Apple iPhone SE review: Good things still come in small packages
UPDATE: Ever since Apple unveiled the smaller, cheaper iPhone SE all the way back in March 2016, the company has brought out a whole host of new – and admittedly much more expensive –iPhones. From the iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus and the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, right up to the beefy iPhone X, we’ve seen Apple focus on bigger devices with more expensive price tags. When WWDC 2018 went by without any mention of an iPhone SE follow-up, we thought the company might be putting the device to rest.
That might not be the case, however, as all the rumours are pointing towards an iPhone SE 2 release sometime this year. It’s expected to include a near bezel-less display and potentially Face ID. Rejoice! You can read up on all the iPhone SE 2 rumours here.
Until we get actual confirmation from Apple itself, you can read our original iPhone SE review below.
The iPhone SE hit a sweet spot for Apple fans, offering flagship-level processing power along with a smaller form factor and a (perhaps most importantly) a lighter price tag.
The question hanging in air since its warm reception has been whether Apple would follow it up with a similar lower-price device, or when it would retire it along with many Apple products of yore. Especially given the trend for all brands to launch phones in the 5in-6in category of late.
Thankfully, for those who prefer a smaller handset, as the astronomical iPhone X price grabbed headlines following its launch in September, Apple quietly cut the price of its cheapest phone – pushing the iPhone SE price tag down to $349 (£349).
Speaking after the iPhone X and iPhone 8 launch, Tim Cook responded to criticisms that Apple only designs products for the most affluent. “You can buy an iPad today for under $300. You can buy an iPhone, depending upon which one you select, in that same kind of ballpark,” he told Fortune. “And so these are not for the rich.”
Whether or not you believe him, the iPhone SE is indeed the company’s cheapest ever handset. It’s also one of the company’s best devices currently on the market, balancing sturdy specs with a compact, pocket friendly design. If you act quickly, you may be able to get it even cheaper on Amazon. Read on for our full review of the iPhone SE, along with news of a possible follow up device.
Even greater news followed shortly after. According to a report from Focus Taiwan, Apple could be looking to launch an iPhone SE 2 this year. Initial rumours suggested it would be “by Q1”, which is looking unlikely and doesn’t fit with Apple’s schedule in recent years, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen later in the year, posssibly at its Fall event.
It may be the case that, much like the iPhone SE and the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE 2 will have similar internals as the iPhone 8.
Speaking of which, ostensibly the iPhone SE is the iPhone 5s’ body with the iPhone 6s’ brain, combining a smaller form with competitive performance. We have our original, in-depth review for you, but if you’re looking for the key bullet-points – here’s what sets the iPhone SE apart from the iPhone 5s, 6s and 7.
The Apple iPhone SE: At a glance
- Apple’s smallest, cheapest phone
- The same size as the iPhone 5s, so old cases and accessories will work fine
- Just as powerful as the iPhone 6s – most games and apps run as smooth as butter – but it isn’t as fast as the iPhone 7
- The rear camera is identical to the iPhone 6s, so it’s good but again not quite as good as the iPhone 7’s
- The selfie camera isn’t great, though – it’s a substantial downgrade on the iPhone 6s
- It’s not just smaller than the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE is also 30g lighter. Imagine all the extra things you can carry in your pockets!
- It doesn’t have the iPhone 6s’ 3D Touch technology
- Battery life is better than any current iPhone thanks to the compact 4-inch display
- The 802.11ac Wi-Fi isn’t MIMO – that means it lacks the Wi-Fi speed and range of pricier iPhones
Apple iPhone SE review
If you’ve been doggedly clinging to a now-battered iPhone 5 or iPhone 5s and steadfastly refusing to embrace the new generation of big-screened 5in phones, then the Apple iPhone SE is going to make you very, very happy. It’s your dream made reality: a retro-sized smartphone with plenty of power inside – and for less than £430 on Amazon UK (or for under $400 on Amazon US).
Isn’t it just an iPhone 5s?
If you’ve spent the past couple of years with an iPhone 6 Plus in your pocket, the iPhone SE will look and feel disconcertingly tiny. Design-wise, Apple has done away with the rounded edges of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus (and the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus) and returned to a more squared-off profile – one that’s more than a little reminiscent of the old iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. If you were hoping for a carbon copy of the 5s, you’re in luck.
