Benchmark performance of the iPhone SE
The benchmark session was atypical since some of the tools we usually use in our tests are not available on iOS. That includes the Vellamo suite, which tests the CPU and browser performance, and PCMark, which we usually use for our battery tests.
For the CPU, we used AnTuTu 6.1 instead, which showed just how powerful this little monster is.
With 124373 points, the SE absolutely crushes both the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 6, and is ranked in the top five smartphones at the time of the review. Only the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the Xiaomi MI 5 (which we recently reviewed) are able to catch up with this speedy dwarf, and considering both the price and the size of the smartphone, it's a remarkable achievement. The direct competitor to the iPhone SE, the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, only managed a score of around 75000, nowhere near the level of the iPhone SE.
Next, we used GFXBench GL to test the graphics subsystem. We were expecting good results, especially since the iPhone 6S is a top performer and the iPhone SE has the same hardware. And it again delivered.
Both in the 1080p T-Rex Offscreen (4493 frames) and the 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (2484 frames), the iPhone SE is number one in the Apple range of handsets. Even when comparing to the top performers right now, very few handsets can reach this level of performance. Only the Samsung S7 can best the small Frankenstein by 16%, with the Xiaomi MI5 and the new HTC 10 having a roughly similar score (1% difference). Again, the direct competitor to the iPhone SE, the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact, only managed a score of 3135/1562 frames in the 1080p T-Rex Offscreen and 1080p Manhattan Offscreen respectively. And remember, these are offscreen tests, performed at the same 1080p resolution in order to level the field for benchmarking. Considering the low resolution of the iPhone SE screen (640 x 1136 pixels), its real-life performance is simply unbeatable and running the Manhattan on-screen shows exactly that: the iPhone SE achieves almost double the frame count of the Samsung S7 (taking a heavy hit due to the large resolution of 1440 x 2560 pixels) and only the iPhone 6S (3461 frames) manages to even get close to the score of the iPhone SE (3602 frames). If gaming is your thing, you'll only have to worry about the diminutive size of the screen.
Next, we tested the network connection using Speedtest.net by Ookla. We tested the LTE (4G) connection in an area with good but not great signal strength, so the speeds you obtain might be higher. The results show a solid level of performance, with 46.10 Mbps download speed and 19.24 Mbps upload speed.
Finally, since the PCMark suite was not available, we used the test suite from GFX Bench GL. Surprisingly enough (since the battery only has a capacity of 1620 mAH), the iPhone SE managed 145 minutes of continuous operation, compared to the 176 minutes obtained by its competitor, the Sony Z5 Compact. This is a good result for an iPhone, although mediocre compared to other smartphones.
As expected, the small iPhone SE performs extremely well in all our tests. The battery seems to be its only weak point, but strictly looking at the raw performance, there aren't many smartphones on the market today which are able to match the iPhone SE.
The smartphone experience on the iPhone SE
I have to admit, I'm a hardcore Android fan. I love the free apps, the freedom to mod and change the user interface, as well as the level of customization available on Android smartphones. That's probably the reason why our editor-in-chief wanted me to review the iPhone SE. I can see his grin right now. Although writing about it here might not be the best idea. Of course, at first, I only saw the flaws: the lack of a status LED, the lack of quick search, the fact that some apps which are free on Android aren't so on iOS… But, after a couple of days, once I accepted the differences, everything started to make sense.
On one hand, we have the price. The starting price at the time of the review for the 16GB version is just 399 USD, an excellent price for this level of performance and lower than its main competitor, the Sony Z5 Compact. Then, we have the size. The size of the iPhone SE is perfect for people who dislike large smartphones. It's light, easy to handle, the performance is stellar and the whole experience is just top-notch. But what really made me re-think my approach towards the iPhone SE was an awesome feature present in the iOS 9. When an unknown number calls you, the OS searches through your emails and attempts to match the number with a name. I was pretty shocked to see the number on the screen and underneath "Maybe:" followed by the name of the person calling. And, indeed, it was a business contact which I omitted to store in the Contact List, but who had the signature in one of his e-mails. This feature can make a huge difference, especially if you don't usually answer unknown callers.
Performance is at the level you would expect from the benchmarks: perfect! I played quite a lot games like Plants vs Zombies 2 and Asphalt 8, which have detailed graphics and may be difficult to play fluently on older phones. On the iPhone SE the frame rate was very good, there were no frame drops or slowdowns, and although the smartphone did get warm, heat never got to be an issue.
The screen is still decent, despite the technology being more than three years old. The color rendition is close to perfect, the pixel density (~326 pixels per inch) is just right, the viewing angles and the brightness are excellent. The adaptive brightness always finds the right balance and does so smoothly, without visible steps. The bezels could have been smaller, but the idea was to keep the exact same dimensions as the iPhone 5/5S and just put the good stuff inside.
The audio quality is also great. Both when having a phone conversation and when listening to music using the provided headset. Sadly, the old architecture of the iPhone 5/5S is still present, so there is only one speaker and it's not very loud. Thus, unlike for example the Lenovo X3 Vibe, listening to media on the speaker is not recommended.
We tested the 16GB version, and without the possibility to increase the storage space, it's cutting it pretty close. The iOS already eats up around 5GB and if you fancy a bit of gaming, you are soon down to about 4 GB of free space. Download a music album or two, throw in some pictures or a few video recordings and you might find yourself in a bit of a tight spot.
Signal reception is not great, at least compared to my old Sony Xperia Z1. When in areas with poor signal coverage, the Z1 Compact manages to hold on to the signal better than the iPhone SE. The differences are small though.
The Home button doubles as a fingerprint sensor and while it's not the second generation sensor found on the iPhone 6S, I found it to be fast and accurate. Pressing the Home button, in fact pressing any button on the iPhone SE, feels nice and gives the user the right amount of feedback.
