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Apple iPhone SE Review: In Depth

5
Phenomenal cosmic power*, ity bity living space

The Good

  • Powerful and compact
  • Excellent main camera
  • Premium design
  • Affordable*

The Bad

  • Lacklustre front-facing camera
  • Battery life could be better
  • No 128GB version
  • Scuffs easily

Apple iPhone SE review: The new iPhone SE looks like an old iPhone but packs the power of a new iPhone, so does that mean it’s a good iPhone? We investigate.

At first glance the SE is a bit of an enigma. It’s awkwardly launched between two major iPhone releases and having visited our nearest Apple Store on launch day, as suspected we didn’t find the typical queue of fans stretching around the block. It even sports a design lifted straight from 2013 and for all intents and purposes its tiny shouldn’t fit in with the modern smartphone landscape, but it does; surprisingly well in fact.

Design

If you remember 2013’s iPhone 5S, you’ve already seen the iPhone SE. Aside from weighing one gram more (at 113 grams), the only tells are the tiny ‘SE’ logo on the lower portion of the phone’s back and the fact that it can be had in the company’s signature rose gold hue (as well as Space Grey, silver and gold).

Apple iPhone SE - front Apple iPhone SE - back

Unlike the 6 and 6S line, the SE is slab-sided with that prominent diamond chamfer skirting the edges of the phone’s metal frame. The top and bottom of the phone’s back are capped by glass and the volume controls are circular once more; it’s a spitting image of the 5S.

Apple says it rekindled the old iPhone 5S design because people loved it, but it makes just as much sense to think that if a company can avoid retooling costs on its production line it will. Whatever the real reason behind the SE’s design, we’re glad that we can pull out our old 5S cases and accessories without having to worry about compatibility, or the need to fork out extra cash for new ones.

Screen

In harkening back to the 5S’s design, Apple also gave it the display to match – a 4-inch Retina IPS LCD packing a resolution of 1136 x 640. At 326ppi it retains the same pixel density as the 6S, so text looks just and crisp and clear despite the smaller size.

Apple iPhone SE - screen

Unsurprisingly for an Apple smartphone, the SE’s screen also delivers in other areas, with great clarity, colour reproduction, and brightness, even if things do drop off slightly at the edges.

From a functional standpoint, it’s decidedly refreshing to be able to truly wield a phone in one hand, knowing that you’re not tempting fate by balancing the phone awkwardly in your palm, every time you have to reach to pull down the Notifications Centre tab with your thumb. The trade-off is a more cramped interface and weaker multimedia chops, but if those are hang-ups in your eyes, there’s little reason to consider the SE in the first place, when the 6S is perfect alternative.

OS

Contrary to what many are saying, the SE isn’t simply a shrunken down iPhone 6S and one key differentiator is the absence of 3D Touch. Whether you consider being unable to hard-press app icons or ‘peek and pop’ emails to be a real loss is down to personal preference, but the smaller form factor means you needn’t worry about workarounds like Reachability.

Running iOS 9.3.1 (at time of writing) also grants the SE the latest tweaks to Apple’s mobile user experience, which includes handy tools like lockable notes and Night Shift, which similarly to various third party apps Android users have been using for a while, reduces the amount of blue light output by the screen after sunset to minimise eye fatigue and help promote less disruptive sleep.

As ever, you can take comfort in the fact that the App Store offers up one of the largest selections of high-quality apps out there, but also expect to be overloaded by the sheer number of pre-loaded Apple apps out-the-box, many of which will see little use and take up precious space.

Performance

The best thing about this iPhone is its sheer speed. By squeezing the same Apple A9 chipset and 2GB of RAM found inside the 6S into the SE’s body, with fewer pixels to drive on that smaller display means the already snappy experience of iOS is made even faster.

Apple iPhone SE - volume buttons

Everything from UI navigation to multitasking, to intensive app usage feels blisteringly fast, which is particularly jarring as in today’s smartphone space a smaller handset typically means lesser hardware – that is not the case with the iPhone SE.

Aside from the absence of a barometer (for altitude tracking) the only other big shift compared to the internals of its larger sibling is the battery. Luckily Apple chose to cram a few extra milliampere-hours into the power pack’s capacity over the 5S, with a 1624mAh cell that in our real-world tests (switching it off at night) should comfortably float through a day’s use and last into late morning the following day.

Apple iPhone SE - stacked with iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus

Fast charging was underwhelming, with a full charge taking around two and a quarter hours using an iPad power adapter, but despite Apple’s blessing to use such an adapter, compatibility issues might have played a part in the underwhelming charge time.

Apple iPhone SE - camera

The SE is also the first 4-inch iPhone to support Apple Pay mobile payments, tied to the older Touch ID sensor used by the iPhone 5S and 6. In practice it’s speed is never a problem and in some ways a blessing – actually giving you a chance to read you lock screen notifications before the phone registers your print and unlocks.

Cameras

If you haven’t yet checked out our extensive iPhone SE camera comparison, now would be a good time. In a myriad of scenarios the 12-megapixel rear camera on the SE produced identical shots to the larger iPhone 6S’s camera (which uses the same module).

Read next: Apple iPhone SE vs 6S vs Galaxy S7 vs Xperia Z5 vs Z5 Compact camera test

As with the phone’s performance, finding this good a camera experience is practically unheard of on a phone the size of the SE, especially one as competent as Apple’s camera setup. As well as excellent stills in most conditions, the SE is also a 240fps slow motion and 4K video-capable pocket rocket, both of which again turn out really well.

Despite the incredibly powerful imaging setup there are a couple of shortcomings worth noting, the most obvious being the front-facing camera’s paltry 1.2-megapixel sensor. As well as reverting back to the iPhone 5S’s front camera resolution in place of the 6S’s 5-megapixel effort, it also features an f/2.4 aperture, which we haven’t seen since 2012’s iPhone 5.

The one saving grace is the implementation of the company’s Retina Flash technology to illuminate low-light selfies, whilst the only other observation is a notably narrower field of view from both the front and rear cameras when compared to the likes of the rival Android contingent.

Verdict

Sure, the Apple iPhone SE looks out of place, but that’s more indicative of how comfortable we’ve grown to bigger handsets, even if their size has impacted on ease of use for many users. A four inch screened device as powerful as this is a rare thing in 2016 and despite any fanfare at launch, it’s still an unquestionably important phone for Apple.

Apple iPhone SE - handheld

With the iPhone SE the company can recapture users who’ve held onto their older iPhone 5s, 5Ss and 5Cs in defiance of the shift towards the larger 4.7 and 5.5-inch displays employed by the 6S and 6S Plus. The SE also serves as an enticing proposition to former Android users whose closest comparable handset has been Sony’s Xperia Z5 Compact; which although powerful, at 4.6-inches is still notably larger than Apple’s newest offering.

The other huge draw for the SE is price. It may not be an iPhone 6S, but the hardware/software offering is damn near close enough to satiate most users needs and with the top tier 64GB model coming in at £100 less than the base 16GB iPhone 6S, it might be the affordable* iPhone many have been waiting for.

*for an iPhone

You can pick the iPhone SE up from O2, here.

Key Specs

  • 4-inches
  • Retina (1136 x 640)
  • 113 grams
  • iOS 9
  • 12-megapixels
  • 1.2-megapixels
  • 1.8GHz dual-core Apple A9
  • 2GB
  • 16GB/64GB (non-expandable)
  • Yes
  • Always-on Siri voice assistant, Touch ID fingerprint sensor, Apple Pay via NFC, iCloud Drive, Airdrop, live photos

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