iPhone SE review: Apple gently refines its phone to make the best small handset on the market

The most affordable iPhone yet is a subtle but important upgrade, writes David Phelan

Last year, among the many millions of iPhones Apple sold, a small percentage but a large actual number (30 million) were models with a four-inch display. This at a time when Apple had either two or four bigger-screened phones for sale, the iPhone 6, 6 Plus and from last September, 6s and 6s Plus.

Apple has recognised this demand and launched a phone to fit the bill, the iPhone SE. The name is short for Special Edition – Apple is evoking the Macintosh SE from 1987 which improved on an earlier computer while reducing the price. 

When it’s out

It goes on sale next Thursday, 31 March, with pre-orders starting today, 24 March. Prices are keen: this is the most affordable iPhone yet, with an outright purchase price starting at £359 – for comparison, the iPhone 5s used to be £379.

And this is much more than an iPhone 5s. In fact, it’s pretty much an iPhone 6s squeezed into a smaller case, at a lower price and with one colour option, rose gold, not previously available in a four-inch screened iPhone. To buy an iPhone 6s, you’d need to spend £180 more.

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Omissions

Not quite everything from the 6s is here: it lacks the 3D Touch pressure-sensitive screen and the super-fast Touch ID of the latest handsets. It has a perfectly decent first-generation Touch ID, but not quite as fast. And it still powers Apple Pay, arguably the only phone wallet solution that’s actually drawing the crowds at the moment, though the UK will get to see Samsung Pay later this year.

Power

But most of the oomph and many of the features of the latest handsets are available in this smaller version. The processor is the A9, identical to the 6s and 6s Plus. This is a 64-bit processor with its own motion coprocessor, the M9, designed to record your steps, and measure activity. Both are proficient pieces of silicon, with games graphics, for instance, looking especially good. Games play as fast and as colourfully as they do on the bigger-screened 6s and 6s Plus. 

Rear camera

It has the same rear camera as the iPhone 6s, a 12-megapixel sensor and, hurrah, this phone camera is flush to the phone’s frame, it doesn’t protrude. That’s because the SE is a slightly thicker phone but, stylistically, it’s much better.

And though it lacks the 3D Touch of the 6s, this camera can still shoot Live Photos, the curious but cool effect where as well as the 12-megapixel photo itself, Apple collects extra frames before and after the shutter is fired, together with ambient audio to create a brief movie-like sequence.

If it’s panoramic shots you like, the SE can shoot these in enormous detail with the images being the equivalent of 63-megapixel shots. 

FaceTime camera

The front-facing FaceTime camera isn’t quite as advanced as on the iPhone 6s – it’s a 1.2 megapixel sensor and doesn’t have automatic HDR for video, only photos. But it bests the front camera on 2014’s iPhone 6 in its inclusion of Retina Flash.

No, that doesn’t mean a flash designed to burn your retina, it uses the entire screen as the flash, even changing the colour the screen flashes according to ambient light. 

Design

The design, rose gold colour apart, is near-identical to the iPhone 5s – put a case on it and perhaps nobody will spot it’s not a 5s, though the letters SE on the back may make you want to use it au naturel to ensure they know you have the latest hardware. 

True, there’s a new matte finish to the chamfered edges around the frame and an Apple logo that is colour-matched to the aluminium around it. There seem to be other modest changes, such as the non-metal pieces at top and bottom of the phone’s rear which on the rose gold version look a brighter white. But essentially this feels like a supremely confident re-release of a popular design. 

Cosy keyboard

Mostly, I’d guess, it will appeal to people who currently have a four-inch display phone. Going back to it from the iPhone 6s Plus with its 5.5-inch screen, took some doing – why, the entire dear little iPhone SE fits within the 6s Plus screen. Using the keyboard on the SE was a learning curve after the expansiveness of the 6s Plus. It’s the perfect size for the screen but smaller than I have been used to. By the way, things got much better when I installed the brilliant Swiftkey which with its drag-your-finger-from-one-key-to-the-other Swiftkey Flow setting, made typing a breeze.

Battery life

Battery life is a concern on any phone and here the SE scores well. Advances in battery longevity are limited by chemistry (the physical battery itself), the silicon driving the phone’s energy use and the software advances in how the phone is used. So the latest version of iOS, the A9 chip and more all contribute to a battery that lasts as long as the iPhone 6s with its bigger cell. Even so, it’s able to include other standouts from the 6s, like Hey Siri. This means that by saying these two magic words when the phone is in standby, it will wake and be ready to answer your questions. And let me tell you, setting up Hey Siri on the SE in a room with an iPad Pro and two other iPhones being compared was quite an event, with each setting off the other in rotation. 

Verdict

Apple claims this is the most powerful four-inch screened phone anywhere, and it’s hard to disagree (even if part of the reason for that is the company’s rivals have been focusing near-exclusively on phones with a bigger display). The styling is compelling, a gentle refinement of an already elegant design. And much of the rest is the same tech that you’ll find in a handset like the iPhone 6s or 6s Plus – and they’re both much pricier. If small is beautiful as far as you’re concerned, this is a highly effective, appealing smartphone at a great price. 

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