iPhone SE


Breaking

Why should you care about the iPhone SE? It’s a phone that’s in an identical chassis to the one released three years ago, and beyond a new color it’s impossible to know which model is which. It’s the iPhone ‘Special Edition’.

Then I look around the train carriage on the way to work and count the amount of iPhone 5S and 5 devices that are being prodded quietly all around. The number is staggering, and it easily dwarfs the amount of iPhone 6 or iPhone 6S handsets on show.

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Has Apple been smart here? Looked at the way people are using phones and realised there’s a massive market for a certain form factor – a smaller handset that you can easily reach across the whole screen with one thumb but still has some decent power?

iPhone SE review

iPhone SE price and release date

  • iPhone SE release date: March 2016
  • 16GB: $399, £379, AU$679 at launch
  • 64GB: $449, £429, $AU749 at launch
  • UK contracts start at £23.50 for a free phone

The SE is a hark back to a long-forgotten era in smartphones, like Apple slit time in two and pulled a phone back through, and charged $399 (£379, AU$679) for the 16GB model (or $449, £429, $AU749 if you choose the larger 64GB option).


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That’s a surprising price for Apple to hit: it’s lower than the main phones, and the price of the contract for this phone is cheaper than many flagships from 2015. 

The SIM-free price isn’t cheap, but it’s more affordable than a ‘new’ iPhone has ever been and it’s already begun to drop a little in price.

But enough about the price – usually, people that are embedded into the iOS ecosystem struggle to leave it, and are willing to pay whatever’s necessary to get a decent new phone.

 So what about this decision to re-re-release the iPhone 5? Has Apple zigged when the rest of the world has zagged, and come up with the direction everyone has been clamoring for, making a powerful-yet-palmable phone?

Or is this a company arrogantly believing it can churn out the same phone design for the third time and hope the world will consider it different enough to be worth the upgrade?

Key new features

  • All the power of a larger iPhone in a smaller chassis
  • Camera is strong – on a par with the iPhone 6S
  • Lack of 3D Touch is disappointing and would have worked well here
  • Battery life is significantly longer than iPhone 5 / 5S

Besides price (the iPhone SE is the cheapest Apple handset on the market, after all) the key selling point with this new phone is the design. The chassis, as I’ve mentioned above, is precisely the same as on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S, and beyond coming in rose gold, doesn’t offer anything new at all.

That said, so many people are looking at the iPhone’s evolution to the 4.7-inch display of the 6 and 6S and scrunched their noses up a bit, not wanting to make the leap to the larger size of screen (and that’s before we even get into the iPhone 6S Plus‘ mega size).

iPhone SE review

The new phone is designed to be easily operated with one hand, the 4-inch screen sitting just at the edge of a thumb stretch, and Apple is banking on this fact keeping the handset current.

However, internally things are genuinely supercharged, a world away from the innards stuffed into the handset from a few years back. The camera has had one of the biggest overhauls, now coming with the 12MP iSight sensor found in the current flagship phones, and offering the same array of tricks.

iPhone SE review

That means Focus Pixels to offer clearer and faster autofocus, the improved two-tone flash and Live Photos, where a small amount of video is captured with every photo taken. 4K video recording and ultra-slo-mo movie modes really help sweeten the deal too.

The power of the iPhone SE is something to behold as well – it’s as powerful as the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus thanks to having the new A9 chip, the M9 co-processor and 2GB of RAM.

Compare that to the A7 chip with a measly 1GB of RAM from the iPhone 5S and side by side they’re absolutely night and day in terms of speed and battery life management.

The M9 co-processor is an important element too, telling the phone when it should be heading into a dormant mode thanks to being sat quietly on a desk or in a pocket, which prevents the battery-hungry pings that lead to the red line of doom and you needing to reach for the charger at 6PM.

Battery life is impressive on the phone, especially when you consider there are only a few mAh added in here, from 1560mAh to 1624mAh, and with no increase to the size of the chassis at all, this is a really impressive feat and addresses one of the key concerns I had with the iPhone 5S.

