Apple’s newest iPhone is the smallest produced by the company since the release of the iPhone 5s in 2013. Despite being crammed with the latest hardware, you’d struggle to tell the two apart on face value.
If Apple’s decision to release not one but two larger iPhone models displeased you, the company is now offering the iPhone SE as a peace offering — but can a smaller iPhone still fit the smartphone-shaped hole in your life? Let’s find out, and at the end of this review, we’re giving away our test unit to one lucky reader!
In With The Old
Physically, the iPhone SE looks and feels identical to the iPhone 5s. Absent are the smooth rounded edges found on Apple’s post iPhone 6 smartphones, the camera doesn’t protrude awkwardly out the back, and the power button has once again migrated back to the top of the unit.
That’s because the iPhone SE uses an identical chassis, with only an extra gram added to the weight this time round (113g). Complete with small round volume buttons, the SE I reviewed even looks a little bit like the stainless steel iPhone 4 thanks to the choice of reflective metallic grey and black accents.
Under the hood it’s a different story. Apple has crammed the internals of an iPhone 6s (our review) in there, complete with A9 processor and a mighty 2GB of RAM. As expected, iOS flies with barely a stutter, and that extra gigabyte of RAM improves multitasking performance so tabs and apps don’t fall out of memory like they do on older iPhone and iPad models.
The 4″ screen means a return to the iPhone 5’s resolution of 1136 x 640. Brightness is comparable with the larger models, but I did notice that the SE display seems a lot warmer, bordering on “yellowish” at points. The contrast ratio is noticeably worse than my iPhone 6, and the whites really could be whiter, though you’ll probably get used to it after a while.
Photo and video performance is also on-par with the iPhone 6s, which means you can shoot 12 megapixel still images, 4K video at 30 fps, 1080p video at 60fps, as well as 1080p and 720p slow-motion video at 120 and 240 fps respectively. The 6s is no longer the only iPhone that can shoot Live Photos, with the iPhone SE capturing a few seconds of videos with each photo (if you want it to).
TouchID seems just as fast as the iPhone 6s (it’s faster than my iPhone 6), and the quoted 14 hour battery life is accurate based on my usage. That’s surprising given the fact that the battery gains that accompanied the iPhone 6 were attributed to a larger chassis making way for a larger battery. Apple has managed to squeeze more power out of a smaller cell, which hopefully signals some even bigger gains from flagship models in future.
Not Quite a 6s
Obvious differences aside, the iPhone SE differs from Apple’s flagship smartphones in a few other crucial ways. One feature that’s missing is 3D Touch, which might be a big deal if you like the latest and greatest technologies in your iPhone.
3D Touch adds pressure sensitivity to the iPhone’s touchscreen, which allows you to interact with your iPhone in a couple of neat new ways. You can squeeze a link in a message to see it pop up in a Safari window without leaving the app, or press hard on an app logo to be given a list of available functions, like taking a selfie with the camera. You can even use the feature to accurately position the cursor by squeezing and dragging, but all of this functionality is absent on the iPhone SE.
This is probably a side-effect of Apple reusing older technology, which would also explain the poor contrast ratio and off-whites. It wouldn’t be such a talking point if the feature didn’t feel like such a game-changer on the flagship models, but coupled with a slightly lacklustre LCD panel it means that the iPhone SE’s display is one of the weakest parts of the package.
The latest 6s and Plus-model refresh added an improved 5 megapixel forward-facing FaceTime HD camera, but the iPhone SE doesn’t have this either. Though Apple has improved selfies through the use of Retina flash (which uses the display itself to brighten and balance exposures), the camera itself remains at a functional 1.2 megapixels.
The SE only comes in two capacities: 16 and 64GB. If you’re not going to be shooting tons of Live Photos and 4K video, you might get on ok with the smaller model; but if you’ve got a hunger for 128GB you’ll need to go for a 6s or Plus instead.
As a package, the iPhone SE feels quite different to Apple’s larger models. It’s not as thin as the flagship, it doesn’t feel as sophisticated, and aesthetically it’s something we’ve all seen before. In the hand it feels angular and a bit old hat — but that might be because it reminds me of the iPhone 5 so much.
