By Jason Snell
March 31, 2016 6:45 AM PT
iPhone SE review: Smaller can be better
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
There was a time when miniaturization ruled. The smaller you could make technology, the more valuable it became. Smaller products were more expensive than bigger products because it cost more to shrink all the components.
But at some point, the understanding that smaller was better fell by the wayside. Some of it was physical: Human bodies are built on a certain scale. Items too big or small to hold comfortably, displays too small to read clearly, aren’t as good as ones that fit in the proper scale. They could probably make a flip phone the size of a postage stamp today, but nobody would want to hold it, and it would be too easy to lose.
With phones, especially, the conventional wisdom is that bigger is better. The success of Android phones that were comically large to the eyes of an iPhone user led Apple to fully embrace the big-phone world in 2014 with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus—and it was rewarded accordingly.
Big phones have lots of advantages. They’re so much easier on the eyes, with their big, bright screens. Typing and tapping is easier, too, because there’s more room for tappable elements on those big screens. Big phones have more room for battery, too.
But big phones have always had disadvantages. They’re heavier. They don’t fit as comfortably—or at all!—in your pockets. You need larger hands in order to hold them in one hand comfortably. As Apple (and its supporters) argued strenuously right up to the point where Apple itself made a large phone, bigger is not always better.
So here comes the iPhone SE, a big update to a small phone. It’s made of current technology, wrapped in an old, familiar package. It’s here to make the case that smaller can be better, and it makes it well.
Everything but the chamfers
If you remember the iPhone 5S, you’ve seen the iPhone SE. Since the iPhone SE is replacing the 5S in Apple’s product line-up, the similarity is appropriate. As Apple’s lowest-cost iPhone, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that the company didn’t decide to spend the effort building an entirely new product. This is the design language that served the iPhone well for four model years, from the iPhone 4 through the 5S, and it’s truly a classic. The corners are curved, but the rest of the device is all flat edges.
It’s a much more grippable design than the curved-edged iPhone 6S. I’m someone who never used to use cases on my iPhones, but with the iPhone 6 I started using a case—I just wasn’t comfortable with how slippery that phone felt when I held it. As a result, some of its more subtle, beautiful design touches—most notably the curved glass on the edges of the screen—are wasted on me. The iPhone SE design doesn’t feel slippery at all. Sure, you could put a case on it, but in holding the iPhone SE I’m reminded why I never bothered shielding the naked robotic core of my old iPhone 5s.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t some external differences between the iPhone 5S and the iPhone SE. A technological Sherlock Holmes would be able to observe that the chamfered edges on the iPhone SE have a matte finish that matches the finish on the rest of the device, as opposed to the shiny chamfers found on the iPhone 5S (and all current-model iPads). The Apple logo on the SE’s back is a stainless-steel inlay as opposed to the stamped-on silver of the 5S, and the iPhone name itself is laser-etched into the aluminum back, rather than being stamped on as on the 5S.
Most notably, the colors are different. The iPhone SE uses the same shades of space gray, gold, silver, and rose gold as the rest of the current iPhone line—the shades on the 5S1 were somewhat different, and of course the 5S was not available in Rose Gold, but the SE is.
On the inside, though, this is an almost entirely new phone, based on the same technology that’s in the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. What remains from the 5S is the screen itself—it’s basically the same screen as the 5S, so it doesn’t have as high a contrast ratio as the iPhone 6 series. The iPhone 5S screen was no slouch, but the newer screens are nicer.
The front-facing camera on the iPhone SE is more of a match for the 5S and iPhone 6 models, but lags behind the dramatically upgraded selfie camera on the iPhone 6S—it only offers a 1.2 megapixel sensor, though it’s been upgraded to support the “Retina Flash” feature that overdrives the screen with a color-matched flash in order to improve the quality of the selfies you take. (Selfies are also improved on the SE because of the much better signal-processing functionality of the A9 processor.)
