Apple iPhone SE Review: Perfectly Designed and Now a Powerhouse as Well

It has to be said, right up front. With the rather significant caveat that the 4” screen on the iPhone SE isn’t that suitable for such 2016 immersive activities as high-def gaming and media consumption, in every other respect the iPhone SE is the perfect iPhone. With the gorgeous lines and form factor of the classic iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s but the cutting edge internals of the 6s, the iPhone SE is akin to either a blindingly good magic trick or an anachronism, a quirk of Tim Cook’s spare parts inventory. I lean towards the former and, overall, am very impressed indeed.

iPhone SE Review

The physical

The 2014/2015 iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s all-curved physical designs are, in my seasoned opinion, somewhat ‘meh’. The classic iPhone 4 and 5 designs were prettier, easier to grip and, as it turns out, more unique in the 2016 smartphone world, where every company seems out to copy the generic iPhone 6 curves.

Apple iPhone SE Review

See here for my initial impressions and unboxing, but in summary the SE is packaged as well as ever, with lovely embossing on the box and with the phone arriving, from the factory, fully charged (98%!) In the hand, you immediately remember why you loved the design in the first place. It’s cold, sleek, utterly metallic (the flat sides help this impression), and it fits beautifully into any human grip, with far less chance of slipping out than the ‘bar of soap’ iPhone 6 designs.

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

The chamfers in the aluminium (the iPhone 4 range used steel, but that proved too heavy, so aluminium was used for the 5 onwards) are now ‘matt’ rather than polished – it’s not a big difference cosmetically, but should help prevent small ‘dings’ (i.e. from drops and knocks) being too obvious!

iPhone SE oblique

The familiar screen and frontispiece from the 5s remain front and centre. 640p is a low screen resolution for a 2016 smartphone, but it’s absolutely fine at a 4” diagonal and I had to break out a magnifying glass in order to see the pixels. The viewing angles aren’t as good as on the newer iPhones – or indeed many other mid-to-top end smartphone rivals, but they’re fine for day to day use.  

Front view with Control Center

One extra thing to emphasise on the SE, should you have been following the iPhone world in 2015 – there’s no ‘3D Touch’ here. You may remember from my review of the 6s that I wasn’t 100% convinced by this UI feature and it’s really not missed on the iPhone SE. My doubts about 3D Touch centred around the small UI gains for the ‘deeper’ presses (peeking inside emails, etc.) when compared to the huge increase in complexity and weight for the deflection detection and haptic response system. And, looking forward, using 3D Touch scuppers the use of AMOLED technology. All something for a future editorial from me, perhaps, I’ve got a number of suggestions for Apple!

Below the screen is the fingerprint sensor, mounted in the standard circular iPhone home button. The sensor is the same as in the older iPhone 5S, probably for space and/or logistics reasons. This means that recognition is not quite as lightning-quick as on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, but it’s still plenty fast enough, unlocking the phone in under a second.

In fact, the slower recognition proves one of the unexpected huge boons in the iPhone SE. With the iPhone 6s range, the recognition is so fast that the briefest press of the button with a registered finger results in unlocking to the application grid or to whatever you were doing before the phone screen went off. So you can’t press the home button of a locked iPhone 6s to check the time, as you’re past the lockscreen too quickly. Ditto trying to use the swipe upwards from the lower right corner to launch the Camera application from the lockscreen, you never get to see the option.

One solution on a 6s or 6s Plus is to press the home button with a fingertip that you haven’t registered, but it’s a bit of a pain. Or you could switch to the iPhone SE, whose second’s recognition delay has the ‘con’ that it slows you up very slightly but with the huge ‘pro’ that the lockscreen information and features are back in play again.

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

Down at the bottom are the usual headphone jack (still a ‘love it or hate it’ position, but let’s be generous and go with the former), a cosmetic grille, the Lightning port and a larger grille covering the single speaker. Everything mentioned so far is lifted from the iPhone 5s and the speaker fits the pattern: it’s just about loud enough for speakerphone calls, podcasts and sat-nav instructions on the road and quality is, again, ‘just enough’. There’s probably not enough room in such a thin body for anything more meaty, but other manufacturers have worked wonder with speakers, go look at some of the Motorola or HTC designs. Ah well.

Imaging

Probably the final thing of note that’s inherited from the 5s is the 1.2MP front facing camera, so don’t expect high resolution selfies. In fact, on the imaging front, the iPhone SE is all about the rear camera, which is 12MP and with f/2.2 aperture – the same hardware as used in the iPhone 6s! Whereas on the latter the camera protruded with a small ‘bump’, the slight extra thickness in the obelisk form factor of the SE means that the exact same camera is perfectly flush with the polished glass top rear of the phone, together with the rear microphone and dual-tone LED flash.