In fact, according to Apple’s specifications, the iPhone SE is literally the same size and weight as the iPhone 5s. At 7.6mm thick, it is still chunkier than any other iPhone in the range, but this is largely a good thing, making it a little more wieldy for those with larger hands. And, weighing in at 113g, the iPhone SE is also 30g lighter than the iPhone 6s and 25g lighter than the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact.
Frankly, if you thought 2013’s iPhone was the perfect size and shape, you’re probably already clicking through the various options on Apple’s site in another browser window. The only question is whether you want to pre-order it in Silver, Gold, Space Grey or Rose Gold, and whether you want it in 16GB or 64GB. Decisions, decisions.
Okay. Is it a mini iPhone 6s then?
Although the iPhone SE looks like a slightly refined iPhone 5s on the outside, it has the heart of an iPhone 6s. It’s not literally a shrunken iPhone 6s, though. To keep the price below the £500 mark, Apple has made some changes. It has done away with the pressure-sensing 3D Touch technology, and also made do with a first-generation Touch ID sensor.
If you’ve become accustomed to the lightning-quick fingerprint recognition of the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, you’ll have to be a little more patient with the iPhone SE. In all fairness, however, this is something that’ll bother most people in everyday use – it certainly doesn’t bother me. The other differences are fairly subtle, but they’re still well worth knowing about before you decide to splash the cash on an iPhone SE; I’ll get into those a little later on.
“The iPhone SE takes a little getting used to if you’ve acclimatised to larger phones”
Be under no illusions: the iPhone SE takes a little getting used to if you’ve acclimatised to larger phones. I never forgot that I had the iPhone 6 Plus in my trouser or jacket pocket, such is its size and weight, but the iPhone SE disappears. On more than one occasion, I’ve walked out of the house and then panicked that I’ve forgotten my phone only to find it happily sitting in my jeans pocket.
Similarly, where I used to find the iPhone 6 Plus was an annoying lump in a jersey pocket on 50-mile-plus bike rides, the iPhone SE is just perfect. It sits snugly at the bottom of a cycling jersey, and also proves very usable in one hand on the odd occasion that you have to use it while on the move.
There is, however, one glaring downside to the iPhone SE’s pocket-friendly dimensions. I have big hands, and equally outsized fingertips, and I have to type more slowly to avoid making mistakes. Even after a few months with the SE in my pocket, I still have to type very carefully to avoid deleting and retyping every other word several times.
Google to the rescue
Recently, it got the point where I was idly considering digging out an old iPhone 6 Plus and giving up on the iPhone SE, purely because of that tiny fiddly keyboard. Then a solution appeared from the most unlikely of sources: Google. Yes, while Google’s Gboard keyboard for iOS took a good few weeks to arrive in the UK it is finally here – and it makes a huge difference to the iPhone SE.
Gboard adds a whole host of nifty new features, but while the addition of Swype-style keyboard input is little more than a bonus for the larger iPhones, it’s a transformative addition to the iPhone SE. Rather than pecking away at a tiny keyboard with my giant sausage-shaped digits, Gboard makes it possible to trace out words quickly and easily, and with far fewer mistakes than with Apple’s standard iOS keyboard. When Gboard does get it wrong the alternative word suggestions can be a little wayward, but that’s a minor gripe – it’s still a big improvement overall. And when you factor in the ability to search for information (yes, and GIFs) direct from Gboard, it really is an essential addition to the iPhone SE. I couldn’t live without it.
And before you think I’m hating on the iPhone SE’s bijou build, I’m really not. In fact, there are several benefits to the small screen. One of those is that the iPhone SE doesn’t need the Reachability feature of its larger brethren. For all but the smallest of hands, it’s easy to reach every corner of the screen without having to adjust your grip or stretch your fingers uncomfortably. This makes a welcome change from having to doubletap the home button every time you need to type in a web address, or craning your thumb awkwardly upwards while simultaneously attempting to not drop your pristine new iPhone. Sometimes, tiny is just better.
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