The iPhone SE

Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon, for a more civilized age.” —Obi-Wan Kenobi

After WWDC last June, I wanted to spend some time testing the iOS 9 betas without installing them on my iPhone 6. I used my year-plus old iPhone 5S instead. I’ve done this in years past, as well, but this time was different. In previous years, this has always been borderline torture. Each new iPhone since the 3G1 has always made the previous year’s model feel slow, and installing a beta version of iOS on the year-old phone has sometimes exacerbated that.

But I had a very different experience going back to my 5S. I liked it. I didn’t stick with it for more than a few weeks, because it was slower, and the camera wasn’t as good, but I sure did like how it felt in my hand.

Apple has called the Watch their “most personal device ever”, but I would argue that the iPhone remains the most personal. For one thing, I doubt there’s anyone who spends more time interacting with their Watch than their iPhone. For another, it’s the device we hold in our hands. The one we touch the most.

Feel matters. And to me, the classic 4-inch display form factor shared by the iPhones 5, 5S, and now SE feels the best in hand. This is obviously highly subjective, but in my mind it’s not even a close call. There are obvious reasons to prefer the larger 4.7- and 5.5-inch models, but how they feel in your hand isn’t one of them.

I prefer the flat sides. (It stands up!) I prefer the small circular volume buttons. I prefer the power button at the top, rather than directly opposite the volume-up button. I absolutely loathe the camera bump on the 6/6S; the lack of said bump on the SE feels downright luxurious in contrast.

There have been six basic iPhone form factors to date. (Seven, if you choose to count the Plus-sized 6 and 6S separately.)

  • The aluminum original iPhone (3.5-inch, non-retina)
  • The plastic iPhone 3G and 3GS (3.5-inch, non-retina)
  • The glass-backed iPhone 4 and 4S (3.5-inch, retina)
  • The aluminum iPhone 5, 5S, and SE (4-inch, retina)
  • The plastic multi-colored 5C (4-inch, retina)
  • The aluminum iPhone 6 and 6S (4.7- and 5.5-inch, retina)

With the introduction of the new iPhone SE, the iPhone 5-style industrial design is the first to be used for three separate product generations. But it’s worth noting that this form factor skipped a generation — there was no 4-inch iPhone with iPhone 6-class internals. It truly says something that an industrial design first introduced in 2012 remains utterly modern and relevant in 2016.

In my real-world use, the iPhone SE is very much exactly what I was hoping it would be: a 4-inch iPhone with iPhone 6S performance and camera quality. There are some differences:

  • The iPhone SE has a slower first-generation Touch ID sensor. I don’t mind this at all in practice, and I actually enjoy being able to use the home button to see the lock screen. (As I noted in my iPhone 6S review, the second-gen Touch ID sensor is so fast that it’s difficult to use to show the lock screen — it unlocks the phone with even the briefest tap. You have to use a fingernail or unregistered finger.)

  • The iPhone SE display remains unchanged from that of the 5S, with a contrast ratio of 800:1. The iPhone 6S has a contrast ratio of 1400:1. Noteworthy, but by no means a deal-breaker.

  • The iPhone SE has a significantly inferior front-facing camera. I almost never use this camera, so again not a deal-breaker.

  • The iPhone SE lacks a barometer, which is used for more accurately measuring the flights of stairs you ascend and descend.

  • No 3D Touch. After almost two weeks of using the SE, I almost forgot to mention this.

  • A detail that does not appear on Apple’s iPhone tech specs comparison page: according to Geekbench, the A9 CPU in the iPhone SE runs at only 1.77 GHz; on the iPhone 6S it runs at 1.85 GHz. I consider that 6.5 percent difference negligible, though.

    Update: Looking at Geekbench’s public results for “iPhone8,4” (the SE’s model number), they’re all running at 1.85 or 1.83 GHz. Not sure why it’s showing 1.77 on mine. Let’s call the difference literally negligible — the SE really seems to be just as fast as the 6S. Update 2: Turns out GeekBench’s clock speed numbers are only estimates. The SE really is just as fast as the 6S.

