Big at heart: Apple’s iPhone SE reviewed
4.4Overall Score
Price (RRP): $679 (starting price); $679 for 16GB; $829 for 64GB; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, Virgin, and Vodafone; Manufacturer: Apple

A small iPhone with the heart of a big one? It’s true, and it’s a pretty decent package, even if it took Apple long enough.

Specs

It’s too early for a new iPhone, it being March and all. September is when that’s expected, and when the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will likely cede their flagship territory to a new generation of device, one that carries the number “7”.

Before that happens, though, Apple is keen to address a section of the market that has been asking a very simple question: what do you do if you want a new iPhone but don’t want a big screen?

The answer is clear, though it is one that Apple has certainly taken its time with: you build a smaller version of your flagship handset.

Currently, the flagship is the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and to make this answer something people can bank on, can plonk their money on and take home, Apple has shrunk the flagship into the casing and design of something smaller.

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Presenting the iPhone SE, a handset that pretty much takes the iPhone 5S that Apple has had for a few years now and replaces what’s inside, because it is what’s on the inside that counts, especially when you’re talking about phone upgrades.

On that inside, you’ll find Apple’s 64-bit A9 processor paired with the M9 motion co-processor to handle things, and either a choice of 16GB or 64GB for the amount of storage with 2GB RAM on either. Apple’s iOS 9.3 arrives on the phone out of the box, up to date and ready for action.

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Connections are fairly standard especially for a premium phone, with WiFi working on 802.11ac (compatible with 802.11a/b/g/n) while Bluetooth is set to 4.2, GPS arrives as A-GPS with GLONASS, and Near-Field Communication (NFC) is made to work for Apple’s payment technology “Apple Pay”.

Mobile connectivity works with a Category 4 LTE modem, meaning 4G speeds are capped up to 150Mbps downloads and 50Mbps uploads, network dependent of course.

On the camera side of things, you’ll find a 1.2 megapixel FaceTime HD camera up front, while the rear camera is a 12 megapixel camera supporting Live Photos and 4K (3840×2160) video recording.

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That’s what’s inside, and on the outside, it’s more or less the same phone you’ve seen in an iPhone 5S before, with an aluminium casing holding the innards together, with a mute switch and set of volume buttons on the left side while a power button sits up top.

At the bottom, you’ll find the only ports for the iPhone SE, with a 3.5mm headphone port on the left while the Lightning port for charging and data sits in the middle flanked on each side by speakers. Along the right side, you’ll find the one tray for the phone, with a pin-ejectable nanoSIM tray.

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Completing the package is a 4 inch Retina screen displaying 1136×640, a resolution that calculates to 326 pixels per inch, while the home button underneath it features a fingerprint sensor underneath.

The battery on the iPhone SE is rated at 1642mAh.

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Design

Over on the design front, pretty much nothing has changed, at least to the naked eye.

If you’ve owned an iPhone 5-series device that wasn’t the plastic-backed iPhone 5C, the iPhone SE is mostly the same device, with the flat-face edged, metal buttons, and a screen that sits in a body measuring roughly 4 inches diagonally.

Yes, this is mostly the same 4 inch iPhone many people started smartphones with, and very little has changed.

The back now features a stainless steel Apple logo compared with the laser etched one from the original iPhone 5 series, and the edges are a little different, but mostly this is the same aluminium premium small smartphone Apple made so much success with before it dove into big phones.

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In-use

So given that it’s mostly the same device as before, in-use you’d expect it to perform just as brilliantly as when you first let the box open itself with the long slide of a presentation drawn out from an intentionally tight box and tore open that plastic packaging.

Good news: it does.

Better news: Apple’s updated innards on an otherwise identical iPhone 5S make for a surprisingly refreshing experience, with snappy hardware that works a treat for an updated operating system.

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Little has changed outside of the look, though you will find support for “night shift” mode which introduces a yellow or orange hue — warmer tones, in essence — as the hours start to get darker, and this is here specifically to help your eyes adjust to the screen better.

But other than that, it’s still your same old iOS experience, punctuated by the fact that you’re using it on a small 4 inch display.

As a result of this smaller screen, you don’t get a double-tap to bring the screen down closer to your thumb like you do on the 6S or 6S Plus, nor do you get a zoomed mode.

This is the iPhone the way you’ve seen it before on this size, and it just has a nicer set of guts updated for today rather than yesterday. How quaint.

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Performance

Over to performance, and as expected, Apple’s hardware from the iPhone 6S handles just as nicely on the SE as it did over on the 6S, providing slick app-to-app multitasking with little to not lag as you run through the device.

Benchmarks appear to be pretty solid with the 6S, too, hardly surprising given what Apple has thrown inside this phone, but that’s good news especially seeing as the iPhone 6S is still a flagship phone and this is basically just a smaller version of it.

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Apple has changed something in regards to 4G LTE performance, though, because while the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are both Category 6 devices capable of reaching as high as 300Mbps when it comes to downloads, the iPhone SE cannot quite pull those numbers.

