iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE (2020): which smartphone is right for you?

The iPhone 13 is Apple’s current flagship choice, delivering a potent mix of performance and features at a price point that is still well below that of the Pro and Ultra models.

However, Apple’s current budget choice remains the iPhone SE (2020). No cheaper Apple-branded smartphone is currently offered as new.

There is no price tag to guess which is the best phone here, but which phone offers the best value for the money? How big are the margins? We’ve spent a lot of time with these two phones, so here are our in-depth findings.

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE (2020): price and availability

The iPhone 13 arrived on September 24, 2021, with a base 128GB model that costs $ 799 / £ 799 / AU $ 1,349. Boosting storage to 256GB costs $ 899 / £ 879 / AU $ 1,519, while $ 1,099 / £ 1079 / AU $ 1,869 will give you the best 512GB model.

The 64GB iPhone SE (2020) landed in stores on April 24, 2020. Prices started from $ 399 / £ 419 / AU $ 749 for 64GB of storage, before increasing to $ 449/469 £ / AU $ 829 for 128GB and $ 549 / £ 569 / AU $ 999 for 256GB.

You can still buy the iPhone SE (2020) like new from Apple, with the only change being a slightly reduced price of £ 399 / £ 449 / £ 549 here in the UK.

It’s a first win for the iPhone SE (2020), with the 128GB model costing $ 350 / £ 350 less than the equivalent iPhone 13.

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE (2020): design

Two different angles of the iPhone 13

IPhone 13 (Image credit: Apple)

These two devices could be offered side-by-side in Apple’s current line of smartphones, but their design DNA could hardly be more different.

The iPhone 13 is built like the iPhone 12, which put an end to Apple’s obsession with curves. These phones are a throwback to the flat surfaces and sharp angles of the iPhone 4 era, but with a modern twist.

In contrast, the iPhone SE (2020) is the lookalike of the iPhone 8, itself from the iPhone 6 design school. These are all curved edges, with melted 2.5D protective glass.

The old phone is by far the smaller of the two. The iPhone 13 measures 146.7 x 71.5 x 7.65mm versus 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm for the iPhone SE (2020) and weighs 175g versus 148g. With that rounded body, that means the iPhone SE (2020) is much easier to hold and use with one hand than the iPhone 13.

iPhone SE 2020

(Image credit: Avenir)

Another key design difference relates to the choice of biometric authentication systems. The iPhone 13 adopts the post-iPhone X display notch, which houses Apple’s Face ID sensors. The iPhone SE, meanwhile, contains a Touch ID sensor just below the screen.

Besides what that means for access (a glance versus a touch), it fundamentally affects the design of both phones. Removing the Touch ID sensor allowed Apple to push its screens to the edges, removing the huge forehead and chin that are easily noticeable in the iPhone SE.

Another win for the iPhone 13 comes from an IP68 rating, while the iPhone SE (2020) has to settle for a lower IP67 rating. It will also not withstand total immersion in water.

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE: display

Apple iPhone SE 2020

iPhone SE (Image credit: Avenir)

The main reason the iPhone 13 is physically larger than the iPhone SE (2020), of course, is because it has a much larger 6.1-inch display. At 4.7 inches, the iPhone SE (2020) display is pretty neat by modern standards.

Truly, the iPhone 13’s screen is on a different level in almost every way. It’s an OLED panel rather than the SE’s IPS LCD, which means it’s much brighter and color accurate.

The iPhone 13’s screen is also much sharper at 2532 x 1170 compared to the 1334 x 750 on the iPhone SE. Even with that extra space, that equates to a much higher pixel density of 460 ppi than the 326 ppi of the iPhone SE.

One way the two displays match up is with their 60Hz refresh rates. It’s a lot less forgivable in the iPhone 13 with its new design. Pretty much every 2021 Android phone launched at this price point – and even significantly cheaper – sport a higher refresh rate display.

While the iPhone 13’s notch allows for a widescreen format, the trade-off is that the notch eats up usable space. In contrast, the iPhone SE’s notch-less display gives you a full, unobstructed view.

That aside, the iPhone 13’s screen is hands down the best canvas for virtually any type of content. It’s not even close, and it’s arguably the most dated area to the iPhone SE (2020).

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE: cameras

Close up of rear cameras on iPhone 13

The rear cameras of the iPhone 13 (Image credit: Apple)

There is nothing that differentiates a flagship phone from an affordable phone like the camera system. The iPhone 13 takes much better photos than the iPhone SE (2020) in all conditions.

While both phones pack 12 MP wide sensors, the iPhone 13 is much larger and more advanced. It captures 47% more light than the iPhone 12 before it, which lets in much more light than the iPhone SE (2020).

