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iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Which new iPhone will be right for you?

iphone 12 vs iphone se
(Image credit: EverythingApplePro/Apple)

Usually, the question of "Which new iPhone model should I get?" isn't that hard to resolve. Just wait until the fall when Apple typically rolls out new iPhones and pick the model with the screen size and price you find most appealing.

That's a bit trickier this year. For one thing, it's not exactly clear when Apple will release the iPhone 12. While Apple still may hold its launch event in September, it's already said that the new iPhones won't ship that month. So it could be October — or later in the case of some models — when the iPhone 12 finally arrives.

Meanwhile, Apple has already introduced a new phone this year, and it's a very good one. The iPhone SE 2020 features the fastest processor you can find in a phone and the lowest price on any iPhone Apple currently offers. If you don't want to wait another couple months to get your new Apple handset, the iPhone SE is here right now, ready for you to upgrade.

Are you better off waiting until the iPhone 12 models come along? Or is the iPhone SE a better alternative even after the iPhone 12 hits the scene? Here's a comparison of the iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE, based on what we've observed from the latter device and what we expect to see from Apple's upcoming phones.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: The Specs

iPhone SE 2020iPhone 12/iPhone 12 Max (rumored)iPhone 12 Pro/iPhone 12 Pro Max (rumored)
Starting price$399$649/$749$999/$1,099
Screen Size4.7 inch LCD5.4 inch OLED/6.1 inch OLED6.1 inch OLED/6.7 inch OLED
CPUA13 BionicA14A14
RAM3GB (based on teardowns)4GB6GB
Storage64GB, 128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Rear camera12MPDual rear camerasTriple rear camers + LiDAR
Front camera7MPTrueDepth cameraTrueDepth camera
5G?NoSub-6GHz, mmWaveSub-GHz, mmWave

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Price and availability

We don't have to wait until the fall to know that the iPhone SE is going to beat the iPhone 12 on price. Apple specifically released the iPhone SE to appeal to budget-minded shoppers who balked at the rising cost of smartphones. 

And with a $399 starting price for the iPhone SE, it's pretty clear Apple delivered on that front, producing the one of the best cheap phones you can currently buy. You can reduce the cost even further by trading in your current iPhone when you buy from Apple and getting up to $170 off the cost of an iPhone SE.

We don't know specifically what the iPhone 12 is going to cost, though rumors about prices for the newer models suggest the iPhone SE will retain its title as the cheapest iPhone for some time. The entry-level iPhone 12 is expected to start at $649 — a $250 markup from the iPhone SE's price. However, that's the more optimistic iPhone 12 price rumor; another analyst has suggested the iPhone 12's price will go up by $50 from the iPhone 11's $699 base price.

Opt for one of the Pro models of the iPhone 12, and you're likely to pay the same $999 to $1,099 that the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max currently start out at — at least according to current rumors.

As for availability, it's no contest — the iPhone SE is here right now. If you want the iPhone 12, you're going to have to wait, with Apple saying its new phones won't ship in September. There's some speculation Apple could stagger the iPhone 12 launch with the standard models shipping first in October and the iPhone 12 models arriving after that.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Design and display

The iPhone SE has a cutting-edge look — if you're reading this prior to 2017. That was the last time Apple introduced a new phone without a notched display in the form of the iPhone 8. In fact, the iPhone SE essentially adopts the iPhone 8's design, right down to the 4.7-inch screen surrounded by chunky bezels on the top and bottom of the screen.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: iPhone SE 2020 review

iPhone SE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 12 lineup is expected to draw on iPhones past in one significant way — reportedly, Apple is going back to the squared off edges last seen on the iPhone 5, ditching the rounded edges of more recent models. Otherwise, expect a phone that looks a lot like the current iPhone 11 models, though the notch that dips down into the iPhone 12 display is likely to shrink a little bit.

The big difference between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 12 will come down to screen sizes, though if you're a fan of small phones, that may work in the SE's favor. The iPhone SE sports a 4.7-inch screen in a very compact design. The iPhone 12, in contrast, is going to come in a range of sizes, from a 5.4-inch iPhone 12 all the way up to a 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: iPhone 12

Mockups of the iPhone 12 family (Image credit: Macotakara)

That 5.4-inch model may give some iPhone shoppers a reason to hold off on their purchase. That screen is still pretty compact and you won't have to contend with the bezels that the iPhone SE features. What's more, all four iPhone 12 models will reportedly feature OLED panels — even the small one. The iPhone SE still uses an LCD screen.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 Pro models might boast a feature missing from other iPhones, especially the iPhone SE. Apple might boost the refresh rate to 120Hz, which is double the refresh rate of current iPhones. That means smoothing scrolling and more immersive games. However, before you hold out for an iPhone 12 Pro, you should know there's some doubt as to whether this feature will appear at all.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Cameras

Camera differences between the current iPhone SE and future iPhone 12 models break down into a story of rear lenses. The iPhone SE has just one of them. The iPhone 12 will likely mimic the iPhone 11 and feature multiple cameras on the back of its different models.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 Pro concept design (Image credit: ConceptsiPhone)

Specifically, the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 and the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Max are rumored to have the same main shooter and ultra wide angle lens found on the iPhone 11. The iPhone 12 Pro models are all but certain to continue to feature a telephoto lens while also adding a LiDAR sensor as well for improved portrait photos and more sophisticated augmented reality features.

