The iPhone 6 got more than its fair share of criticism for its size and shape: it was too big compared to the iPhone 5 and the rounded edges and the materials used made the smartphone rather slippery. Lots of Apple fans wanted something a bit more conservative and closer to the design of the last generation, and boy, did they get it. By popular demand, Apple used most of the iPhone 6S hardware in the 5S package, making the iPhone SE the smallest flagship smartphone currently available on the market. Its powerful hardware coupled with the smaller screen, have the potential to blow away the competition in terms of computing and multimedia performance. Understandably, we were very eager to test this amazing little smartphone and we did, for about a week. Let's see how it performed, in this review:
Packaging, design and build quality of the iPhone SE
Minimalism is the trademark of Apple and the packaging of the iPhone SE is no exception: a white, simple box, with the contents carefully and tightly packaged.
The smartphone is the first thing you will see when opening the box, with the rest of the accessories tucked away beneath it. No, it's not an iPhone 5S. We promise.
The package contents are: the charger, the charger cable (of course, with the Lightning connector, not micro USB), the earphones and a smaller package with the manuals. The box containing the manuals also contains a pair of Apple logo stickers and the ejection tool for the SIM tray.
The traditional Apple earphones are neatly packaged in their own box. The whole unpacking experience for the Apple iPhone SE shows the attention to detail and the philosophy of Apple products: the best feel and best experience possible.
At launch, users can choose between four colors for their iPhone SE: Silver, Gold, Space Gray and Rose Gold (the unit we are reviewing today).
Even considering the fact that the design has been around for three years, the fact remains that it's still the most elegant smartphone made by Apple to date. And yes, that includes the iPhone 6. The front contains the earpiece, the camera, the proximity and light sensor and, hidden in the Home button, a fingerprint sensor.
The top of the phone houses only the Power button, while the bottom contains, from left to right, a 3.5 mm headphone jack, the main microphone, the Lightning connector and the built-in speaker. It's 2016 and the iPhones still have no dual speakers. I guess some things never change with Apple and that's not a good thing to hear when you discuss technology.
The left side only contains the SIM tray, while the right side contains the Ring/Silent switch and the Volume buttons - the same clean design that we loved in the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5S.
The SIM tray can be ejected using the provided tool, and you get a sense of the quality of the manufacturing process by the way everything fits and feels.
On the back of the phone you'll find the main camera and the True Tone flash (dual LED, dual color) and of course, the Apple logo.
The package is, as usual from Apple, clean, minimalistic and very user-oriented. The exterior of the smartphone has the same sturdy build as the one of the iPhone 5S and the materials feel premium. Despite the "old-school" looks, the iPhone SE still feels as fresh and stylish as its predecessor felt three years ago. On a market dominated by 5.5 inch screens and phablets, the device looks incredibly tiny and is also very comfortable to handle.
Hardware specifications of the iPhone SE
You may now be wondering why I chose the nickname of iFrankenstein. That's because the iPhone SE is a mix of components taken from three different smartphones: the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6S.
Obviously, the case is taken from iPhone 5S. The chipset, Apple A9, with a dual-core 1.84 GHz Twister processor, 2 GB of memory and PowerVR GT7600 six-core graphics, is taken from the iPhone 6S (aka the fastest iPhone to-date). The Retina screen is again identical to the one on the iPhone 5S which, at the time of launch was a very good screen, with good color reproduction and viewing angles. It is still holding its own, even now. This means that the resolution is not up to today's standards, with a mere 640 x 1136 pixels (~326 ppi pixel density), but on a 4 inch screen, do you really need a larger resolution? The use of the older screen means that unlike the iPhone 6, the SE has no 3D Touch (a feature which allows the user to perform various actions, depending on how hard he or she touches the screen).
The front facing camera (1.2 Megapixels, f/2.4 aperture) can record 720p videos and is taken from the iPhone 5S, while the main camera is the 12 Megapixel iSight camera (f/2.2 aperture and 29 mm focal range) used on the iPhone 6S, but without the optical image stabilization. The camera has phase detection autofocus and a five-element lens and we're very happy the engineers at Apple have managed to squeeze it into the body of an iPhone 5S. It is capable of recording videos of 1080p with up to 120 frames per second and 4K videos at 30 frames per second (here's a great article on screen sizes, written by my colleague Codruț: What do 720p, 1080p, 1440p, 4K and 8K mean?).
The fingerprint sensor is taken from the iPhone 6, not the 6S, and there's probably a good reason for that, either related to the size of the hardware involved or the costs.
Storage is one of the weak points of any iPhone. Not necessarily the storage space, but the lack of upgrade options. iPhone SE also has no SD card and with only two options available (16 GB - the one we tested - and 64 GB), the smartphone either has limited space available or an unnecessarily high price. The device is, of course, LTE (4G) capable and has an 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wireless adapter. The iPhone SE also has a Bluetooth 4.2 adapter and NFC support. The battery capacity is very small by today's standards, with only 1620 mAh. Considering the frugal consumption of the A9 chipset, it just might be enough for the iPhone SE, but we will test that later in our review.
The smartphone is 4.87 inches (123.8 mm) in height, 2.31 inches (56.6 mm) in width and 0.3 inches (7.6) mm thick. This makes it one of the smallest smartphones available today and also one of the lightest, with a weight of only 3.99 ounces (113 grams).
The iPhone SE is, at least on paper, quite a Frankenstein's monster, with very powerful components transplanted from the other Apple smartphones. Before we put this tiny monster to the test, let's take a quick look at the software environment. You can find the specs of the new iPhone SE on the official page: iPhone SE specs.
The software and the user interface of the iPhone SE
The iPhone SE, at the time of the review, comes with iOS 9.3.1. The 3D Touch options are missing but other than that, it comes with all the features that this version has to offer. As far as graphics go, the new iOS has only minor changes from iOS 8 and the applications are almost the same.
The operating system occupies 5.1 GB. The usual applications are there, with few notable additions. One of them is NightShift, which uses the clock and geolocation to automatically shift the display colors to the warmer end of the spectrum after sunset. Studies have shown that this reduces the eye strain and helps the user fall asleep easier. Now I'm not saying you stare at your screen for an hour before bed, but I do. And you do too. Admit it!
Another addition is the Health dashboard, which manages third-party fitness apps and organizes the data more efficiently. The Notes app now has an additional layer of security, requiring a Touch ID in order to open. Also, Siri is supposedly smarter, allowing you to search through videos and photos, but she is still far from understanding context in questions. Mind you, I did not ask the meaning of life, but she can't even lock the screen, not a complex task at all.
The Notification Center is accessed by swiping down from the top of the phone and features two sections, Today and Notifications. Nothing changed here. The iPhone STILL has no quick search option (that's when you type the number in the Phone app and it shows you all the contacts which contain the string of numbers or the corresponding letters), a feature present even on the most basic Android smartphones, but it does have the Spotlight Search. With a downwards swipe of the screen, you can access it and it will search for the given string in a variety of locations like the phone book or your e-mails. It even does simple math!
A double click of the Home button lets the user access the task switcher, while a swipe up from the bottom of the screen opens the Control Center, which handles volume and connectivity settings. If you want to learn more about iOS 9.3, have a look here: iOS Updates.
As usual for Apple operating systems, the evolution is incremental. We get the same look as in the previous version, the usual apps and the same trouble-free, although heavily restricted environment.
Let's now turn the heat on! On the next page, you will find the benchmark session and more importantly, the real life testing and details about our user experience.