Close up with the flush 12MP camera

See below for photo samples and comments on imaging. Although results will be identical to those from the camera in the 6s, reviewed here already, they’re so good that I thought you might enjoy some new images. As usual, I present the overall image first and then a 1:1, non-scaled crop so that you can see the quality down at the pixel level – it’s pretty impressive. Note that they’re all taken at 4:3, i.e. not at the screen aspect ratio, presumably Apple wanting to include all the sensor pixels rather than crop down to 9MP as most other manufacturers do:

Sample photo from the iPhone SE

1:1 crop from the SE photo
Terrific balance between fine detail and over-sharpening – Apple always manage to nail this side of things.
Sample photo from the iPhone SE
1:1 crop from the SE photo
This detail is in the shade, away from the sun, yet is very crisp indeed. There’s evidence of sharpening, but Apple always holds back from overdoing it, unlike Samsung.
Sample photo from the iPhone SE
1:1 crop from the SE photo
Colours are handled beautifully too, with just a little extra saturation to help the colours along and plenty of natural, but not forced, detail….
Sample photo from the iPhone SE
1:1 crop from the SE photo
Very impressive low light shot from a camera phone, handheld, that doesn’t have OIS. Very decent handling of low light digital noise….
Sample photo from the iPhone SE
1:1 crop from the SE photo
Another low light example, I suspect that Apple is doing some clever accelerometer-based software tricks to ensure that the photo isn’t blurred by human hand wobble.

Internals and battery life

The internals of the iPhone SE have a lot in common with the iPhone 6s. An A9 chipset (running here at a reported 1.84MHz) and 2GB of RAM mean that the SE absolutely flies if you find something that would normally tax a smartphone. A heavy duty web page is probably the toughest – the full New York Times and Forbes pages, designed for a desktop (and forced ON here), render each in only around five seconds. While iMovie re-rendering/compositing of 1080p video clips takes place around four or five times as fast as on my (admittedly old) MacBook and competitively with the latest Mac hardware, thanks to the GPU wizardry onboard.

As mentioned in my unboxing, the AnTuTu benchmark score of the iPhone SE is an incredible 128,786, in contrast to the 5s’s 39,030, so a clear factor three faster. However, in fairness, having said how fast the iPhone SE is, I should also point out that the transitions baked into iOS rather limit how much of the raw speed can be shown. In other words, the older iPhone 5s and SE, side by side, aren’t that different in terms of user experience, despite one phone being two and a half years newer. I’ll come back to this in my conclusion, don’t worry!

Out of the box, the iPhone SE runs vanilla iOS v9.3, with the link-clicking Safari bug-fixed version 9.3.1 arriving during the review period. I had the 64GB version, by the way, since iOS itself takes up around 4GB and the alternative 16GB version would have left me, the user, with only 12GB free – for everything. Apps, data, photos, videos, music. It sounds do-able if you try really hard but I’l bet you still come a cropper six months down the line. Trust me. Smartphones in 2016 all need 32GB storage of one kind or another.

iPhone SE from the rear

Not to be confused with RAM, of course, i.e. the memory chips in which iOS and its applications run. The iPhone 5s came with 1GB and ran pretty well on the whole, since iOS is very frugal. But the use of the A9 chipset also dictates at least 2GB of RAM in hardware apparently, so that’s what the SE sports. And, let’s face it, more RAM is almost always better in a smartphone. More things can happen at once behind the scenes, bigger things can render or calculate (think 3D games in particular), and so forth.

One worry about having more RAM is that it’ll eat up more battery power (i.e. needed to keep the RAM refreshed and operating), but the A9 chipset is so efficient that I saw better battery life on the SE than on the 5s in terms of percentage-drop-per-day. Plus the SE sports a battery of slightly higher capacity than the 5s, at 1642mAh (cf 1560mAh).

Then there’s the use case of a typical iPhone SE. All the usual smartphone uses (and then a few extra, such as Apple Pay), but probably stopping short of watching long movies or long gaming sessions, due to the smallish 4” screen. Which is fine – this is a very different beast to the 6s and 6s Plus – and it means that two of the biggest causes of power drain in larger-screened smartphones are avoided. In day to day testing with my primary SIM in and with the usual use (PIM, email, social, photography, podcasts) I still had more than 30% left at 10pm in the evening.

Software and UI

iOS 9 is well known, of course, since it’s available to all iPhones even as far back as the old 4s (which I still have in my collection), though not all new features have made it across the board. Regular readers will know that I come from a cross-platform background and, as such, can view iOS objectively and perhaps more dispassionately than someone born and bred with iPhones and iPads.

The iPhone’s interface was conceived on a 3.5″ screen, to be accessed with one thumb, and this still works on the 4″ screen here on the SE – just about, though those with small hands will struggle with ‘back’ controls at the top left of the UI. Still it’s a refreshingly one-handed device compared to most 2016 smartphones, including the other current iPhones. When you’re out with shopping or holding a kid’s hand and that call comes in or you need to loop up something urgently, sometimes one-handed is a must, and the SE delivers, as did the 5s before it.