The first couple of days I only used the smartphone lightly, with only one hour of talking and without gaming and watching videos too much. Being used to tweaking my smartphone's settings, I also switched some apps' network access off, in order to conserve battery. Tip: if you don't need LTE (4G) speeds (and most of the times you don't, since the maximum 3G bandwidth of 7.2 Mbps is sufficient for streaming and multimedia), switch to 3G networks only because 4G uses more battery power than 3G. This is especially true in areas with poor 4G coverage, but a difference exists even when the 4G signal is good. Even with these small tweaks, the result was surprising.
Almost two days on a single charge! I was certainly not expecting this result, since my Z1 Compact manages roughly the same result under light usage.
After testing the iPhone SE with these settings, I switched to the default settings and used the smartphone more frequently. With this usage pattern, it only lasted a day, which is closer to what you can expect from the tiny battery. Although the battery performance is only average, when we insert the capacity into the equation, the result is admirable. It seems that Android smartphones still have some things to learn from iOS regarding power usage.
The smartphone experience on the iPhone SE is very good. Despite me being an Android fanboy, I had to ultimately admit that the iPhone SE offers a simple, easy to use interface, excellent features and solid performance. My only real complaint is that some applications which are free on the Android platform must be purchased on the iOS.
The camera experience on the iPhone SE
iPhones have always been famous for their picture quality. The iPhone SE is no exception, with a 12 Megapixel iSight camera (f/2.2 aperture and 29 mm focal range) which can also be found on the iPhone 6S.
The interface is simple and allows you to quickly switch between taking pictures, making panoramas, recording normal and slow-motion videos, as well as timelapses. When tapping the screen in order to focus, you have the option to change the exposure using a slider on the screen.
The iPhone SE inherits the Live Photo feature from the 6S. It's a feature similar to HTC's Zoe which instead of taking a picture, records a short video. In the case of the iPhone, it records a 3 second video, 1.5 seconds before and 1.5 seconds after the shutter is pressed. Wait, what? BEFORE I press the shutter? Indeed. And no, the iPhone hasn't mastered time travel, it just starts recording (with a 1.5 second buffer) as soon as you open the Camera app. It also takes a still picture when you press the shutter button.
The picture quality is very good, with neutral colors but a bit more noise than we would have wanted. No distortion or chromatic aberration can be detected and the dynamic range is very good and made even better with a true auto HDR function. The lack of optical image stabilization is not a problem for the iPhone SE because it always uses correct exposure times in order to eliminate the risk of shaky pictures. Actually, none of the pictures I took had any problems with camera shake, even in low light.
The HDR can be set to ON, OFF and AUTO. When active, it discreetly enhances the dynamic range, without introducing aberrations or shadowing. It's a true HDR, because it doesn't post-process a single photo, it takes two separate photos with different exposures and then stitches them together. Below you have a picture taken without HDR (left) and with HDR (right). You can see slightly more detail both in the dark parts and the over-exposed areas with HDR on.
Indoor pictures are also good, with good lighting. The dual LED flash does its job when needed, providing sufficient light without overexposing the shot. However, despite its BSI sensor (backside illuminated) which is supposedly better in low-light conditions, the night shots are not the best we've seen. They are, however, above average in terms of detail reproduction and white balance.
Macro shots are very good, with the iPhone SE being able to get very close to the subject (1.2 inches or 3 cm). Below, we see the same subject without flash and with flash. The color reproduction is better with the flash on, although there is a little bit of overexposing going on.
The videos are detailed, with nice, neutral colors and a steady framerate. For 1080p recording, the bitrate is roughly 17 Mbps, an average value. The software stabilization works smoothly and the videos are not shaky at all. The sound recording is mono, but the quality is above average. Here is a sample including fast moving objects as well as static scenery.
The Timelapse feature can produce some interesting results to say the least. Take a look at a timelapse video:
There is also the Slow Motion setting, which records videos at higher frame rates (240 fps) and the plays them at 30 fps. The result is not visible unfortunately if you download the video from the smartphone using third-party apps like Dropbox.
The secondary camera needs to go back to 2013. Seriously! And never return. With devices sporting 8 Megapixel front-facing cameras, the quality of the 1.2 Megapixel shots taken with the iPhone SE is simply awful, especially in less than ideal lighting conditions.
As always, you can take a look at the full gallery to see the actual quality of the photos and video recordings.
The iPhone SE has a great main camera, finely tuned and with a simple user interface. Both the photos and videos are great, and the only big disappointment is the front-facing camera. The pictures are not shaky, despite the lack of optical image stabilization, due to the carefully chosen camera settings and some aid from the software stabilization. Overall, a good experience!
Pros and cons of the iPhone SE
Summarizing our findings, we liked the following about the iPhone SE:
- Good starting price
- The smartphone is very solid and well built, as was its predecessor
- Top performance, both in CPU and graphics-intensive applications
- Excellent audio quality
- Mature and bug-free OS
- Good main camera
We also found some things we didn't like:
- Outdated front-facing camera
- The iPhone SE offers a single speaker
- You get only mono sound recording
- The 16GB version hasn't got an awful lot of storage space, and there is no memory card support, which sucks
We feel that Apple has made the right choice upgrading the iPhone 5S and renaming it iPhone SE. It is a huge leap forward in terms of performance. While the design might feel outdated to some, the quality of the product is still there and the price is very good. It isn't suited for people with big hands or people who need lots of screen real estate. But those of you who want an upgrade to the iPhone 5S or those of you who want a small, powerful smartphone should definitely take the iPhone SE into consideration. It's a tiny monster that's worth buying.