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’.
iPhone SE Full Specification, Features, Price, Release Date And Review
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 price and release date
- iPhone SE release date: March 2016
- 16GB iPhone SE price: $399, £379, AU$679 at launch
- 64GB iPhone SE price: $449, £429, AU$749 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 split 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).
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.
But enough about the iPhone SE 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?
- 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).
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 SPECS
- Weight: 113g
- Dimensions: 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6mm
- OS: iOS 9.3.2
- Screen size: 4-inch
- Resolution: 640 x 1136
- CPU: Apple A9
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16/64GB
- Battery: 1624mAh
- Rear camera: 12MP
- Front camera: 1.2MP
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.