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iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Should you upgrade?

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7
(Image credit: Apple)

The iPhone 7 is now more than four years old. It may seem hard to believe that there are still iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models out there, but people are holding on to their phones longer than ever before. So some people are still making do with a phone that first came out in 2016. 

If you are still using an iPhone 7, it's probably time to look at a new device, especially since the iPhone SE 2020 has been around for a year. Don't care for the iPhone 12 mini's $699 price? Not to worry — the iPhone SE costs $399 and still manages to offer some pretty impressive features.

Certainly, the newer iPhone SE is going to be a step up from a phone that first came out in 2016. But iPhone 7 users looking to get the most for their money may wonder about any iPhone SE vs. iPhone 7 differences.

Here's a closer look at the improvements Apple has made with the iPhone SE to its flagship device from a few years ago and whether it's worth upgrading now or holding out until later this year when the iPhone 13 debuts.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Specs compared

iPhone SE 2020iPhone 7
Screen size (Resolution) 4.7-inch Retina HD (1334 by 750) 4.7-inch Retina HD (1334 by 750)
CPUA13 BionicA10 Fusion
RAM 3GB (rumored)2GB
Storage64GB, 128GB, 256GB32GB, 128GB, 256GB
Rear camera12MP (f/1.8) 12MP (f/1.8)
Front camera7MP (f/2.2)7MP (f/2.2)
Battery size1,821 mAh1,960 mAh
Size/Weight5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches/5.22 ounces5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28 inches/4.87 ounces
ColorsBlack, White, Product RedJet Black, Black, Silver, Gold, Rose Gold, Product Red

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Price

The iPhone SE starts at $399 for a 64GB version. Double the storage to 128GB and you'll pay $449. The 256GB model costs $549. Even with new iPhone models out, Apple has held the price on the iPhone SE — only the iPhone XR ($499) and iPhone 11 ($599) have seen price cuts.

Because the iPhone SE has been out the better part of a year, we're now seeing discounts, mostly in the form of rebates if you trade in a device when buying the iPhone SE from a carrier. We're tracking the best iPhone SE deals around.

The iPhone SE costs less than what Apple charged for the iPhone 7 when that phone debuted at in 2016. Back then, the iPhone 7 started at $649, though obviously the price has fallen as newer models have come out. These days, you can find an iPhone 7 for around $200 at discount carriers and retail sites, though in many cases, you'll be picking up a refurbished model.

There’s one thing about the iPhone SE's price that's especially relevant to iPhone 7 users: Apple is offering a discount on its new phone when you trade in older models. iPhone 7 owners can knock off as much as $90 from the price of their iPhone SE, while the iPhone 7 Plus fetches up to $130 in rebates.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Design and display

While the iPhone SE is most notable for co-opting the iPhone 8's design, that's essentially the look and feel of the iPhone 7, too — a 4.7-inch screen surrounded by chunky bezels on the top and bottom. Below the screen, there's a Touch ID-supporting home button. It's as if the iPhone X-style designs of the past few years never happened at all.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Put the iPhone 7 and iPhone SE 2020 side-by-side and you'd need a very good ruler to detect any size disparities. There's only fractional differences between the 5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29-inch iPhone SE and the 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28-inch iPhone 7. The new iPhone weighs a little bit more, at 5.22 ounces to the iPhone 7's 4.87-ounce weight.

On paper, the screens would appear to be the same, as both phones feature LCD panels with 1334 x 750 resolution. But there have been advances in display technology since the iPhone 7 first came out. The iPhone SE supports True Tone, allowing it to adjust color temperature on the display based on ambient lighting. 

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For what it's worth, the iPhone SE screen is somewhat brighter than the iPhone 7's, measuring at 653 nits with a light meter. When we tested an iPhone 7 Plus back in 2016, that phone topped out at 578 nits. The LCD panels on both phones captured comparable percentages of the sRGB color spectrum, so you won't see much difference in color range.

Other design elements of the iPhone SE will be familiar to iPhone 7 owners, for good and for bad. The new phone has an IP67 water-resistance rating, meaning a dunk in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes shouldn't pose a problem. That's unchanged from the iPhone 7, as is the lack of a headphone jack on either phone.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Cameras

Here's where the new begins to distance itself from the old. The iPhone SE features a single rear camera, much like the iPhone 7 did. (The iPhone 7 Plus actually one-ups the iPhone SE with a second telephoto lens that provides a true optical zoom.) But while the iPhone SE and iPhone 7 both sport 12MP lenses with apertures of f/1.8, that's where the similarities end.

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

iPhone 7 (Image credit: Future)

For starters, the iPhone SE's rear sensor has more in common with the single rear lens Apple included in 2018's iPhone XR, and that phone definitely improved upon the picture-taking skills of previous single-lens iPhones. In addition the A13 Bionic processor powering the iPhone SE — more on that improvement in a moment — helps with computational photography by way of the chipset's built-in neural engine.