One-handed use, thumb reach

In my review period, just about everything I wanted to do on a smartphone was do-able on the iPhone SE, though there are still inconsistencies that irritate me. Some of which are made worse by the smaller screen here, in that the UI is slightly more clumsy when there’s a lot going on. As an example, trying to email out images – with the structure of the email on screen, some text, thumbnails of the images and the iOS 9 keyboard all fighting for space, things can get more than a little busy on the 4″ screen. And then the email fails to send and gets stuck in the Outbox. Some fiddling with email server settings can fix this, but you really shouldn’t have to go down to this level of finesse for a phone OS that supposedly ‘just works’.

I’m being grumpy though, since the ‘huh?’ moments were few and far between. I did notice that some of my favourite iOS games played jerkily on the SE but I’ll put this down to the device being very new and developers not allowing for the combination of the relatively low resolution screen and a powerhouse processor. No doubt updates will come – there’s certainly no shortage of horsepower here.

Let me take you through an illustrated guide of some of the software highlights here on the iPhone SE:

iPhone SE home screen and Control Center
The default iPhone SE home screen (plus a couple of additions of mine!), it’s the old 20-icon grid, but all reachable with one thumb again! On the right is Control Center, which swipes up from the bottom as usual with iOS 9 and which has grown to include really useful media controls (as here, in a podcast) and utilities….
Night Shift and camera settings
Night Shift is new for iOS 9, and introduces an obvious ‘red shift’ in the backlight colour during evening and night hours, according to your settings here. It’s disconcerting at first but you soon grow to love and appreciate the feature, especially checking the time in the night or queueing up a podcast to go to sleep to…. On the right, proof of the pudding in terms of camera power – the SE has the same camera unit as the iPhone 6s, complete with an option to shoot video at 4K (and very nicely), though it’s still not trivial to play back 4K on most devices and computers, so stick to one of the two 1080p options for now. Still, the SE is future proof!
Health in action
Apple Health’s Dashboard, with numerous views. The SE includes the same low power motion coprocessor as the 6 and 6s ranges, so you can track steps even without an Apple Watch or Fitbit or similar. The number of health metrics is impressive, though most do depend on a connected accessory or on manual input, including (ahem) ‘Reproductive Health’ where, among other things entered, you can track which activity was ‘protected’. There’s plenty here and it can also, depending on where you live in the world, tie into Apple’s wider Health Kit ambitions.
News on the SE
News in iOS gets better and more streamlined with each release. It all works particularly well on the smaller screen for casual browsing, one-handed. It proved a great way to keep up with top stories from dozens of sources on the bus, for example. And yes, the inline videos work perfectly!
Apple Pay
Unlike the older 5s, the iPhone SE includes a NFC aerial and support for using this to connect to vendor terminals. Getting set up for Apple Pay proved utterly trivial. Because the App Store already knows your credit/debit card details, they’re offered immediately.
Apple Pay
It’s then just a case of double pressing the home button from the lockscreen and you’re straight into the Apple Pay pop-up – leave your thumb on the button for a second or so and you’re also fully authenticated and ready to pay by putting the top of the iPhone SE next to the vendor’s terminal. It works and it’s really, really easy. Of course, you can do the same with most modern cards, but for anyone with their phone usually in their hand (as is more likely with the SE) this will be more convenient still.

Verdict

Aside from the smaller display, there are very few ‘gotchas’ for the SE in the modern world of 2016. The low resolution ‘selfie’ camera may bother some, ditto the lack of a barometer for measuring altitude when hiking up that mountain (as you do!), but they’re hardly showstoppers. And the two big ‘issues’, the slower fingerprint sensor and the lack of 3D Touch, are both pluses in my book, as commented on above.

So who’s going to buy the iPhone SE? Principally owners of older iPhones, with the SE making the perfect upgrade for an old iPhone 4S or 5, gaining biometric authentication and contactless payment, along with a vastly better camera. These owners should run, not walk to the Apple Store and buy without hesitation.

The upgrade from the two and a half-year-old iPhone 5s is a tougher question. Not because it’s not worth it, if you have the money, but because the 5s itself is also still a darned good smartphone. And throughout my enjoyable SE testing, the nagging thought at the back of my mind was always “You know, all this would happen pretty much the same on an old 5s!” The clincher for such owners will be the addition of NFC payment, perhaps, if that’s something they’ve always wanted. Plus, hey, the camera is even better.

There may even be the odd iPhone 6 or iPhone 6s owner returning to their ‘first love’ and the 4” chamfered form factor here – I challenge any such person not to be impressed all over again when they hold the unadorned SE. But they’d have to be OK with cutting down on media playback and gaming and that might be a jump too far.

As I said at the start, the SE is the perfect iPhone in many ways. True to Steve Jobs original vision for the device, the most refined physical design, cutting edge internals, with specification ‘cuts’ that help rather than hinder(!) and – best of all – at a price that’s very decent for an iPhone.

The 5s 64GB was around £700 in the when it launched in 2013, yet the SE 64GB (which massively outperforms it in every way) is ‘only’ £439, a 38% decrease in real world retail price. The iPhone SE won’t set any sales records for Apple, but expect it to be a very solid seller for the next couple of years since it has the ‘compact smartphone flagship’ market almost entirely to itself.

Buy iPhone SE from Apple’s Online Store: