iPhone SE: With its A13 chip, this small, $399 phone outperforms all Androids

Performance on a budget arrives just in time for buyers spooked by the pandemic.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Apple's iPhone SE
John Kim/CNET

By packing the big A13 chip into its small iPhone SE, Apple has made its budget smartphone a more compelling product at just the right time for a coronavirus-spooked world. Where most budget phones cut costs by using lower-end processors, the new $400 iPhone SE uses the same flagship chip that powers the $1,450 iPhone 11 Pro Max, which launched last year.

That processing power means this newest  iPhone , though lacking some iPhone 11 features, like Face ID and an ultrawide-angle camera, still gets new capabilities that require the A13 chip. Those include the latest portrait mode effects for blurring backgrounds behind photo subjects, the six studio lighting effects  Apple  also offers, the newest HDR technology to handle scenes with bright and dark elements and 4K video at 60 frames per second.

"Apple's A13 is a remarkable piece of silicon," said Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart. "It outperforms everything else on the market at any price."

The A13 processor outclasses what's in all current Android phones, not just cheap models that budget-conscious buyers might be eyeing. The iPhone SE scores 1,328 on the Geekbench speed test of single-task performance, matching the iPhone 11 and far surpassing the iPhone's strongest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which has a score of 835.

Spending limits during the pandemic

The balance of price and performance is good news for buyers worried about COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused disease that's killed tens of thousands of people and stalled business around the world. In his review, CNET's Patrick Holland praises the 2020 iPhone SE as a great value.

The lower-priced iPhone SE arrives as financial worries are likely steering customers away from top-end models and toward more-affordable alternatives.

"With a recession imminent ... we see some possibility of a stronger downward mix shift toward the iPhone SE," Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi said in a Wednesday research note.

Watch this: iPhone SE reminds us how much we missed the home button

A low-budget but modern iPhone helps Apple keep its iOS ecosystem ticking over, too, which provides a lot more money beyond the initial phone sale. With that iOS foundation, Apple is expanding its business to services like Apple TV Plus, Apple Music, Apple Arcade iCloud data sync and backup and the 30% that the company charges developers that sell apps through its App Store.

A13 chip horsepower

The A13 chip -- its full name is A13 Bionic -- is the product of a gargantuan engineering effort. It's got 8.5 billion transistors, the tiny on-off switches that do everything from simple math to artificial intelligence algorithms that process voice commands.

Two main processor cores handle performance-critical tasks like playing games or scrolling through busy Facebook feeds. They're paired with four smaller, power-efficient cores for background tasks like playing music and keeping the phone running when it's mostly idle in your pocket.

The processor also has large modules for graphics and AI processing. Other dedicated modules handle photo processing, video decoding, HDR video, cryptography and judging subjects' distance from the camera. Apple can shut off entire modules or parts of them that aren't needed to extend battery life.

"We only turn on the smallest amount of logic on the chip, dramatically reducing power," said Sri Santhanam, Apple vice president of silicon engineering, at the iPhone 11 launch event in 2019.

The A13 won't look so advanced when successors arrive. But it's got enough horsepower to work in a design that aside from software updates likely won't be updated annually like flagship iPhones. The first iPhone SE arrived in 2016, but Apple kept selling it into 2019.

"By using its most powerful processor now, Apple ensures that it can sell the iPhone SE, unchanged, for years to come," Greengart said.

The 2020 iPhone SE shines with classic Apple styling

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