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

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE
(Image credit: Apple)

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

But things got complicated in 2020. First, Apple introduced a new phone in the spring that turned out to be quite an attractive one. The iPhone SE 2020 features the fastest processor you could find in a phone at the time of its release and the lowest price on any iPhone Apple currently offers.

Then, Apple's usual September iPhone releases got pushed back due to the coronavirus pandemic. But in the case of the four new iPhone 12 models, it turned out to be worth the wait. We've reviewed each new phone — the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max — and came away impressed with the performance, camera improvements and new features that they bring to the mix.

But are all those changes worth the extra money you'd have to pay over the affordable iPhone SE? Here's a comparison of the iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE, based on what we've observed after spending time with all the latest iPhones.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: The Specs

iPhone SE 2020iPhone 12 mini/iPhone 12iPhone 12 Pro/iPhone 12 Pro Max
Starting price$399$699/$799$999/$1,099
Screen Size4.7 inch LCD5.4 inch OLED/6.1 inch OLED6.1 inch OLED/6.7 inch OLED
CPUA13 BionicA14A14
RAM3GB4GB6GB
Storage64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB, 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

There's one area where the iPhone SE is the undisputed champ — it costs less than any iPhone in Apple's current lineup. At $399, the iPhone SE costs $300 less than the least expensive iPhone 12 model — the $699 iPhone 12 mini.

It's not just a matter of offering a low price. As we'll see throughout this iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE face-off, Apple made 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 $140 off the cost of an iPhone SE.

As noted, the iPhone 12 mini starts at $699, while the larger iPhone 12 costs $799. Note that those prices are only for carrier-tied models of each phone. Buy an unlocked iPhone 12 mini or iPhone 12, and you'll need to tack another $30 onto the price. Apple's offering up to $250 off with trade-in, and you can find a host of other iPhone 12 deals now that the phones are out.

As for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max, Apple stuck with the same prices for last year's Pro models. You can pick up an iPhone 12 Pro for $999, while the iPhone 12 Pro Max costs $1,099. Apple will take off up to $370 with a trade-in when you buy one of the Pro models.

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 draws on iPhones past in one significant way — Apple returned to the squared off edges last seen on the iPhone 5, ditching the rounded edges of more recent models. Otherwise, the new phones look a lot like the what you got with the iPhone 11, right down to the notch that dips into the top part of the display. (Hey, on the bright side — no thick iPhone SE-style bezels.)

The big difference between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 12 comes down to screen sizes, though if you're a fan of small phones, that seemingly works 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 mini all the way up to a 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini is especially appealing to small phone fans, since it's actually smaller than the iPhone SE, even though that latter phone has the smaller screen. The iPhone 12 mini measures 5.18 x 2.53 x 0.29 inches, which is shorter and not as wide as the 5.18 x 2.53 x 0.29-inch iPhone SE.

None of the iPhone 12 models feature the fast refresh rate that had been rumored prior to their launch, but they do enjoy at least one edge over the iPhone SE — they're all using OLED panels, even the cheaper mini and iPhone 12 models.

That translates to slightly more colors on the iPhone 12 screens. The iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12 Pro capture 117.8% and 115.6% of the sRGB color spectrum, which is slightly more than the SE's 111.2%. The iPhone SE's Delta-E rating of 0.2 is more closer to accurate than all of the iPhone 12 models, save for the iPhone 12 Pro Max, which tallied a nearly perfect 0.07. (The closer to zero, the more accurate the score.)

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 Pro Max (Image credit: Future)

Avoid the iPhone 12 mini if you need the brightest screen, as its 505-nit reading was the lowest we measured with a light reader among all these models. The iPhone SE's LCD panel measured 653 nits, which also topped the iPhone 12 (569 nites) and iPhone 12 Pro Max (654 nits). The iPhone 12 Pro is the brightness champ at 742 nits.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Cameras

Camera differences between the iPhone SE and iPhone 12 models break down into a story of rear lenses. The iPhone SE has just one of them. The iPhone 12 and 12 mini feature two cameras, while the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max add more optics.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 Pro (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Specifically, the iPhone 12 mini and the iPhone 12 feature the same setup — a 12MP main camera and a 12MP ultrawide angle lens. The main sensor has a wider f/1.6 aperture to let in more light, and there's a 7-element design also aimed at improving low-light performance.

You'll get those features on the iPhone 12 Pro models, though the iPhone 12 Pro Max ups the ante with a larger main sensor to let in even more light. In addition to the wide and ultrawide cameras, the Pro models get a telephoto lens. There are different apertures and focal lengths on the telephoto lens for the two phones — you can get the details in our iPhone 12 Pro vs. iPhone 12 Pro Max comparison — but the bottom line is that Max enjoys more of a zoom than the standard iPhone 12 Pro.

The iPhone 12 Pro models include a LiDAR scanner that helps with portrait shots, enabling portrait shots in Night Mode.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone SE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone SE keeps it simple with 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.

There is one area where the iPhone SE lags Apple's current iPhones. 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 outdoes that, though, with the A14 Bionic, a 5-nanometer processor that's more powerful and power efficient than the 7nm A13. 

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone SE (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

How much more powerful? Our iPhone 12 benchmarks tell the story, but to sum up, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro posted multicore scores of 3,859 and 3,880 in Geekbench 5. The iPhone SE 3,226 — good enough to beat many Android flagships, but far behind the A14-powered phones.

In our real-word test in which we time how long it takes for phones to transcode a 4K video to 1080p using Adobe Premiere Rush, the iPhone SE pulls off the task in 43 seconds. The iPhone 12 sets the new pace at 26 seconds.

All four iPhone 12 models feature 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. 

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 mini (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone 12 series hasn't impressed in our battery test, either, with the exception of the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Apple's largest phone held out for an equally super-sized time of 10 hours and 53 minutes, falling just short of landing on our best phone battery life list. The iPhone 12 Pro made it past 9 hours, but the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 mini couldn't beat the iPhone SE's result.

The iPhone 12 series holds one advantage over the iPhone SE when it comes to charging. While all of these phones can charge wirelessly, only the new iPhone 12 models contain the magnets that work with Apple's new MagSafe accessories. The magnets snap any compatible charging pad into place to ensure that you're getting the strongest charge. 

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Software and special features

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

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE

iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 12 Pro (Image credit: Future)

But the iPhone SE will match many of the software capabilities of Apple's latest iPhones, thanks to Apple's policy on iOS support. Like those models, the iPhone SE can run iOS 14, taking advantage of new features like widgets on the home screen and improvements to Maps and Messages, among other enhancements.

iPhone 12 vs. iPhone SE: Verdict

The iPhone 12 lineup introduces four impressive phones to Apple's offerings. And as good as the iPhone SE is, you'd have to acknowledge that the iPhone 12 models are superior in nearly every way, from design to performance to cameras. Only in the subject of battery life does the iPhone SE hold its own, and that's really only with the iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 12.

The iPhone 12 mini, in particular, poses an attractive option for iPhone SE fans drawn to the latter phone because it's so compact. The mini is the best small phone we've seen, and if you're willing to pay the $300 premium over the iPhone SE, it's the better option.

But price is a big sticking point, especially these days. Getting an iPhone for less than $400 is a pretty good bargain, and with its A13 processor and solid camera, you really aren't making huge trade-offs to get that lower price with the iPhone SE. The iPhone 12 models are the phones to get if you want the absolute best features, but the iPhone SE remains an intriguing alternative, especially for shoppers who want to save on their next smartphone purchase.