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 two-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/7/8 and 6S Plus/7 Plus/8 Plus are just too big and the iPhone X too expensive. 

So should this handset be given a look in, or do the more powerful iPhones make it one to ignore? 

If the iPhone SE looks familiar, that's because it features a near identical design to the long-gone 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").

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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 iPhone 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
Thickness (mm) 7.6 7.1 7.3

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 bigger iPhones previously, downsizing to the SE is a surprising breath of fresh air without much compromise to the modern power we're used to. For all intents and purposes the SE has a stack of iPhone 6S tech inside - which we'll get to later.

While most of us have moved on to bigger devices it is clear that many still want something small scale.

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The main physical difference we've noticed between later iPhones and the 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 over the defined edge of the screen on the iPhone 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.

The iPhone SE sports a 4-inch 1136 x 640 pixel screen, which means that while it is lower in terms of resolution than later iPhones, it's just as sharp.

  iPhone SE iPhone 6S iPhone 6S Plus
Screen size 4-inch 4.7-inch 5.5-inch
Resolution 1136 x 640 1334 x 750 1920 x 1080
Pixel density 326ppi 326ppi 401ppi

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. 

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. Mind you, we don't know many people that actively use it all the time anyway - we think it's down to habitual memory.

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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 newer iPhones. 

When the iPhone SE was launched in 2016, Apple brought virtually all the tech from the then-flagship iPhone 6S to the 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)
RAM 2GB 2GB 2GB

That means you get the A9 processor 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. 

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The powerful processor is there because of all the rest of the toys Apple has brought to the table. The SE comes with Touch ID fingerprint recognition technology and support for Apple Pay (so you can pay for goods with a fingerprint at participating vendors). Naturally there's no Face ID as in the iPhone X. 

There is faster 4G LTE support, Bluetooth 4.2 connectivity, although only standard antennas rather than the MIMO Wi-Fi ones found in later iPhones. 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 Wi-Fi signal and the SE doesn't.

We easily getting a full day's use out of the SE - getting to around 10pm with about 20 percent of battery left.

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.

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The SE's 12-megapixel rear camera is great. It 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 have an iPhone that's an iPhone 5S or earlier. 

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.

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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.

 
Price when reviewed:
£359
Verdict

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 don't want a larger iPhone 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.

While iPhone 6S and later 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. 

As far as shortcomings go, the SE lacks some of the top top spec features from newer iPhones, 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.