The iPhone SE settles for a single 12MP camera on its back, and while that certainly limits its flexibility when it comes to zooming in and pulling back to capture different details, all is not lost. Because the iPhone SE features the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11 lineup, it benefits from a neural processor on that chipset. That enables the iPhone SE to take portrait shots and bring out highlights in faces using Smart HDR.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone SE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There is one area where the iPhone SE lags Apple's current iPhones and will most assuredly fall behind the iPhone 12 lineup. There's no support for Night mode on the iPhone SE, so look elsewhere if you want a phone that can take crisp photos when the lights are low.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Performance

We mentioned the iPhone SE uses the A13 Bionic chipset, a processor that can outperform top-of-the-line Android devices. That means you've got flagship power in a sub-$400 device — one of the iPhone SE's main selling points.

The iPhone 12 is almost certain to run on a more powerful chip, though. Apple's rumored A14 is a 5-nanometer processor, compared to 7nm for the A13. That means the A14 is more power efficient, and we'd expect another jump forward in processing power for any Apple phones that use the A14.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone SE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

That said, it's unclear whether you'll notice any big performance gap between the iPhone SE and iPhone 12. Yes, the newer phones will post higher benchmarks than the iPhone SE is capable of, and the models Apple stuffs with RAM will handle multitasking more efficiently. But the improvements are unlikely to be so vast that iPhone SE owners will feel shortchanged by what their cheaper phone can do.

All four iPhone 12 models are expected to include 5G support — something Apple skipped on the iPhone SE. So if being able to connect to faster cellular networks is a key concern of yours, the iPhone SE is a non-starter. Earlier rumors suggested that only the iPhone 12 Pro models would support all types of 5G, but lately, it seems like both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Max will work with faster mmWave-based networks, too.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Battery

The iPhone SE doesn't deliver much on the battery front. Apple doesn't disclose the size of its phone batteries, but iPhone SE teardowns point to an 1,821 mAh power pack inside the device. That doesn't translate to a very good battery life in our testing, which involves continuous web surfing over LTE until a fully charged phone runs out of power. The iPhone SE lasted just 9 hours and 18 minutes, which is below the average time of around 10 hours for a typical smartphone.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 render (Image credit: PhoneArena)

Battery life wasn't a problem for the iPhone 11 phones — both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro Max offer some of the best phone battery life we've seen, and the iPhone 11 Pro outlasts the iPhone SE by more than an hour. We'd expect the iPhone 12 models to do just as well, especially since the A14 chip should be more power efficient.

While the iPhone SE can charge wirelessly — a feature we're expecting Apple to retain in the iPhone 12 — it doesn't charge up very quickly, thanks to the 5-watt adapter Apple includes. Pro versions of the iPhone 11 get a faster 18-watt charger in the box, and we'd expect that trend to continue with the iPhone 12 Pro.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Software and special features

Like the TrueDepth camera-equipped iPhones before them, the iPhone 12 models should support FaceID for unlocking your device and confirming mobile payments. The iPhone 12 Pro and its rumored LiDAR sensor should be able to support more capable AR apps than the standard iPhone 12, let alone the iPhone SE.

iPhone 12 vs iPhons SE: iOS 14

iOS 14 (Image credit: Apple)

But the iPhone SE will match many of the software capabilities of Apple's unreleased iPhones, thanks to Apple's policy on iOS support. The SE currently runs iOS 13, the latest version of Apple's mobile software. And you'll be able to upgrade to iOS 14 when that full version arrives, likely around the same time as the iPhone 12 itself. Until then, you can install the iOS 14 beta on your iPhone SE if you're impressed by the new features we've detailed in our iOS 14 hands-on.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Outlook

As we're now in the dog days of summer, if you can afford to wait to get a new iPhone, it's worth holding out until the iPhone 12 arrives. Even if you're leaning toward the iPhone SE, in a month or so, you'll be able to see just what Apple has planned for all of this year's new devices. And who knows? Maybe the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 will be the more modern compact phone you're looking for.

But if you've got to make a decision right now, the trade-offs you'll make by opting for an iPhone SE aren't as significant as you might think. You'll get a smaller screen, fewer cameras and a processor that's not going to be cutting edge by the fall, but you'll also save hundreds of dollars while still getting a pretty capable device.