Allow me to narrate a personal anecdote before I actually review the Apple iPhone SE, because even the mere existence of this product is baffling to many.
Recently, I noticed a friend using the monstrous Sony Xperia Z Ultra, which has a 6.4-inch display. I decided to talk to him about his preference.
Me: Don’t you feel uncomfortable fitting the phone in your jeans pocket?
Friend: No, in fact, I carry my phone in my hand all the time and I really like the big screen for watching videos.
Me: But, you ride a bike…
Friend: It is alright, I’ll make the trade-off. I like phones with big screens and I cannot lie (yes, he made a cringe-inducing reference to the famous Sir Mix-A-Lot song about the female posterior)
This is not the story of a single person, but the market reality – people, especially us Indians, love big phones. We’ve lapped up phones with big screens ever since Samsung introduced its first generation Galaxy Note to the market. Hence, Apple introducing (or re-introducing, to be more precise) the iPhone SE toting a tiny 4-inch display in today’s market scenario can cause some bewilderment. That said, the internal specifications of the phone are on par with the iPhone 6s, making it a powerful phone.
In short, Apple has basically rebranded the iPhone 5s with more powerful specifications and has now called it the iPhone SE. I used this phone for around two weeks to figure out if this strategy actually makes sense.
The iPhone 5s doppelgänger
To simply say that the iPhone SE is a carbon copy of the iPhone 5s wouldn’t be wrong. While the “why fix something if it ain’t broke” adage applies to the iPhone SE, I don’t really like this approach. It feels like Apple has sacrificed on creating a new design to bring out the product to the market early. This might be an easy fix for Apple but in the end the users are shortchanged because the iPhone SE looks a lot like the iPhone 5s and the flaunt value generally associated with Apple devices goes for a toss. I had a few folks asking me if I had downgraded from my iPhone 6 (personal phone). I had to control my embarrassment, flip the phone and show the iPhone SE marking at the rear.
If I had to look at the iPhone SE as a fresh design, it does cut a smart figure. In fact, I think that the iPhone SE (and the 5s) is the best looking and best designed iPhone ever. It is the right size for a phone: fits in the pocket perfectly, has neatly designed chamfered edges and rounded corners, has no ugly antenna lines, no camera bulge, and is perfect for single hanged usage. The use of metal and glass actually makes it look more like a jewel than just a phone, especially the gold variant that I reviewed. Do note that the phone is also available in the new rose gold colour, apart from the regular space grey, silver and gold.
Display from 2013
The major drawback of the iPhone SE is its display. Even if one overlooks the design, the fact that the display resolution is still 640×1136 pixels is a major letdown. It is a retina display, no doubt, and you won’t be able to spot any pixelation, but the low resolution is an aberration compared to the Full-HD and QHD displays that one is so accustomed to these days.
Moreover, the display has a warm tone and the whites look yellowish. The colour saturation is pretty good and so are the viewing angles. The display can also get really bright and is clearly legible under bright sunlight.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone SE’s display is good, but the low resolution is not something you’d expect to see in a phone selling in 2016. Also, the lack of 3D Touch on the iPhone SE might cause a few buyers to opt out of buying the phone.
Stable and lag-free software, courtesy iOS
Apple’s mobile operating system iOS is known for its stability and closed ecosystem. The walled garden approach to its operating system generally evokes a love-it or hate-it response from users. Despite the lack of customisation options, I like the OS. The iPhone SE comes with the latest iOS 9.3.2 by default. It is just a minor improvement over the previous update and doesn’t include any drastic changes.
The latest iOS update includes Night Shift, a mode where the phone automatically shifts the colour of your display to a warmer tone after dark so that exposure to bright blue light doesn’t affect your sleep. The Notes app is now password protected, which allows you to assign your fingerprint or a code to unlock the app, therefore protecting it from miscreants who might misuse the information.
The Apple News app is still unavailable for Indian users and of course the new 3D Touch shortcuts are missing because the iPhone SE doesn’t include the technology.
One thing’s for sure though, iOS seems to be tailor-made for the 4-inch iPhones like the iPhone SE. The design of the OS is such that all the visual elements such as the notifications panel, control panel, and the multitasking carousel blend in seamlessly. Even most of the apps feel really well-designed for the smaller screen. It all just fits, like a really good pair of jeans – the one that can definitely not accommodate my friend’s Sony Xperia Z Ultra.
To call the iPhone SE a powerful phone would be quite an understatement. It has the same specifications as that of the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6s Plus, which means it that it has the same amount of grunt.
