Apple today releases the iPhone SE, which looks almost identical to 2013’s diminutive iPhone 5, with its 4” screen (how tiny!) and chamfered edges. Only little details like the gleaming Apple logo, matt edges and duel flash allow you to tell them apart by sight alone.
It’s a sign that the Cult of Big may be slowing, after three years of solid growth that’s seen the lines between phones, phablets and tablets become increasingly blurred.
It’s nice to see the return of the iPhone 5-style handset; it was a classic, second only to the iPhone 4. It’s like being reunited with an ex you never stopped thinking about. But don’t let the looks fool you: the SE packs almost as much heat as the top-of-the-line 6s.
What’s it got?
Apple has managed to squeeze virtually all of its high-end gadgetry into this dainty little package. It’s got the new A9 processor, which makes everything work incredibly smoothly (I fired up an old iPhone 5s and the difference is night and day, although you might not see much difference between this and the iPhone 6). Boot up a CPU intensive game like Warhammer 40,000: Carnage and you can see the potential, with high-definition 3D graphics running as smoothly as it would on a dedicated console.
It has a 12 megapixel camera, the same as the one on the 6s, which is brilliant. It can record 4K video, which is another great demonstration of what this handset is capable of, with the ability to zoom into areas of video with little loss of quality. It has Live Photo, which adds a snippet of video before and after your snaps (I find it a bit annoying, but you can always turn it off). It has the Touch ID Thumb Scanner to unlock the phone and access features in some apps (buying stuff from Amazon, for instance).
What’s it not got?
First up, it lacks the 3D Touch feature from the iPhone 6s, which allows you to “half press” and “force press” to bring up extra options and previews. Is this a biggie? Meh, not really. If you were to look back on my iPhone 6s review, you’d see I was singing the praises of 3D Touch – and it’s great in theory. For a few weeks, I couldn’t get enough of it – touching things in 2D felt so lame. But after a few months, it hasn’t changed the way I use my phone, largely because it’s too costly for app developers to integrate a feature that will be unavailable for most users. Without apps to reinforce the newly learned skill, I eventually forget about it.
The SE has a worse front-facing camera than the 6s. Significantly worse, in pure hardware terms, although software like “Retina flash” helps a bit. If you take a lot of selfies, this is something you should consider.
The new range of iPhone SEs
If you’re used to a large phone, adapting to the smaller keyboard is tough. Downsizing from the 6s Plus makes it feel like I’m looking down the wrong end of a telescope, although no doubt that will diminish with use.
Finally, and perhaps less obviously, it’s a generation off the beat in terms of Touch ID – if you’re used to the iPhone 6s, you’ll notice the difference, with slower and less reliable thumb-print scanning.
While Apple purists lament the passing of the company’s monolithic iPhone offering, it’s hard to take umbrage with more choice. To an extent, the comparisons I’ve made throughout this review are a little unfair: this phone isn’t really competing with the 6s, it’s catering to those people who have been reluctant to trade up from their iPhone 5s, or from some equivalent Android phone.
If that’s you, this is an exceptional handset at an exceptional price (£359). If you’re wavering between the SE and the 6s or 6s Plus, it’s really down to how you plan on using it. Personally, while I can probably live without the full keyboard, I play too many games and read too many long articles to compromise on screen size. I’m willing to carry around a phone that pokes me in the thigh every time I sit down – that’s the trade-off.
If, however, you’re more interested in checking social media, taking pictures and, you know, making phone calls, but don’t want to get left behind with the latest tech, this is a great device that will last for years. It’s the best little phone in the world.