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iPhone SE vs. 11 Pro: Here's how much of a difference $600 makes

We compare the specs and day-to-day performance of Apple's newest flagship and budget phones to see how they stack up.

Lexy Savvides Principal Video Producer
Lexy is an on-air presenter and award-winning producer who covers consumer tech, including the latest smartphones, wearables and emerging trends like assistive robotics. She's won two Gold Telly Awards for her video series Beta Test. Prior to her career at CNET, she was a magazine editor, radio announcer and DJ. Lexy is based in San Francisco.
Expertise Wearables | Smartwatches | Mobile phones | Photography | Health tech | Assistive robotics Credentials
  • Webby Award honoree, 2x Gold Telly Award winner
Lexy Savvides
7 min read

The iPhone 11 Pro is undoubtedly the king of Apple's iPhone lineup (at least until the iPhone 12 arrives) thanks to its three rear cameras, all-day battery life and high-resolution OLED screen. But it commands a steep price, starting at $999 (£1,049, AU$1,749). With so many new iPhones out there, including the $699 iPhone 11 and the $399 iPhone SE, you may be wondering which one to choose. I wanted to compare Apple's flagship to the budget iPhone to see what difference that $600 makes.

Realistically, if you want the top-of-the-range iPhone (and it fits within your budget) you probably won't even consider the iPhone SE. But as I found out after using both the 11 Pro and SE for a few weeks, I don't feel like I missed out on all that much when I switched over to the less expensive iPhone.

Read more: How the $399 iPhone SE compares to the $699 iPhone 11

Angela Lang/CNET

While the iPhone SE may look like an older iPhone on the outside, don't be fooled. Paired with the same A13 Bionic chip found on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, it offers great performance and a very capable camera for an entry-level price of $399. The battery won't last as long as the more expensive phone, but Apple has made some smart trade-offs to keep the price low.

Read our Apple iPhone SE (2020) review.

Angela Lang/CNET

With a sleek stainless-steel chassis, great battery life and a high-resolution OLED display, the iPhone 11 Pro really does feel deserving of the "Pro" label. It's the most robust iPhone you can buy and has three rear cameras that give you flexibility from ultrawide through to telephoto. There's also the option of bumping up the screen size from 5.8 inches to 6.5 if you choose the iPhone 11 Pro Max, and you also get a larger 512GB storage option at the top end, whereas the iPhone SE taps out at 256GB.

Read our Apple iPhone 11 Pro review.

Watch this: New iPhone SE (2020) and iPhone 11 Pro compared

iPhone SE is the most compact, while the 11 Pro is extremely durable

With a 4.7-inch screen, the iPhone SE shares the same overall design as the iPhone 8. That means the home button is back! Or, it never went away if you're upgrading from something like the iPhone 6 or 7. The iPhone 11 Pro has a 5.8-inch screen and sports the newer iPhone design without a home button.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

The iPhone SE has an aluminum frame, while the iPhone 11 Pro is made of stainless steel. All of Apple's phones are covered in custom glass on the front and back, made by Corning , and Apple claims the iPhone 11 Pro has the most durable glass of all. I've dropped the iPhone 11 Pro countless times (both in our formal drop test and when using it for the past six months) and it hasn't sustained any significant damage. 

Even so, I still recommend putting a case on your phone just to be safe, as not all drops are created equal. We haven't yet conducted a durability test on the iPhone SE, but would expect it to perform similarly to the iPhone 8 given it's the same design. (The iPhone 8 suffered a cracked screen when it was dropped from five feet.)

Both phones also offer water resistance, although to slightly different degrees: the iPhone SE is rated IP67, which means it can reach a maximum depth of 1 meter (3 feet) for up to 30 minutes, while the iPhone 11 Pro is IP68, or 4 meters (13 feet) for the same time. But in my extreme water test, I found the iPhone 11 Pro survived much deeper water than Apple claims, so I wouldn't be surprised if the iPhone SE also outlived its rating. Regardless, water damage is not covered under warranty for either phone so don't go crazy trying to test the limits of your phone (leave that to me!).

Winner: The 5.8-inch iPhone 11 Pro hits the size sweet spot for me, even though the iPhone SE is easier for one-handed use.

The iPhone 11 Pro has that gorgeous OLED display

The iPhone SE has an LCD liquid retina display, while the 11 Pro has an OLED Super Retina XDR display. There's no question that the 11 Pro's screen looks gorgeous thanks to a contrast ratio of 2,000,000:1 and HDR support. Its OLED tech is able to produce deeper black levels than the LCD on the iPhone SE.

