iPhone SE Review: The Best 4in Phone Money Can Buy

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If you were holding out for a new iPhone SE in 2017 or 2018 with a smaller 4in display then you should probably either start looking elsewhere, or stick with an older model, according to prominent industry analyst Pan Jiutang.

A post on Weibo details Pan’s analysis, where he says if you don’t already own 4in iPhone but want one, you should go for an existing iPhone SE or and iPhone 5c. He says Apple will gloss over the 4in category as most phone OEMs are targeting the lucrative 5.5in bracket. He adds Apple will still produce a 4.7in iPhone 7s, however, but that is as small as it will go.

iPhone SE Review: A Few Months Later…

I was kind of ready to rip the iPhone SE to shreds when I tested it. The handset, which is based on an ancient design language, felt regressive and a little lazy, as if Apple just slapped some new gear inside and iPhone 5s and said, “Hey, you want a 4in phone, here ya go!”

But there is more to this phone than that. It grew on me unlike any phone I have ever tested before. The most jarring thing of all was just how much I enjoyed using a small phone again. I figured it would feel way too small after years of large-screen Android phones, but in the end the exact opposite happened: the iPhone SE felt great and I loved using it – and how little space it took up in my pocket.

The camera is great aboard this thing too. Ditto video. Battery life is very impressive as well for a phone of this size. I used this handset for months after I finished reviewing it and while this might seem off to many it really shouldn’t because this is a solid, reliable and perfectly capable phone.

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The only reason I stopped using it was because I got the Pixel XL. That was it. If I hadn’t been sent the Pixel XL, I’d still be using it. Basically, what I’m saying is this: if you’re after a 4in phone, get the iPhone SE – it’s great.

Add to this the fact that you simply cannot buy decent 4in phones anymore and the case for the iPhone SE gets even rosier.

I know Apple isn’t updating the iPhone SE in 2017; or, at least that’s the current word on the street. Why? I have no idea. I think Apple viewed the SE as a concession to those that missed the days of 4in iPhones.

But as we move through 2017, 4in iPhones are now becoming a thing of the past – even for die-hard iPhone users. Most have now moved onto the larger, standard models of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7 and this trend will likely continue with the arrival of Apple’s trio of iPhone 8 handsets later this year.

Still, after using the iPhone SE, I can definitely see scope for a reboot of this handset. Perhaps one made from plastic with equally good specs that’s a lot cheaper than current models? An iPhone aimed at younger users, basically. Something that is accessible, secure and offers great value for money.

Read on for my full, original review of the iPhone SE below. 

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Apple’s iPhone has had a pretty uneventful 12 months. The last time the company really pushed the boat out was with its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Since then it’s all been rather dull and incremental, which is likely why iPhone sales declined for the first time ever in Q1 2016.

Things will of course pick up later on this year with the release of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, although whether it will be enough to ensure Apple’s growth figures remain in the black remains to be seen. Multiple analysts seem to possess a religious belief that this year’s iPhone release will not be that impactful; that next year’s iPhone release — the iPhone 7s — will be the one that once again drives big sales figures.

In between all of this, though, Apple has released another iPhone. One with a 4in display that is called the iPhone SE. As releases go, this is about as exciting as finding out you have a £10 tax rebate. It’s nice, sure, but it’s hardly going to set your world on fire. I mean, it looks like iPhones from a few years ago and lacks many of the flagship features found on Apple’s current iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. 

So what is the deal with this phone? Is it any good? Does it work? Is there a niche for it? And what is it like switching from a phone like the LG G5 to a phone that looks as if it just fell through a rip in time and space? I will try and answer all of these questions in my review. But first let’s take a look at the overall design and display technology on show here.

iPhone SE Review: Design

As I said above: the iPhone SE looks exactly the same as iPhone’s did a few years ago. For all intents and purposes, this is the iPhone 5s lock, stock and barrel, just with new internals. Apple did add a new colour scheme into the mix — rose gold — but that’s literally about it with respect to overall design and finish. Now, some people might be cool with this, they might like the way the iPhone 5s looked, and it was a nice looking phone a few years ago, but I expected more, rightly or wrongly, from Apple in this context.

I’m not saying the iPhone SE is a bad looking phone — because it isn’t. What I’m saying is that Apple could and should have done more with the design of the handset. Rehashing a three year old design and marketing it as new isn’t particularly innovative and, when you factor the financial resources Apple has at its disposal, well, it kind of comes across as a little cheap.

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I actually rather enjoyed using a 4in phone once I’d gotten used to it; I really liked being able to do everything with one hand and I love just how little space the iPhone SE takes up in my pocket. These are all good things and if you’re after a 4in phone experience the iPhone SE is decent — so long as you don’t mind people confusing your phone with a three year old handset.

But this is the point, really, isn’t it? Imagine you’ve been using the iPhone 5s since it first came out and you’ve been holding out for Apple to release a smaller, more up to date 4in phone, as rumours suggested it would, and then, when it actually does, and you go for the update, it looks EXACTLY the same as your old phone. Where’s the excitement here? Where’s that Apple magic?