  • Design identical to iPhone 5 / 5S apart from new rose gold variant
  • Very easy to hold and use in one hand

The design of the iPhone SE, as you’ve probably already guessed, is identical to that of the iPhone 5S. That means you’ve got the same compact chassis that fits perfectly in one hand, the chamfered edges to provide a different texture and comfort to the edge of the phone and the same overall boxy design from the days of yore.

In fact, visually the only difference is the thing now comes in rose gold. That’s it.

The phone does indeed fit well in the palm, with almost no stretching needed to get to all parts of the screen. What’s surprising is how Apple hasn’t drawn in any design elements from the iPhone 6S, keeping things like the ‘battery-like’ + and – icons on the volume keys, the larger drilled holes of the speaker grille at the bottom of the phone and the power button living on the top of the handset.

iPhone SE review

It makes sense, I guess. After all, they were well made then, and they’re as premium-looking now. The finish on the metal chassis is always impressive from Apple, and combined with the new rose gold color always makes me feel like I’m looking at a high end phone when glancing at the display on my desk.

What’s funny is that one of the same issues I had with the older model, which I thought was just a slight manufacturing defect, is back once again. If you shake the phone at all, something will rattle – the power button doesn’t seem properly attached on some level.

Clearly this is a design point Apple is fine with, else it would have been eradicated a few years later when rebooting the phone’s design – it’s irritating though, as it diminishes the iPhone SE’s premium feel.

I do like the smaller design though, despite the fact I’m firmly a fan of larger phones these days. It’s almost a novelty having something so capable that I can use one-handed, and it’s surprising that so many brands have shied away from doing the same thing.

iPhone SE review

In terms of weight, it’s super hard to even tell you’ve even got the phone in your pocket, thanks to it being 113g light. That’s a whole 1g more than the 5S, but it’s impossible to tell the difference.

The ‘click’ and pressure needed on all the buttons remains perfect, with the feedback feeling like it’s the result of months (or in this case, years) of honing.

From the mute rocker switch to the volume keys, I’m a real fan of the way this phone has been put together (although I wish it wasn’t just one mono speaker firing out the bottom of the phone.)

However, my biggest bugbear with Apple (and phone brands in general) is that this is a backwards step in terms of phone design. Yes, it’s a popular shape (as the quick survey on the train proved), but the identical iPhone SE is nothing but a ‘bonus’ version of the 5S.

I’m fully behind Apple’s decision to bring the raw power of its flagship phones to the smaller form factor, but it could have rebooted the design quite easily. Why are we not seeing a smaller phone with the same curved edges of the iPhone 6S, a smaller, pebble-like experience in the hand? Now that would have been exciting.

It’s easy to see why the form remains though: the brand has surely invested in the manufacturing processes to create the iPhone 5 and 5S, and rather than cover them in a dust sheet has cranked them into use once more.

It’s a great exercise in cost saving, and while you can ask why one of the richest companies in the world needs to keep its margins as high as possible when it could afford to take this hit… well, there’s a reason it’s so wealthy.

iPhone SE review

That said, I firmly believe that every phone, to be considered a success and a step forward, needs to be obviously different from its predecessor, to make the user feel like they’re getting something new for their money.

The angled sides seen on the iPhone SE were brilliant in 2010 when they appeared on the iPhone 4, but they’re tired now, so the SE will always feel like only a small, if powerful, update.

Screen

  • Screen still disappointingly low-res
  • Screen brightness is too dark compared to other comparable phones

Another issue I’ve got here with the new iPhone is the screen – like the chassis, it’s straight out of 2012, coming as it did with the iPhone 5. While you could just think that it’s simply a smaller version of what’s on the current iPhone duo, in truth it’s rather old in terms of spec.

Of course it’s a Retina display, Apple’s shorthand for a phone that hits a certain sharpness at a certain distance from your eyes – but in a 4-inch display, there’s a noticeable lack of sharpness here.

iPhone SE review

Apple’s always focused more on the quality of the display than pixel density – its iPad range is industry-leading when it comes to having a great-looking screen, rather than shoving in more pixels for the sake of it.

But when Samsung is easily making the best smartphone screens in the world, and the iPhone 6S is stuck on a 720p display, I’d have hoped for a little bit of an upgrade for the iPhone SE. Instead it’s used the same LCD and digitizer layer as found on the older models (again, likely to save money on production) and as a result it’s clearly less sharp and lower quality than the flagship brands.

