Review: Apple iPhone SE

Review: Apple iPhone SE 1

Pros: A smaller, lighter iPhone. Reasonably priced. Users with smaller hands should find it easy to use. Familiar 5s design is still an attractive winner. Upgraded internals (A9, M9, 2GB of RAM) allow phone to leap past the iPhone 5s and compete with the iPhone 6/6 Plus — it’s faster than you might expect. Camera is largely on par with iPhone 6s. Battery life is excellent. Has no issues with running newest iOS update at this point, and shouldn’t for a while.

Cons: Smaller phone means smaller display. Not introducing any new technology. No 128GB option, and we wouldn’t recommend the base 16GB option to anyone at this point. No 3D Touch. Outdated FaceTime camera. Onscreen keyboard harder to use for those with larger hands. Slower Touch ID. Standard LTE/no MIMO Wi-Fi.

Though some may have been skeptical regarding last autumn’s rumors about Apple making a new iPhone with a 4” display, that skepticism shouldn’t have lasted for too long. After all, how many times have you heard friends or family members expressing their own skepticism upon seeing the larger sizes of the iPhone 6/6 Plus or iPhone 6/6s Plus — comments such as “how do you use that?” Or “does it fit in your pocket?” While we’ve found for us that the answers to these questions are generally “easily,” and “fine,” some users either can’t get past the size of the larger iPhones, or simply prefer a smaller, more pocketable, less visually invasive smartphone. Or a cheaper smartphone. Enter the iPhone SE.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 2

The new 4” iPhone was originally rumored — or maybe assumed — to be named the iPhone 6c, which made sense, considering the past iPhone 5c’s positioning as a sort of “alternate” iPhone. But reports noted that the body would be metal, not plastic, and perhaps Apple wanted to distance itself from that fading plastic memory. Eventually the true name came out. While we were expecting something more like the iPhone 6 mini, after seeing the iPhone, we understand the SE name a bit more. It’s not a perfect moniker — throwing “S” in there might confuse some folks — but it’s workable.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 3

iPhone SE ($399/16GB, $499/64GB) is technically a new phone, sure, but really it’s a bit of a FrankeniPhone, pulling parts from all sorts of other past iPhones, as early teardowns have revealed. That’s a smart move by Apple, and it’s something that may work for consumers, as well — it’s not like the parts can’t work together.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 4

In the following pages, we run down the ins and outs and pros and cons of Apple’s newest iPhone. Though the SE certainly could be seen as a relatively “safe” purchase — considering its lower price and modest size — we’ll try to figure out the most notable benefits. Along the way, we also to hope to shed more light on the idea of downsizing, as a significant number of iPhone 6/6s/Plus users have considered doing.

iPhone SE: Body + Design

If you’re familiar with the design of the iPhone 5s, you won’t be surprised by what you see in iPhone SE. It’s almost the same phone, externally. The handsome metal-and-glass body is the same. (If you are downsizing, we doubt you’ll miss the antenna lines or camera bump found in the larger iPhones). The dimensions are the same — 4.87” x 2.31” x 0.3” — with the SE barely heavier, at 3.99 ounces compared to the 3.95-ounce 5s. Touch ID, circular volume buttons, speaker, sleep/wake button located on top of the iPhone….all the same. Apple points out the SE’s all-new matte-chamfered edges and stainless steel, color-matched Apple logo on back. They’re nice, but you may notice them once, and then move on without ever really thinking of these tweaks again. Even though this is basically a 2013 iPhone design, some users still consider it one of the most attractive, nice-to-hold iPhone designs — if not the best — ever created. If you’re of that mind, the SE will make you happy. And now you can get a rose gold version of that design.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 5

Anyone moving from the iPhone 5s should obviously have no issues with adjusting to the SE’s form factor, and it won’t be much of a challenge for users of other smaller or older smartphones. But how does it feel for those planning on downsizing from an iPhone 6/6s or iPhone 6/6s Plus? Unless you have gargantuan hands, handing the phone itself won’t be much of an issue. It’s smaller, so obviously, you’ll be able to reach all the physical buttons easier with one hand, to say nothing of how much easier it’ll fit in your pocket. The tradeoff, just as obviously, is a smaller display. It’s a 4” Retina display with a lower contrast ratio and a lack of the dual-domain pixels found on the larger iPhones, which cuts down on the SE’s viewing angle a bit. So you don’t get the big screen, and yes, it probably will be missed. It sounds simplistic, but it’s true — it’s hard to get a smaller, less impressive display and feel like you’re not cheating yourself a bit.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 6

The other issue with the smaller screen comes into play as soon as you starting using the iPhone SE. Unless you’ve got small hands, typing just won’t be as easy on the SE’s onscreen keyboard as it is on the iPhone 6/6s/Plus. We found ourselves making a number of uncharacteristic, unforced errors while typing. Now, some people do have small hands. Others may simply prefer to text and type one-handed, and the SE is better in this regard. But the feel and size of a device are personal thing, and we still think the Plus is best for texting and typing.

