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iPhone SE REVIEW: A classic I never stopped loving

by Brandon Russell | April 7, 2016April 7, 2016 4:30 pm PDT

Phones are big. That’s just the way it is, one of those undying truths and an inescapable part of the technological zeitgeist. If you want a new smartphone, it’s going to be big. End of story.

While the march toward gigantism has slowed over the past few years, devices below the 5-inch threshold are nearly extinct. Worse, when small phones are released, they’re treated as a different breed, a class below the smartphone elite.

Apple’s iPhone SE is attempting to buck that trend. With a starting price of $399, it caters to a very specific audience, one that’s being left behind in the mobile world. Remember, Apple sold 30 million 4-inch iPhones in 2015 alone, so there are people out there who covet the smaller form factor. Apple seemingly wants to capitalize on interest by offering a smaller device imbued with respectable specs. Yes, those who prefer small phones do matter.

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Make no mistake, Apple’s intentions aren’t entirely altruistic. Because the iPhone SE is ostensibly more affordable, its release is meant to cater to a certain segment of consumers; it’s Apple’s way of cleverly seducing first-time smartphone buyers. Not everyone can afford—or even wants—a phone that’s $700+, and that’s where the iPhone SE comes in, particularly in markets such as China and India where Apple wants an even bigger slice of the pie.

Since the iPhone SE’s announcement in March, it’s been at the center of some pretty heated controversy, partly because of its size, and partly because of its specifications. But what made people most outraged was Apple’s decision to recycle the iPhone 5’s squarish design, something that’s—holy crap where has the time gone?—now over three years old.

And when I say Apple recycled the design, I mean the device looks virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone 5; it’s almost as if Apple went from the iPhone 5 to the iPhone 5s to the iPhone 5ss. But don’t let the fact that they look similar fool you. The iPhone SE makes some marked improvements over its 4-inch ilk, from battery life to performance. It’s an old design with high-end specs. Think of it this way: this is Apple’s attempt at restoring a classic.

The chassis, such as it is, has been kept the same, but the insides have upgraded in a big way. The A9 chip is its new engine; the 12-megapixel camera is the upgraded leather interior; the bump to 2GB of RAM is the all-new transmission. Although it looks the same, it feels like an entirely different drive, one you shouldn’t ignore just because it’s small.

While the iPhone SE sounds like an iPhone 6s in an iPhone 5s’ body, that doesn’t tell the whole story. The iPhone SE sports Apple’s first-generation Touch ID module, which isn’t a huge deal, but it’s not quite as fast and accurate as what’s available in Apple’s newest iPhones. The iPhone SE also doesn’t support 3D touch, and the front-facing camera is just 1.2-megapixels with a f/2.4 aperture. That’s passable for selfies and FaceTime calls, but the quality isn’t very good.

Size will be the biggest thing users will need to overcome, especially if they’re transitioning from a device like the iPhone 6. If you currently own a 4-inch phone, it’ll be no problem; in addition to looking like an iPhone 5s, the iPhone SE’s dimensions are identical, so it won’t feel different at all. Chances are most folks who own a big phone won’t go back to something smaller.

I’ve used all manner of smartphones over the past few years and, for me, something like the Galaxy S7 is the perfect ratio between size and screen; it’s not too big and not too small. Of course, it’s a matter of personal preference. Something that works for me might not work for you.

That meant getting used to the iPhone SE took some time. While it’s much easier to manage with one hand, the screen sucks for viewing content. I spend nearly my entire day on Twitter, Facebook, and other media-heavy platforms, and a 4-inch display just doesn’t cut it. However, I do enjoy a more squared design because it’s a little easier to hold. It’s also nice that the iPhone SE doesn’t have a camera hump.

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Coming from a larger phone, I often forgot I even had the iPhone SE on me—that’s how small of a footprint it has. It’s the kind of device that slips into your pocket and disappears, which I consider a huge plus. I like not constantly feeling like I have a phone in my pocket, or needing two hands just to send off a quick text message.

People are genuinely upset at Apple for recycling the iPhone 5’s design, but I don’t mind. Yes, it’s old, but it still holds up. And to people who are getting their very first iPhone, it’s probably new to them, so why be mad? We certainly would have preferred to see something all-new, but in the grand scheme of things, the iPhone SE design still has its appeal. Besides, the biggest changes have been made internally.

Buoyed by an A9 chip and 2GB of RAM, the iPhone SE screams, finally proving that small products don’t mean compromise. Coming from an iPhone 6, I didn’t notice a huge difference in speed, but you can tell the SE is very light on its feet. From opening apps to playing games, the device is small but powerful, capable of handling any task you throw its way. It’s nimble and quick and never feels like it’s second-rate.

Speaking of which, you’d think that going down in size would negatively affect battery life, but that’s not the case. In fact, battery life was excellent over the seven days I used the device, often lasting me through an entire day and into the next; I didn’t feel tethered to an outlet despite the device’s smaller size.

Note: The unit Jon used had horrific battery life during his testing. According to his device’s Battery Usage screen, the camera app had been the biggest drain, even on days when he barely used it. Meanwhile, I used my camera quite a bit and drain on battery was minimal. Jon said he tried restoring the device’s software and things still didn’t improve.

Battery drain or not, the camera included in the iPhone SE is terrific, using the same 12-megapixel sensor found in the iPhone 6s. This is another area where Apple didn’t compromise. I take an obscene amount of pictures with my phone, and I had zero complaints with how the iPhone SE performed. Image quality was excellent, and the camera experience itself is still among the best.

The stock camera app still leaves a lot to be desired compared to what you’d get from Samsung or LG, but you can always download a third-party app if you’re looking to have more control over how you shoot. Still, for its size, it’s impressive how good the iPhone SE’s camera is. As a nice bonus, the handset supports Live Photos and captures 4K video—neither of which is available in the iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus.

Wrap-up

Much like recent iPhone releases, the iPhone SE isn’t overly exciting, nor does it introduce any grand ideas. But just because we’re not shouting in elation doesn’t mean Apple’s handset isn’t good. It’s fast as hell, gets excellent battery life, and comes with a pretty wonderful camera. For most consumers, that’s all they need.

At this size, the iPhone SE is tough to beat, and that’s the point of Apple’s master plan, even if it upsets its legions of adoring fans. If you’re among the crowd who doesn’t find the smaller form factor very appetizing, have patience, your day will come, you’ll get the iPhone 7 you’re so desperately waiting for later this year.

For others, the iPhone SE, big or not, is a good phone at a good price.

Rating: Buy

It may be small but the iPhone SE packs a serious punch for just $399. Just beware of its 16GB of storage.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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