The iPhone 13 also features a much larger f / 1.6 aperture compared to the iPhone SE’s f / 1.8 equivalent. Again, it just collects more light.

Beyond that, the iPhone 13 has integrated the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s sensor displacement stabilization system, which keeps shots much more stable. IPhone SE has OIS, but it’s not in the same category.

Combine that with the fact that the iPhone SE (2020) does not have a dedicated Night Mode, and you will see why the iPhone 13 has such an advantage in low light conditions.

The new phone also has a big advantage in that it has a secondary 12MP 120-degree ultra-wide sensor. IPhone SE only has one sensor, so it is unable to capture photos of very wide landscapes.

Neither phone has a dedicated telephoto lens, but the iPhone 13’s increased clarity and stability means its 2x cropped shots are superior. But we wouldn’t choose either of the two phones if you like to zoom in from a distance.

In addition to a huge sensor advantage, the iPhone 13 also benefits from several image processing tricks, which are made possible by its superior A15 Bionic chip (the SE is two generations behind with its A13 Bionic) . At a fundamental level, a superior Smart HDR implementation enables richer colors and improved dynamic range.

Elsewhere, Photographic Styles allow you to fundamentally adjust the warmth and tone of your shots, while “Cinematic Mode” applies a rack-focus effect to your videos.

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE: specifications and performance

As we mentioned before, the A15 Bionic SoC of the iPhone 13 is two generations ahead of the A13 Bionic of the iPhone SE.

Added to this is the fact that the iPhone 13 contains 4 GB of RAM for the 3 GB of the iPhone SE. The result of this hardware disparity, unsurprisingly, is a pretty big performance advantage for the new phone.

In our own processor-focused Geekbench 5 multicore test, the iPhone 13 scored an average of 4,688, while the 2020 iPhone SE scored an average of 2,992. That’s a difference of over 60%.

Not that the iPhone SE (2020) feels slow in general use. This Geekbench score remains competitive with some high-end Android phones, and Apple’s legacy support for aging hardware is the best around.

What this performance advantage means (aside from higher frame rates in particularly demanding games) is extra headroom. The iPhone 13 will still feel fast in a few years, while the iPhone SE will show its age at the same point.

In terms of storage, the iPhone 13 is finally abandoning the entry model of 64 GB for a much more appropriate 128 GB. In addition to that, you can specify 256 GB or 512 GB.

The iPhone SE still gives you that 64GB starting point, along with 128GB and 256GB options. It’s another clear win for the iPhone 13.

A final but potentially significant victory for the iPhone 13 specically is 5G connectivity. Being able to get the fastest mobile connection speeds available today is a huge plus, and it will only become more meaningful as the 5G network grows.

iPhone 13 vs iPhone SE: battery

Apple equipped the iPhone 13 with a 3,240mAh battery, which is big enough for an Apple smartphone. The iPhone SE (2020), which is pretty typical of how Apple has built their phone for many years, only has an 1,821mAh cell.

While Apple is best at maximizing the energy efficiency of its hardware, the iPhone SE (2020) doesn’t hold up too well to more intensive use. We find it hard to spend a full day on anything other than light use.

The iPhone 13, on the other hand, is a real phone that lasts all day, able to go to bed with energy to spare. Our review tended to end up with 20% at the end of a day of heavy use.

Neither phone sets records when it comes to charging speeds. The iPhone 13 supports 20W wired charging, while the iPhone SE (2020) supports 18W. Neither comes with a charging brick in the box.

Both phones support Qi wireless charging, which is particularly welcome – and surprisingly rare – in the iPhone SE’s price bracket.

To take with

Two different angles of the iPhone 13

IPhone 13 (Image credit: Apple)

Most people who buy a new iPhone will be better served by the iPhone 13. It’s better than the iPhone SE (2020) in all areas that matter, with much faster performance, a much larger screen, and. better, a significantly better camera, and better battery life.

The only real advantage of the iPhone SE (2020) is its much lower cost. With a $ 350 / £ 350 spread between equivalent storage options, it’s the perfect choice for those who want to enjoy that iOS magic at the cheapest price possible.

Even then, it’s worth taking into account that the iPhone 13 is going to stay relevant longer, with the kind of performance margin that will keep it running smoothly for years to come. Its design is likely to remain (with relatively minor modifications) for the foreseeable future as well.

If you can afford it, the iPhone 13 is clearly the better choice here. But the iPhone SE (2020) remains a valid choice for small budgets.

You can also check out the iPhone 12 Pro vs iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro vs iPhone 12 Pro Max comparison.

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