The new iPhone SE is basically the guts of the iPhone 6s stuffed into the body of an iPhone 5s. It’s a Frankenphone, a mix of the best Apple has to offer and a 3.5-year-old design that feels silly to write about weeks after Samsung released the best-looking phone you can buy.
But the iPhone SE wasn’t built for geeks like me who are obsessed with the latest and greatest phones with giant screens. It’s made for the 30 million people Apple says bought 4-inch iPhones last year. It’s made for the tens of millions who still haven’t upgraded their old, tiny iPhones for the 6, either because they don’t want a bigger screen or they don’t want to drop another $650 on an Apple product. It's made for first-time smartphone owners.
Moreover, iPhone SE is the greatest value of any smartphone. You get iOS, the best mobile platform in the world, the latest internal specs, advanced features like Apple Pay, and a top-of-the-line camera starting at a very reasonable $399.
It’s not for everyone, but if you can look past the the smaller screen and familiar design, you’ll realize you’re getting a top-notch phone for $250 less than the iPhone 6s. Not bad at all. You can pre-order the SE now and it goes on sale March 31.
Back to the small screen
I’m obsessed with big phones. After years of praying Apple would follow the rest of the industry and make a jumbo-sized iPhone, my wish was granted in 2014 with the iPhone 6 Plus. I immediately ditched my iPhone 5s and haven’t looked back since. I spend hours and hours a day on my iPhone, and the bigger screen and extra battery life in the Plus matter more to me than anything else.
The iPhone SE, on the other hand, looks and feels almost exactly like the 5s except for some very minor design tweaks. It also comes in pink.
So you can imagine how much of a shock it was to downsize back to the 4-inch iPhone SE last week. My favorite apps no longer fit on the first page of my home screen. Text was harder to read. Typing was more difficult on the tiny keyboard.
But I also forgot how useful it is to have a phone that doesn’t need two hands to operate or won’t jab into my side every time I sit down with it in my pocket. Those were minor nuisances I’ve learned to live with, but they disappeared with the SE. I can now see why there are so many people out there who want the smaller screen, even if it means sacrificing battery life and other features Apple has introduced over the years.
Now, with the SE, they can have it all.
Big power, small phone
Over the last week, I haven’t found one thing that my iPhone 6s Plus can do that the iPhone SE can’t do. I took 4k videos. I shot Live Photos with the 12 megapixel camera. I used Apple Pay.
Those are all features people like me who use Apple’s latest iPhones have come to take for granted. But buying a smaller, cheaper iPhone used to mean you had to give up the best Apple features. That’s no longer the case with the iPhone SE. You get it all.
There are three notable exceptions though. The front-facing camera isn’t as good as the 6s camera. (My colleague Rafi Letzter has an explanation for that here.) It also has the older version of the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, which is noticeably slower than the newer version in the iPhone 6s. Finally, it’s missing 3D Touch, a curious choice since Apple spent a lot of time last year trying to convince everyone 3D Touch is designed to revolutionize how we interact with the iPhone.
None of those are dealbreakers, but it does seem like Apple found some ways to shave off some of the cost of the phone. (3D Touch really doesn’t matter to me anyway. I almost never use it on my 6s Plus, and I didn’t even miss it going back to a 3D Touch-less device.)
I was also impressed with the SE’s battery life. Even though the battery is technically smaller, it outperforms the iPhone 6s in most tests thanks to the smaller screen and power efficiency of iOS 9 and Apple’s latest A9 processor. You no longer need a massive phone with a massive battery to get great battery life. That may be the SE’s single most important achievement.
Performance was great too. Since the SE has the same processor as the iPhone 6s, it’s capable of handling heavy gaming, video editing, and other intensive tasks you might want to do when you’re not Snapchatting and Instagramming. If you want to get really geeky, plenty of people have tested the processor and found it holds its own against any other premium, high-end phone out there. That’s crazy impressive for what’s supposed to be a mid-range phone.
Finally, as I said before, the camera can handle everything the 6s camera can. The only camera that beats it is the new Galaxy S7, but unless you’re a major camera snoot (I’m not), you’ll be perfectly happy with what the SE’s camera can do.
Should you buy it?
Apple pulled off something amazing with the iPhone SE: A high-end device, packaged and priced like a mid-tier phone. There are plenty of examples of that in the Android world, but I still think iOS trumps all.
At the end of the day, I still think most people should buy the iPhone 6s or 6s Plus. The larger screen is that important for a device you carry with you 24/7. Yes, the iPhone 7 will be here in the fall. But that’s a good six months or so away, and you won’t be sorry later if you get a 6s today.
The iPhone SE is ideal only if a smaller screen and one-handed use is more important to you than anything else. It’s an amazing phone that's packed with all of the the best iPhone features. And you’re getting it all of those features for an incredible price. But only buy it if you want the small screen.