iPhone SE review
Apple announced the iPhone SE at an event in March 2016 alongside the 9.7in iPad Pro, and started selling it weeks later in April 2016. The iPhone SE wasn't a flagship phone even when it launched, though - it was a replacement for the old iPhone 5s, the previous 4in iPhone, and an alternative to the larger and more expensive 4.7in and 5.5in iPhones which had proved highly popular, but which some users found too big.
Apple markets the iPhone SE as an iPhone 6s in an iPhone 5s shell, but is this accurate? And is there a place for the iPhone SE now the iPhone 7, 8 and X have launched? Mobile Fun provided us with a review sample of the iPhone SE, so let's find out.
Not sure which iPhone is best for you? Take a look at our iPhone buying guide.
Design and build
In terms of design, the iPhone SE is essentially an iPhone 5s in a new box - but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The iPhone SE is crafted from the same bead-blasted aluminium as the 5s, providing users with a smooth finish that doesn't show fingerprints (although it isn't the strengthened Series 7000 aluminium present in the iPhone 6s and iPhone 7). The blocky, edgy and slightly industrial design of the iPhone 5s, in our opinion, at least, was ahead of its time and looks as good today as it did when it was unveiled back in September 2013.
It's the small details of the iPhone SE design that make it what it is, from the matte-chamfered edges to the stainless steel logo on the rear of the smartphone.
Above: the iPhone 5s (left) and the iPhone SE. Picture credit: Jason Snell
Many smartphone manufacturers are shying away from pointed edges, employing curved edges and even curved displays in some cases, as this provides users with something that's more comfortable to hold, especially with a large display. However due to the small dimensions of the iPhone SE - 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm, to be exact - along with the pointed edges provides us with extra grip, with no real worry about the iPhone slipping from our hand, as curved smartphones like the iPhone 7 are prone to do.
It's also lightweight at only 113g, making it 25g lighter than Apple's 138g flagship iPhone 7. Essentially, if you're looking for a small and lightweight smartphone, the iPhone SE looks to be a good option.
If you do decide to grab yourself an iPhone SE, you'll have a choice of colours to choose from. Along with the fairly standard Silver, Space Grey and Gold you'll also find a Rose Gold colour option, Apple's latest 'flavour' that made its debut on the iPhone 6s and Apple Watch back in September 2015, before also making its way to the iPad range.
Apple ditched the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7 to make its flagship smartphone thinner than ever, which is of course bad news for those of us with expensive wired headphones (although there are some good Lightning headphones and Bluetooth headphones on the market). Thankfully the 3.5mm jack is present on the iPhone SE at the bottom of the device, situated alongside the Lightning port and speaker grilles.
The lock button is in the same place as the iPhone 5s, at the top of the device; that may take some getting used to, as many manufacturers now place the power button on the right-hand side of smartphones (including Apple itself, on the larger iPhone models). We found ourselves initially reaching to the right to lock it, but it's something you get used to fairly quickly. And the circular (as opposed to the pill shape with the iPhone 6 and newer) volume buttons and silent mode toggle are in the same place, on the left-hand side of the iPhone SE.
While we love familiarity, we're a tad disappointed that the Home button houses the same first-generation Touch ID sensor as the iPhone 5s did, despite the iPhone 6s and 7 shipping with a much faster and more accurate second-generation fingerprint sensor.
Of course, the biggest (or should we say smallest?) feature of the iPhone SE is its small 4in display, allowing the smartphone to be used comfortably with one hand. Many users weren't comfortable with the 4.7in and 5.5in iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, and some even held back on upgrading because they couldn't, for whatever reason, get on with a large display. We tend to use larger iPhones, so the experience of going from an iPhone 7 Plus to an iPhone SE was strange - but in a good way.
We'd forgotten just how comfortable it is to hold a phone so small. We'd forgotten how easy it was to text and use one-handed. We forgot about the magic of a small-screen smartphone.
Sure, there are downsides to having a smaller display: text fills up more of the screen, less information is displayed at once, pictures are a little harder to see and, in our opinion, a lot of games aren't as enjoyable. But there's something about the 4in smartphone that makes it a joy to use. It could be the reachability, as we're easily able to reach every button using our thumb, or it could just be that a smaller smartphone feels more secure and comfortable in the hand. Whatever it is, we're a fan of it.