iPhone SE: Going Deeper

Now it’s time to sort out exactly which parts have made their way into the iPhone SE, and why it matters. The SE has the A9 chip with M9 co-processor, just like the iPhone 6s/6s Plus, and the speed is evident. iPhone SE zips around, allowing users to pop in and out of apps with ease — Geekbench results show benchmarks comparable to or better than the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. Add in the 2GB of RAM and you’ll see few delays when jumping into multiple Safari tabs. (Though our iPhone SE shipped with iOS 9.3, we were sure to update to iOS 9.3.1 to avoid any of the hyperlink issues that have been seen thus far.) It’s a fast phone, and a definite reason to upgrade for those who have been holding back.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 7

One area where the SE isn’t quite as quick is in its Touch ID, which is the first-generation version. iPhone 6s/6s Plus users will notice a slight lag in the fingerprint sensor, but it’s not likely to be a make-or-break issue. A few other functions fall in that same category: iPhone SE doesn’t get LTE Advanced — just standard LTE — and its Wi-Fi doesn’t have MIMO like the iPhone 6s models. Again, it’s not a huge deal for most users, but the SE was bound to be a step behind in a few areas.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 8

Apple Pay makes its physical 4” iPhone debut (it could only be accessed through an Apple Watch when using an iPhone 5s), and though it might be a tick slower due to Touch ID, it’s an absolutely necessary addition to any iPhone at this point. The hands-free, unplugged version of “Hey Siri” is also here, and that’s another feature we wouldn’t want to go without at this point. It works the same here as it does in the iPhone 6s models. On the other hand, the iPhone SE doesn’t get a barometer, which has been utilized in the last two generations of iPhone. One could certainly argue that Apple was shrewd in which features of the phone it wouldn’t upgrade, as they’d be less recognizable to most users, or offset by upgrades in speed from the current processor and increased RAM.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 9

Perhaps the biggest omission in the iPhone SE is 3D Touch. It’s not a huge surprise — the phone does use the 5s display, after all — but some may see the lack of 3D Touch as a reason to dismiss the SE. We don’t see it that way. To us, time has shown the 3D Touch to be a somewhat overrated feature, at least as it exists currently. We still don’t use it that often, and we honestly wouldn’t miss it that much if it were gone. Everyone uses their iPhones differently, and we may be in the minority, but the absence of 3D Touch is a minor omission.

We’re still waiting for Apple to phase out the 16GB capacity in its iPhones. Though the SE is no different than the other current iPhone models in this regard, a 32GB base model would make a lot more sense at this point. We understand an argument could be made for a 16GB iPhone SE based on its possible customers — this iPhone can certainly be seen as a top-notch update for older users, or users who don’t feel the need to be on the cutting edge of tech, and we get that. But even if you’re downloading very few apps, or if you have no interest in games, almost everyone keeps some photos or videos on their iPhone, and the increasing size of those photos and videos really restricts those users unnecessarily. Not to mention that under Apple’s economy of scale, moving the base model up to 32GB should be so cheap that it wouldn’t really trouble the company at all.

iPhone SE: Cameras

The iPhone SE iSight rear camera has the exact same specs as the camera found in the iPhone 6s, in both still photography and video recording. It’s a 12MP camera (a bump up from the 5s’ 8MP) with 1.22µ pixels and a f/2.2 aperture, and includes all the other 6s camera features, such as Live Photos, True Tone Flash, 63MP panoramic photos, and so forth. 4K video recording at 30 fps is also supported on the high end of things. You’d think the 6s and SE would look nearly identical, and in some cases, you’d be right. Other times, though, we found slight differences. Perhaps that’s owing to the camera bump on the iPhone 6s, or maybe it’s just our perception. The differences are minimal, regardless.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 10

In standard medium range shots, it was often impossible to tell the difference between the 6s and SE camera. For all of these shots, the SE photo is on top, and the 6s photo is below.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 11
Review: Apple iPhone SE 12

In another somewhat open mid-range shot, the differences are almost imperceptible once more.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 13
Review: Apple iPhone SE 14

We saw a bit more of a difference up close. The detail is very similar in these shots, with both cameras showing the wear on the lock. However, the colors are a bit different, and we find the 6s’ colors to pop a bit more, and be a bit more true to life.

Review: Apple iPhone SE 15
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Here the difference isn’t quite as pronounced, and the detail is very similar, but again, we feel there’s a bit more warmth to the latter shot from the 6s. It’s also a bit closer to the actual color of the tree bark. Not all comparative close-up shots gave us such differences, but we saw it often enough to point it out.

