iPhone SE review: A 4-inch potent blend of old and new

One thing is clear about Apple’s iPhone SE – it’s for people who like small smartphones.

A few hours into using the SE I quickly realized the smartphone is not designed for my personal taste in mobile devices – but that’s okay. There is clearly a small, but vocal audience clamouring for Apple’s latest pint-size device considering Apple sold 30 million 4-inch iPhones in 2015.

The significant question is how large the market for a 4-inch smartphone really is, and given Apple’s reluctance to release individual device sales statistics, we’ll likely never know. But just off hand, I can think of a number of friends and acquaintances who feel today’s modern smartphone market consists of handsets far too large for their taste.

This point is even more apparent in Apple’s iOS ecosystem where fans of smaller devices have, until now, had no option available to them when it comes to a 4-inch device (unless they opted for the aged iPhone 5 or 5s that is). This particular audience likely felt alienated by the release of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s.

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While I was initially skeptical of giant 5-inch plus smartphones, I now consider myself a believer in the added functionality extra screen real-estate provides. Yes, I’m a fan of “phablets,” though I still loathe the classification.

Apple iPhone SE specs

  • iOS 9.3
  • 2GB RAM
  • A9 processor
  • 4.0-inch display (1136 x 640 resolution, 326 ppi)
  • 16/64GB internal storage
  • 12 megapixel iSight camera capable of shooting 4K at a resolution of 3840 x 2160
  • 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera
  • Three-axis gyro sensor, as well as accelerometer, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor
  • Wi-Fi calling, NFC, VoLTE, Bluetooth 4.2, Fingerprint sensor
  • 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm, 113 grams
  • LTE connectivity, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi‑Fi
  • 16GB: $579 (CAD) unlocked, 64GB: $709 (CAD) unlocked.
  • Colour options: Space Grey, Silver, Gold and Rose Gold.

iPhone 6s in an iPhone 5s body

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What you’ve heard is true, the iPhone SE is essentially the iPhone 6s in the body of an iPhone 5s. This means the 6s’ powerful A9 chipset, along with its M9 motion-tracking processor, and 2GB of RAM, are packed into the SE’s tiny 4-inch chassis.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that the SE still utilizes a 1136 x 640 pixel resolution, the same glass featured in the iPhone 5s. Because of this, however, the phone actually feels snappier than the 6s, especially when multitasking between applications and navigating through iOS 9’s various features. I would even go so far as to say that the SE could be the most responsive smartphone I’ve ever used.

On the other hand, this move is also a disappointment considering Apple’s other iPhone offerings have moved beyond this outdated resolution to 1334 x 750 pixels. While it may not sound like it on paper, the difference in sharpness is noticeable, even to those not accustomed to picking up on screen resolution-related minutia.

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With Apple obviously recycling many components from the 5s for the SE, increasing the smartphone’s screen resolution should have been a top priority for Apple, but has been blatantly omitted.

Another notable hardware shift the SE when compared to the 6s is the smartphone’s lack of 3D Touch, though during my time with the SE I haven’t missed Apple’s Peek and Pop feature. For whatever reason, the ability to view what is present in an app before actually opening it, has never integrated its way into my daily use of the 6s.

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In terms of other upgrades, the SE also features faster LTE/Wi-Fi when compared to the 5s, as well as Apple Pay functionality. Perhaps most importantly given the recent controversy surrounding security and Apple, the SE also features the additional Touch ID security chip present in Apple’s more recently released smartphones

Then there’s the SE’s battery, which is slightly larger at 1642 mAh compared to 1560 mAh. While the SE’s increase in battery size is nearly non-existent over the 5s, I frequently experienced over 12 hours of battery life with the smartphone. This, however, is likely the result of improved software efficiency present in iOS 9.3 over iOS 6.0 and 7.0, rather than the tiny battery size increase. Still, it Apple including a larger battery in the SE would have been a welcome addition to the smartphone

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Other technical specifications, most notably the SE’s camera, remain identical to the iPhone 6s, though its worth pointing out the 4-inch smartphone does not feature the image stabilization present in the iPhone 6s Plus — though neither does the iPhone 6s, for that matter. On the plus side, the dreaded camera bump present on the iPhone 6 and 6s isn’t included in the SE, resulting in a smooth rear backing.