Read next: iPhone SE vs iPhone 5s
Let's talk a little bit more about that 4in display that so many Apple users were craving prior to the iPhone SE announcement. The iPhone SE features a 4in IPS LCD display which Apple markets as being a 'Retina display'. For those unsure of what a Retina display is, Apple coined the term to refer to devices that have a resolution and pixel density of around 300ppi (pixels per inch) or higher, as the pixel density is so high that the user is unable to pick out individual pixels at a normal viewing distance. It's not to be confused with Retina HD either - we explain the definitions of Retina and Retina HD here.
This is indeed true of the iPhone SE - the 4in iPhone boasts a fairly low-resolution (when compared to Android smartphones, anyway) of 640x1136, but because of the small dimensions of the display it equates to a respectable pixel density of 326ppi, the same as Apple's iPhone 7.
While all that sounds fairly impressive, what users can see and experience with their eyes is what is most important. The iPhone SE display is surprisingly crisp, but this is most apparent when looking at text. Why? The high pixel density display provides smooth curves and sharpness of text that can rival printed text, and this makes reading everything from text messages to eBooks on the small display a comfortable (and enjoyable) experience.
However, since iOS 10, we've found the software to not be fully optimised for the smaller 4in screen. With the latest iPhones having larger displays, it feels that Apple has simply shrunk down the interface, making basic operations very hard on the smaller 4in iPhone - unless of course, you have very small hands!
The same can be said with high-quality photos - as long as the image you're looking at is relatively high-resolution, you can pick out tiny details in the photo that may not be visible on other, low-resolution smartphones. Colours are bright and vibrant too, although we wouldn't mind seeing Apple employ a Super AMOLED display on one of its smartphones in future to provide the extra 'wow' factor that many Android rivals have.
3D Touch is one of the flagship features of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, allowing the display to measure the amount of force exerted instead of only registering touch input. Developers are integrating 'peek and pop' integration into their apps and adding shortcuts to the home screen icons, providing users with completely new ways to interact with their apps. With such an emphasis on 3D Touch, we were hoping the feature would make an appearance on the iPhone SE - but we were wrong.
Read more: Best 3D Touch tips & shortcuts
There is no 3D Touch integration and while this probably isn't a deal breaker for most, it could mean that the iPhone SE may get 'left behind' sooner rather than later. We're not talking about iOS updates as the SE will be supported for years to come – we're talking more about in terms of features available to them. In the same way that iPhone 5 (and earlier) users can't use Touch ID as a form of identification in apps, iPhone SE users may not be able to perform actions that improve the overall app/iOS experience.
Interestingly, thanks to an iFixit teardown, it was revealed that the iPhone SE features the same front panel as was used with the iPhone 5s. This means that both the display and front facing camera are the exact same as Apple's 2013 flagship and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it explains the lack of 3D Touch integration.
Performance and benchmarking
Apple fans called for another 4in iPhone because the iPhone 5s just isn't up to scratch anymore, so it was important for Apple to make sure that the 4in iPhone SE was powerful enough to compete with other flagship smartphones on the market. The company seems to have succeeded, as inside the iPhone SE you'll find Apple's A9 chipset paired with an M9 motion co-processor and 2GB of RAM - exactly what's found in Apple's 2016 flagship iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.
This means, generally speaking, that the iPhone SE should provide similar performance levels to its bigger and more expensive brother, the iPhone 6s. In fact, due to the smaller resolution of the 4in display, it may even perform slightly better than the flagship Apple smartphone – in theory, anyway. But before we talk about benchmarking scores, let's first talk about what the iPhone SE is actually like to use in terms of performance.
The iPhone SE is rapid, there is no doubt about that. Swiping between app menus and opening apps is almost instant, and the SE doesn't even stutter when opening the Camera - an area that notoriously slows down smartphones. Even though we mentioned above that the 4in display of the iPhone SE doesn't provide the best gaming experience possible, that's down to screen size and not performance. We've played a series of games on the iPhone SE from relatively simple platformers like Crossy Road to more power-intense games like Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions and futuristic racer AG Drive with no sign of lag or unresponsiveness.
