If you’re an iPhone user that prefers small phones, you’ve got better options than you’ve had in years. The iPhone SE was just updated in 2020, taking the smallest (at the time) iPhone and boosting its specs considerably. Then, Apple surprised us during the iPhone 12 launch with a new fourth model, the iPhone 12 mini, which is about the same size as the SE. Now, small phone fans have two modern iPhones to choose from at opposite ends of the spectrum. So which one is best for you?
Features and specs
Here are the top-line differences in features and specs between the two. There are plenty of smaller differences, but these features and specs will give you an idea of how they stack up against each other.
iPhone 12 mini
Size (H x W x D)
5.45″ x 2.65″ x 0.29″
5.18″ x 2.13″ x 0.29″
LCD (326 ppi)
OLED with HDR (476 ppi)
12MP f/1.8 Wide camera
12MP f/1.6 Wide camera, 12MP f/2.4 Ultra Wide camera
7MP f/2.2 camera, 1080p
12MP f/2.2 camera, 4K HDR
4G LTE, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC
5G, Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, Ultra Wideband
It’s quite obvious which is the “better” iPhone here. The iPhone 12 mini has a newer processor, an HDR OLED edge-to-edge display, an ultra-wide rear camera, a better front camera, 5G support, and a bigger battery. So, if you just want to get the “best” small iPhone no matter that cost, you can stop reading now: the iPhone 12 mini is where it’s at. But savvy readers will look at the vast difference in price and consider just how many of these features they really need.
Design and display
The iPhone SE carries forth the design of the iPhone 8 while replacing the internal components with a more modern A13 Bionic processor. The iPhone 12 mini features the new design of the iPhone 12, with flat sides and an edge-to-edge display. It also comes in five colors: the black, white, and red of the iPhone SE plus green and blue. There’s no doubt the 12 mini is a better-looking phone. It’s also just a little bit smaller and lighter, making it the smallest iPhone you can buy. But it’s not like the iPhone SE is a clunker, and for several hundred dollars, you can probably get by without the seafoam green color option.
The display is much better on the iPhone 12 mini, though. The fact that it doesn’t have big bezels above and below the display means that, despite being a technically smaller phone, the iPhone 12 mini actually has more screen area than the iPhone SE (5.4 inches versus 4.7 inches). It’s not just the size, however. The iPhone mini also uses Apple’s best display tech, OLED, which brings tremendous contrast with deep blacks and higher resolution (476 pixels per inch vs. 326 pixels per inch).
Our pick: When it comes to the display, you really get what you pay for. Since you’re going to be looking at your phone’s screen hour hours each day, the extra money is definitely worth it. However, the iPhone SE has an excellent LCD and a classic design, so if you still have a soft spot for the home button, you’ll definitely be happy with it.
Performance and battery life
The iPhone 12 mini has the A14 processor, which is of course faster than the A13 in the iPhone SE. If we’re being honest, modern iPhone processors are just so fast that you’re not likely to notice the difference in day-to-day use. Unless you’re the kind of person who knows you need the absolute fastest thing going, the iPhone SE is going to be fast enough to last for years.
No matter who you are, you can appreciate longer battery life, though. The battery in the iPhone 12 mini has about 25 percent more capacity than the iPhone SE. Combine that with a more power-efficient processor and an OLED display, and you’re likely to get two or more hours longer battery life on a single charge. The iPhone 12 mini may have the shortest battery life of any iPhone 12 model, but that’s all relative; it’s still a lot longer than the iPhone SE.
Our pick: Even power users will struggle to see the difference between the iPhone SE and iPhone 12 mini when it comes to speed. Battery life is another story. Unless you’re a real heavy user, the iPhone 12 mini will probably make it through most of a day, but you’ll want to keep a charger around with the SE.
5G, MagSafe, and UWB
Thee iPhone 12 mini already has real major advantages with its display and battery life, and that edge continues when you start looking at the other features. Unlike the screen, however, the iPhone 12 mini’s other features are more about what you might need later. The most obvious difference is that the iPhone 12 mini supports 5G cellular networks, while the iPhone SE does not. Right now, that’s not a big deal for most people. Even if your carrier has upgraded the towers near you to 5G, you probably won’t see a game-changing speed improvement.
