What is the iPhone SE?
The iPhone SE is Apple’s most affordable smartphone ever. It's cheaper than the iPhone 5C when it was released a few years ago, but it's still not exactly cheap. At £359/$399 SIM-free it competes with some very good, and far larger, Android phones.
What's most impressive about it is that it packs many the components you’ll find on the larger iPhone 6S and enormous iPhone 6S Plus – there’s the same processor, 2GB of RAM and rear camera, sans optical image stabilisation found on the biggest iPhone. This makes the iPhone SE the most capable 4-inch _phone_ you can get right now.
Its diminutive size is what makes it different. This is one of the few small phones out there that can compete with big-screened flagships such as the Galaxy S7, Sony Xperia Z5 and LG G5 when it comes to performance, battery life and taking photos.
If, like me, you’re a convert to large screens then the iPhone SE will be of little interest. You can do a lot more with a bigger screen, but I understand the appeal of carrying around something smaller. If you love the idea of a _phone_ that you can easily slip into your pocket and use with one hand then you can’t get better than this.
Watch our iPhone SE video
iPhone SE – Design, Screen and Audio
It might feel like a strange decision by Apple to use a three-year-old design, but there's a host of people I’ve spoken to who want a small phone packing all the features of a full-fat flagship. Sony's the only manufacturer to have previously attempted anything like this, but even its Xperia Z5 Compact has a not-so-tiny 4.6-inch screen and it's quite thick. The iPhone SE is much smaller and much easier to handle.
Anyone who's used an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5S will feel immediately at ease with the iPhone SE – it looks and feels almost identical, except now you can get it in a fetching rose-gold colour and its cut edges are matte rather than shiny chrome.
Those phones have an iconic design and I have no problem with Apple reusing it, especially if it means they can keep costs down and pass the savings on. The best thing about the iPhone SE is that it still feels quality. The brushed aluminium back is both hard and cool to touch, the buttons are solid, and it’s easily small enough to use one-handed, regardless of the size of your hands.
Coming from using the giant iPhone 6S Plus and Huawei Mate 8 I also found it a relief to be able to bend my leg again when I put a phone in my front pocket.
In other ways it’s taken me time to adjust to the smaller screen. It’s not just that I have to move it closer to my face to read text, like my granddad reading his paper, but I also struggle with the smaller keyboard. Ironically this requires both my hands and thumbs on the phone to minimise the potential for embarrassing autocorrect fails. The small screen also means watching video is a little cramped and, while the iPhone SE is more than powerful enough to play all the best games, trying to maneuver precisely requires daintier fingers than mine.
While the iPhone SE still looks good there are a couple of aspects of the design that aren’t perfect, and others that feel a little dated. For starters, if you don’t use a case with the iPhone SE you might find the edges a little harsh, particularly if you’re more used to the rounded metal sides on contemporary phone designs. The screen bezel is also rather wide – especially at the top and bottom – and that means you don’t get a lot of screen for the size of the phone.
That’s not the only problem with the screen.
It packs the exact same display as the 5S, and while the 1136 x 640 resolution provides a perfectly sharp 326 pixels per inch, but the iPhone SE’s screen lacks punch and has a reddish tinge that is exacerbated when it’s tilted at some angles. Compare it to Samsung’s colour-packed Super AMOLED screens or even the newer LCD technology on a phone like the HTC 10 and it looks it really starts looking its age.
Still, it's perfectly acceptable – bright enough to be used outdoors and sharp enough to read websites on the go without noticing any fuzzy edges to letters.
The speaker is decent rather than outstanding. Top-level volume isn’t as high as some other phones, but the quality of the audio output is surprisingly good from such a small package – sound is balanced and there’s no distortion at the highest volume.
Call quality is also strong. The ear speaker is clear and loud and the noise-cancelling mic does a good job of clearing up any distracting external noises when you're on a call.
None of this excites the blood much – so far the iPhone SE isn't very different at all when compared to its predecessors. That all changes, though, when I scratch the surface and take the camera for a spin around London.