Apple iPhone SE review: Back to the future with a 4-inch pocket powerhouse

As soon as Apple announced that it was planning one of its mystery product launches at the end of March, the perennial rumours about a ‘low-cost’ iPhone surfaced yet again. And, in due course, Apple went out of its way to emphasize the fact that the new 4-inch iPhone SE is “the most affordable new iPhone we’ve ever released”.

It’s still not cheap of course, starting at £359 (inc. VAT, or $399) for a model with 16GB of storage, but it’s certainly better value for money than Apple’s last stab at a more affordable phone — the late, unlamented iPhone 5c from 2013. And with the same A9 processor as the top-of-the-range iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the oddly numeral-free iPhone SE plugs an obvious gap in Apple’s product range by providing a high-end smartphone for users who prefer a more compact and pocket-friendly design.

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The 4-inch iPhone SE is dwarfed by its 4.7in. and 5.5in. stablemates, and weighs just 113g (3.99 ounces). It’s available in Silver, Gold, Space Gray and Rose Gold (shown here).


Images: Apple

High-end look and feel

The design of the iPhone SE is clearly intended to banish memories of the iPhone 5c altogether. Apple has ditched the curved edges, brash colours, and the cost-cutting plastic casing of that model and reverted to the more rectangular design of the popular iPhone 5s. And, like the rest of the iPhone range, the iPhone SE is constructed out of aluminium, available in a number of colours and with a smooth finish that makes it look and feel more like a high-end smartphone, rather than a compromised cut-price effort.

Admittedly, the 4-inch display looks almost tiny compared to its bigger brothers in the current iPhone range, which measure 4.7 and 5.5-inches respectively. But that’s the whole point, of course, as the 123.8mm by 58.6mm by 7.6mm handset can easily be held in one hand, and the weight of 113g is barely noticeable when you slip it into your pocket — or so it seemed to me after carrying around a 192g iPhone 6 Plus for the last 18 months. My only real complaint here is that I’d forgotten how small and fiddly the on-screen keyboard can be on a device this size.

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Screen real estate comparison: iPhone 6s Plus (left) versus iPhone SE (right).


Images: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Admittedly, the 1136-by-640-pixel resolution (326ppi) is relatively modest nowadays, but is still perfectly adequate for a 4-inch screen such as this. It lacks the ‘dual-domain’ pixels of the more expensive iPhone models, which means that it can’t quite match the brightness and viewing angles of those models. Even so, we still found the screen to be more than bright enough for general use, and we rarely needed to raise the brightness above 50 percent during our tests. That helps with battery life too, and the iPhone SE gave us a full 8.5 hours of streaming video with the BBC iPlayer over wi-fi, so Apple’s claim of up to 13 hours for more casual internet use doesn’t seem too wide of the mark.

Pocket power

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The iPhone SE’s 12MP rear camera can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second. The front camera has a less impressive 1.2MP resolution.


Image: Apple

There have been some other compromises, though — most notably the modest 1.2-megapixel front-facing FaceTime camera for taking selfies, and the omission of the 3D Touch feature that was introduced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus last year. But in other key areas the iPhone SE can genuinely go head-to-head with its bigger brothers. It has the same A9 processor as the iPhone 6s, running at 1.85GHz, along with 2GB of memory and a 12-megapixel rear camera with the ability to record 4K video (which you can’t do with the more expensive, A8-powered iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which are still on sale). It also includes the M9 motion co-processor for fitness tracking, and you’ll feel a lot more comfortable jogging in the park with the iPhone SE strapped to your arm or clipped to your belt than one of the larger iPhone models.

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Running the GeekBench 3 test suite confirmed that the two phones provide virtually identical processor performance, and the iPhone SE even managed to beat the iPhone 6s when running the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics benchmark (although the lower resolution screen gives it an advantage there):

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Images: ZDNet

That level of performance certainly proves that Apple has avoided the worst compromises of the iPhone 5c. The sting in the tail, though, is that the entry-level price of £359/$399 only includes 16GB of storage, which is barely adequate for a high-end smartphone such as this. Even more annoying is the fact that Apple doesn’t sell a 32GB model, which would be perfectly adequate for many people, so your only other option is to step right up to £439/$499 for the 64GB model. There’s no 128GB model either, as that option is only available with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

Conclusion

There’s nothing innovative or ground-breaking about the iPhone SE: to all intents and purposes, it’s simply a smaller version of the current iPhone 6s. It provides comparable performance and a broadly similar range of features wrapped up in a more compact 4-inch design with a £180/$250 price cut. It’s not the genuinely low-cost iPhone that Apple-watchers perpetually dream of, but it’s certainly an improvement on the iPhone 5c. And with network contracts coming in at less than £30/$50 a month, it should make an attractive option for people who prefer a truly pocket-sized smartphone.

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