The key thing for any brand in making a quality phone is making sure four pillars are present and correct: great design, non-annoying battery life, good camera and quality screen. After all, it’s the bit you stare at most.

Apple’s not stupid though – this display is more than good enough. The lower contrast ratio (800:1 is quite far behind some of the top phones on the market right now – the new iPhone 6S duo included) is probably the most irksome element, but in terms of sharpness the 4-inch display handles the 1334×750 resolution adequately.

One thing I didn’t miss a jot was 3D Touch. I still like the idea of a screen that has levels of pressure response baked right in, but I constantly forgot the feature was there on the larger iPhone. While it would have been nice to have the option on the SE, it’s not like I ever felt the experience was compromised by its omission.

And when viewing Live Photos in the gallery app, the simple long press on the screen activated the mini-video just fine. On the iPhone 6S you need to prod the screen a little harder to get the motion going – it just seems like overkill when it’s so easy to do without the technology on the SE.

Movies, music and gaming

  • Excellent sound performance
  • Screen is too small for extended movie watching
  • Sound out of single speaker isn’t powerful
  • Gaming is so impressive on a phone this small

The main issue I encountered with the iPhone SE’s screen was when watching movies. The Retina display can’t even display the lower end of HD movies… but that does make buying them a little cheaper, I guess.

The sharpness looked OK actually – better than I was expecting / remembered from the iPhone 5S. But I’ve become used to a much more vivid and visible screen, and watching any kind of ‘atmospheric’ (read: a bit darker) movie meant I had to fire the brightness right up.

As you’ll see in our battery tests later, this had far less effect than on older Apple phones as the improved internals help improve power management on the iPhone SE, but I’d rather not have to fire the brightness right up on my phone just to watch a movie.

iPhone SE review

Gaming was a similar experience, with the power of the iPhone SE easily taking on any title that needed a bit of raw grunt to run smoothly. Real Racing 3 still looks great – and is a great benchmark to test whether a lot of fast action can be handled on screen at once.

But other games, like Warhammer 40,000 Freeblade, ran super smoothly even with loads going on throughout the screen – it’s weird to see such a thing, like a Ferrari engine shoved into a small Fiat but somehow fitting in well.

In short, the performance of the iPhone SE is astounding given the size and what Apple’s had to fit in the smaller chassis.

iPhone SE review

And that includes the excellent audio reproduction I’ve come to expect from the Cupertino-based brand. I’ve not got the audiophilic ears that some of my TechRadar colleagues possess, so my main rule of thumb is usually ‘does it sound SUPER TERRIBLE Y/N?’

But a couple of times, paired with some decent Marshall headphones, the iPhone SE caught me by surprise with the audio clarity of just listening to average quality songs on Spotify. Apple’s iPod heritage is still going strong here, despite the lack of overt support for the new wave of Hi-Res sound files.

  • Similar power levels to iPhone 6S, meaning speedy app opening
  • Works very fluidly under the finger
  • Fingerprint scanner is slower than current models, but not hugely noticeable

Are you wondering how impressive the iPhone SE is under the finger? Well, the answer is simple: very good indeed. There are a number of factors at work here, from the fact it shares an A9 chipset with the latest iPhones to the doubling of the RAM seen in the iPhone 5S – everything is much faster than expected.

The graphical upgrade is probably the most marked improvement – it’s a six-core chip that dwarfs the power of the iPhone 5S and even the iPhone 6, making me wonder why anyone would buy 2014’s iPhone other than wanting the larger screen at a lower price.

GeekBench 3 benchmarking offers some interesting stats: the iPhone SE matches the 6S duo almost perfectly, and slightly outdoes them, in fact. The result of 4438 is a shade ahead of 2015’s flagships, likely to do with having to power fewer pixels, and is almost twice as good as the performance from the iPhone 6 – this really is an impressive amount of power for the small phone.

iPhone SE review

The other performance indicators – movies, gaming and audio output – have all be covered in the section above, and while the screen does mar the film-watching experience somewhat, the sheer quality of the images whether from the camera or on the display is impressive.

