iPhone SE review: today’s tech, yesterday’s design

Earlier this week at Apple’s campus in Cupertino, the company announced a brand-new iPhone. The heavens didn’t part, pop bands didn’t play, and people aren’t camping out at Apple Stores to buy the thing. It was a subdued launch, for a smaller, mid-cycle phone that looks exactly like a phone from 2013.
But don’t let its unspectacular rollout or its throwback design fool you: Apple knows exactly what it’s doing with the $399 iPhone SE. It’s a shiny little fishing lure for first-time iPhone buyers or people who feel overdue for an upgrade. Those people might be tempted by the many good Android phones that can be had for less than $400, and Apple is taking them on more directly than it ever has before.

Yes, the iPhone SE is a smaller phone, but it’s not a weak phone. It’s actually a much-improved, well-designed, small phone with great battery life. It’s not the answer for people who have adjusted to larger phones. For people who like a small phone — and by the way, there’s nothing wrong with liking small phones — or for people who have been holding onto their 4s or 5s phones, the iPhone SE will feel like a kickass little upgrade.

The SE looks exactly like the iPhone 5s. I’ve been carrying both phones around for comparative purposes for the past few days, and I’ve grabbed the old phone by mistake on multiple occasions. The only physical difference is that the iPhone SE I have happens to be pink, (or, as Apple calls it, rose gold). The SE also comes in silver, space gray, and gold.
It has the same aluminum body as the iPhone 5s, the same four-inch Retina display, even the same placement of round volume buttons on the side. The edges are chamfered, a departure from the round edges of the iPhone 6s or a return to earlier iPhone designs, depending on how you look at it. The only differences, aesthetically-speaking, between the iPhone 5s and the iPhone SE are the abovementioned colors, the matte edges, and the fact that the shiny Apple logo on the back of the phone is color-matched stainless steel.

iPhone SE review

It even feels exactly like a 5s. While I can’t say I’d go back to a four-inch phone at this point, I did like the build of the 5s back when I had one. The back is smooth and satisfying, as though the phone just shaved. It weighs just four ounces but feels fairly durable, due in part to its hard edges and the fact that it’s just slightly thicker than the newer iPhone 6s.
It’s unclear exactly why Apple cribbed its own design, though the company has said this is a design people loved. I would also venture to say that the 5s body meant Apple didn’t have to design a smaller phone entirely from scratch. I also imagine a bunch of Apple execs sitting around, wearing indistinguishable button-downs and shiny Apple Watches, conspiring ways to keep this phone a secret. And what better way to thwart leaks than to make a new phone that looks exactly like an old phone!
It’s a little trite to describe the new phone as an "iPhone 6s in the body of an iPhone 5s," because that’s not exactly true. There are feature differences between Apple’s flagship phone and this one. For example, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus support 3D Touch, which means content "pops out" on the screen when you press on it a certain way; the iPhone SE doesn’t have this feature. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus also have better front-facing cameras, but the iPhone SE is stuck with a 1.2-megapixel sensor. The iPhone SE doesn’t have a barometer — if you care about elevation tracking. And, technically, the flagship phones have a newer fingerprint sensor, though I didn’t notice any latency with the iPhone SE’s fingerprint sensor.

iPhone SE review

But the most important thing to know about the iPhone SE is how fast it is. Something about the pure speed of a phone in such a small body is just inherently impressive. Small, inexpensive phones used to mean compromise. The SE, as I heard one person refer to it, is a little pocket rocket. It’s corny, but it’s true.

The old iPhone 5s had Apple’s A7 chip and one gigabyte of RAM. The new iPhone SE has Apple’s A9 chip, and a reported two gigabytes of RAM. It also supports modern WiFi standards, and faster LTE. It opens apps, loads web pages, and switches tasks quickly. Let’s ignore specs for a second and put it this way: the only real hindrance to multitasking on the iPhone SE is its size, not its speed.
It ships with the latest version of iOS, 9.3. This includes new features like Night Shift, which slaps a yellowish tint on a normally cool display. To me, the most notable thing is that the new software still feels usable on a four-inch phone. Yeah, it feels a little cramped because I’m used to a larger screen now, but it’s worth pointing out that Android feels really constrained on small screens. Here, the main constraint is that you just have to do a lot more scrolling.

iPhone SE review iPhone SE review

This more efficient processor and new software also affects battery life, in a good way. Even though they’re the exact same size, the iPhone SE can get up to 50 percent better battery life than the iPhone 5s. It really takes a few weeks to get to know a new smartphone’s battery, but so far, the iPhone SE has lasted well beyond a full work day for me.
I’d even say it’s performing better than my iPhone 6s; by 5:30PM yesterday, a full 12 hours after I started using it, my iPhone SE still had 44 percent battery left. That was after checking email, taking phone calls, scrolling through social feeds, watching a YouTube video, briefly running Maps, and using the phone intermittently as a personal hotspot, all with the display brightness set to around 50 percent.

iPhone SE review

The new camera technology in the iPhone SE will also be a draw for people who are considering an upgrade from a 4s or 5s. The iPhone SE has the same 12-megapixel rear-camera technology as the iPhone 6s, plus it focuses and snaps photos more quickly than an older iPhone.

The photos themselves, based on the dozen or so that I took with the iPhone SE, are on par with photos snapped with the iPhone 6s; colors look pretty true to life, and there’s enough detail captured in them to allow for some cropping and editing. Low-light photos taken without a flash had a fair amount of image noise. As our Vergephotographer Vjeran Pavic likes to say: iPhone photos are great for iPhones, meaning that a) for a smartphone, these are pretty good and b) they look best on the smartphone itself, but very few people take iPhone photos that scale well.
Still, I’d say that this is one area where the iPhone SE’s small size is absolutely worth bragging about, because what you end up with is a completely pocketable and powerful little consumer camera. For phones under $400, it beats everything else out there that I’ve tried, usually by a wide margin. It also captures 4K video, as well as Live Photos, which is Apple’s name for GIF-like moving images.
There are other new features, too, like Apple Pay — which, despite the messiness of mobile payments in general, I have found pretty useful. And you can shout "Hey, Siri" at the iPhone SE to wake up the virtual assistant, which I have not found useful at all.

iPhone SE review

New iPhones are now introduced with such fanfare, such ridiculous levels of expectation, that anything less seems, well, less. And this much at least is true: the iPhone SE is not a tiny little engine of innovation. It’s today’s tech in yesterday’s phone body. As with anything, we should be wary of giving too much praise to something that’s just doing its job.
But it’s also a job that literally nobody else is doing: being a small phone without compromising too much. For people who want a smaller or less expensive iPhone, the iPhone SE is just enough iPhone.
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