There are two ways of looking at the iPhone SE, the "special edition" smaller-scale 4-inch iPhone.
One is that it's Apple simply churning out a 2-year-old design with a spec update; the other is that it delivers what many people actually want: a small but powerful phone for those who believe the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are just too big.
So should this £359 handset be given a look in, or does the more powerful iPhone 6S make it one to ignore? We've downsized for the week to find out.
iPhone SE review: Design
If the iPhone SE looks familiar, that's because it features a near identical design to the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S. So no surprises here, other than the more recent colour options being available: silver, space grey, gold and rose gold (although we prefer the term "bros' gold").
It is so similar that it even fits cases built and made for the iPhone 5 range. And with a weight of just 113g, the SE is certainly small, light, and compact. Meaning it's very pocketable - which is refreshing in among a world of gigantic phones.
|iPhone SE||iPhone 6S||iPhone 6S Plus|
|Dimensions (mm)||123.8 x 58.6||138.3 x 67.1||158.2 x 77.9|
The SE will fit most pockets without showing a bulge; fit in your running gear without weighing you down; and can comfortably be used one-handed without having to stretch or contort your thumb to the upper reaches of the screen like you need to with the 6S Plus.
Having used an iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S for the last 2-years, downsizing to the SE has been a surprising breath of fresh air, without compromise to the modern power we've become used to. For all intents and purposes the SE is an iPhone 5S in design with a stack of iPhone 6S tech inside - which we'll get to later.
And we're okay with that. The iPhone 5S was a great phone that was critically well-received - and while most of us have moved on to bigger devices it is clear that many still want something small scale.
The main physical difference we've noticed between top-tier 6S and SE are the latter's matte edges around the screen. And if we're being particularly picky, we miss the curved edges of the glass screen on iPhone 6 and 6S over the defined edge of the screen on the SE - it's not as smooth against your thumb when scrolling, but hey, we can live with that. Oh, and it stands upright due to that flat bottom. Little things, but such things makes us happy.
iPhone SE review: Screen
The iPhone SE sports the same 4-inch 1136 x 640 pixel screen as the iPhone 5S, which means that while it is lower in terms of resolution than the iPhone 6S, it is still just as sharp.
|iPhone SE||iPhone 6S||iPhone 6S Plus|
|Resolution||1136 x 640||1334 x 750||1920 x 1080|
It's not the highest resolution on the market, which makes it sound like it'll look well out of date, but with a pixel density of 326ppi it makes for ample sharpness. Just not class-leading sharpness. However, there is no blurriness or softness to the images, while colours are bright and exhibit natural tones. In some instances apps look better than they do on the iPhone 6S to our eyes.
Small scale and smaller price does come with some compromise in terms of feature set though. There's no 3D Touch - Apple's pressure-sensitive touchscreen technology - in the iPhone SE. If you're an iPhone 5 or 5S user then you won't have used it yet anyway, and if you're particularly keen then you'll just have to upsize to 6S and spend some more cash. Although we're yet to hear from an 6S user that actively uses it all the time anyway - we think it's down to habitual memory.
The biggest issue with the iPhone SE is trying to cram everything on screen. Apple's iOS software has evolved and squeezing everything onto a 4-inch panel is hard - especially if you're used to something larger. It's tougher for reading long message conversations, once you've included the keyboard on screen, or simply reading emails and web pages. We've caught ourselves a couple of times rotating the phone landscape to read more, which is something we don't do on the iPhone 6S.
iPhone SE review: Performance
Where do we start? If you are still using the iPhone 5 range then the SE gives you 2-years worth of technical upgrades. Apple hasn't held back, or made the SE a poor man's version of the iPhone 6S, bringing virtually all the tech from its flagship device to the iPhone SE (ignoring the 3D Touch point).
|iPhone SE||iPhone 6S||iPhone 6S Plus|
|Chipset||Apple A9, dual-core 1.8Ghz||Apple A9, dual-core 1.8Ghz||Apple A9, dual-core 1.8Ghz|
|Graphics||PowerVR GT7600 (six-core)||PowerVR GT7600 (six-core)||PowerVR GT7600 (six-core)|
That means you get the company's A9 processor - effectively doubling the performance capability over the iPhone 5S - and M9 processor that improves on the motion-sensing capabilities too.
Apps load fast, menus are smooth, and the whole device is as quick as you would expect a phone to be from Apple regardless of whether you are editing photos or playing a game. At no point have we experienced lag or had the feeling that we were waiting for something to happen. It just works.
