Portrait Mode and the Neural Engine on iPhone SE

Apple finally announced the successor to the iPhone SE. Also called the iPhone SE (and from here, the one I am referring to with that name), it built on the expectations that many were thinking: A reuse of an existing design with newer internals. This is exactly how Apple approached the first SE model. So it made since that the new iPhone SE followed suit.

Design wise, the iPhone SE is identical to the iPhone 8 that it replaced. But internally, it contains a lot of technology found in the iPhone 11: A13 Bionic chip with the third generation Neural Engine, support for WiFi 6, Gigabit class LTE, etc. It also made some changes from the iPhone 8 in line with the iPhone 11, such as the removal of 3D Touch.

But there are some camera differences with the iPhone SE, especially when compared to the iPhone 8, that made me really think.

Portrait Mode

The iPhone SE, like the visually identical iPhone 8, has a single camera on the back side. If you compare the specs between the iPhone 8 and iPhone SE, you’ll see no difference:

  • Single 12MP Wide camera
  • Wide: ƒ/1.8 aperture
  • Optical image stabilization
  • Digital zoom up to 5x
  • True Tone flash with Slow Sync

The iPhone 8 camera was really good, so keeping that same sensor, especially to reduce cost, makes sense.

But there’s something the iPhone SE has than its predecessor didn’t have:

  • Portrait mode with advanced bokeh and Depth Control
  • Portrait Lighting with six effects (Natural, Studio, Contour, Stage, Stage Mono, High‑Key Mono)

The iPhone SE adds Portrait mode, something that initially came to the iPhone 7 Plus because of its dual cameras. Bringing this to a 4.7-inch iPhone like the iPhone SE is a first.

Now, this isn’t the first time a single camera iPhone has received Portrait Mode. The iPhone XR, released in 2018, had a single backside camera and supported Portrait Mode. If we compare the stats of the XR’s backside camera against the iPhone 8 and iPhone SE, we’ll see that it’s identical. However, there is a notable difference with the iPhone XR:

  • Portrait Lighting with three effects (Natural, Studio, Contour)

The iPhone XR only supports three effects in Portrait Mode on the single backside camera. What gives?

Apple explains in their press release:

iPhone SE features the best single-camera system ever in an iPhone with a 12-megapixel f/1.8 aperture Wide camera, and uses the image signal processor and Neural Engine of A13 Bionic to unlock even more benefits of computational photography, including Portrait mode, all six Portrait Lighting effects and Depth Control.

The neural engine in the A13 is able to do much better with the single camera sensor input to process all of the available effects for Portrait Mode. So much so that it enables all six effects on the single camera!

But it doesn’t stop there!

A First on an iPhone

Let’s compare the front camera on the iPhone 8, iPhone XR, and iPhone SE.

The iPhone 8 and iPhone SE both have identical specs:

  • FaceTime HD camera
  • 7MP photos
  • ƒ/2.2 aperture
  • Retina Flash
  • Auto HDR for photos
  • 1080p HD video recording at 30 fps

Since it doesn’t include the TrueDepth camera system, which uses a camera and additional sensors to detect facial features and depth, the iPhone SE has Touch ID instead of Face ID for unlocking the device. It also makes sense that it doesn’t have Portrait Mode on the front camera.

Except it does.

  • Portrait mode with advanced bokeh and Depth Control
  • Portrait Lighting with six effects (Natural, Studio, Contour, Stage, Stage Mono, High‑Key Mono)

Again, from Apple’s press release, just after the earlier quote:

Using machine learning and monocular depth estimation, iPhone SE also takes stunning Portraits with the front camera.

The iPhone SE is the first iPhone without the TrueDepth camera system with front facing Portrait Mode. It’s using a single camera, like the backside, to enable the same level of Portrait Mode, using the same cameras as found in the iPhone 8.

It’s amazing what the A13 Bionic chip is able to enable. It and the third generation Neural Engine definition power the most powerful smartphones in the world. In the words of Apple SVP Phil Schiller: “It’s a big deal.” And to be able to include their fastest chip in their cheapest iPhone? An easy win for Apple.

iPhone SE 2 Expectations

For months, rumors have circulated that Apple is doing another iPhone SE. But what is Apple’s goal with it? What can we reasonably expect, and why?

Is It Size?

Some think the SE 2 (or whatever it will be called; more on that later) is Apple’s chance to release another smaller phone into the line up. While it does give them the opportunity, that doesn’t seem like the role the SE 2 is to play. The reason for that is because that wasn’t the primary goal of the first SE.

Let’s look back at the original iPhone SE. It launched in the spring of 2016, roughly six months after the release of the iPhone 6S. When the iPhone 6S launched, the iPhone 5S, a then 2 year old phone, was the most affordable option, coming in around $449. The SE ended up replacing it, coming in at $399.

The SE retained the beloved 4-inch screen size that many loved. And while size made it an attractive purchase, there was another benefit. They were able to pack in the same features and specs of the iPhone 6S into the smaller design. But wait: didn’t it cost less than the iPhone 5s? How could they do that?

Reusability

Being based on the older design, it makes sense that, after having manufactured the 5-series for a couple of years, the cost of building the SE, as well as R&D, had been recouped more than a new flagship. The tooling required to build most of the SE were thus already working as a well oiled machine. Savings were easily found there, which could result in a lower price.

The rumored iPhone SE 2 will be no different. It’s likely to look like an existing design (iPhone 8, I’d say), but with improved internals. Yes, that means a newer set of internal components had to be designed to fit into that enclosure. But the cost of producing that enclosure no doubt will allow for a low price.

The one “downside” to people owning such a phone: It won’t look as flash as the iPhone 11 Pro (or whatever phones are debuted later this year). But for the audience Apple is likely targeting with this phone, I don’t think they care so much about flashy. It’s about getting the most bang for your buck.

I know I would love to see another $399 iPhone with the latest specs, and I know many others would, too. Let’s see what happens after one is announced.