Last week we published our initial review of Apple’s new iPhone SE. In the piece, I had remarked that the camera was relatively disappointing and suffered from a lack of detail in photos, with the phone’s camera seemingly suffering from optical weaknesses that manifested in partially blurred out shots. This was quite puzzling as the iPhone SE’s camera module should be of the same design as that of the iPhone 8, which produced sharp images.

I had notified Apple of the results ahead of the publication of the article, and the company communicated back that they had not seen such results before, and that they were not what was expected of the new iPhone SE’s camera abilities.

The company decided to dispatch out a new phone, and to collect my initial unit for analysis. I exchanged units earlier in the week, and was able to retest the new phone’s cameras.

In the new camera samples, we can see a dramatic improvement in sharpness of the pictures, and the new phone exhibits none of the optical issues that were initially described in the article.

Although I wasn’t able to test both units side-by-side, as the old phone had been collected at the same time, here’s some similar scene shots (although they are done on different days with different lighting conditions) between the two phones:

One can immediately note massive improvements in sharpness, with the new phone now performing as good as, or even better, than the iPhone 8.

I’ve completely updated the initial camera evaluation with new samples, and all criticism about the detail retention and optical performance of the iPhone SE naturally don’t apply any more, with the phone now performing excellently in that area.

Read: Updated iPhone SE Quick Camera Evaluation

For transparency’s sake – we’ve kept on the old page with the old samples in the article so that readers can see the differences between the two units.

Post-mortem

Overall, the new update is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the iPhone SE should feature a much better camera than initially reported, and I hope that’s what most users will experience.

The bad news is that we still don’t exactly know what went wrong with the first unit – what I don’t doubt is confirmed is that it suffered from a manufacturing defect in the optical system of the camera.

The problem with confirming such a scenario is that it’s very unlikely that I was extremely unlucky in being the sole person receiving such a sample, as usually one-off faults like these are insanely rare, with the more likely scenario being some sort of systematic failure for a whole batch of units.

As an anecdote, the last time this happened was a few years back, with initial production runs of Huawei’s Mate 8 having camera focus issues, and this was confirmed to be faulty manufacturing of the initial batches rather than just my unit. The issue was partly resolved by software updates, and fully resolved by a recalibration in the manufacturing lines.

For such a QA-issue to happen to Apple is extremely rare, and to their credit, they took it very seriously with a prompt response and device replacement. Only their internal analysis will showcase the root cause of the problem, and unfortunately given the company’s more secretive nature, we might never find out about the results of that investigation.

We’ll be following up with a full-blown camera analysis of the new iPhone SE (and a ton of other phones we have to catch up on!) in the next few weeks.

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  • Farfolomew - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    Thanks for the excellent update, Andrei! Together, with the night camera improvements over the iPhone 8, along with this blurry fix, this new SE device is a great iOS device. And if this follows suit that the original SE did, by later this year (or early next), a lot of the US carriers will have this new SE discounted to around $200 total, with it being unlockable after six months of service with them. Not bad! Reply
  • fmcjw - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    It looks like the newer unit has better contrast and low light capabilities in the left part of the 2nd set, though we need to check the EXIF data to be sure. Could this be a sensor lottery situation where the first unit was Omnivision, and the second one Sony? Reply
  • Andrei Frumusanu - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    The low light shots are literally the same shots from the first unit, I didn't redo those. Reply
  • linuxgeex - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    If you look at the video sample you can see the camera is constantly refocusing when it shouldn't be. The most obvious side-effect of this during the video was the appearance of 1-2% pulsating zoom. That's probably the issue - as a result you only get a good shot when it so happens that the focal length is correct, while it's constantly cycling +- and never locked on. Reply
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  • Vince789 - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    Looking forward to the full camera analysis, please include Neural Cam on the iPhone SE and the Pixel 3A Reply
  • Kangal - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    I'm quite disappointed they didn't redo the small body (ie iPhone 5S), and stupidly named this the iPhone SE when that name was already taken and was synonymous with being small.

    It's roughly the same size as the iPhone 11 Pro, so this is definitely a "medium" sized phone as it isn't small at all.

    What's next?... the 2023 iPhone SE, where they re-do the iPhone 8 Plus phone with the latest Apple A16 chipset and cameras!
    Reply
  • Ninhalem - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    Don Quixote is that you? Reply
  • rrinker - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    Was Don Quixote illiterate as well? Reply
  • melgross - Friday, May 1, 2020 - link

    By today’s standards, this is a small phone. Perhaps you haven’t read all the articles and seen any of the You Tube reviews that state that BECAUSE Apple didn’t redesign the phone, they were able to keep the price down. If they did redesign it, then the price would be higher. Most people don’t seem to mind that this is the same case. Reply

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