With the iPhone SE's camera, you'll get Smart HDR, which can highlight more details in the faces of the people you photograph. The iPhone SE can also create lighting effects and control the depth of field on portraits. You'll also be able to take portrait shots with both the rear and 7MP front camera on the iPhone SE. All of that's beyond the skill set of the iPhone 7.

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The biggest missing feature on the iPhone SE — well, aside from that second lens — is support for the Night mode rolled out with last year's iPhone 11 models. That means when you're in a darkly lit room, you'll need to rely on the iPhone SE's flash. That's not a feature the iPhone 7 offered either, so it's not like anyone upgrading phones will miss what they never had.

We don't have an iPhone 7 handy to shoot photo comparisons, but the head-to-head comparisons we've done with the new iPhone SE and other phones have convinced us that it belongs on the list of best camera phones, even with its lone rear lens.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Performance and software

The iPhone SE 2020 features the A13 Bionic processor, the same Apple-designed chipset that powers the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. Prior to the release of the iPhone 12 and its superior A14 Bionic chip, the A13 produced the best results at the time for our our mobile benchmarks. Even though the iPhone 12 is the new speed king, it's safe to say the iPhone SE dusts the iPhone 7 and its A10 Fusion chip.

According to Apple, the iPhone SE offers up to 1.8 times the CPU performance of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus and up to 2.8 times the graphics power.

Put another way, the iPhone SE scored 3,226 on the multi-core test and 1,337 on the single-core portion of the Geekbench 5 performance test. Those numbers are comparable to what the iPhone 11 put up. We imagine the iPhone 7 would have a hard time keeping pace with its 3.5-year-old processor.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7

iPhone 7 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The base model of the iPhone SE features double the storage of the paltry 32MB that the iPhone 7 offered. However, the iPhone 7 did come in 128GB and 256GB capacities as well, matching Apple's latest phone.

The software experience on both phones is pretty much the same. After all, the iPhone 7 is capable of running iOS 14, though apps will probably be a little peppier on the newer iPhone SE. 

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

After the iOS 14.5 update comes out this spring, we'd expect both phones to support iOS 15 when that update arrives in the fall, though that's far from certain. When iOS 15 ships, the iPhone 7 will celebrate its fifth birthday, and that's usually when Apple ends iOS support. (Of course, both the original iPhone SE and iPhone 6s can run iOS 14, and that latter phone is now five years old.)

Regardless, the iPhone SE 2020 will still be going strong a year from now, with a couple more years of iOS updates ahead of it. Opting for the SE now is to opt for the future.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7: Battery life and charging

Here's one area where iPhone 7 users who upgrade to the iPhone SE might not notice much of a difference. The iPhone SE has an 1,821 mAh battery, according to teardowns. (Apple never discloses battery size.) That's actually smaller than the 1,960 mAh power pack in the iPhone 7.

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

iPhone 7 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Apple says the iPhone SE should have about the same battery life as the iPhone 8, which showed a marginal improvement over the iPhone 7 when we ran our tests years ago. To that end, the iPhone SE averaged 9 hours, 18 minutes on our battery test involving continuous surfing over LTE. That's below average for a current smartphone and well behind what the iPhone 11 delivers. 

The iPhone SE 2020 can boast something the iPhone 7 doesn't have — wireless charging support. Using any Qi-compatible charger, you can juice up your iPhone SE without wires. That's good because the wired charger that ships with the iPhone SE is the same old 5-watt Lightning charger as before. If you want to charge your new phone faster, you'll have to pay for an 18-watt charger separately.

iPhone SE 2020 vs. iPhone 7 verdict: Upgrade or turn to the iPhone 12?

Although it looks similar to the iPhone 7, the iPhone SE is a big leap forward from Apple's flagship from a few years ago, and a better bargain to boot. You get much faster performance, better cameras and wireless charging support, making for a more future-proof phone in the iPhone SE. The only reason to hold off is that the iPhone SE doesn’t have a big-screen brother, though an iPhone SE Plus has been rumored to be in the works. The latest rumors suggest that phone may not ship until 2023, though, as Apple concentrates on a 5G version of the 4.7-inch SE first.

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

In the meantime, Apple has already released a whole new slate of phones. And the iPhone 12 mini, in particular, may be of interest to iPhone 7 owners. All four iPhone 12 models feature 5G connectivity, something missing from the iPhone SE. Meanwhile, the iPhone 12 mini offers a 5.4-inch screen more similar in size to the iPhone 7 Plus. At a starting price of $699, it's the cheapest iPhone 12 model, though it's still $300 more than the iPhone SE.

As noted, the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR are still around, with substantially reduced price tags. Both of those models include 6.1-inch displays, which may not appeal to people who find the iPhone SE's compact size to be a virtue.

And that brings us back to the iPhone SE 2020's big appeal — the way it balances value with a compact size. On top of that, the iPhone SE 2020 delivers a processor boost right now and takes better photos than the aging iPhone 7. If you appreciate smaller phones and don't want to pay top dollar, the iPhone SE is a worthwhile improvement over the iPhone 7.