Review: Apple iPhone SE

by on May 13, 2016

When Apple released the iPhone SE a little over a month ago, I was immediately intrigued. Although I'm what one typically would consider an iOS "power user," I typically get at least two years out of each iPhone, skipping the "S" models. With the iPhone SE, I'd be replacing my iPhone 6 after about a year and a half, but what would I be gaining?

The iPhone SE is arguably aimed at users of the iPhone 5S and older, catering to those refusing to upgrade to the newer, larger devices. It also is designed to be inexpensive, helping Apple sell modern devices in some developing markets. However, for someone that thoroughly enjoyed the iPhone 5/5S design, upgrading to the 6 solely for the new technologies, I was curious if I could trade for Apple's newest device and only see gains. As my iPhone 6 was not under contract or a payment plan, and Apple offers a fairly reasonable return window on new products, there was no downside.

The last time Apple created a low-priced iPhone, they repackaged the prior year’s technology in a plastic form factor for $100 less, giving us the iPhone 5C. While certainly unique and somewhat-liked, many would have probably enjoyed the standard 5 being sold at that lower price point. When the iPhone 6 and 6S were introduced, Apple opted to drop the price of the older model, but not repackage it into a “new” model, adding to the argument that the 5C was not as successful as Apple had hoped.

I opted for the silver 64GB iPhone SE, continuing my tradition of getting the silver phones with a bit more storage than 16GB. This time, I went with the unlocked, SIM-free version and transferred my AT&T iPhone 6 SIM over, allowing me to avoid any upgrade fees, installment plans, or any other complicated nonsense. This would also make it easier to undo things if I chose to return it. The eventual plan would be to sell my iPhone 6, with used prices going around the mid-$400s. Essentially, I'd end up with a device under warranty, better rear camera, better processor, more RAM, a new battery, for less than $100 (including tax).

Ordering was a pretty painless process, as I ordered online for pickup, ensuring that there would be an iPhone SE in stock (unfortunately, Apple didn't send me a rose gold iPhone SE to test out as they did many other tech writers…I wonder why). Since I'd be doing a restore from iTunes, I was fine with taking a non-activated phone home and that made the pickup process even easier. Once I got it home, I immediately restored it from a recent iPhone 6 backup and everything was back and in its place.

If you're coming from an iPhone 6 or 6S, the iPhone SE doesn't come with any revolutionary new features that you'll have to race to try out. From a specifications standpoint, it's got the same processor running at the same speed as the iPhone 6S, the same rear camera, and the wireless hardware found on the iPhone 6, although the LTE bands are different.

Apple iPhone SE

My immediate impression of using the phone was almost as though I had been in some parallel universe where the iPhone 5 and 5S line was continued with Apple standing firm that phones are designed to be used one-handed. Just as the 5 and 5S are almost identical (at least the silver variations), except for minor differences, the SE fits in that same lineage. The noticeable change for the SE is the deletion of the regulatory symbols on the back, an inlaid metal Apple logo (not printed), and the chamfered edge is now matte. The matte edge looks good, but does feel a bit out of place when contrasted with the 5, 5S, and just about every modern iPad. Other than those exterior differences, it's no different from a 5 or 5S in design—no camera hump, still somewhat thin, squared off edges, the power button at the top.

I don't want to give the impression that the 6/6 Plus/6S/6S Plus design is bad—it's not, but in many ways, it feels like the iPhone has gotten a bit blander, stealing design cues from the iPad and iPod touch, rather than having its own unique DNA. I've even caught myself mistaking the larger iPhones in cases with Android devices from far away. That's a little odd for Apple to have devices that don't feel as special from a design standpoint. For the record, the design of the iPhone 4 and 4S was my favorite, despite being heavier and more fragile (and no, I'm not interested in going back to a 3.5 inch screen). Some may argue that the iPhone SE is using an old, dated design, but in my opinion, it's a damn good design and feels timeless.

The smaller-sized screen did take some getting used to, but I ran my iPhone 6 in zoomed mode for about a week to get used to the less real-estate. Objectively, the screen is worse than the 6 and 6S in contrast and color quality, but still nice when you aren't looking at the two side-by-side. It seems a bit warmer, but for my use, it serves its purpose. As the other components from the top "half" seem to have come from the 5S, too, the front-facing FaceTime camera is also much poorer in quality than the 6S, and slightly worse than the 6. I'm not a big selfie person, so this makes no difference to me. Finally, Touch ID is the first version, which is found on just about every Apple device, so unless you solely use an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus, you should be used to it.

For me, the biggest thing about new iPhones is how quickly they blend into my daily usage. Upgrading from a 4 to a 5 was delightful, mostly due to the 5 being a significantly faster device and lighter. Furthermore, going from a 5 to a 6 wasn't bad, but the extra width made itself known at times, as did the side power button (screen shots were still a 50/50 proposition versus putting the device to sleep, even now). New features, such as Apple Pay and Touch ID (as I came from a 5) were immediately adopted and included in my routine.

Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone SE (with iPhone 5)

The SE faded into the background with my daily use, other than the occasional quips from colleagues wondering if my iPhone 6 was broken and I brought an older iPhone out of retirement to take its place. It's not cutting-edge in every way, but it is cutting edge in ways that matter to someone who uses an iPhone as a smartphone and not a computer replacement: modern cellular and Wi-Fi technologies, a great camera, fast processor, great battery life, and portability. Don't get me wrong, the iPhone 6S Plus is a fine device, and would probably take the place of both my iPhone and iPad for a lot of tasks, but it isn't as convenient for running or fitting in every kind of pocket. Those things may not matter to everyone, but if you care about those things, the iPhone SE is fantastic.

Speaking of the battery, I haven't been able to put it through its paces yet, mostly because even with heavy use, I'm able to get through a day. Apple's advertised numbers are certainly plausible and if you have battery hogs like Facebook (or in my case, ShoreTel Mobility), they're less noticeable on the SE. For grins, I picked up a cheap Mophie Juicepack Helium for the iPhone 5/5S to use in those rare instances where I could use a bit more power. Due to the SE's built-in battery, I suspect this will be more for extreme circumstances. Just about every iPhone 5/5S case will fit the SE (I tested some of the old ones I had lying around with no problems, but I'm sure somewhere, there may be an exception).

Other than the front-facing camera, older Touch ID, and wireless capabilities mentioned earlier, if the SE is mostly an iPhone 6S in a 5S shell, what's missing? 3D Touch is gone, but at this point, many app developers haven't used it or used it well, nor has Apple moved it across the entire device lineup. That makes it convenient, but not mandatory. The barometer from the 6 and 6S is missing, eliminating the ability to measure flights climbed. I don't really care, so this won't be missed. The SE is also only available in 16GB and 64GB variants, so hoarders may need a 6S if they want more space.

The other big question is what will happen come September? Let's say the next iPhone is called the iPhone 7. Apple will probably sell a 7 and 7 Plus at the current 6S and 6S Plus prices, knocking the 6S and 6S Plus down by $100. I suspect the iPhone 6 and 6S will not be kept around beyond that. Right now, they're more expensive than the SE with most things the same or worse, other than screen size. This would then keep the SE as the low-end model and fit nicely with the slight price difference, depending on screen size: $400 for the SE, $550 for the 6S (bigger screen and the other minor improvements), $650 for the 6S Plus (an even bigger screen). The 7 would be priced at $650 and the 7 Plus would be $750 ($950 for the biggest capacity). This allows Apple to hit just about every price point between $400 and $1000 with A9 or newer iPhones. That's rather compelling. I don't think Apple will release a new 4-inch iPhone in September, or maybe even next year, so by getting an SE now, it may allow one to opt-out of the yearly or every-other-year upgrade cycle. I'm sure there will be some great features with the next flagship iPhone, but there is something to be said about the cheapest iPhone not being based on 2-3 year-old technology.

Although the software and overall capabilities seem primitive now, two of my favorite phones were the Motorola RAZR V3 and the Motorola SLVR L6—they were simple, small, and still rather durable (the L6 could fit in a front coin pocket in a pair of jeans!) As phones started to grow with the advent of the smartphone, I certainly traded off tininess for capabilities, but always wondered if bigger was better.

As of right now, the return window for my SE has ended, and my iPhone 6 has been sold. I've found the iPhone SE to be an excellent device, blending modern technology with a familiar feel, as long as you are okay with the few tradeoffs. For me, it has taken some getting used to the smaller screen, but I'm thoroughly enjoying the device. If you find yourself fondly remembering the days of carrying an iPhone of the past, currently are happy with an iPhone 5S or older, or just want a cheap, powerful device, the SE is for you. If you are looking for something to be more of a computer or iPad replacement, must have the best specs like Wi-Fi with MIMO technology and LTE-Advanced, and find original Touch ID unbearably slow, the 6S and 6S Plus may be better for you. Better yet, wait until September to see what Apple introduces next. Regardless of your device of choice, it's hard to see how the iPhone SE is not leaps and bounds better than the old method of selling two-year-old iPhones as the entry-level model. Because of that alone, the iPhone SE is a winner in my book.

The One-Sentence Verdict™

Apple’s second attempt at a budget iPhone is all about capabilities and value in a familiar form factor, and a different approach than the iPhone 5C.

Pros: Very capable smaller iPhone, mostly an iPhone 6S in a 5/5S design for $250 less, excellent battery life, compatibility with iPhone 5/5S accessories
Cons: Screen and FaceTime camera are worse than on 6S or even 6
Rating: 9/10

The Facts

Product: iPhone
Company: Apple
Unsubsidized Price (Approx): $399 (16GB), $499 (64GB)

This post has been filed in iPhone, Mobile Devices, Reviews