Despite the impressive hardware and camera performance, the SE doesn’t feel like a brand new iPhone. The hardware may be new, but the using the phone feels a bit old; and it’s going to feel a lot older when the next wave of flagship iPhones arrive in September.
You, Me, and the iPhone SE
But what the iPhone SE lacks might not matter a whole lot to you, because there are benefits to be had too; the most obvious being the price. You’ll pay $399 for a 16GB iPhone SE, compared to $649 for an iPhone 6s. You can even save a few bucks and use your old iPhone 5 or 5s case.
If you like your smartphones small, this is a truly pocketable iPhone you’ll have no trouble using with one hand. I’d forgotten how nice it was to have so much room in my pocket since upgrading to the iPhone 6. Being an iPhone it comes with pretty much everything you’d expect from Apple in terms of smartphones — Apple Pay, TouchID, Siri, and Apple Watch support too.
The phone itself has the best hardware we could have expected from a “cut-price” iPhone. It’s a bit of a stretch to expect a company to debut new processors and technologies in anything other than its flagship, and the inclusion of 2GB of RAM means it should remain snappy for a few generations of iOS yet.
It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but nor was the iPhone 6 or 6 Plus when they were first introduced. Even if you were resistant to Apple’s changes when they made the leap from 4″ to the 4.7″ screen standard, you might not find yourself convinced to accept a smaller device again.
I went in search of some anecdotal evidence to confirm this. My partner only upgraded to the iPhone 6 when she had to, and even to this day has issues fitting the larger model in her pockets and using it one-handed. She’s already one-strike into her accidental damage Apple Care cover after dropping it and cracking the screen, but she still told me that she wouldn’t choose the SE over the 6s as it felt like a downgrade.
If you’ve been holding out for a few years with an iPhone 5 or 5s, then you might think very differently. It feels just like a faster, up-to-date 5s. It’s not hard to get along with, because it’s a well-built, high quality smartphone that’s powered by a well-supported, stable and secure operating system.
But be warned — going from a larger device to the smaller SE is a jarring experience. Things feel a lot more cramped on the smaller screen, and typing feels challenging again. I made a lot more typos inputting usernames and passwords, and autocorrect goes a long way when typing at speed elsewhere.
To SE or Not to SE
If you’ve already adjusted to a larger iPhone, the iPhone SE probably isn’t for you. But if you’re upgrading from an older model or you’d simply like an iPhone without paying top-whack, the SE offers the Apple user experience in a budget package. If you only upgrade your phone every 3 or 4 years (or longer), the iPhone SE may suit.
If you’re done with Android (or Windows Phone) and you’re looking for a more affordable entry point into the Apple ecosystem, the SE is may be a step down from the flagship models but you’ll get access to the App Store and enough power to run everything in it. This may be favourable if you’re not bothered about a massive screen, which seems to be a hallmark of many Android devices.
If you really struggle with larger phones and you’ve been craving a smaller iPhone, the SE should tick the boxes but you’ll wish it felt a little more purpose-built and less recycled. Maybe you’re just not bothered about the latest and greatest technologies, and a simple user experience, solid camera and wide array of available software is what is most important to you — the SE will do the job.
If you’re budget conscious and looking for a large screen, you might be better of opting for a larger Android device like the Nexus 5X ($349), provided that iOS and Apple’s ecosystem isn’t one of your prerequisites.
Nice Things, Small Packages
The iPhone SE feels a little mis-matched in Apple’s current iPhone line-up. In terms of look and feel, it doesn’t really fit in with the direction the smartphone took with the arrival of the iPhone 6, though reusing the older chassis does have a certain “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” charm to it.
But this doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant 4″ smartphone, if you can live with a slightly disappointing smaller display and those sharp edges. The iPhone 6 and 6s may have spoiled us in terms of feel, features and screen real estate but that doesn’t mean Apple’s new budget iPhone doesn’t pack the punches where it counts.
Don’t write it off just because it’s smaller and looks like the iPhone 5, but be prepared to admit you may have outgrown the dated 4″ screen since Apple introduced larger displays.
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