Apple iPhone SE Smartphone Review
Big things come in... well, you know.
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The name of the game the last few years seems to be "make everything bigger." That's certainly been true for smartphones—phablets, if you're feeling fresh—which now routinely check in with displays well over 5 inches. But the truth is that there are still plenty of people that not only still own a smaller phone, but want their next phone to be just as small, too.
Enter the Apple iPhone SE (MSRP $399-$499)—a four-inch iPhone with a classic, familiar design and modern, competitive specs. Basically, it's most of the hardware from an iPhone 6s put into the body of an iPhone 5s. Why is Apple retreating to a design that it dumped years ago? Because small phones are still extremely popular, and with an affordable starting price the iPhone SE can lure even more people into the iOS fold.
Frankly, it would have been easy for Apple to just downgrade the hardware of the iPhone 6s and cram them into a cheap, afterthought-of-a-phone. Instead, the SE is a reimagining done the right way. For the most part, the corners its cut won't affect most people, and in many cases, the SE performs just as well as the 6s. And for a brand new iPhone, that's a true value.
Classics never go out of style.
Once upon a time, I was the proud owner of an iPhone 5c. I bought one, I imagine, for the same reasons someone might consider an iPhone SE—it was an affordable path to iOS, and more importantly, it was small.
The SE comes from a time that smartphones forgot. Compared to most devices—like the 4.7-inch 6s and the 5.1-inch Samsung Galaxy S7—the SE's four-inch frame is almost peculiar. It's easy to see why Apple decided to scale everything back with the iPhone SE—plenty of people (myself included) love smaller smartphones. Everything on the screen can be reached with a single thumb, and in situations where only one of your hands is available, the phone's smaller frame makes it easy to keep a tight grip.
When I owned a 5c, my hands developed a mindless exercise in which I'd roll the phone front-to-back in my hand. It was a compulsion not unlike restless leg syndrome, except, you know, with a phone. Imagine my thrill, then, when I picked up a SE and I could still fall back on this nervous habit.
The body of the SE is just about indistinguishable from the iPhone 5s, which will either disappoint or entice, depending on whether or not you were hoping for something more along the lines of the iPhone 6s.
In a way, if the Galaxy S7 is a Tesla, the iPhone SE is a classic, boxy Mercedes—it doesn't look like it's from now, it looks like it's from yesterday. At 0.3 inches deep, it's significantly thicker than its contemporaries, but the added depth only works to the SE's advantage. Frankly, I love the way this phone feels in my hands.
The iPhone SE's design might not be new, but it's nothing short of a classic. From its subtle, chamfered edges to it's circular volume buttons, the SE has a well-worn feel about it.
If you're looking for the thinnest, sleekest, most head-turning-est smartphone, chances are the iPhone SE isn't going to be your speed. But if you have a special place in your heart for the iPhone 5s (or if you just want a phone that's easy to navigate with one hand), the SE is sure to delight.
Hardware & Performance
Judge me by my size, do you?
The iPhone SE might be indistinguishable from the 5s on the outside, but the inside is a totally different story. Apple's equipped the SE with its lightning-fast A9 chipset and supplemented it with 2GB of RAM, just like the flagship iPhone 6s
Sure, that's half the memory of the LG G5 or the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, but Apple has always been able to do well with limited RAM because of how tightly it controls iOS.
The SE's superb processor and ample memory make everything from mobile gaming to multitasking quick and painless. It didn't break the ceilings of our benchmark tests, but again: It doesn't really have to. For day-to-day use, the SE handles like a dream.
Gone are the usual 32- and 128-gigabyte options, which are both typically mainstay options for the iPhone line. Instead, customers will have to choose between a 16GB model and a 64GB model.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: If you want to get the most value out of an iPhone, don't be fooled into thinking that a 16-gigabyte model is a good deal. Remember, iPhones don't have expandable physical storage. Is that a bummer? Of course it is! But if you want to be able to upgrade iOS two years down the road, you'd best swallow your pride and pony up for the 64GB iPhone SE; it's worth the extra Benjamin.
One feature of the iPhone 6s and the 6s Plus that didn't find its way into the SE is 3D Touch. I don't think very many people will miss it, however—there just isn't enough software support to make 3D Touch very useful at the moment. In the grand scheme of things, it's another reasonable compromise to keep the price down.
Historically speaking, iPhones haven't exactly been great. But the iPhone SE's battery is surprisingly resilient—and not just for an iPhone. The reasoning likely has to do with the SE's four-inch LCD display, which doesn't take up as much power as its larger-screened contemporaries. It's not going to last you as long as a smartphone with a bigger battery and an AMOLED screen, but I've never seen an iPhone that keeps ticking as long as the SE. Users can expect a full day's worth of battery life, and on days of light use, you might even see your SE making it well into the next morning.
The SE's 12-megapixel primary camera is the same one you'll find in the iPhone 6s, and that sure ain't a bad thing. It's capable of capturing 4K video, slow-motion footage at up to 240FPS at 720p, and yes—Live Photos made the cut, too. (Since 3D Touch is a no-show, a long-press activates Live Photos when the feature is turned on).
And, being the same camera sensor as its 6s counterpart, you'll get excellent auto-white balance support and low-light image processing that avoids trigger-happy noise reduction.
The SE also comes equipped with autofocus software that hunts for subjects quickly and efficiently. It's not about to unseat the Galaxy S7 as the fastest-shooting camera in the West, but for such an affordable phone, it's a welcome surprise that the camera performs as well as it does.
Selfie aficionados will be disappointed to learn that the SE's front-facing camera has been downgraded from the 6s's 5MP sensor to a measly 1.2MP. You're only likely to notice the drop in resolution in low-light settings, but people who take a ton of selfies might want to keep this in mind.
One thing that cushions the blow a bit is the inclusion of Apple's Retina Flash software, which illuminates the entire screen to brighten otherwise-dark selfies. I was skeptical of this feature at first, but after using it across the last three iPhone releases (including the SE), I can honestly say it works better than I thought it would.
A winning combination of restraint and power
The best iPhone SE—the 64GB model—costs about $500. In most ways, it's just as good as the iPhone 6s, which comes in at $749 for the 64GB variant.
Yes, you're getting a much smaller phone with a design from over three years ago. But if you already love smaller phones and you were already considering the 6s, the decision couldn't be more of a no-brainer. There just aren't many new, compact flagships to choose from—let alone ones this good.
Apple definitely made some concessions—no 3D Touch, a 1.2MP secondary camera, and no 128GB model—but these aren't corners you're likely to miss. If any of these things are deal-breakers for you (or if you just want a smartphone display that's bigger than four inches), the SE probably isn't for you.
But make no mistake: The iPhone SE is not an uninspired phone. Although it's small, it performs at a flagship level and looks damn good doing it. Apple should be applauded for not taking the easy way out when developing an affordable iPhone that doesn't cheat its user base out of the type of specs we've come to expect from a new iPhone in 2016. The SE offers a reasonable path to iOS at a significantly lower cost than the iPhone 6s or the iPhone 6s Plus.