Apple iPhone SE Review: Retro or retread?

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Apple had a problem. Over the year 2015, they sold 30 million iPhone 5S phones. That’s not the problem. Moving forward for new software and services, the 5S was aging out of the market quickly, and likely wouldn’t have fared well if pushed into a third year of service. A strategy of using older phones to cover lower price tiers left Apple without an entry level option, and forced Apple to make its first purposely mid-range phone since the disaster which was the iPhone 5C. The iPhone SE is Apple’s new mid-range solution, so let’s see if it’s the right fit for you.

Video Review

Hardware

Can a phone be “retro”? At some point a retro device needs to have been discontinued for it to become desirable again right? The iPhone SE is a mashup of the iPhone 5S body and the A9 processor from the iPhone 6S. This isn’t a situation like how the Galaxy S7 looks kind of like the Galaxy S6, but those two phones can’t share cases. If you have accessories or cases for the 5S, they’ll fit the SE like a glove. This phone design is now entering its fourth year of service with only minor iteration from the first widescreen iPhone 5.

iphone se review pics (28)Yet, if Apple had to continue recycling any phone build, they could do far worse than the metal and glass combination found here. It’s a sharp, simple, modern look for a phone. The mostly aluminum body avoids the fingerprint smudges found on mostly glass phones like the 4S or newer Galaxies, while the glass panels minimize the amount of “inspiration” we might find from HTC style antenna bands. Flat rectangular sides, circular volume buttons, rounded corners, and chamfered edges. It’s an iconic iPhone look.

This design might be “retro” to some and a “retread” to others, but the internals are a delightful refresh. The SE is powered by the same A9 processor as the flagship iPhone 6S with 2GB of RAM on tap. Our review unit is the 16GB base model, and that comes with the same 12MP camera capable of UHD video and 240fps slow motion footage.

The wide Retina display from the iPhone 5 continues on in the SE. It’s a capable IPS LCD with a not-quite-HD resolution of 1136 x 640. This resolution won’t win any awards in the year 2016, but happily we keep the same pixel density as that found on the iPhone 6S. Text and fine detail will look similar, there’s just less surface area. We’ve got respectable viewing angles, and very good outdoor brightness when compared to other LCDs, though this screen won’t get as bright in daylight, nor will it get as dim at night, as a Samsung AMOLED screen.

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With the camera and the processor being the same, one might be inclined to consider the SE a flagship, but Apple has held other technologies from this mighty mouse mid-ranger. We have a whole separate video detailing all of the differences below, but here’s the short list:

  • No MIMO antennas for robust WiFi performance
  • No support for LTE Advanced
  • No 3D Touch or Taptic Engine notifications
  • No 128GB top tier storage option
  • Low resolution front Facetime camera
  • Older (slower) Touch ID fingerprint sensor

Even with those flagship phone compromises, the SE represents a solid hardware spread for the lower starting price.

Software

Something interesting happens with iOS when we return to a four inch screen. This operating system was built around the idea of a smaller screen. We all remember the commercials extolling the virtues of a one-thumb phone screen. Now having moved up to a 4.7” display on the 6S and a 5.5” display on the 6S Plus, it’s difficult to see any ergonomic adjustments made to iOS to account for that change in size. Even for people with tiny hobbit hands (like this reviewer) there’s no point on the iPhone SE which can’t be reached while using the phone one handed. Even top corner mounted controls, like the back button in the mail app, are easily reached without dancing the phone around in the hand.

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This powerful hardware, in a smaller form factor, brings us back to an iPhone which excels at tactically brief interactions.

iOS is the same beast as it ever was. “Touch square, get app” is one of the easiest methods for interacting with a mobile device, though we still lack any customization options more advanced than changing the wallpaper. It’s familiar, it’s simple out of the box, and it gets to the point of each interaction quickly.

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Of course we still have many of the same complaints regarding this ecosystem. File management is still more restrictive than what we find on Android, and moving some files around can still require the use of another computer and iTunes. iOS still doesn’t have much flexibility for changing the default apps for people that prefer other options over Apple’s core services.

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New for iOS 9.3, the Night Shift feature should help people who use their phones a lot at night. Changing the color temperature of the screen as it gets darker. Warmer light should interfere less with your body’s sleep rhythms.

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Performance

The SE is snappy. No doubt about it. The faster processor paired with a lower resolution screen means you will rarely be kept waiting for apps or services to load. Menus, home-screens, and animations slide fluidly. iPhones have a reputations for slick performance, and the SE continues that reputation with distinction.

This extends to gaming as well. The SE absolutely chews up casual games, like jewel swap or Candy Crush style titles. Stepping up to more graphics intensive apps like Asphalt 8 and Marvel Future Fight, the SE is easily able to maintain a fluid frame rate, competing even with phones like the recently reviewed Galaxy S7.

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The drawback for multimedia, of course, is the smaller screen. The more in-depth the game play is, the smaller those controls get. Even with my tiny hands, hitting some menu options in Future Fight is nearly impossible to do consistently. I honestly didn’t bother with genres like tower defense, for the fine level of control and interaction required.

Camera

When Apple said the SE had the same camera as on the 6S, they weren’t joking. This is the same hardware we find on Cupertino’s flagship phone. This is well traveled territory, so we won’t be diving in as deep as we have on other phones, but the pros and cons remain the same.

