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Apple iPhone SE review

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Introduction

Apple didn’t come up with a new design for the smaller iPhone SE. Instead, they’ve reused the old iPhone 5s with new internals. It’s an odd move, which we witness for the first time – it’s like reusing the same looks of a phone model third generation in a row. And that from the company, that practically invented the two-year phone redesign cycle.

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One way to interpret this move is to conclude Apple is taking the easy road and is merely recycling an existing chassis design to produce a lower-cost iPhone without hurting margins. Another possible interpretation is that they are reviving the iconic iPhone 5/5s design in an attempt to cater to a group of users who not only want a cheaper iPhone but would also prefer the smaller form factor. After all, a third of Apple users are still using older 4-inch smartphones.

The jury is still out on which one of these two might be the reasoning for this model, but whichever it is, we’re not here to judge. This task would be up to Apple customers. Our job is only to evaluate how good the latest iPhone is and we intend to do just that.

But first thing’s first – here’s a refresher on the specs. The iPhone SE has the 4″ Retina display of the iPhone 5s, its first-gen Touch ID sensor, an identical chassis, but on the inside, it comes with the new Apple A9 chip with 2GB of RAM, the new 12MP main snapper, and a slightly bigger battery.

Key features

  • 4″ 16M-color LED-backlit IPS LCD of 640 x 1136px resolution, 326ppi
  • Apple iOS 9
  • Dual-core 1.8 GHz Twister 64-bit CPU, PowerVR GT7600 GPU, 2GB of RAM, Apple A9 SoC
  • 12MP F/2.2 camera with True tone LED flash, phase detection auto focus, 2160p@30fps, 1080p@30fps, @60fps and @120fps video recording, 720p video recording @120fps and 240fps
  • 1.2MP F/2.4 front-facing camera, HDR mode, 720p@30fps video
  • Comes in 16 and 64 GB of built-in storage
  • First-gen Touch ID fingerprint sensor
  • 4G LTE Cat.4 (150Mbps); Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 4.2; Lightning port; GPS with A-GPS and GLONASS; NFC (Apple Pay only)
  • 1,624 mAh battery, Power saving mode

Main disadvantages

  • No 3D Touch
  • No microSD slot
  • Lacks optical image stabilization
  • NFC functionality limited to Apple Pay
  • No wireless charging, an infrared port, or FM radio
  • No enhanced resistance to liquids or dust
  • No user-replaceable battery

Apple’s restrictions have been around for years, so they shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone – you can’t have expandable memory, fast or wireless charging, FM radio, swappable batteries, among others. The new 3D Touch tech isn’t present either for obvious reasons though you can still capture Live Photos.

Apple iPhone SE review

The iPhone SE has this nice nostalgic feeling of the good old iPhones when they were always shaking the market, and its compact size and powerful hardware will be appreciated by many. It will hardly attract any new users to Apple’s platform, but will allow those who are stuck in the past to level up.

Unboxing the iPhone SE

Just as we expected, the iPhone SE comes in a rather compact box accompanied by a Lightning cable, a 1A A/C plug, and a well-packed pair of EarPods.

The Apple iPhone SE retail package - Apple iPhone SE review The Apple iPhone SE retail package - Apple iPhone SE review
The Apple iPhone SE retail package

Apple iPhone SE 360-degree spin

The iPhone SE spreads at 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm, which is the same footprint the iPhone 5s had. It is very light at 113g, just 1g over the iPhone 5s. If we are to compare it with the new 4.7″ iPhone 6s, the SE edition is 1.5cm shorter and 1cm narrower.

Design and build quality

The Apple’s iPhone SE design is on the catwalk for a third time in a row, and there are no surprises here. After the dawn of the glass iPhones, the new metal chassis introduced by the iPhone 5 quickly became a fan-favorite. It was in fact so popular that in the aftermath of the iPhone 6 premiere the new exterior was considered as a disappointment because of the departure from the old looks.

The iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review
The iPhone SE

Sure, Apple could have shrunk the iPhone 6 chassis for the iPhone SE instead, but we suspect they’ve intentionally decided to keep the iconic chassis. Plus, nobody can’t argue it was easier for development and production – faster, and, of course, cheaper.

On a positive note – keeping the flat sides is a tremendous boost to the grip and overall handling, both of which were compromised by the rounded edges of the iPhone 6 generation. The iPhone SE still feels great in hand as it was three years ago, premium as ever.

Apple iPhone SE review

There are some cons, though – keeping the old design meant sticking to the first-gen Touch ID and older model of the FaceTime camera (1.2MP) and there is also the issue with the sizable screen bezels, which make the phone look outdated by today’s standards.

There is one other thing worth mentioning – the iPhone 6s came with unannounced water protection, which allowed it to survive between 10 and 40 minutes submerged in water. On the contrary, the iPhone SE will die instantly when subjected to water as proven by a lot of online videos.

Still, let’s take a closer quick close look for the unfamiliar with the iPhone 5 lineup.

Apple iPhone SE review

The iPhone SE front is covered by an ion-strengthened glass (it’s a custom version of the Gorilla Glass protection), complemented by an oleophobic coating to keep the fingerprints away. The frame is all metal as is most of the rear side.

The Apple iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The Apple iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The Apple iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The Apple iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review
The Apple iPhone SE

Handling is great, as we said, but if you are coming from an iPhone 6/6s or an Android smartphone, you may miss the side-mounted power/lock key.

Handling the iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review Handling the iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review
Handling the iPhone SE

Controls

The front of the iPhone SE is mostly occupied by the 4″ Retina display. On top we find the earpiece, the FaceTime camera, and a couple of sensors. On the bottom is the Home key/Touch ID sensor, with a steel ring painted in the accent color.