Physically, nowhere. The iPhone SE is about as exciting to behold as a bowl of un-sweetened porridge. It doesn’t even have the most up to date TouchID or Apple’s 3D Touch display technology. Physically, the only real change is to do with colour options — you can pick one up in Apple’s rose gold. But, hey, at least you won’t have to buy a new case for it!

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This is all I really have to say about the design of the iPhone SE; it’s an old iPhone with new internals. I like the size, actually. I’d forgotten what it was like to use a smaller phone after generations of phablet abuse. It was a refreshing surprise, to be sure, but I just wish Apple had done something to make the handset more appealing. As it stands the iPhone SE kind of feels a tad passive aggressive; like a begrudging concession to all those Apple alienated with its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. And like all begrudging concessions, you get the impression that not much care and attention went into creating the iPhone SE. Just a lick of paint here and there and few internal switcharoos and, BOOM, you got yourself a NEW phone.

iPhone SE Review: Display

One area where Apple could have EASILY made a change is to the iPhone SE’s display. It could have bumped it to 1080p; this would have been painless and it would have greatly improved the handset, as well as give it a USP over the iPhone 6s. But Apple didn’t do this; no, it just stuck EXACTLY the same panel in as was used inside the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s.

And the iPhone SE’s display isn’t just the same resolution — it is the EXACT same technology from 2012, LCD-grade and digitiser et al. This means the panel is duller and nowhere near as crisp and detailed as, well, 99.9% of flagship-class phones now available (and the iPhone SE is NOT inexpensive!). Again, this just feels cheap. A lot of reviewers tend to make excuses for Apple, which I find odd. After all, we’re talking about the biggest tech brand in the world here; it’s not like the firm needs our help to sell phones.

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Had Apple upped the display technology to 1080p, or something equivalent, rather than going with a panel that is just about adequate I would gladly cut it more slack. But to essentially re-release the iPhone 5s with slightly undated internals and charge more than the cost of a decent Android flagship is, well, frankly obscene. It’s almost as if Apple thinks it is making phones for people inside a vacuum; people that don’t understand value for money.

I know the iPhone SE is cheaper than “normal” iPhone flagships, but this isn’t really the point: nobody else could get away with this. They’d get crucified. If the phone cost like £150 it’d be OK, but it doesn’t — a new iPhone SE will set you back £359! That’s £110 more expensive than the OnePlus Two and that, my friends, is criminal. This phone should be priced in a similar manner to the Moto G or similar mid-range Android phones. Anything more than that is downright bonkers.

iPhone SE Review: Part 2 – Specs & Hardware

I appear to have angered quite a few people by suggesting that it isn’t cool for Apple to release a phone in 2016 that looks and uses the same display technology as a phone from 2012 and then charge £359 for it. But that’s fine. Opinions are great, and I like it when my opinions are challenged. It makes for a more rounded review, as readers will often consult the comments on an article for rebuttals to what’s been said by the author. So, guys, if you did take the time to comment, positively or negatively, thank you. Your thoughts are appreciated and we do read all comments.

I admit, the first part of this review was pretty negative. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I do actually quite like the iPhone SE and I did enjoy my time with it. But I will 100% stand by my opinion that this phone costs way too much given what’s actually going on with it and when you compare it to other, vastly superior and significantly cheaper Android handsets. For me, the iPhone SE leaves a lot to be desired in the design and looks department; even if I really, really wanted a 4in phone, I’d still be rather depressed this was the best Apple could do in 2016. But that’s just me. You’re free to feel differently, of course.

Inside the iPhone SE things get a lot better, though. I guess this is where Apple believes you’re getting some value beyond its 4in display. The iPhone SE uses the same CPU and imaging technology as the iPhone 6s but in order to keep the price down Apple has included an older version of TouchID, and 3D Touch is not included on any of the SE models. But because it has the same A9 chipset as the iPhone 6s, things really do fly along at a pretty impressive speed. The iPhone SE outperforms the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s in Geekbench 3, which is pretty darn impressive. 

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In real terms, as in, when you use the handset in real-life, there is ZERO discrepancy between it and the more expensive iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. The iPhone SE simply flies, mauling whatever you throw in its path. Likely a combination of improvements in iOS 9.3 and the SE’s lower-resolution display, the A9 chipset inside it alongside the iPhone SE’s memory simply does not have to work as hard as it does inside the bigger iPhones and the net result is felt immediately. Yes, this phone looks like a throwback to yesterday but, boy, can it perform!

This is one of the most pleasant things about using the SE, as well. You hold it and it feels weirdly small and non-threatening. Power it up, though, and it is a BEAST that is right up there with the best of them, including new Android phones. Now, this might sound like a 180º on what I was saying earlier when I said this was a mid-range phone by today’s standards. But it’s not. The iPhone SE might be powerful, but the cost of building it is very low ($160, according to IHS) — so low, in fact, that Apple could easily charge less and still make impressive margins.

The display, for example, costs Apple over 50% less than it did five years ago at around $20 per unit. I guess this is where my disdain for the handset comes from: price. Apple is effectively charging top dollar for this handset when it costs the company very little to make. I’m not saying retail it at cost, that’d be stupid. But something like £299 (at most, ideally more like £259) would fit a lot more closely to what the iPhone SE is all about. It’d also be a great PR opportunity for the biggest technology company in the world to be seen as “giving something back” to all its loyal fans that have patronised it over the years.