If you’re wondering how much storage you’ve got to play with here, the bad news is that AGAIN Apple has gone with a 16GB base model size, with only 64GB on offer if you want to play it a bit safer in terms of bytes you can pop in your pocket.

Considering nearly every flagship around at the moment in the Android world has 32GB minimum, this is a bit irritating. The system nabs about 7-8GB before you’ve even started the phone up, so with only 8-9GB to work with on the smaller model you might find yourself making decisions about the content you want to save on the iPhone SE during the two years of your contract.

Touch ID

Another curious / money-saving move from Apple is the use of a last-gen Touch ID sensor, which means it’s not quite as fast as the latest option on the newer phones. It’s an odd choice, given it surely can’t cost a huge amount to offer the functionality, but then again given this phone has a lower cost than the iPhone 6S, perhaps Apple’s looking to shave every margin it can.

iPhone SE review

It’s another example of the small sacrifices you’ll have to make if you go for the iPhone SE over the larger model – nothing major and it won’t bug you too much, but not as good as it could be. It’s worth noting the speed of opening is pretty fast still, and you’d only notice if you came from one of the newer iPhones.

And this Touch ID is still good enough to enable Apple Pay, so you’ll be easily able to use the small phone to pay for goods wherever contactless is enabled. And the smaller size seems to make it easier to find the trigger point for the NFC chip, as it was a complete cinch to pay for a few beers with this thing. Worryingly.

Interface

It’s hard to talk about the interface on an iPhone because, well, I’d be hugely surprised if you don’t know it already. Most people reading this article will already be iPhone users, and those that aren’t will probably know how one works, such is its iconic status in the smartphone world.

I will say that the 4-inch screen is the perfect portal for iOS though, with the one-handed nature of operating the iPhone SE perfect for doing EVERYTHING from checking notifications to turning on the torch or activating flight mode.

The simplicity of the system seems to fit better in one hand – when you start employing a second palm to navigate around a phone, I think you’ve got more license to get a bit more complex in your tapping patterns.

iPhone SE review

One area that is a slight concern – and one that I’m struggling to work out if it’s just a worry because I’m used to much larger phones these days – is the keyboard.

It’s fortunate that Apple’s upgraded its default keyboard in recent years, as the older version was just terrible. Add to that the cramped conditions on offer with the iPhone SE’s smaller screen and I found typing very difficult on this phone.

You can, of course, download a new keyboard from someone like SwiftKey, and this will add in the ability to swipe your words out – I wish the default Apple keyboard had this, as it would be perfect on the smaller iPhone SE screen here.

But overall, it’s hard to fault Apple’s OS in terms of raw predictability and speed. I’ll never be happy until Cook’s Crew finally gives us contextual menus (I mean, SURELY it makes more sense to put the ability to change the camera settings in the camera app itself?) but beyond that it’s hard to say there’s much wrong with iOS.

It’s only those that like the idea of customisation, to change nearly every element of the phone, that sneer at the platform – and for them, Android is just perfect.

  • Battery size increased over iPhone 5S despite same-sized chassis
  • Longer lasting than similar-sized iPhones
  • Still struggles to get through a day on heavier usage

As I mentioned earlier, the iPhone SE somehow manages to not only build in a much better battery than the iPhone 5S, but it does so with no extra chassis space to cram extra electrons.

Despite that, Apple has managed to shrink down some of the components inside to plop a slightly larger power unit inside the SE, up from 1560mAh to 1624mAh (and that’s more impressive when you consider the iPhone 5 had a 1440mAh power pack).

In my testing though, it was a mixed bag. While it’s hard to truly remember how much battery I used to get through on an average day with the iPhone 5S, I do remember it being rather terrible a lot of the time.

iPhone SE review

It’d regularly be down to 20% by the evening when leaving work – enough to be in the red zone at times – which was a terrible performance for any phone, let alone a top-end flagship handset.

The good news is the iPhone SE is much more capable – but then again, you’d expect that from a phone that’s had two years of development, a leaner operating system and the M9 co-processor all to ease the strain on the troubled power unit.

That said, it’s fairly easy to run it down quickly, with some days seeing me need to switch on Low Power Mode early at 35% to make sure I made it through the day.