The technical limitation of the SE that makes the most difference for me, personally, is that its largest storage capacity is only 64 GB, instead of 128. My iPhone 6S is using just under 90 GB of storage. I was able to restore my SE review unit from a backup of my personal 6S, but after it finished downloading and restoring everything, there wasn’t any space left at all. It was easier for me to just wipe the phone and start clean.

Ultimately, the biggest reason to prefer the 6S over the SE is the glaringly obvious one — the larger display, which can either show more content, or (in Zoom mode) show the same content at a larger size.

If your eyesight is strained by the smaller 4-inch screen, that alone might seal the deal. Another advantage to the bigger display: a bigger on-screen keyboard that makes typing faster and less error-prone. I’ve been using the iPhone SE for close to two weeks, and the single most surprising thing to me is how many more errors I make while typing compared to the 6S. For anyone who does a lot of typing on their iPhone, that could be the deciding factor.

Me, though, I typically don’t do a lot of typing on my iPhone. I do a lot of reading, and I tend to flag things to deal with later, when I’m on a Mac. And for that, the smaller 4-inch display is actually better, simply because I can easily reach from corner-to-corner with my thumb while holding the phone in one hand. The iPhone SE is a credible one-handed device. The iPhone 6/6S, not so much. The iPhone 6/6S Plus, not at all.

It’s all about trade-offs, of course. But one-hand-ability is so nice a feature that Apple even dedicated a Jeff Daniels-narrated TV commercial to it when the iPhone 5 shipped. “Pretty sure it’s the common sense thing”, indeed.

I also find the smaller size and flat sides make me feel much more sure-handed when using the iPhone SE camera.

There’s another significant difference between the 6S and SE — price. The 16 and 64 GB versions of the iPhone 6S cost $650 and $750, respectively. The same capacity versions of the SE are only $400 and $500. Those are extraordinary price points for an iPhone with the current top-tier A9 SoC and camera. You save an entire third of the price by choosing a 64 GB iPhone SE over a 64 GB 6S. You save $150 and get far more storage by choosing a 64 GB SE instead of a 16 GB 6S.

Yes, it has a smaller display with fewer pixels (and, as noted above, a lower contrast ratio). Yes (again, as noted above), there are a few other technical aspects that are inferior to the 6S. But these are noteworthy, groundbreaking price points for the iPhone.

The iPhone 6S and iPhone SE are both great products, and both have great sizes — but for entirely different reasons. The SE is easier to pocket, easier to hold, and easier to use one-handed. The 6S displays more content, and is better for two-handed use — particularly when it comes to thumb-typing. Judging between these two devices, with no consideration for future devices, I personally am completely torn. But I lean toward the SE.

But therein lies the rub: there are future iPhones coming, and my guess is that the 4-inch size will soon again be relegated to the second-tier, spec-wise, in the product lineup. When Apple introduces new iPhones in September — presumably the “7” and “7 Plus”, but you never know when Apple will change its naming scheme — I expect only 4.7- and 5.5-inch models. Nor do I expect an updated 4-inch model with 7-class specs in March next year.

For anyone with an iPhone 5S (or older) who has been holding out on an upgrade in the hopes of a new top-tier “small” iPhone, the iPhone SE is cause for celebration. If you are such a person, run, don’t walk, to buy one. You will be delighted.

If you’ve already upgraded to an iPhone 6 or 6S and have made peace with the trade-offs of a larger, heavier, less-grippy-because-of-the-round-edges form factor, the appeal is less clear. Me, I talk the talk about preferring the smaller form factor, but ultimately I’m a sucker for top-of-the-line CPU/GPU performance and camera quality. For the next six months or so, the iPhone SE stands on the top tier. After that, it won’t — I think — and it’ll be back to the 4.7-inch display form factor for me. So why bother switching back for just a few months? I keep asking myself.

And then I pick up the iPhone SE, and hold it in my hand.

  1. The iPhone 3G had the same CPU as the original iPhone. Kind of a weird fact, in hindsight. ↩︎