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Review: Apple iPhone SE 18

iPhone SE’s FaceTime camera is only 1.2MP, as compared to the 5MP FaceTime camera found in the 6s models. The SE FaceTime camera does have Retina Flash, which is an upgrade over the iPhone 6/6 Plus FaceTime camera, but it probably wouldn’t have taken much to include the current 6s model FaceTime camera. We thought this was a puzzling decision by Apple, but honestly, we took quite a few shots and didn’t notice that much difference. Not enough to push a prospective buyer one way or the other, even if he or she is fond of selfies. (We don’t know if this pug is truly fond of selfies or not.)

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Review: Apple iPhone SE 20

iPhone SE: Battery

Apple’s own claims show the iPhone SE’s battery life should rival, or be better than its other recent iPhones, and our tests showed this to be the case. iPhone SE’s battery is 1624 mAh, which is in between the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6s. However, iPhone SE is running the presumably more efficient iOS 9.3 from the get-go, and the phone doesn’t have to power a huge display, either. Improved battery life is a genuine reason to switch to the iPhone SE if you find yourself on the fence. We put the iPhone through our Wi-Fi browsing, video watching, and gaming tests, all at 50 percent brightness and 50 percent volume.

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In our Wi-Fi browsing test, iPhone SE ran for 10 hours and 40 minutes. This falls short of Apple’s claims, but as we’ve seen in the past, that always seems to be the case. The key point is that it easily bests the times we saw from the iPhone 6s and iPhone 5s — it even outperformed the iPhone 6s Plus.

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Our demanding gaming test saw iPhone SE hold out for nearly 7 hours straight running Dumpling’s Dashy Crashy — an active, constantly moving game which might be popular on a smaller screen like the SE’s. Though it’s a different game than we’ve used for our iPhone 6/6s/Plus tests, iPhone SE clocked in just below the iPhone 6s Plus, which makes sense. Our video test was a stunner, as the SE almost got to the 15-hour mark, besting the iPhone 6s Plus. Sure, you probably won’t want to watch that much video on the 4” screen, but it’s nice to know you can.

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iPhone SE recharged with the included adapter in 2 hours and 33 minutes, which is a bit slower than both the 5s and 6s, but it’s close. As with all these battery tests, there are always unforeseen factors that may have an effect, and things may change over time with software updates. That being said, we’re confident in our results, and in the iPhone SE’s place as an excellent performer when it comes to battery life.

iPhone SE: Conclusion

Apple’s iPhone SE isn’t initially impressive. As a hodgepodge of other iPhones without any new technology, it’s hard to get too excited about it. Our thoughts leading up to the announcement were generally that this new iPhone would be a great iPhone for late upgraders. It would be a fine option for people who didn’t really care too much about smartphones. We all have these friends and family members who fit into these categories. The iPhone SE would certainly be seen as “good enough” by these users, and there’s little chance they’d be disappointed. Not everyone follows this stuff for a living, or even as a hobby. There are millions of people who don’t care about the latest and greatest, or what their phone can’t do. The iPhone SE takes nice pictures, it’s fast, it’s not limited within iOS, and its battery will probably last most users all day without issue.

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But beyond that, even more discerning technology types have expressed interest in using the iPhone SE. The now-classic design has lured them in, and of course, so has the lower price. The iPhone SE won’t blow you away, but it does everything well enough. It truly is going to come down to what you value more: a larger, more versatile display, or a smaller phone that may be easier to handle, and is certainly easier to carry in a pocket. And though we’ve already seen new SE cases, the phone also works with iPhone 5s cases, which can be found for cheap.

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We personally still prefer the larger iPhone models, and more specifically, the iPhone 6s Plus. We appreciate the 6s Plus’ top-of-the-line appeal, to be sure, but more than anything, we missed the big screen when using the SE. Some may be troubled by two-handed use of a smartphone — it doesn’t really bother us considering the other numerous benefits of Apple’s biggest iPhone. If you’re still on the fence about downsizing to the SE, we’d recommend going to the Apple Store and comparing all the phones side-by-side: hold them, use them. For most of our Apple-centric audience, we’d recommend sticking with an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, or waiting for the iPhone 7. But if you want something a little easier to tote around, if you’ve got small hands, or if you simply compared price tags and consider the SE to be “good enough,” we can’t really blame you. The iPhone SE may not be cutting-edge, but it’s a strong performer, and it earns our strong general recommendation.

Our Rating


Company and Price

Company: Apple

Model: iPhone SE

MSRP: $399-$499

  1. If I were still going into the office I’d get this model too as it fits into every pocket nicely. My main reason for going to the 6s was memory and screen size. Me eyes ain’t as good as they used to be and the smaller screen (even with text set larger) no longer works for me. But that size and form factor make a great phone. Def my favorite until getting the 6s. Now I can’t live without the 3D touch.

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