The Touch ID on the iPhone SE is similarly unchanged from the 5S—it’s the slower, more finicky version also found on the iPhone 6, not the faster, more resilient version found on the iPhone 6S. And of course, there’s 3D Touch, a feature introduced with the iPhone 6S that has not been engineered into the iPhone SE. Finally, the iPhone 5S has no barometer, so (unlike all iPhone 6 models), you can’t measure your altitude or how many floors of stairs you’ve climbed in a day.
Beyond that, though, the iPhone SE is a 6S in a smaller package. Its main camera is the same 12-megapixel model found in the iPhone 6S, with support for 4K video and HD slow-motion videos at up to 240 frames per second. The iPhone SE supports Apple Pay, marking this the first time that an iPhone with a four-inch screen has been able to make contactless payments itself. And at the heart of the device is the A9 processor with M9 coprocessor, all running at the same clock speed as on the iPhone 6S. In terms of speed, the iPhone SE is essentially an iPhone 6S in a smaller package.
Filling the slots
For a while now, Apple has had various iPhone models to fill slots in its price list, offering older models at lower prices. The iPhone 5S, the premium iPhone of the fall of 2013, reached the bottom of the price list two years later. Now the iPhone SE takes its place, for an even lower price—the 5S was $459, while the base-model SE lists for $399. (For the record, you can get a base-model iPhone 6 for $549, base-model iPhone 6S or iPhone 6 Plus for $649, and iPhone 6S Plus for $749.)
$399 is the lowest price we’ve ever seen for a brand-new iPhone. This is the pricing tier that used to be $449, but sold as “free with a two-year contract.” The contract subsidies are fading away, and without them as a part of the equation, Apple can make a phone that’s cheaper than “free.”
The iPhone SE allows Apple to fill all the slots in its product line, but expunge all the 2013-era technology. From now on, all new iPhones have Apple Pay and an A8 or A9 processor. The iPhone SE feels like a product that will hold down the bottom of Apple’s iPhone price list, and the basic level of functionality we can expect from modern iPhones, for a couple of years.
There’s clearly an audience for this product, too. In announcing it, Apple dropped the tidbit that it has sold 30 million four-inch phones over the past year. In the past year of reported sales, Apple has told 231.5 million iPhones, meaning roughly 13 percent of those sales were for the iPhone 5S, a phone that was underpowered and between one and two years old. It’s not hard to imagine that the iPhone SE—featuring top-of-the-line iPhone technology for $50 less—will improve handily on those sales. We could be looking at a device that will capture one-fifth of the iPhone market.
The iPhone SE’s audience will be iPhone 5S users who have been desperately waiting for Apple to update its four-inch design with modern technology. It will be iPhone 6 and 6S users who wanted the latest tech but were unhappy with the new, increased size of their iPhones. And with that low price, it will be people who want to get an iPhone but couldn’t afford the asking price, whether in the U.S. or in markets with rapidly expanding middle classes such as China and India.
So should you buy one?
In my time with the iPhone SE, I admit that I’ve considered (metaphorically) chucking my iPhone 6S and returning to the warm, comfortable embrace of the smaller iPhone. It takes up less space in my pocket and doesn’t need a case. For me, though, the increased size of the iPhone 6S is not worth giving up. But it’s a very personal decision—and opting for a smaller iPhone is a perfectly reasonable decision that many people will make.
There’s also one reason to be wary of the iPhone SE, however: If you’ve switched to the iPhone 6 or 6S because you’re want Apple’s cutting-edge iPhone technologies, not because they’re larger phones, you may want to consider that the iPhone SE is likely to only be state of the art for the next six months, at which point it will be eclipsed by whatever wonders lie within the iPhone 7. (And it’s highly unlikely the iPhone SE will be updated again for a couple of years.)
The iPhone SE is powerful enough that it will have several years of usable life, but if you’re chasing the hottest thing from Apple, it will fall out of your favor quickly. This is a phone for people who want to commit to the four-inch lifestyle, not for people who must always have the latest and greatest from Apple.
Not everyone will want to commit. But those who do will find the iPhone SE a bit of a miracle. The iPhone 5S design is back—and this time, it’s got the power of the iPhone 6S inside. It’s an answered prayer to everyone who has clung to their old four-inch iPhones and hoped that Apple would give them something new.
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