The powerful processor is there because of all the rest of the toys Apple has brought to the table. The SE comes with TouchID fingerprint recognition technology and support for Apple Pay (so you can pay for goods with a fingerprint at participating vendors).
There is faster LTE support, Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity, although only standard antennas rather than the MIMO Wi-Fi ones found in the iPhone 6S. That final point is noticeable if you've got weak spots in your home Wi-Fi, certainly when you glance down and see your iPad has full bars and the SE doesn't.
The battery capacity hasn't been made any bigger than in the iPhone 5S, but due to savings from processor performance it should last longer than the older handset. And we're easily getting a full day's use out of the SE - getting to around 10pm with about 20 per cent of battery left, which is similar to a lot of competitor flagships these days.
That does vary based on not only what you do with the phone, but also your movements. Twitter and Facebook still kill battery like you're attacking a free all-you-can-eat buffet with only 10 minutes before it closes.
The bottom line is that the iPhone SE might look like it's from 2014, but it is very much a 2016 phone in terms of performance. Just because it's smaller scale doesn't mean it's not big on power.
iPhone SE review: Camera
Wow. The SE's camera is great. It features the same 12-megapixel rear camera found on the iPhone 6S, giving any iPhone 5S users a huge leap from the 8-megapixel camera.
The new iPhone SE camera supports 4K video recording (3840 x 2160) at 30fps or 1080p HD video recording at 30fps or 60fps, as well as the huge 63MB panoramas introduced on the iPhone 6S in September 2015. You also get Apple's TruTone flash for more natural photos in low-light situations and a bunch of other Apple photography enhancements and tweaks.
All those technologies, including Live Photos support, combined with a number of processing enhancements means you'll visibly see the difference straight away if you are an iPhone 5 or 5S user.
Regardless of whether you are upgrading or moving to Apple for the first time, you get a cracking camera in your pocket. Photos are good in the sun, in the rain (we've had plenty of that during our testing), and low-light too. Skin tones are well catered for, and there's not a bad thing to say about the quality.
This is effectively the same camera Apple has used for its huge global billboard campaign ("Shot by iPhone") and if you like those pictures then you can expect the same creative potential here from the iPhone SE. And remember: the £359 price tag is about the same as a dedicated compact camera, not the £600-odd price tag of Apple's and other makers' flagship devices.
As for the front-facing camera, the SE has the Retina Flash which changes the screen to act as a flash, but the camera resolution is only 1.2-megapixels, and that is noticeable in its performance. It's not a complete disaster, but shots taken with this camera look soft and lack detail. It's a strange move to go so low-res, given that so many of us take selfies these days. This is really the only chink in Apple's photography armor when it comes to the iPhone SE. We would have liked to have seen the 5 megapixel camera found on the iPhone 6S here too.
iPhone SE review: Software, iOS 9.3.1
The iPhone SE runs iOS 9.3 - taking full advantage of all the functionality of the company's operating system.
READ: iOS 9.3 tips and tricks
Because the SE is as capable as the flagship models you get all the software toys including the newly added Night Shift that changes the screen colour to a warmer hue a night to stop you being kept awake by "blue light" and of course things like Apple Pay so you can pay at most contactless pay machines across the world.
The only thing we've noticed you don't get is the double-tap feature to make the top of the screen accessible to your thumb. It's not surprising given you can reach the top of the SE's screen with your thumb anyway without having to change your grip.
The iPhone SE is a great smartphone that brings plenty of power in a small package. It's designed to appeal to those who aren't fussed by today's typically large flagship phones.
If you are upgrading from the iPhone 5S or iPhone 5 and don't want a larger phone then the SE is a no-brainer. It's faster in every aspect and delivers a phone that will feel familiar but deliver the goods at today's current top-spec level.
Current Android users, too, looking to shift over but avoid inflated flagship costs or the large-scale budget pitfalls that swamp some poorly built and frustratingly sluggish mid-level devices may find recompense in Apple's smaller-scale offering. Apple is hoping that by offering powerful, but small, it will appeal to those who haven't gone to Sony.
While iPhone 6S users are likely to turn their noses up at the SE, during our review time we've really enjoyed the liberating dinkiness of the SE, especially when out running. Perhaps it's a radical idea, but we can easily see some wealthier iPhone 6S and Plus users finding appeal in the iPhone SE being a weekend or running phone.
As far as shortcomings go, the SE lacks some of the top top spec features sound in the 6S, such as 3D Touch, while the front-facing camera isn't particularly good. Plus, and it almost goes without saying, that 4-inch screen isn't going to suit everyone.
Bigger is normally always better, but sometimes great things come in small packages too.