That said, I wasn't disappointed when I switched over to the iPhone SE. Colors look accurate and the screen is easy to read in bright, outdoor light. To my eyes, watching a movie looked better on the iPhone 11 Pro thanks to the screen being physically bigger.

Winner: It's hard to compete with the iPhone 11 Pro's OLED display.

Touch ID vs. Face ID: Home button or facial recognition?

After using the new iPhone SE for several weeks, I count myself among the many people who prefer using a fingerprint to unlock their phone. Face ID is solid, but has limitations despite becoming more responsive as time goes on. Touch ID just works better for me in a lot of situations. Face ID struggles to recognize me first thing in the morning after I roll out of bed -- maybe I look drastically different in the a.m., but I honestly don't think I do. (It's also incompatible with face masks.) Switching to the iPhone SE and using my fingerprint to unlock my phone always works.

On the iPhone SE, you do sacrifice screen real estate to accommodate the home button and I noticed the bezels a lot on the SE compared to the almost edge-to-edge screen on the iPhone 11 Pro (even though there's a notch for the TrueDepth camera).

Winner: iPhone SE for seamless Touch ID.

The iPhone 11 Pro has three rear cameras, but do you need them?

There are three rear cameras on the iPhone 11 Pro: ultrawide-angle, wide and 2x telephoto. The iPhone SE has a single, wide rear camera. But as I found when looking at photos from both side-by-side, the difference was not as dramatic as I was expecting.

The main cameras on both phones use Smart HDR to even out shadow and highlight detail. The iPhone 11 Pro produced images with greater dynamic range in challenging lighting conditions, but on some shots, it was hard to tell them apart in terms of color and overall processing. The iPhone 11 Pro has Apple's Deep Fusion processing, which helps to produce sharper shots in medium-lighting conditions (think indoors). Read more on how Deep Fusion works in my colleague Patrick Holland's great explainer.

You can see the difference Deep Fusion makes when looking at the same photo on the SE and 11 Pro at full magnification -- see the photo of the orchid below.


Take a look at the 100% crop (inset) showing the effect of Deep Fusion on the iPhone 11 Pro compared to the iPhone SE, which has no Deep Fusion.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

Naturally, the iPhone 11 Pro offers greater flexibility when composing your shots thanks to its ultrawide and telephoto lenses. I love the ultrawide perspective and it's the biggest thing I miss when using the iPhone SE.

Also, that camera on the iPhone 11 Pro means you get more flexibility with selfies, like making Animoji and Memoji that mimic your facial expressions, and filming in 4K.

The biggest difference between these two cameras is night mode -- the iPhone 11 Pro has it while the iPhone SE does not. Photos from the 11 Pro look way better in low light than those taken on the SE as night mode helps illuminate the scene and deliver a clearer, brighter shot. Stay tuned for my full camera comparison between these two phones coming soon, where I'll also cover video recording and the selfie cameras.

Winner: iPhone 11 Pro if you want different cameras and night mode.

The A13 Bionic chip makes both iPhones blisteringly fast

It's no secret that these phones share the same processor and as a result, I didn't notice significant differences in performance when using them both side by side. I ran a few benchmarks on both phones and the results were close, with the 11 Pro pulling ahead for multicore performance on Geekbench.

In the real world, both loaded apps fast and didn't have any noticeable lag when trimming down a 4K video. In fact, the cheaper SE was a hair faster in my anecdotal test. 

Apple doesn't disclose official battery capacity for any of its phones, but we do know the iPhone SE has a similar battery to the iPhone 8. The iPhone 11 Pro, meanwhile, has a higher capacity battery than the cheaper phone. (Unofficial third-party teardowns revealed the 11 Pro has a 3,046mAh battery and the 11 Pro Max 3,969mAh.)

There's no question the battery life differs significantly in day-to-day use. The 11 Pro easily got me through a day, sometimes to a day and a half of fairly heavy use while the iPhone SE lasted a full day with lighter use. If I was watching video or using the camera quite a bit, I reached for the iPhone SE's charger to be able to make it through an entire day. Both phones also support wireless charging and fast charging, but only the iPhone 11 Pro ships with an 18-watt fast charger in the box.

Winner: Overall performance feels like a tie, but the iPhone 11 Pro pulls ahead for battery.