In fact, we even went out of our way to try and get the iPhone SE to fall over and stutter/lag by doing things like changing app while loading a power-intensive game, or constantly opening and closing an app (we know, technical right?). All our efforts were futile, though, as the iPhone SE laughed at our poor efforts and didn't even break a sweat, responding to every single tap. So it's fair to say that the iPhone SE can match the iPhone 6s performance in general, but it's time to talk specifics.
We ran three separate tests – Geekbench, GFXBench and AnTuTu – to test the performance of the iPhone SE, and to make sure there were no anomalies in the results, we ran each test three times and took the average score of each.
In Geekbench 3, our first benchmark test, the iPhone SE scored 2254 in the single-core test and 4459 in the multi-core test, which actually beat our iPhone 6s Geekbench results, (although not by much) by scoring 2511 and 4404 respectively. This puts the iPhone SE in line with the likes of the Galaxy S6 (4438) and Moto X Force (4455), two smartphones with similar pricing, suggesting that the iPhone SE performance is just right for its price tag. It also suggests that the iPhone 6s is underperforming based on its price, but that's another story altogether.
In AnTuTu, a general performance benchmark test, the iPhone SE scored 123,981, which by itself means absolutely nothing. For reference, it's not quite as good as the iPhone 6s which scored 134,067, but it is almost double the score of the last 4in iPhone, the iPhone 5s. The iPhone 5s managed only 64,901 which, according to AnTuTu at least, suggests that the iPhone SE provides double the performance of its older sibling. It's still not enough to beat the Galaxy S7 in this respect, though, as the flagship Samsung smartphone scored 129,077 in our sister site PC Advisor's test.
However, it's in the graphics department that the iPhone SE really shines, and the GFXBench results speak for themselves. We ran two graphic-intense benchmarks in GFXBench (Manhattan and T-Rex) and measured the frame rate of each, and the iPhone SE scored an impressive average score of 58fps and 60fps respectively.
How does this compare to the competition? Incredibly, the iPhone SE beats almost all competition, including the Samsung Galaxy S7. Let's take a look at T-Rex; the iPhone SE scored 60fps (matching the iPhone 6s score), beating the 53fps score of the Galaxy S7 and Xperia Z5 Premium. It's the same story in Manhattan too, with the SE hitting 58fps compared to the 52fps offering of the iPhone SE, and 27fps offering from the Galaxy S7. While the results seem too good to be true, there is a simple explanation for the results.
GFXBench measures the graphical power of your smartphone, but it doesn't take into consideration the resolution – something that varies from smartphone to smartphone and is very important for graphics benchmarks. Why? Essentially, smartphones with a small resolution like the iPhone SE with a decent processor will perform better than those with a larger resolution and high-end processor as the processor and GPU have to power fewer pixels on-screen.
This means that even though the iPhone SE outperforms the Galaxy S7 in benchmark tests, this is due to the fact that the iPhone SE features a sub-full HD display (640x1136) while the Samsung flagship features a QHD (Quad HD) display, boasting an eye-watering resolution of 1440x2560. Of course, this only matters when directly comparing smartphones, and doesn't mean that the iPhone SE underperforms in any way – in fact, the combination of a low-res display and decent processor works pretty well if you're not too fussed about high-resolution gaming.
Curious about how the iPhone SE compares to the rest of the iPhone family? We've benchmarked every iPhone available to buy from Apple to see just how different each generation is, and presented it in the form of an interactive graph below:
Read next: iPhone SE vs iPhone 6s
Camera and photography
The iPhone SE features a 12Mp rear facing camera which, contrary to popular belief, isn't identical to the camera used in the iPhone 6s. While the two cameras aren't the same, the iPhone SE does have the same 12Mp sensor and fast image signal processor as the flagship iPhone, providing SE users with higher resolution images. This is especially true of panoramas, jumping up to a maximum of 63Mp compared to 28Mp photos possible with the iPhone 5s. It also provides quicker capture times, which is what we've found in our tests – photos were taken almost instantly in our experience.