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This one third inch sensor won’t deliver the softer depth of field or low light capabilities of phones like the Galaxy S7. While we see improvements to the sensor, the speed and accuracy of the focusing system can’t quite compete with LG and Samsung solutions.

This camera app could also use a makeover. There’s a separate mode to shoot a square image, but no option in the app to shoot a widescreen photo which could use the whole phone screen. Menu options are moving targets instead of toggling in place. With high quality hardware, it’s disappointing to see no native solution for saving RAW photos, and controlling some options, like changing the video resolution, require you to completely leave the camera app and head into the phone settings.

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This camera does deliver crisp images and very high quality video at both 1080/60p and 2160/30p resolutions. Slow motion video is best in class. HDR compositing is excellent. Apple delivers fantastically consistent image processing, though we often see white balance push a bit colder than necessary in outdoor shadowed shots. Lastly, Living Images can be a fun feature to help save extra memories, but folks on the 16GB model might want to disable that to save a little storage space.

To see how this camera stacks up to the competition, we have an in-depth comparison between the iPhone 6S, Lumia 950, and Galaxy S7 linked below.

Where this phone is decidedly not a flagship is on this dated front facing camera. I’m not the biggest fan of selfies, but this 1.2MP shooter really shouldn’t be depended on for capturing valuable memories.

Audio

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While there’s been much conversation regarding the camera, the audio hardware on tap is also top notch. The bottom firing speaker is above average for a phone. It’s loud enough for alerts and speakerphone calls, and detailed enough to handle game audio and short videos. We still run into issues with all bottom firing speakers in blocking that edge while holding the phone, and no mono solution will properly compare to stereo speakers on a phone.

iphone headphone vs gs7 vs lgv10 headphone volume

Where the SE again excels is in headphone audio. Not that it’s a surprise that the company which brought consumers the iPod should be capable of building a device with good headphone performance. More, we’re just really happy to see that Apple didn’t compromise the playback at all, when a “cheaper” phone probably could have gotten away with a less powerful amp.

audio stats iphone se

Output is identical to the iPhone 6S, nearly matching the LG V10, and shaming the Galaxy S7 for overall volume. In our tests we saw a louder noise floor and more stereo crosstalk than on the high quality amp LG provides. The SE will also downsample high quality lossless files. It can still play them, but you won’t experience the full dynamic range of those tracks. Still, this is terrific audio hardware for a phone.

Battery

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The iPhone SE battery is around 5% smaller than the battery found on the iPhone 6S, but the smaller, lower resolution screen more than makes up that difference. We’re generally seeing better runtime on the SE than on the 6S, and making it to dinner time with a little room to spare was pretty normal for us. To be fair, usage on the iPhone SE is a little different than when comparing to a larger phone. I just wasn’t as inclined to spend long periods of time staring at the smaller screen. Even accounting for more “efficient” usage though, we saw some pretty impressive numbers during our testing.

Standby times are phenomenal. Overnight off the charger, we only saw a 2-3% battery drain after seven hours. When this thing sleeps, it sleeps deep.

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Our video test, streaming a movie over WiFi at 50% screen brightness for 30 minutes resulted in 3% battery drain. This is the best phone we’ve run through this test, and our six month old iPhone 6S drained 6% performing the same test.

Recharging the phone is fairly quick too. Using the Apple supplied charger, a thirty minute top-off will deliver around a 30% recharge. What’s odd here though, that’s really close to the numbers we saw on the Galaxy S7, which has a battery almost twice as large. This means Apple doesn’t seem to be employing any kind of fast charging technology between phone and included charger. That’s a shame, as fast charging a small battery should be screaming fast.

Pros

+Screaming performance

+Very good main camera

+Excellent headphone audio

+Very good battery life

Cons

-Sub-HD resolution screen a bit disappointing in 2016

-16GB starting storage is claustrophobic

-Dull Facetime camera

Pricing and Availability

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Our 16GB review unit was purchased unlocked directly from Apple for $399. This price brings us close to phones like the Moto X Pure or or a 32GB Nexus 5X. Devices like the OnePlus X and Huawei GX8 can handily undercut it by $100 or more. Still, this is what we would consider an “entry level” price for a new iOS device, and it represents the last true premium small form factor phone actively being made by a top manufacturer.

Conclusion

This isn’t a crown jewel phone. The iPhone 7 is months away for that distinction. The SE isn’t really built to blaze new territory, as much as it is designed to service a market which the 5S could no longer fulfill. Viewed by that criteria, this phone is a smashing success. It brings us back to the original iPhone ideals of being quick and easy to use. It should easy support years of future updates, like its big brother the 6S, and it’s an exciting business move from Apple, in that this phone stands to cannibalize some iPhone 6 sales by being more powerful and $150 cheaper.

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Outside of the Apple ecosystem, this phone is priced high enough to face tremendous competition from “nice” mid rangers and “cheap” flagships, but we still recommend it as a solid offering depending on what an individual consumer’s needs might be. If nothing else we can hope this encourages even more of a race towards building powerful, “flagship” performance into mid-tier devices.

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About The Author
Juan Carlos Bagnell
Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.