A peek above the screen - Apple iPhone SE review The Touch ID 1.0 at the bottom - Apple iPhone SE review
A peek above the screen • The Touch ID 1.0 at the bottom

The ejectable nano-SIM tray sits alone on the right. The left side houses the metal volume keys and the silencer.

The right side - Apple iPhone SE review The nano-SIM bed - Apple iPhone SE review The left side - Apple iPhone SE review The silencer - Apple iPhone SE review
The right side • The nano-SIM bed • The left side • The silencer

On top of the iPhone, SE is the power/lock key, also made of metal. The audio jack, the loudspeaker grille, the primary microphone (also behind a grille), and the Lightning port are at the bottom.

The top side - Apple iPhone SE review The lock key - Apple iPhone SE review The bottom - Apple iPhone SE review The Lightning port is flanked by two grilles - Apple iPhone SE review
The top side • The lock key • The bottom • The Lightning port is flanked by two grilles

The iPhone SE rear side is familiar – the 12MP camera is here (no hump, yay), the dual-LED flash is around with the second mic, and there is the Apple logo, of course. The 12MP snapper is the same as on the iPhone 6s, enabled with 4K video recording. Due to the phone’s larger thickness, there is no camera hump unlike the iPhone 6s.

The back of the iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review The back of the iPhone SE - Apple iPhone SE review
The back of the iPhone SE

The 4″ Retina display returns unchanged

There is a lot that can be said about the old 4″ Retina display, and the opinions will be polarized. The naysayers will nag incessantly about the super small display, the big bezels, the low screen resolution while the opposite camp will praise the great colors and sunlight legibility, as well as the high brightness.

Apple iPhone SE review

We’ll keep it simple. The display uses a 4″ IPS panel of 640 x 1136 pixels, which is 326ppi density – the very definition of a Retina display.

Apple iPhone SE review

The iPhone SE rendition of blacks is brighter than we would prefer, but on the other end of the spectrum, the 600 nits worth of brightness level is quite appreciable. The resulting contrast of 1:804 is not as noteworthy mainly due to the poor black levels.

As a comparison, the 4.7″ iPhone 6s screen has the same 326ppi but is a less bright screen with higher contrast.

Regarding color rendering, the iPhone SE scored excellently with an Average DeltaE of 2.3, which means an almost perfectly calibrated screen. The maximum deviation of 5.2 is in the whites which come out slightly bluish but it’s not something you would notice without an external reference point.

Display test 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
Apple iPhone 6s 0.36 536 1481
Apple iPhone SE 0.77 618 804
Xiaomi Mi 5 0.51 628 1227
Xiaomi Mi 4S 0.49 475 975
OnePlus X 0.00 340
Samsung Galaxy S7 0.00 391
Samsung Galaxy S6 edge 0.00 313
LG G5 0.17 306 1855

As far as sunlight legibility goes, the iPhone SE is an excellent performer outside with excellent contrast under bright sunlight, which puts it towards the top of our chart.

Sunlight contrast ratio

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  • Samsung Galaxy S74.376
  • Samsung Galaxy S6 edge4.124
  • OnePlus X3.983
  • Apple iPhone 6s3.783
  • Apple iPhone SE3.681
  • Xiaomi Mi 53.24
  • LG G52.905
  • Xiaomi Mi 4S2.095

Battery life

The battery inside the iPhone SE is slightly bigger than the one inside the iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5s has a 1,560mAh battery, whereas a 1,624mAh unit powers the iPhone Special Edition.

Apple iOS 9 introduced a Low-Power mode, which you will be prompted to turn on once the charge drops below 20%.

The iPhone SE posted very balanced score across all of our tests – it can do about 12 hours of 3G calls, 13 hours of web browsing, or 14 hours of video playback on a single charge.

Apple iPhone SE review

So, the total rating of the iPhone SE is 73 hours – 11 hours better than the iPhone 6s and 19 hours on top of the iPhone 5s.

This is how long a single battery charge will last you if you use the iPhone SE for an hour each of telephony, web browsing, and video playback daily. Such usage pattern is of course entirely artificial, but we’ve established it so our battery results are comparable across devices.

The battery testing procedure is described in detail in case you’re interested in the nitty-gritties. You can also check out our complete battery test table, where you can see how all of the smartphones we’ve tested will compare under your own typical use.

Connectivity

The Apple iPhone SE comes with a bunch of wireless connectivity features. It supports fast LTE Cat. 4 (up to 150Mpbs down, 50Mbps up) with wide LTE bands coverage. Regular 2G and 3G connectivity are safely covered as well with a multitude of supported network bands.

The iPhone SE also supports the latest Voice over LTE (VoLTE), HD Voice and Wi-Fi calling protocols, but those are carrier-dependent features, so not everyone will enjoy them.

The iPhone SE supports all the current Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac standards. AirPlay is the only way to cast your screen’s contents to an HDTV wirelessly, but you’d need to have an Apple TV set-top box.

Some apps will allow you to cast your screen to a Chromecast or a Smart HDTV, but compatibility with the latter will vary.

Additional local connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.2 LE. There is also support for NFC, but its functionality is only limited to Apple’s region-restricted Apple Pay.

The iPhone SE uses a proprietary Lightning connector for wired data transfers and charging.

There is no support for USB On-the-go or USB host, but you can pair a Bluetooth keyboard to the phone should you need this sort of peripheral.

For transferring pretty much any content, you will be dependent on syncing it via the Apple iTunes software on your computer. The good news is that it can connect wirelessly to your iPhone over Wi-Fi. The bad news is that the paradigm of syncing content between the computer and the phone is quite old – as old as the first iPod and nowhere near as user-friendly and straightforward as copy-pasting. It also requires you add your content to iTunes library first.

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