The iPhone SE also features Live Photo support; when Live Photos is enabled in the Camera app, you'll capture a small video clip from before and after the photo was taken which can be played back at any time with audio. It provides users with a snapshot of a moment or memory and is a great feature to have when you're feeling a little nostalgic.
iPhone photography is a varied beast at the best of times – Apple's smartphone cameras are notoriously great in well-lit situations but tend to fail as the environment becomes darker. The iPhone SE takes great photos in broad daylight, boasting detailed images with vibrant colours, however in darker situations the photos quickly become noisy, colours aren't as vibrant and the images are slightly disappointing when compared to the competition. Take the below images as an example - it was taken in broad daylight and boasts great detail, sharpness and colour reproduction.
Even if you zoom into the above photo of St. Pancras, you'll be able to pick out individual bricks of the building or pick out features of those walking by. Agreed, it's not as great as other flagship smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 but it was never meant to compete with £600+ flagship - if anything, it's an issue with Apple's iPhone 6s. However, when compared to a photo taken on an iPhone 5s, the improvement is quite obvious to see:
The colours are more washed out, and the definition isn't there - not even on the side of the building that is practically perfectly lit. In fact, in certain places the building looks smooth. The colours aren't as vibrant as the photo taken by the iPhone SE either, obvious with both the colour of St. Pancras hotel and the sky above it. The iPhone 5S's noise reduction is also a lot more obvious here, with the photo looking 'smudgy' when zoomed in.
The iPhone SE doesn't do a bad job of taking photos in poorly lit environments, but we do believe there are smartphones on the market that can do a better job - although maybe not at the same price of the iPhone SE. As you can see in the above photo, colours are generally more washed out than in a well-lit photo, and the detail has largely disappeared. While you can still make out the various objects in the photo, zooming in really showcases the loss of detail. Evidence of Apple's noise-removing algorithm is more apparent here too, with the details becoming smudged inspected closely - take a look at the below crop to understand what we mean:
You may have noticed that we haven't really talked about the front facing camera, and that's because it's the same 1.2Mp camera featured on old Apple smartphones like the iPhone 5s. There isn't much to say about it really - it's enough to use for the likes of FaceTime and Snapchat, but not much else. To give you an idea of the quality available on other Apple devices, the iPhone 6s features a 5Mp camera while the iPhone 7 features a 7mp camera.
Anyway, that's enough about photos, now let's talk video: the iPhone SE features 4K video recording capabilities, and like the iPhone 6s, you can also take 8Mp stills while recording. Of course, if that's not your style then you can record 1080p HD at either 30 or 60 frames per second, as well as having access to [email protected] and [email protected] for slow-mo action.
The [email protected] video option provides gorgeous, smooth video but due to the higher frame rate, it falls flat on its face in dark environments. It'd make sense for Apple to offer some kind of toggle in the Camera app to quickly change between video modes, but this isn't available at present and makes changing video formats a much more long-winded process than need be.
Unlike Apple's flagship, there is no optical image stabilisation for photos or videos but Apple claims it features "cinematic video stabilisation" - software that'll automatically stabilise your photos. While we were initially sceptical about software based stabilisation, we were quite impressed by just how stable it was. While the video isn't completely static, it has this beautiful smoothness to it that when combined with the 60fps frame rate looks close to gorgeous. Take a look at the below video, which was recorded with one hand whilst walking down (and up again) a flight of stairs:
Battery life is an important factor of any smartphone, and the iPhone SE doesn't disappoint - although official battery life tests seemingly disagree. The iPhone SE features a 1624mAh battery, which is slightly bigger than the 1560mAh battery featured in the iPhone 5s, and boasts with a more efficient processor, suggesting that the iPhone SE would have better battery life. Apple itself claims that the iPhone SE will manage up to 14 hours of 3G talk time or 13 hours of internet browsing on Wi-Fi and while we found it hard to confirm these claims, we found the iPhone SE battery life to be generally quite good.