It’s fair to say these are the higher-usage days, with things like tethering an iPad and a couple of hours of video watching at full brightness in the mix, but the new glut of flagship handsets are all capable of easily lasting a day with such pressure put on the battery life, and it puts the performance of the iPhone SE into the spotlight.

iPhone SE review

You’d think the above scenario, where watching video at such a high brightness, would be the obvious reason of the battery diminishing so much – nope, not in this case.

While a trip into the battery settings tries to tell me that video is the biggest battery guzzler out there, the phone was charged to 100% at 10.30AM, a 90 minute Full HD video was run at full brightness and the iPhone SE was left on a desk.

It only dropped 20% in that time – and while that’s far from the best performance we’ve seen (I’m still struggling to explain the 6% the LG G Flex 2 managed – it’s an obscenely good result) the iPhone SE managed a score that’s slightly above average, which is a damningly good result for an iPhone.

So why did it need such massaging come 18.00 that evening? It seems that, despite the co-processor trying to manage down battery life, the iPhone is still a bit chatty when it comes to battery consumption, pinging a little bit here and there and gradually dribbling down.

However, I’m keen to reiterate that this was a heavy day on the phone – in the week I’ve had with it, it’s generally been capable of lasting more than long enough for me to not get annoyed.

If you’re upgrading to this phone from the iPhone 5 or 5S, you’ll be in dreamland with the battery life, trust me.

  • 12MP sensor the equal of iPhone 6S
  • Heavy focus on ‘realism’ in snaps
  • Picture quality seems a little muted at times
  • Smaller and less sharp screen not as useful as a viewfinder

The 12MP camera on the iPhone SE is a marked upgrade from that in the 5S or 5 in a number of ways, not just the boost in megapixels.

It’s imbued with all manner of fancy technology that you just wouldn’t have found on the earlier models – and, in fact, is another perfect example of Apple giving iPhone SE users the same toys as found on the larger 6S.

iPhone SE review

Firstly, the 12MP sensor comes with Focus Pixels, which are a secondary layer within the camera that works out what the phone is being pointed at and sharpens things up rather quickly. It’s not the best in the industry, but it’s more than quick enough and if you’ve got a millisecond to hold the camera steady you’ll generally get a sharp snap each time.

Live Photos is added into the mix too, and while I was sceptical when I first saw the feature on the 6S, I can’t deny that it does enhance some snaps (there’s a surprise foam party that wouldn’t have been the same without the feature).

It’s also the sapphire covering on the camera that’s a decent upgrade too – so many pictures on older phones are now fuzzy and seemingly covered in a smeared layer, such are the micro-scratches that festoon the cover.

By making this stronger Apple has removed one of the big issues that can plague the iPhone SE in its later life, and I love that it’s now flush with the chassis thanks to being a little thicker. It’s hard to say why, but the clean lines on the back are so much more pleasant.

Settings-wise, the iPhone sticks to simplicity, keeping only the options you want front and center. That means you can toggle on HDR or Live Photos, toggle the timer or flash and add an effect. Square mode remains for easier Instagram pics, and the video and slo-mo modes are within an easy swipe.

When using the camera there’s only so much you can change when you’re snapping – there’s no professional setting to play with. When tapping the screen to focus a simple slide up or down with your finger will alter the exposure, but if you’re looking to change color temperature or aperture speed, you’ll need to install a specific app.

iPhone SE review

I’m a fan of the way Apple does things here. Cameras should be simple first and foremost, getting out of the way to let you take the best snap possible, rather than worrying you that you’re not using the right settings in the correct places.

HDR becoming automatic really makes a difference too – while the mode has less of an effect now the iPhone packs a rather decent camera and usually captures more tone and detail than in previous years, I still got improved pictures when it fired automatically.

Let’s get onto the actual camera quality. It’s, obviously, pretty good – and I say obviously because the iPhone 6S’ camera has already been dissected and impresses, so I was fully expecting the same to be happening here.

Apple’s phones always err on the side of natural pictures – which sounds like a great thing, but I’m not always so sure. While it’s great to have natural skin tones and more neutral colors to match more closely to what the eye is seeing, other phones add a slight richness to snaps that makes them ‘pop’ off the screen.

