iPhone SE Review: Apple is Out of Ideas

By Alex Cranz on at

As a tiny-fisted, lady pockets-rocking iPhone 6 user, I have been very excited about the iPhone SE. I’m not the only one. As soon as people hear I have it, they implore me to whip it out. We hold our phones together like boys in the locker room and compare sizes. “It’s so tiny,” they exclaim, even when they have an iPhone 5 or 5S.

It’s only been two years since the 4-inch iPhone was put to pasture, but it's already been forgotten. The memory of the consumer collective is brief. Here's our iPhone SE review.

What Is It?

Yet it isn’t quite fair to review the iPhone SE as a new device. Despite being the first iPhone to step away from Apple’s number-naming scheme, and despite being the first 4-inch iPhone in two years, it isn’t a product of innovation, but rather one of stagnation.

The iPhone 5, from which the SE borrows its entire external chassis, was the last product Steve Jobs was hands-on with, and yes, that’s a big deal. Without Steve Jobs, Apple has always been a rudderless company, adrift on the sea of technological trends. Back in the 90s it was even a punchline. The PowerBook 5300 had a tendency to burst into flames (mine never did) and earned a position of ridicule on Saturday Night Live. And the Newton series was so bad (though my brother adored his eMate 300) that Jobs axed it less than a year after he returned to the company.

From 1997 to 2010, the Apple brand lived and died on Steve Jobs’ every decision. Sure it was a company full of brilliant engineers, programmers and marketers, but it was Jobs’ magic touch that spurned the multitude of innovations that turned Apple into the second-largest company in the world. He was the one that added colour to the original iMac, insisted on the iPod’s navigation wheel and refused to let the iPhone get too big.

And as soon as he was gone, Tim Cook took all the ideas Jobs rejected and made them reality. So we got the fart in the wind that is the Apple Watch, and we got the behemoth iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. These products weren’t the result of innovation as much as they were the response to the clamouring of analysts, journalists and some portions of the public. That’s what the SE is too. It’s not innovation. It’s fulfilling a need and expanding a portfolio and other boring business words that Apple used to leave to more practical companies like Lenovo and Dell.

Design

While I’m knocking the SE for being proof that Apple is bereft of good ideas, I can’t actually knock the phone’s performance or form factor.

If you liked the 5 or the 5s and you’ve missed having a phone you could slip into your pocket and forget about, then you will love the SE. Larger phones never let you forget you’re carrying them as they stand half-out of your pack pocket. They scream gadget when you pull them out and two-thumb type a text to a friend. They’re decadent.

With the 6, I would stare at my phone just to stare at it, and on the train I was always terrified to leave it in my pocket. In the front, it jutted out of my pants and begged to be snagged by one of the weekly subway slashers/muggers, and in the back, it risked being bent under the weight of my own arse.

The SE on the other hand, is beautifully practical. It simply disappears.

Using It

The performance is fine too. The beauty of the iOS app ecosystem is that as long as the processor is only a year- or two-old, it will work perfectly. Applications stayed at a smooth 30 or 60 frames per second, depending on their FPS cap, and the pictures were gorgeous, as you’ve come to expect from an Apple phone. It really is just an iPhone 6S writ small.

But there is one problem with having an iPhone 6S smooshed into the body of an iPhone 5S — besides all the body switching fan-fiction it has inspired me to write. The display is still an iPhone 5S display. So it has the same resolution (lower than 720p) and pixels per inch (lower than anything made by Samsung). It also has the same default brightness, which is exceptionally lower than the iPhone 6 or 6S. When checking my email at the dog park, I never had to hunt for the brightness slider on my 6, but I have to regularly adjust it on my SE.

This does translate to solid battery life (your display is the primary drain on your battery, so a dimmer display means less drain). After two years, the iPhone 6 really struggles to make it past 12 hours of regular use. I unplug at 7:30 in the morning and am hunting for my charger by 8pm. I can handily go 24 hours with the SE, only plugging it in when I finally roll into the office each morning. Part of that has to do with the diminished returns on battery charging over time, but much of it has to do with improved handling of battery drain.

Should You Buy It?

The iPhone SE isn’t an awful phone. If you’ve been staring off into the distance singing “someday my tiny phone will come” then you can stop. This is it. The best phone under 4 inches currently available.

But how long will that last? In September, Apple will announce the iPhone 7 and it will likely have a whole new design and vastly superior internals. Unless they update the SE at the same time (unlikely as Apple does not do six-month product cycles), its guts will be a year old. That’s ancient in the technological world. So even though you have the fastest small phone money can buy, it’s still not top of the line. It’s effectively the “budget” device. Which means it’s a really great niche for Apple’s product line. But for the consumers? It’s just another decent phone.

Apple used to be a lot better than that.

README

  • It’s an iPhone 5S. If you liked that you’ll love it.
  • Is’s an iPhone 6s. If you liked that you’ll love it.
  • It doesn’t have 3D Touch. That’s probably fine.

Specs

OS: iOS 9
CPU: Apple A9
Screen: 4-inch, 1,136 x 640
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB / 64GB
Camera: 12-megapixel rear camera / 1.2-megapixel front camera
Colours: Space grey, gold, rose gold, silver
Price: £359 / £439