It’s not a bad phone; not by a long shot. But given the costs of making it and the fact it looks no different from the iPhone 5s, I’m sort of struggling to see why it costs so much. Had it been cheaper, I’d be raving about this device. Not only because of its smaller factor, but also because it is a really solid performer across the board.

But if you’re not put off by the price, or by the fact it looks like a handset from 2012, then you’re very much in for a treat because the iPhone SE is an extremely solid performer and, based on historical precedent, it will likely stay this way for a good couple of years. Performance and efficiencies have never been a problem for Apple. And the iPhone SE, like the iPhone 5c before, is testament to that fact. Now if it could just sort out that pricing….

iPhone SE Review: Camera & Imaging Performance

Apple’s iPhones need very little introduction in this department. For the best part of three years the iPhone has been one of the best point and shoot cameras in the business. Apple doesn’t rely on specs and MP count in this regard, either; rather it drills down on what truly makes a camera great and works there. The net result of this has been iPhone cameras with lower-graded megapixel sensors producing better shots than a good chunk of its Android rivals.

This process started with the iPhone 5s, but really came into its own with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. But if you’re coming to the iPhone SE from the iPhone 5 or iPhone 5s, well, you’re going to be in for a very pleasant treat, as this phone uses the same setup on the main camera as the iPhone 6s. It doesn’t have OIS like the Plus model, but neither does the iPhone 6s and that still produces amazing results in pretty much any situation or environment.

There are more interesting setups out there, like, for instance, the LG G5’s wide-angle camera, which is apparently the same tech Apple will use in its forthcoming iPhone 7, but as a point and shoot camera that is easy to use and that produces great quality shots, the iPhone SE’s shooter is very hard to beat. I kind of wish Apple had updated the front-facing camera, still a paltry 1.2MP, but it didn’t — that’s just more cost-cutting for you, I guess.

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The iPhone SE features a 12MP sensor on the rear and it also benefits from the iPhone 6s’ dual-tone flash. Auto-focus, as it is on the iPhone 6s, is rapid and low-light performance is very decent. I really cannot fault this imaging setup in any way. Like the one that is available on the company’s current flagship handset it is a market-leader, both in terms of ease of use (the Camera app is great) and the actual results you can get from it.

A lot of Android phones might have more raw specs in the imaging department, but it is rare when you use one that can match Apple’s way of doing things consistently. For the type of user this phone is aimed at, the quality of images you can capture, with very little effort at all, is breath-taking. I really cannot wait to see what Apple does with the iPhone 7’s camera setup. If rumours are to be believed, we could be looking at the next step in mobile imaging in just under three months time.

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iPhone SE Review: Battery Life

I’m just going to say this right off the bat: battery life aboard this little phone is ASTOUNDING. I have never, ever, come across a phone with a battery cell this small that has anywhere near the performance of the iPhone SE; it is stunning and a testament to Apple’s degree of skill at optimising its software and hardware.

Prior to testing I assumed it would be moderate to OK, compared to the iPhone 6 Plus I have been using for the past year. It isn’t — it is more than equal, managing a solid day-and-a-bit with serious, hardcore usage. To me, this was mind-blowing. How a phone this size, with such a small cell, can go head-to-head with significantly larger handsets is, once again, a marvel of the technical progression Apple has made in recent times with its SoC architecture and software.

Real-world, this phone is exceptional. That’s a fact. In terms of actual benchmark testing, it’s also exceptional, as you can see in our video battery test below, whereby a video is played, on loop, with everything switched on until the phone dies. In this test the iPhone SE beat the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s and only missed out on the top spot, which is controlled by the Samsung Galaxy S7.

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This means that if you’re after a phone with exceptional battery life that isn’t the size of your head you’re left with one choice: Apple’s iPhone SE.

iPhone SE Review: Verdict

I gave the iPhone SE a bit of a hard time in this review. I said it costs way too much and was mean about the display and the phone not looking any different to iPhones from 2012. And I stand by this point: Apple could — and probably should — charge less for this phone based on its BOM and R&D costs. However, this doesn’t mean it is a bad phone. Because it AIN’T.

Sure, you definitely want to avoid the 16GB model like the plague, and, yes, the 720p display is starting to show its age. But where this phone really comes into its own is performance, imaging and battery life. Plus you get all the rich trappings of Apple’s brilliant ecosystem, which, in many ways, cannot be equaled.

I do not like the price of this phone, even more since the 16GB version is pointless, meaning you’re looking at £439 for the 32GB model, but you cannot argue with the quality that is present here. The iPhone SE is a solid, solid performer across the board. It does everything you want it to and performs like an absolute champ! I have no qualms recommending this handset to anyone that is looking for a smaller, but equally powerful handset in 2016.

And if you’re good with cost, arguably this phone’s only unappealing trait, then you’re looking at a very attractive handset that is, for the time being, completely unparalleled in the mobile space. This is the best 4in smartphone on the planet now — bar none — hence the premium price tag.

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