I’m not saying that this will be the sort of thing many people like, but I kept feeling like the pictures I was getting off the iPhone SE were a little muted in comparison to something like the Samsung Galaxy S7.

The iPhone SE also has a decent low-light mode, although again it’s not the best around. It is, however, still brilliant at getting pictures in darker scenes, and for that alone it gets a big tick from me.

My only bugbear with this camera really comes from the size of the phone. I found that it was too small to properly wield when framing a shot – while it was easier to hold, and thus more steady, I really pined for a larger viewfinder to see what I was going to be capturing.

I maintain that a good photo is the one that you want to share, and the smaller 4-inch display meant I wasn’t always sure I’d got something brilliant, having to zoom in and out to check clarity etc.

The smaller screen also made it harder to use the volume-down key to take pictures one handed, as I kept covering a portion of the screen with my palm. It’s not a big deal, and one that I probably wouldn’t feel if I wasn’t coming from a larger phone.

But in this instance I think it’s worth pointing to the larger phones as a superior photographic experience – in terms of holding the phone if you’re thinking of sticking with the iPhone, or just checking out the brilliant snapping ability of the Galaxy S7.

iPhone SE review

A little dark but the detail is well captured

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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iPhone SE review

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This review is directly aimed at those upgrading from one of Apple’s smaller phones from a few years ago, because that’s clearly who the brand made the iPhone SE.

It sees the older form factor as a beloved chassis that many people will be loath to give up, and is trying to convince them that the iPhone SE is the perfect port in the Storm of Myriad Smartphones, the obvious upgrade.

iPhone SE review

Writing an iPhone review is different to other handsets. You’re generally writing for an audience that has little interest in comparable Android phones as they’re ‘locked in’ to the ecosystem, and price is generally less of an issue too, users prepared to pay more to get the iPhone.

So with that in mind – has Apple made the perfect iPhone for the niche of people that have been holding off buying a bigger handset for as long as possible?

We liked

The iPhone SE’s biggest draw is its size – and I know, that’s obvious. But if it weren’t for the fact it’s so easily operated one-handed, it would be impossible to see why Apple made this phone at all.

The smaller size definitely feels great in the hand and the pocket – and whether you’re slipping it into a bag, a running armband or just holding it gripped while walking along it’s a much more palatable design.

Obviously the power the SE’s been imbued with is impressive too – and considering the amount of grunt Apple’s managed to stick into the smaller phone, I’m surprised it doesn’t run hotter or have a poorer battery life.

While it’s not industry leading, it’s an iPhone with a good battery life, which many will love – it’s not as good at holding battery as other iPhones for watching media, but it’s a step forward over the 5S generally.

The camera is powerful and sharp too – again, for the upgraders out there they’ll be astounded by the changes (my friend recently couldn’t stop taking side-by-side pictures with the SE and an old 5, such was the difference).

iPhone SE review

We disliked

The design of the phone isn’t ‘iconic’ – it’s dated. There’s no reason Apple couldn’t have created a smaller version of the iPhone 6S other than saving money – while that cost has been passed onto the consumer, it would have been amazing to see a new phone in this space.

The screen technology is what irritates me the most – and yes, I know it’s a price tradeoff. But, bar some small tweaks, this is a very similar display to what we saw on the iPhone 5 from 2012. Nearly four years old, and it’s being reused here – and it’s how things look on the screen that matters.

It’s adequate – but compared to other phones you can get for the price (and I know, they’re a lot less wieldy) the difference is marked.

Whatever you do, don’t look at the iPhone SE’s screen then the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, for example. You’ll be a bit sad.

Verdict

With the iPhone SE, Apple’s fixed a big problem: price. Given the internals on offer here, this would have been close to a perfect phone if it weren’t for a few glaring omissions.

Firstly, we needed a new design for this to be seen as the next step in the 4-inch phone cycle. And it’s not like Apple doesn’t have a perfectly brilliant design just waiting there to be retooled, rounded edges combined with a more palm-friendly shape. Man, that would have been amazing.

The screen also had to be better for this to be seen as a brilliant phone. It’s fine, and in some instances still looks sharp. But compared to the rest of the market, it’s been left behind – but then again, Apple needed to make some savings to keep its high margins on the iPhone, and this was clearly one of those (the cost of making those screens is reportedly a lot lower than it was a few years ago as processes have improved).