Instead, it stays with the Category 4 modem, delivering a maximum of 150Mbps and closer to around 100Mbps in real life.

Display

That modem is one thing that hasn’t changed, and it joins the screen, delivering the same 1136×640 4 inch panel as the 5 and 5C and 5S have all had.

That means you get the same tried and tested Retina display offering roughly 326 pixels per inch, enough for the human eye even if it’s not the most amazing amount in the world.

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Smartphones released today typically achieve higher playing a new type of war with consumers, but Apple’s iPhone SE screen is still pretty good and delivers enough resolution for most to be happy with.

It’s also bright and colourful, and easy to look at from most angles, though we have found that some of the grades of black do occasionally wash out from extreme angles. Not a huge issue, we don’t think, though it’s still clear little has changed in some areas of the small iPhone.

Cameras

Over on the camera side of things, iPhone SE owners are treated to one change resulting in a great rear camera and an acceptable-but-not-amazing front-facing selfie camera, and both are very interesting inclusions.

The easiest way to break this one down comes from where these parts have come from specifically, because with the iPhone SE’s rear camera, you’re getting the rear camera out of the iPhone 6S from 2015, while the front-facing camera delivers the iPhone 6’s selfie camera from 2014.

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Just remember that both of these devices are still sold today, so it’s not as if you’re being sold sloppy seconds. Rather, you’re getting a compromise in flagship hardware, with an excellent 4K-capable camera in a smaller body while the front-facing camera is merely acceptable.

It’s a curious mix, though given Apple is likely looking to people who have fallen in love with the smaller phone size, it’s one that could pay off, since younger people are more likely to go for a bigger phone and therefore will want the newer and more premium big iPhone with the equally bigger selfie camera.

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Older phone users who prefer a smaller size may take the occasional selfie, but it’s unlikely to drive what they do, and 1.2 megapixels may be just enough to see themselves.

After all, they know what they look like and may be less likely to constantly need to share it with the rest of the world.

But they will want to take photos, and fortunately, the iPhone SE’s rear camera is a good one, literally delivering the excellent iPhone 6S camera to a smaller size.

Test image from the iPhone SE camera

Test image from the iPhone SE camera

Test image from the iPhone SE camera (100 percent crop)

Same image from the iPhone SE camera (100 percent crop)

Let’s get something out in the open: while Apple’s iPhone 6S camera is very good, it isn’t the best smartphone camera around, beaten by the likes of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 which does a staggering job in low-light.

That being said, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus camera still does a great job of balancing light, contrast, and colour, and is easily one of the better camera modules on a smartphone today, so to see it brought over to a smaller body is most welcome.

It’s not just a great camera on a small body, though, because we also rate camera quality on speed it takes to get that shot off, and that is something the iPhone SE does very well.

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Simply put, the iPhone SE camera is very fast, and whether you’re opening it from the lock screen or switching the camera on from a shortcut, you’ll find the camera switches on super fast and lets you fire that shot without even thinking.

Many a time through this review we flicked open the iPhone SE just to take a shot, grabbing people in motion and shadows just because we saw them, with this occurring in a way that few phones really let us pull off.

Indeed, it’s the balance of hardware that makes this possible in Apple’s smallest iPhone, and the size helps tremendously because you don’t feel like you’re grappling with the un-holdable, taking out a phone matched to a small stature without any issues whatsoever.

Battery

Finally, there’s the battery life, and that’s one area where iPhone 6S owners get the right to feel a little jealous.

You see this little sibling — the baby of the bunch — gets better battery life than the flagship 4.7 inch iPhone 6S, achieving a full day of life without needing to reach for the Lightning recharge cable.

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That’s a day tested with taking photos, making phone calls, texting, checking and responding to emails, doing the social network schtick, listening to music, and surfing the web, with this result on with Bluetooth connected to at least one fitness wearable and a pair of wireless headphones.

Given the 1642mAh battery inside, we’re a little surprised, particularly because it means Apple has not only finessed the balance between the hardware and software, but also made good use of the screen.

Yes, that screen actually attributes to the surprisingly impressive battery life of the iPhone SE, delivering more life because there are less pixels to power and switch on, which the 6S only gets an extra 70-odd mAh of power to deal with.

So that’s good news there.

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Value

The bad news is over on the value side, but only if you just recently bought an iPhone 5S or felt like you were being forced into a new screen size with the 6, 6S, or the bigger 6 Plus and 6S Plus.

Mostly it’s hard to fault the pricing of the iPhone SE because of what you get: technically you’re getting an iPhone 6S without a few of the unnecessary features (better front-facing camera, faster 4G modem, Force Touch display) in a smaller body with the choice of either 16 or 64GB.

Pricing between the two is set to either $679 for the 16GB or $829 for the 64GB option, and out of these, we’d say the 64GB is the one to look at if you’re considering going this way.

It’s not that 16GB isn’t enou— ok, it’s completely this: 16GB on a fixed amount of storage (which is the way Apple does things) is a disastrous amount of storage to need to have for the next however long you have an iPhone for. It’s only a good amount if you never plan on taking photos or videos or installing apps or listening to music.

