- Design identical to iPhone 5 / 5S apart from new rose gold variant
- Very easy to hold and use in one hand
The design of the iPhone SE, as you've probably already guessed, is identical to that of the iPhone 5S.
That means you've got the same compact chassis that fits perfectly in one hand, the chamfered edges to provide a different texture and comfort to the edge of the phone and the same overall boxy design from the days of yore.
In fact, visually the only difference is the thing now comes in rose gold. That's it.
The phone does indeed fit well in the palm, with almost no stretching needed to get to all parts of the screen. What's surprising is how Apple hasn't drawn in any design elements from the iPhone 6S, keeping things like the 'battery-like' + and - icons on the volume keys, the larger drilled holes of the speaker grille at the bottom of the phone and the power button living on the top of the handset.
It makes sense, I guess. After all, they were well made then, and they're as premium-looking now. The finish on the metal chassis is always impressive from Apple, and combined with the new rose gold color always makes me feel like I'm looking at a high end phone when glancing at the display on my desk.
What's funny is that one of the same issues I had with the older model, which I thought was just a slight manufacturing defect, is back once again. If you shake the phone at all, something will rattle - the power button doesn't seem properly attached on some level.
Clearly this is a design point Apple is fine with, else it would have been eradicated a few years later when rebooting the phone's design - it's irritating though, as it diminishes the iPhone SE's premium feel.
I do like the smaller design though, despite the fact I'm firmly a fan of larger phones these days. It's almost a novelty having something so capable that I can use one-handed, and it's surprising that so many brands have shied away from doing the same thing.
In terms of weight, it's super hard to even tell you've even got the phone in your pocket, thanks to it being 113g light. That's a whole 1g more than the 5S, but it's impossible to tell the difference.
The 'click' and pressure needed on all the buttons remains perfect, with the feedback feeling like it's the result of months (or in this case, years) of honing.
From the mute rocker switch to the volume keys, I'm a real fan of the way this phone has been put together (although I wish it wasn't just one mono speaker firing out the bottom of the phone.)
However, my biggest bugbear with Apple (and phone brands in general) is that this is a backwards step in terms of phone design. Yes, it's a popular shape (as the quick survey on the train proved), but the identical iPhone SE is nothing but a 'bonus' version of the 5S.
I'm fully behind Apple's decision to bring the raw power of its flagship phones to the smaller form factor, but it could have rebooted the design quite easily. Why are we not seeing a smaller phone with the same curved edges of the iPhone 6S, a smaller, pebble-like experience in the hand? Now that would have been exciting.
It's easy to see why the form remains though: the brand has surely invested in the manufacturing processes to create the iPhone 5 and 5S, and rather than cover them in a dust sheet has cranked them into use once more.
It's a great exercise in cost saving, and while you can ask why one of the richest companies in the world needs to keep its margins as high as possible when it could afford to take this hit... well, there's a reason it's so wealthy.
That said, I firmly believe that every phone, to be considered a success and a step forward, needs to be obviously different from its predecessor, to make the user feel like they're getting something new for their money.
The angled sides seen on the iPhone SE were brilliant in 2010 when they appeared on the iPhone 4, but they're tired now, so the SE will always feel like only a small, if powerful, update.
- Screen still disappointingly low-res
- Screen brightness is too dark compared to other comparable phones
Another issue I've got here with the new iPhone is the screen - like the chassis, it's straight out of 2012, coming as it did with the iPhone 5. While you could just think that it's simply a smaller version of what's on the current iPhone duo, in truth it's rather old in terms of spec.
Of course it's a Retina display, Apple's shorthand for a phone that hits a certain sharpness at a certain distance from your eyes - but in a 4-inch display, there's a noticeable lack of sharpness here.
Apple's always focused more on the quality of the display than pixel density - its iPad range is industry-leading when it comes to having a great-looking screen, rather than shoving in more pixels for the sake of it.
But when Samsung is easily making the best smartphone screens in the world, and even the iPhone 8 is stuck on a 720p display, I'd have hoped for a little bit of an upgrade for the iPhone SE. Instead it's used the same LCD and digitizer layer as found on the older models (again, likely to save money on production) and as a result it's clearly less sharp and lower quality than the flagship brands.
The key thing for any brand in making a quality phone is making sure four pillars are present and correct: great design, non-annoying battery life, good camera and quality screen. After all, it's the bit you stare at most.
Apple's not stupid though - this display is more than good enough. The lower contrast ratio (800:1 is quite far behind some of the top phones on the market right now - the new iPhone 6S duo included) is probably the most irksome element, but in terms of sharpness the 4-inch display handles the 1334x750 resolution adequately.
One thing I didn't miss a jot was 3D Touch. I still like the idea of a screen that has levels of pressure response baked right in, but I constantly forgot the feature was there on the larger iPhone (although it has got better over the years).
While it would have been nice to have the option on the SE, it's not like I ever felt the experience was compromised by its omission.
And when viewing Live Photos in the gallery app, the simple long press on the screen activated the mini-video just fine. On the iPhone 6S you need to prod the screen a little harder to get the motion going - it just seems like overkill when it's so easy to do without the technology on the SE.
Movies, music and gaming
- Excellent sound performance
- Screen is too small for extended movie watching
- Sound out of single speaker isn't powerful
- Gaming is so impressive on a phone this small
The main issue I encountered with the iPhone SE's screen was when watching movies. The Retina display can't even display the lower end of HD movies... but that does make buying them a little cheaper, I guess.
The sharpness looked OK actually - better than I was expecting / remembered from the iPhone 5S. But I've become used to a much more vivid and visible screen, and watching any kind of 'atmospheric' (read: a bit darker) movie meant I had to fire the brightness right up.
As you'll see in our battery tests later, this had far less effect than on older Apple phones as the improved internals help improve power management on the iPhone SE, but I'd rather not have to fire the brightness right up on my phone just to watch a movie.
Gaming was a similar experience, with the power of the iPhone SE easily taking on any title that needed a bit of raw grunt to run smoothly. Real Racing 3 still looks great - and is a great benchmark to test whether a lot of fast action can be handled on screen at once.
But other games, like Warhammer 40,000 Freeblade, ran super smoothly even with loads going on throughout the screen - it's weird to see such a thing, like a Ferrari engine shoved into a small Fiat but somehow fitting in well.
In short, the performance of the iPhone SE is astounding given the size and what Apple's had to fit in the smaller chassis.
And that includes the excellent audio reproduction I've come to expect from the Cupertino-based brand. I've not got the audiophilic ears that some of my TechRadar colleagues possess, so my main rule of thumb is usually 'does it sound SUPER TERRIBLE Y/N?'
But a couple of times, paired with some decent Marshall headphones, the iPhone SE caught me by surprise with the audio clarity of just listening to average quality songs on Spotify. Apple's iPod heritage is still going strong here, despite the lack of overt support for the new wave of Hi-Res sound files.