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

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

It may feel like the iPhone 7 came out ages ago, but it's really been only three-and-a-half years. In this era, when people are going longer than ever between phone upgrades, there are plenty of iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models still out in the wild, with their owners waiting for something new to come along to replace their current handsets.

Is that something new the iPhone SE 2020? The $399 phone came out this spring with an impressive set of features for a budget phone. If you're holding onto an iPhone 7 in part because of the high prices of recent iPhone releases, the rebooted iPhone SE could finally be what pushes you to get a new Apple device.

Obviously, a phone that comes out in 2020 is going to out-spec a phone first released in the fall of 2016. But just how different is the iPhone SE vs. the iPhone 7? Here's a closer look at the improvements Apple has made in this latest phone compared to its flagship device from a few years ago.

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.

That's a lower price than the iPhone 7 debuted at in 2016. Back then, the phone started at $649, though obviously the price has fallen as newer models have come out. These days, you can find an iPhone 7 for less than $200 at discount carriers and retail sites.

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 $110 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 Apple's new phone — 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. The A13 produces the best results we've ever seen in mobile benchmarks, so 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 13, the current version of Apple's mobile OS that ships on the iPhone SE. Both phones can also run iOS 14, which is now available as a public beta, 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)

Beyond that, it's more uncertain. By the fall of 2021, the iPhone 7 will be five years old, and Apple tends to end iOS support at that point. Of course, both the original iPhone SE and iPhone 6s can run iOS 14, and that latter phone will be five years old come the fall.

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: It’s worth the upgrade

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 is rumored to be in the works. Of course, with rumors suggesting a 2021 launch for the iPhone SE Plus, you could be in for a bit of a wait for a larger screen.

iPhone SE 2020 vs iPhone 7

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

The bigger question facing iPhone 7 owners would be whether to upgrade now or hold off until the fall when the iPhone 12 will come out. If you have the patience to wait — and don't mind rumors that the iPhones may ship later than expected due to the coronavirus pandemic — you may be rewarded by holding out. 

All four iPhone 12 models are expected to have 5G connectivity, something missing from the iPhone SE. And rumors suggest a 5.4-inch iPhone 12 model, more similar in size to the iPhone 7 Plus, is in the works. Just be aware that the cheapest of the new iPhone 12 models is expected to cost around $699 — or $300 more than the iPhone SE.

And that gets us back to the iPhone SE 2020's big appeal — its value. 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 need a phone right away and don't want to pay top dollar, the iPhone SE is a worthwhile improvement over the iPhone 7.