Will the iPhone SE pull in any Android users fed up with having to wrap their hands around devices they consider too big? Actually, yes – such is the clamour I hear from people not wedded to any particular brand for a phone that ‘I can use one handed’.

Phones like the Nexus 5X tried to solve this itch, but are nowhere near the compact dimensions of the SE.

There are two ways of looking at this phone from Apple: on the one hand, it’s the perfect 4-inch phone, coming with so much power, a great camera and improved battery life, all wrapped in Apple’s well-crafted iPhone chassis and delivering true simplicity with iOS. I know that combination will have people falling over themselves to buy the phone.

On the other hand, it’s just 2011’s design rebadged and a new engine put inside. Far from being a new phone, it’s the iPhone 5SS, another iteration on an old design – but one that’s a lot cheaper to buy. It’s also got a much smaller screen, where it’s proved that larger displays are the popular choice now, with apps in particular making use of the extra space.

Ultimately, Apple’s given consumers a great choice here and actually for a half-decent price. The iPhone SE is a brilliant phone for those that want something smaller in their pocket and don’t care about tired design – and I suspect there will be quite a few of those buyers out there.

First reviewed: April 2016

  • Not convinced this is the phone for you? Then these are the ones to check out:

iPhone 7

Want the latest and greatest iPhone? The iPhone 7 is the best on the market right now and has a far nicer design than the iPhone SE.

Problem is you’ll lose the useful 3.5mm headphone jack if you were to choose the iPhone 7 and it’s going to be a lot more expensive than the iPhone SE.

It does come with the latest A10 Fusion processor, 4.7-inch screen and upgraded camera to make it that little bit more attractive though.

iPhone 6S

iPhone 6S

If it’s the former then the iPhone 6S is your obvious other choice – it’s got all the same power but in a bigger (and sleeker) frame, with the curved edges sitting nicely in the hand.

However, the screen sharpness isn’t improved (although it’s brighter and clearer overall) and you’ll be paying more for the privilege – but that screen size is important to a lot of people.

Sony Xperia Z5 Compact

Z5 compact

So it’s not the iPhone you’re after – it’s the power in the smaller package. Well, if you’re into the Android ecosystem, we recommend the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact.

It’s got nearly all the same impressive innards as the Z5 ‘normal’ – a 720p screen aside – which means you can take superb photos and still get the same amount of whizz under your finger.

It’s a little older – no more so than the iPhone 6S though – but it’s the only option here that’s waterproof.

Nexus 5X

Nexus 5X

The Nexus 5X feels like a separate phone, one that’s firmly in the shadow of the larger Nexus 6P. It was released to be a more palm-friendly device.

However, with a 5.2-inch display it’s nowhere near the compact nature of the iPhone SE – it’s has the same power under the hood though, and by being a ‘pure’ Nexus device it offers a similarly slick experience to Apple’s miniature handset.

It’s also on the cheaper end of the scale, sp if you’re looking for pure Android it’s one to consider.

iPhone 5S

iPhone 5S

OK, we get it. You want the iPhone, but you want the smaller size. The issue you’ve got is with the higher price. Well, in that case maybe you should look at the iPhone 5S – still on sale in many places despite being launched in 2013.

It’s got the same chassis and screen technology as the SE, but it’s in the speed and battery life areas that this phone will struggle – then again, if you’re not revving it with loads of apps or relying on it to entertain you all day then you’ll probably be OK.

Best to buy it SIM free though – this thing might not be supported by Apple in a couple of years.

Samsung Galaxy S7

Samsung Galaxy S7

This phone doesn’t fit into any of the categories above: it’s not an iPhone, it’s not a small phone and it’s not cheap. But it is one of the very best handsets around at the moment, with a superb camera, loads of power and the ability to charge on any wireless pad you happen to have lying around.

The design is rather neat too, with the back of the phone curving away nicely thanks to a new ‘3D thermoforming’ process.

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In actual fact, I think the Galaxy S7 Edge is the better phone, but chose this one as the Edge is an even bigger device – it’s worth checking out though.

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