We understand that 'good' isn't the best word to use when describing the iPhone SE battery life, so it's best to give real-world examples based on our time with the smartphone. We, like many other commuters, use our iPhone to listen to music during our morning commute. When using our iPhone 6s, we usually get to work with around 80-85 percent battery remaining however when we used the iPhone SE, we found that it only drained by 8-10 percent. While it's not a huge difference when in use, the iPhone SE in standby lasted an impressively long time - we managed to go almost two days straight without charging the smartphone, although our usage was admittedly limited.
So why don't official battery tests support our real-world usage claims? We're not quite sure. We ran two battery life tests on our iPhone SE and according to the results, the smartphone lasted around four hours before it ran out of charge. In comparison, a decent Android smartphone can last from anywhere between six and nine hours on a single charge.
We're not quite sure why this is happening and it may be down to different methods of battery life benchmarking on iOS and Android, but we refuse to stand by the results and claim that the iPhone SE should go most of the day (if not all day, with normal usage) without needing a charge.
As of September 2016, the iPhone SE comes running Apple's latest operating system, iOS 10 – if you have bought an older boxed version of the SE, it might come with iOS 9, where you'll be entitled to a free upgrade to iOS 10 (provided you have an internet connection).
While Apple's iOS mobile operating system is essentially the same across all its devices, there are a number of features unique to a handful of smartphones including the iPhone SE. The biggest software feature of the iPhone SE is 'Hey Siri' support, something only available on the latest Apple products including the iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, 7, 7 Plus and iPad Pro. What is it? iPhone SE users can teach Siri to recognise their voice, and from that point can activate Siri hands-free simply by saying “Hey Siri”. Siri, for those unaware, is Apple's virtual assistant that can handle a variety of requests, from making calls to finding out the meaning of obscure words like 'cantankerous'.
Along with Hey Siri, iOS 9 also introduced a contextually intelligent, predictive assistant that Apple refers to as 'Proactive' - this feature is available on iOS 10 too. No, this doesn't mean that Siri will start having human conversations about your day – instead, you'll be offered a series of shortcuts to various contacts and apps depending on your habits. Say, for example, you call your other half every day after work at 5:30pm. Proactive will learn this habit over time and at around 5:30, it'll offer a one-tap shortcut to call your partner. It's the same with apps, and it'll even offer a Music app shortcut on the lock screen whenever headphones are plugged in. As with Apple's design philosophy, it's the little things about iOS 9 and 10 that make it what it is.
However, as noted in our display section, we found the latest iOS 10 software to be not fully optimised for a smaller 4in screen - where certain things are very hard to click on and it's obvious that the problem wouldn't exist on a larger screen. A prime example is using music apps, where the seek bar and controls are extremely hard to press, unless you have very small fingers.
Apple A9 chip, M9 motion co-processor
Apple iOS 10
12Mp, f/2.2, 29mm, phase detection autofocus, dual-LED flash, 1/3" sensor size, 1.22 µm pixel size
1.2 MP, f/2.4, 31mm, [email protected] , face detection, HDR
Video: 720p HD
Non-removable 1624mAh battery
First generation Touch ID
So, how much will you have to spend to get yourself an iPhone SE, and is it worth the money?
Unlike with other models of the iPhone, the iPhone SE is only available in two variations; while it used to offer one with 16GB of storage and one with 64GB of storage, a recent update to the line now provides users with 32- and 128GB of storage at no extra cost. The smaller variant will set you back £349 while the 128GB variant will set you back £100 more at £449 - these can be purchased via the Apple Store directly, or through other retailers like John Lewis.
It was about time Apple updated its 4-inch iPhone line (and there remain a few of us whose small hands and pockets will appreciate this more portable design), and this is a sensible refresh of a much-loved product. We'd forgotten about just how nice it is to hold and use a petite 4in smartphone, and just how comfortable it is to handle one-handed.
The SE is as fast as an iPhone 6s thanks to the A9 chipset and as portable as an iPhone 5s, so if you're in the market for a new 4in smartphone then this is a very good choice. While the lack of 3D Touch, a barometer, second-gen Touch ID or a 128GB storage option are all irritants, that's a combination that will be enough to convince a lot of Apple fans.
Essentially, it's good... for those that need it.