The iPhone SE comes with a 1.84GHz dual-core A9 SoC with PowerVR GT7600 GPU and 2GB of RAM. However, the phone is available only in two storage variants – 16GB and 64GB. It is a pity that Apple decided to skip the 128GB version for the iPhone SE.
Now, thanks to all the muscle under-the-hood, the iPhone SE just blazes through all the tasks without complaining. Gaming on this phone is a lag-free, smooth and stable experience. The benchmark scores are testimony to this fact. In our Slingshot Extreme test, the SE scored 1,999, whereas the iPhone 6s Plus achieved only 1,879 points. Similarly, the iPhone SE’s Geekbench score was also on par with its phablet counterpart. What’s most impressive is that unlike the smattering of Android devices I’ve used in the past, including flagship ones, the iPhone SE didn’t heat up even once.
The iPhone SE also packs a punch in the multimedia department with its stellar music and video performance. The EarPods are one of the best bundled earphones I’ve used but you can get even better sound quality with a better pair of earphones/headphones. On the downside though, the mono speakers, despite getting loud, sound really hollow. The fingerprint scanner on the iPhone SE is the one from iPhone 6 and it is slightly slower to respond.
Takes pictures worth sharing
Apple has endowed the iPhone SE with the same 12-megapixel F2.2 rear camera that is present on the iPhone 6s. There is no optical image stabilisation, though. As usual, taking pictures is a breeze using the camera app and the Live Photos mode introduced with the iPhone 6s is also present on the SE.
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It goes without saying that the rear camera on the iPhone SE is one of the fastest shooters around. Try the burst mode at least once to understand the speed with which the iPhone SE can capture images. In fact, it sounds like a machine gun in burst mode – rat-a-tat-tat. I used the phone in the city of Hyderabad in India. It has been unusually cloudy of late, and has been raining on and off as well. Most of our shots were captured in these conditions and yet, the iPhone SE managed to captured a good amount of details. The colour reproduction is close to natural, which was clearly evident from the accurate reds – a colour that most cameras struggle to reproduce. Moreover, there wasn’t any noticeable purple fringing or barrel distortion, either.
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The camera can also capture 4K videos at 30fps but by default it is set to shoot 1080p videos at 30fps. I had to tinker with the settings app to change it to 4K recording by default. The videos I shot were crisp and had absolutely no lag, whatsoever. Additionally, shooting modes such as slow motion videos in 240fps in 720p and 120fps in 1080p, and time lapse, are really cool; I haven’t come across a single phone that matches the performance of the iPhone in these specific modes.
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The major disappointment in the iPhone SE is the 1.2-megapixel front camera with a very narrow field-of-view. The selfies are not a patch on the ones captured by the iPhone 6s and a plethora of Android smartphones. Thankfully, the uber cool Retina Flash from the iPhone 6s has been used on the iPhone SE as well. It really helps in low-light situations and the resulting selfies do look good.
Battery life lasts longer than expected
Android phones these days come with battery capacities that are north of 3,000mAh and yet only last a day, or a day and a half, at max. The iPhone SE comes with a minuscule 1,624mAh battery, and yet it lasts a day easily even on heavy usage. My personal phone is an iPhone 6 and there are at least 110 apps. I installed the same backup on the iPhone SE. Calling me a heavy user would be an understatement – my phone is constantly pinging for information through apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Messenger, Instagram, and this is apart from the few calls that I make in a day which last at least an hour (all combined), at least 30 minutes of music playback, and 30 minutes of gaming.
You can also switch to the Low Power mode if you wish to extend the battery life as the iPhone SE kills a few background apps. However, do note that the iPhone SE is not a battery powerhouse and you cannot expect it to last for two days at a stretch.
Should you buy the iPhone SE?
If you are currently using the iPhone 5s and like its form-factor and design, we would absolutely recommend you to switch to the iPhone SE. At a retail price of Rs. 39,000, it might seem expensive but it packs more power than you could have bargained for. That said, one can’t possibly predict the market for small phones; it really seems like a niche crowd that Apple is trying to serve to.
I liked using the iPhone SE a lot and it was a refreshing change from using large phones so much so that my iPhone 6 suddenly feels a little too big. However, I believe I am an anomaly in the sea of people looking for their next large phone. That said, I’d suggest against buying an iPhone 6 for now. If you can’t afford to buy an iPhone 6s and, for some odd reason, want a phone with a smaller form factor, the iPhone SE is your best bet at the moment.