Over time, as networks are upgraded further, 5G support will matter more. It’s not like your 4G LTE iPhone SE is going to stop working in the next few years, but all the carriers’ efforts are in making 5G faster and more reliable, with better coverage. In two years, you’ll probably be glad you have a 5G iPhone.
MagSafe is another “maybe one day” feature, as is Ultra Wideband (UWB). Today, you can buy some chargers and cases that support MagSafe, but there’s not a whole lot out there. In the coming years, that ecosystem will certainly grow. The same goes for Apple’s UWB wireless chip, which allows for high-bandwidth and short-range data transmission as well as very precise location tracking. It’s sort of like room-scale GPS. Today it can be used to seamlessly hand-off audio between your iPhone and HomePod mini, but not much else. Maybe it will be used in the long-rumored AirTags personal tracking devices. It still seems like a “nice to have” rather than a “have to have” feature.
Our pick: While Face ID is really great, it has been a big pain in the butt during a year where we’re all wearing masks all the time. But in the winter, those who have Touch ID iPhones always complain about taking their gloves off to use it. Face ID is the better and more secure technology (and it enables that great edge-to-edge display), but we wouldn’t fault you for being just fine sticking with Touch ID.
Since these are both iPhones, you know you’re getting a great camera no matter what you buy. While they both have 12MP main lenses that Apple has been using since the iPhone 6, they’re a bit different in how they snap and process photos. The iPhone 12 mini has the same wide-angle camera as the larger models, so you’re getting an f/1.6 aperture for stellar low-light shots along with Night Mode, which isn’t available on the SE without turning to a third-party app. The SE’s camera has an f/1.8 aperture, so shots will be slightly darker and noisier as well.
You’re also getting a second 12MP, f/2.4 ultra-wide camera on the iPhone 12 mini that can capture 120-degree field of view, which is also boosted by Night Mode. And while both cameras shoot in 4K at 60fps, only the 12 mini can capture videos in Dolby Vision HDR. Even though the SE has a single camera, it supports portrait mode and Portrait Lighting like the 12 mini, though you’re missing out on the AI-powered Deep Fusion and Smart HDR technology that compares images and optimizes photos for the scene and lighting on a granular level.
The front camera is superior on the iPhone 12 mini as well. You get a 12MP camera that can shoot 4K video versus a 7MP HD one on the SE. The iPhone 12 mini also has Night Mode on its front camera, which is lacking on the SE.
Our pick: We were definitely impressed with the photos taken by the SE, but if photography matters more than anything else, you should spend the extra money on the 12 mini.
What to buy
You like small phones, and now you’re going to get a new iPhone. Do you buy the iPhone SE and save hundreds of dollars, or pay nearly twice as much for the iPhone 12 mini? It comes down to how much value you place in three key areas:
The quality and design of the display.
The importance of leading-edge tech like 5G, Ultra Wideband, and Face ID.
Whether you always wish for longer battery life.
If you place any of those things in high regard, you’ll want to opt for the iPhone 12 mini. There’s just no competition with the iPhone SE when it comes to the display, battery, and premium features, and it’s well worth the extra money you’ll pay for the iPhone 12 There are other differences (such as better selfies and the ultra-wide camera on the iPhone 12 mini), but for most users, those are the three big considerations worth paying hundreds of dollars for. If paying over $700 for a phone won’t break the bank for you, or if you’re buying something you hope to keep for four or five years, we think you’ll be a lot happier with the iPhone 12 mini.
However, for all other small phone lovers, the iPhone SE is a steal at $399. It’s not just the cheapest iPhone you can buy, it still brings some high-end features such as wireless charging and portrait mode, has an excellent retro design, and performs nearly as well as the latest iPhones. It’ll get updated for years too, so whether you’re going to replace your iPhone in just a year or two or are particularly rough on your phone and don’t want to spend a lot of money on something that’s bound to get beat up, go for the iPhone SE.
Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read ouraffiliate link policyfor more details.
I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life – over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.