This means that the SE features the same superb 12-megapixel f/2.2 aperture shooter (with 4K video capabilities) and 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera as the iPhone 6s. Furthermore, in my tests the iPhone SE’s photo quality is identical to the iPhone 6s’.

Almost Identical

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Even in terms of of aesthetic, the SE looks nearly identical to the almost three-year-old 5s. The two subtle differences between the devices consist of the expected SE logo present on the rear of the device, and the matte chamfers running around the smartphone’s flat edges, giving the SE’s now old school design a much-needed dose of more modern sensibilities. The phone also comes in Apple’s popular Rose Gold colour, a variant the 5s was not available in.

Whether or not the iPhone SE’s overall look will appeal to you comes down to your own individual taste. Those who, like myself, prefer Apple’s more recent curved approach to the iPhone, will likely feel the SE’s form factor is dated.

There is, however, an audience out there that, similar to the size issue discussed earlier, isn’t fond of Apple’s shift from the 5s’ more angular build. Again, if you fall into this camp, Apple’s latest flagship offering will be iOS device you’ve been writing smartphone fan-fiction about.

Small smartphones aren’t for me

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I found switching from the massive 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus to the 4-inch iPhone SE a difficult task. If you looked at my messages from the last few weeks, emails and other forms of text I typed with the minuscule handset, you’d find countless typos.

While using the SE, I constantly found myself wondering how we ever got by using devices with such small displays. The same thoughts popped into my head when performing nearly any task with the SE beyond scrolling through my Twitter feed. Playing games like Alto’s Adventure and Badlands 2 felt cramped, and the smaller display size resulted in frequent accidental button presses and cramped fingers.

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On the plus side, the ability to easily slide the smartphone into my front pocket without it peaking out is something I haven’t experienced since using the iPhone 5 as my daily smartphone a number of years ago.

Will Android users convert?

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At Apple’s recent press event in Cupertino, California, one thing was made abundantly clear: the company is looking to pull users from Google’s Android and Microsoft’s Windows ecosystems with the release of the iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

So will the iPhone SE convince current Android users clinging to their rapidly aging 4-inch devices to make the jump to iOS? With devices like the Nexus 5X and Xperia Z5 Compact, offering solid experiences and comparable form factors – though they are slightly larger – I don’t see Apple’s lofty Android poaching goals coming to fruition with the release of the SE.

Fans of tiny phones rejoice

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The SE is a smartphone for a very specific iOS user who felt left out with the release of the iPhone 6 and 6s, not a device that is going to convince Android owners to jump ship and join Apple’s walled-garden iOS ecosystem, especially at its $579 starting price point.

On the plus side for Apple, however, this means iOS users hanging onto their aging iPhone 4 and 5 generation devices, hoping Apple would once again release a smaller form factor, now have a viable upgrade option.

That’s not to say the SE isn’t without faults though. To some, the smartphone’s design will likely feel dated, and Apple’s decision to stick with the 5s’ 1334 x 750 pixel resolution is clearly an effort to recycle components leftover from the 5s’ initial run.

It’s worth noting, however, that the lack of excitement surrounding the SE’s release is a clear indication the company needs to do something big with the iPhone 7.

In the end, it’s quite obvious the iPhone SE isn’t for “phablet” users like myself. This is a device designed for a very specific fan of Apple’s products, it’s just currently unclear how large that audience actually is.

Pros

      • Great for iOS users waiting for a modern 4-inch device
      • Solidly built, small and compact
      • A iPhone 6s in an iPhone 4s body

Cons

      • Resolution is only 1334 x 750
      • Looks nearly identical to the iPhone 5s
      • Likely won’t convince Android users to jump ship

Related reading: iPhone SE hands-on: Power in a 4-inch package

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