Essentially, if you’re going to buy an iPhone because you don’t actually want a smartphone or a media player, the 16GB model makes perfect sense.

But since the majority of people would probably plan to use a touchscreen phone with a great camera for a lot of activities, that 64GB is the one to choose.

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What needs work

The interesting part about the iPhone SE is working out what needs work, and this mostly stems from what Apple has intentionally left out and what has intentionally been left the same.

Intentionally not part of the package is a better front-facing camera which we don’t think will matter to most iPhone SE customers, much the same with no Force Touch screen. In fact, in the time since we’ve reviewed the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus where Force Touch was introduced, we’ve felt the technology was mostly there to let your one hand make use of the larger screen, implementing extra touchscreen presses through heavier pushes.

On a smaller screen, however, Force Touch isn’t needed for this one-handed device as it’s already a one-handed device.

The fingerprint sensor is a first-generation sensor so isn't as fast as the 6S, but that's very minor.

The fingerprint sensor is a first-generation sensor so isn’t as fast as the 6S, but that’s very minor.

There’s also no Category 6 modem here, sticking with Category 4 in general, which won’t make a difference to most customers.

In regards to what has intentionally been left the same, that’s pretty much everything anyone liked about the old iPhone 5S, which has been needing an update desperately.

The design is the same, the screen is the same, the button placement is the same, and generally the size and weight are spot on the same.

If you exclude the insides, the iPhone SE is the same iPhone 5 or 5S customers have had for yonks, and that is totally fine. Some people like the design and like the style, and like the idea of recycling their old accessories, because that will work on this phone.

Would it be nice to see a new design more in line with what the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus have? Sure, but there’s nothing wrong here, outside of maybe needing a new screen.

We’d take a slight improvement to the screen, but mostly it’s still a winner.

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Conclusion

I was dreading doing this review. It’s not something I like to admit, but sometimes, there are gadgets that occasionally bring a small amount of discomfort.

It’s like knowing you’re going to have to do something not overly comfortable, like visiting a dentist and dreading the possibility of words like “we need to replace something” even though it’s probably going to be all right.

For the past few years, I’ve liked larger phones. I’ve moved on from the 4 inch form-factor, and about the only time I’ve gone back has been for the bigger 4.5 inch Sony “compact” phones, which were still bigger than Apple’s iPhone 3 through 5 series that were launched in Australia.

Even Apple has moved on, no longer seeing the 4 inch rectangular form-factor as the magic golden design that would fit everyone’s hands.

So I was dreading this review because it meant going back to something smaller, and smaller than I’d normally like. It’s a size that doesn’t illicit bad memories in the slightest, but I just knew there’d be a bit of a learning curve, as my thumbs and fingers struggled to find their groove in a smaller screen.

But that’s not what happened.

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Instead of a possibly nasty visit to a dental office, it was like a chat with an old friend: you know them, you remember everything about them, but it’s not exactly the same person you recall and so there are new things to learn.

Apple’s iPhone SE is kind of like that, delivering the phone many of us know — indeed, the phone many of us were introduced to the touchscreen phone with — but with an inside that makes it updated for today.

Why didn’t Apple do this sooner? It’s amazing how long it has taken for Apple to see that its iPhone 5S needed this update, and it’s a brilliant one all the same.

While I might have dreaded a return to the smaller form-factor, it’s one that grows on you very quickly.

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You remember what it’s like to have a phone that fits in your pocket without fear that it might snap when you flex your leg or tear your jean pockets asunder, and you’re able to dig out all of those accessories you thought had died but miraculously hadn’t. You haven’t thrown out your Snoopy or Lego or Star Wars cases that they never made for the bigger phones, so you can use them.

Apple’s smaller edition of the iPhone might not have every bell and whistle out there in the world, but it doesn’t need it, and it has enough.

In fact, it has so much that it might just get people back to the convenience of a small phone, because if you’re one of those people who held off and almost switched to Android or Windows because it felt like Apple was forgoing that size made for your hands that you’ve come to know and love, the update is here, and it is a total surprise, with a big at heart iPhone made for those of us who adore the smaller size.

Is it a total brand new direction for Apple iPhone owners? Nope, but it also doesn’t need to be. It’s the new iPhone for people who don’t want to go big, and that’s totally fine.

Surprisingly recommended.

 

Big at heart: Apple’s iPhone SE reviewed
Price (RRP): $679 (starting price); $679 for 16GB; $829 for 64GB; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, Virgin, and Vodafone; Manufacturer: Apple
Apple’s original winning size returns to centre stage; Great spec upgrade, making the iPhone SE faster than the still available iPhone 6; All-day battery life; Great camera; Includes a fingerprint reader; Supports the same accessories as the iPhone 5 and 5S… because it’s the same phone chassis-wise as the iPhone 5 and 5S;
Small screen (in comparison to what else is out there today); Front-facing camera is old and low resolution (again, in comparison to what else is out there today); No force-touch/3D touch screen;
Overall
Features
Value for money
Performance
Ease of Use
Design
4.4Overall Score
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