iPhone 12 vs iPhone SE (2020): What's the difference (and should you upgrade)?

Iphone 12 Blue
Iphone 12 Blue (Image credit: iMore)

These two iPhones were released just months apart in 2020. And yet, there are many differences between the first new iPhone SE in four years and Apple's current flagship model. For most buyers, the choice is clear, as you'll see below.

iPhone 12 vs iPhone SE (2020): Breaking it down ...

When people talk about Apple, iPhone, and 2020, they tend to forget the iPhone SE (2020) was also released during the year. In this case, it arrived months before the four handsets that make up the iPhone 12 series. Featuring a dated (but popular) design, the 4.7-inch iPhone SE (2020) is Apple's current budget phone, starting at $100 less than the still-available iPhone XR (2018). By contrast, the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 is Apple's current flagship. Nearly identical on the inside to the iPhone 12 mini, the iPhone 12 is a show-stopper and the best Apple handset for most people this year.

When comparing the iPhone 12 and iPhone SE (2020), the price and display size are the two most important factors to consider. On one side is Apple's latest and greatest non-Pro iPhone; on the other, a budget or starter phone that still packs a bunch.

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Header Cell - Column 0 iPhone 12iPhone SE (2020)
CostFrom $799From $399
Release dateOctober 2020April 2020
MaterialsCeramic Shield front
Aerospace-grade aluminum
Glass front and back
Aerospace-grade aluminum
5G NetworkYesNo
ProcessorA14 BionicA13 Bionic
DisplaySuper Retina XDR OLED DisplayRetina HD display
Face IDYesNo
Touch IDNoYes
BatteryVideo playback: Up to 17 hours
Video playback (streamed): Up to 11 hours
Audio playback: Up to 65 hours
Video playback: Up to 13 hours
Video playback (streamed): Up to 8 hours
Audio playback: Up to 40 hour
Water resistantYes, up to 6 meters for 30 minutesYes, up to 1 meter for 30 minutes
ChargingLightning, Qi, and MagSafe Wireless ChargingLightning, Qi
Fast ChargingYesYes
Rear CamerasUltra Wide: ƒ/2.4 aperture
Wide: ƒ/1.6 aperture
Wide: ƒ/1.8 aperture
Front CameraTrueDepth camera
12MP photos
ƒ/2.2 aperture
FaceTime camera
7MP photos
ƒ/2.2 aperture

To compare the two iPhones, it's best to first concentrate on what the extra $400 will get you with the iPhone 12. With this model, you'll get a better (i.e. faster) processor, larger (and better) display, and more color choices. There's also one extra rear camera and a slightly better front camera system. The iPhone 12 also includes Face ID, not Touch ID, and supports Apple's new MagSafe charging system. The iPhone 12 also supports 5G, offers better battery life and water resistance.

The iPhone SE (2020) does go toe-to-toe with the iPhone 12 in some ways, however. Both, for example, feature an aerospace-grade aluminum body and offer the same storage options. Fast Charging is also available on both models.

You should buy the iPhone 12 if ...

The iPhone 12 is the best Apple handset for most people. It includes the hottest features to arrive on the overall iPhone 12 series (MagSafe charging, a ceramic shield front, A14 Bionic) without going overboard.

You should buy the iPhone SE (2020) if ...

When money is a serious concern, or you're looking for a starter iPhone (perhaps for your teenager), go with the iPhone SE (2020). Less than a year old, this model includes the same internals as the iPhone 11 in a smaller package for much less money. It also features an iconic design that's missing from other iPhones. Plus, there's no denying it's one of the easiest iPhones to carry — with one hand.

Bryan M Wolfe
Staff Writer

Bryan M. Wolfe has written about technology for over a decade on various websites, including TechRadar, AppAdvice, and many more. Before this, he worked in the technology field across different industries, including healthcare and education. He’s currently iMore’s lead on all things Mac and macOS, although he also loves covering iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. Bryan enjoys watching his favorite sports teams, traveling, and driving around his teenage daughter to her latest stage show, audition, or school event in his spare time. He also keeps busy walking his black and white cocker spaniel, Izzy, and trying new coffees and liquid grapes.