iPhone SE review: Small but mighty
Published 25/03/2016 | 08:07
There was a time when anyone walking around with a phone with a 5-inch screen would attract baffled looks. First popularised by Samsung in western smartphone markets in 2011, the phone-tablet portmanteau ‘phablets’ have slowly become more commonplace as customers came around to the idea of phones that wouldn’t necessarily fit in a jeans pocket.
Now, 18 months after Apple launched its first ‘phablet’-sized handset,the iPhone 6 Plus, larger phones have become more commonplace. The 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus marked a new direction for the company, which had never made a larger phone than the 4-inch iPhone 5s in 2013. The pair swiftly sold in their millions, racking up more than 10 million unit sales within three days, and the iPhone 6 remains the company’s best-selling model.
Which is why it may come as a surprise that the newly-announced iPhone SE is not the company’s biggest yet - that honour could be reserved for September’s iPhone 7 - but represents a return to the 4-inch sizing convention. The three year-old iPhone 5s has been retired and in its place comes the iPhone SE - complete with the camera, processing power and internal components of last year’s iPhone 6s.
So who is the iPhone SE aimed at, and why should we pay attention to a handset which effectively offers nothing beyond what’s appeared in previous iPhone incarnations?
If the iPhone SE looks familiar, that’s because it’s almost exactly the same aesthetically as the iPhone 5s. Its very name is a reference to the Macintosh SE, released in 1987 as a significantly enhanced successor to 1986’s Macintosh Plus, creating a new-features, similar-appearance blueprint.
The power button, moved to the right hand edge to accommodate the enormous screens of the 6 and 6s cycles, is back in place on the top of the handset, and the volume buttons are circular again, not pill-shaped. Its back is made from bead-blasted aluminium, according to Apple, and the logo is now made from colour-matched stainless steel, meaning it has a slightly different appearance on each of the four metallic colours - rose gold (the third model to come in the shade following the 6s pair), gold, silver and space grey.
The rose gold in particular looks beautiful, and it weighs a mere gram heavier than the iPhone 5s at 113g. If, like me, your iPhone of choice in recent years has been one of the Plus models, it's quite a dramatic change to shift back to a greatly decreased keyboard and screen size, and it feels incredibly small in the hand.
Just as it took a while to get used to using a significantly larger handset, it's an adjustment process, and you may find yourself fumbling and making typos after the initial switch. It's not a totally unwelcome change - after 18 months of super-sized screens, it feels almost novel to be able to type one-handed again, and it's certainly more compact.
I never really bought into the argument that phones should ideally be small enough to slip into your jeans pocket, as I'd wager that many women at least are more likely to carry their phone around in a handbag anyway, and the choice of a smaller phone versus a larger one has always been a matter of taste and personal preference rather than one based on practicality.
If you are switching from a larger iPhone and restoring from an iCloud backup, be warned the downscale in display size will mean that your prior six lines of apps on each home screen page, plus those you choose to keep accessible across all pages in the app tray at the bottom will be shifted into one page of five, with the remaining four apps shuffled over onto a single secondary page. Not overly annoying but it takes some getting used to.
That said, the iPhone SE is unlikely to act as an upgrade model for people already using the iPhone 6 or 6s cycles; in my mind it's intended for those seeking a new model to replace their iPhone 4, 4s, 5, 5c or 5s, or first-time iPhone buyers who don't want one of the bigger models.
The 4-inch retina display sports a 1136 x 640 resolution (326ppi), the same specifications as the iPhone 5s, compared to the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s’ 1334 x 750 (326ppi) and 1920 x 1080 (401pp) of the iPhone 6 Plus and iPhone 6s Plus. Despite its diminutive size, it’s still sharp and clear, with good colour representation and decent depth and shade.
12 MP camera
One of the most significant changes in the iPhone SE is its camera, bumping the iPhone 5s’ 8MP snapper up to the 12MP first introduced in the iPhone 6s last year, which is also capable of shooting 4K video. I suspect a greatly improved iSight camera will be one of the most attractive features to potential buyers - while Apple’s cameras are low in MP compared to many other Android handsets, they’re popular for their usability and lack of fussy additional features.
If you’ve used an iPhone camera in the past, you’ll be familiar with all of the basic functions, including time-lapse, slo-mo, square and panoramic, alongside the rudimentary filters. Possibly the most interesting aspect of the iPhone SE’s camera is that it sits flush with the aluminium body instead of protruding the way all iPhone camera lenses have since the iPhone 6 in 2014. Given that the iPhone SE uses the same camera module as the iPhone 6s (not the iPhone 6s Plus, which has optical stabilisation), this points towards the iPhone 7’s camera lying flat against the body too, sidestepping the major aesthetic bugbear which many users worried would expose their lenses to scratching and shattering.
Apple Pay, Live Photos and better battery life
While the iPhone 5s was the first to sport the Touch ID fingerprint scanner in its home button, the iPhone SE takes that a step further thanks to its new near-field communication (NFC) chip, enabling it to verify your identity and make payments and transactions via Apple Pay, the company’s contactless payment system. The iPhone SE is now the fifth iPhone to support Apple Pay alongside the 6 and 6s generations, and while not everyone will be sold on the system, current users will be pleased it’s now available on a smaller handset.
Another feature originating in the larger models is the ability to shoot and play back Live Photos, although this doesn’t extend to the pressure-sensitive display 3D Touch technology used in the 6s cycle. It’s a fun feature, though the lack of 3D Touch does mean that Live Photos can’t be set as wallpaper images on your lock screen.
One of the key points Greg Jozwiak was keen to push during the iPhone presentation was how its third-generation A9 processor equates to not only faster performance, but increased battery life. Apple claims this equates to around 13 hours of browsing battery life over Wi-Fi and LTE, compared to the iPhone 5s’ average of 10 hours and iPhone 6s’ 11 hours or so. I found this to be largely correct during average use (listening to music, browsing the internet, receiving emails and message notifications), which is pretty impressive for a small phone. That said, you’re probably less likely to indulge in more power-intensive activities like watching videos or streaming for extended periods given the size of the display, so that’s a double-edged sword.
Show me the money
Something worth noting is that Apple recognises the limitations of repackaging existing features into a smaller body and expecting customers to fork out for it. Accordingly, the iPhone SE is the cheapest iPhone ever made, priced at £359 for 16GB of storage, and £439 for 64GB. Obviously this is far from cheap per se, but for Apple, this is positively a bargain.
The iPhone SE will effectively divide people into two camps: those who are committed to the smaller form and those who could never imagine using a handset that small again. Where the iPhone 5s was a good phone, this is a great phone - complete with the advanced features which have made the 6 and 6s cycles so popular, at a price which will appeal to a wider demographic than ever before. Apple knew they couldn't keep selling the increasingly outdated iPhone 5s forever, and this is the result.
The small size won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it is powerful and capable enough not to feel like a compromise. Similarly, there will be those who claim not enough has been changed to warrant shelling out for it, but the iPhone SE has been positioned as a sprightly update to the lower end of its product line, rather than the radical market leader the iPhone 7 will be. Good things come in small packages, and if you happen to love both smaller screens and iOS, they don’t come much better than the iPhone SE.