You know how, as an adult, you visit the place you grew up and everything seems smaller than it did at the time? That’s what the iPhone SE feels like after 18 months with bigger iPhones.
There is no better way of getting to grips with a device than using it to write about the product.
In the interest of science I’m typing this iPhone SE review on the phone. I’m using Byword, a great iOS Markdown writing app.
Writing a review on the device in question may be ironic, postmodern and meta, but it’s also practical and powerful. By the time I finish this post, I’ll understand the iPhone SE’s practical advantages and flaws.
A classic iPhone design
Apple’s iPhone SE gives small phone seeking consumers most of the power of the latest iPhone 6S in an updated iPhone 5S case.
The 12th iPhone to hit the streets uses a classic design that stretches back to the iPhone 4. If you used iPhones before they grew big with iPhone 6, you’ll know what to expect.
New Zealand prices start at NZ$750 for The 16GB model. A 64GB model is NZ$950. The prices are NZ$250 less than iPhone 6 models with the same amount of storage.
The iPhone SE weighs around 115 g. It measures 124 by 57 mm and is about 7.5 mm deep.
At first sight it seems tiny next to the iPhone 6S Plus, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By the way, that’s a 13-inch iPad Pro next to the iPhone SE in the picture at the top of the page.
Holding it one-handed doesn’t stress my little finger, something I dislike about the heavier, bigger iPhone 6S Plus.
If you come to the iPhone SE from a 5 or 5S you’ll feel at home from day one. You will revel in the extra power and take delight in the new capabilities. The screen will feel normal.
Going back home
If, like me, you find yourself back with a four-inch iPhone after time with a five or 5.7-inch display it’s like visiting the home you grew up in.
It’s familiar and cosy, but you’ve moved on. While you can live there again, you quickly remember why you don’t live there any more. Then after a while, you’ll wonder if moving out was such a smart step.
When it comes to reading, bigger iPhone screens are better. That’s obvious and, for the most part, doesn’t need explaining. But that better screen comes at a financial and practical cost.
Where screen size matters is in the context of tasks like writing this blog post. I notice I’m squinting more than normal. It’s hard to navigate the page on a small display. I can see less, so I’ve less feel for the flow of my words and for the entire text. I can’t easily tell if my narrative jumps about.
Writing on a small screen is difficult, proof reading is harder again. Proofing your own writing is always difficult. It’s tougher on the small screen because the brain is using up so much of its processing power just reading the words and navigating the text.
Even getting the cursor to the right spot in the text to make an edit is a challenge with the small screen.
On a positive note. iOS auto-correct does a sterling job fixing up the mistyped words and other minor errors. I don’t normally depend on this tool, with the iPhone SE it takes on a new importance.
Typing on the iPhone SE’s tiny on-screen keyboard is challenging. I’m used to typing on the 6S Plus screen. While not the best tool for feature writing, it can cope at a pinch.
The iPhone SE belongs to a higher difficulty level. It took five tries to type the first capital S in that last sentence. My pudgy fingers kept hitting the A key. Writing speed is glacial.
Finding the shift key is not easy, switching to the number keyboard is tricky. Even typing a full stop requires more effort than on bigger phones.
All this is a wake up call to revisit voice recognition. My 35 years as a journalist mean I think with my fingertips when writing, that may need re-examining. I’ll look at voice recognition on the iPhone SE, if I find anything interesting I’ll report back.
Less productivity than a big iPhone
If I was writing this review on the iPhone 6S Plus, a laptop or a tablet, I would have finished a long ago. When it comes to serious productivity, the small iPhone SE lags behind the 6S or the 6S Plus.
It’s not the right tool for the job. At least not for me.
And yet, there’s something delightful about the iPhone SE that transcends things like productivity: This phone feels right.
My hand is comfortable holding the iPhone SE in a way that it is not with bigger phones.
Many readers will see this as a subjective view. Perhaps it is. But that’s the main thrust of this review: The iPhone SE excels as a small, pocketable iPhone, but unlike the bigger iPhones it doesn’t rate as a practical PC replacement.
The sound of one hand typing
Despite the productivity gap, I typed this and the last three or four paragraphs one-handed using my left hand. My thumb reaches all the way across the keyboard. I don’t need to do the iPhone 6 trick of double hitting the Touch ID button to move the top of the screen down.
Writing long-form posts one-handed on the iPhone SE is not comfortable. Nor is it fast. But it works. If I had to, I could compose stories while standing on a commuter bus or train. Typing on a bigger iPhone needs both hands and more elbow room.
Because the iPhone SE is a touch thicker it is more comfortable to hold. It feels easier to grip. Less likely to fall from my hands.
I like the flat sides — you can stand the phone on a table if necessary. I also like the small volume control buttons.
Apple has put the power button back at the top like on earlier phones. It’s a better, more logical position.
One of the nicest physical aspects of the iPhone SE is that the thicker body means there’s no need for the ugly camera bump now turning up in iPhones and iPads. The back of the phone is flat and elegant.
Another benefit of a smaller screen is longer battery life. I set up the review phone 24 hours ago straight from the box. It hasn’t seen a charger since I got it from Apple and yet there is still 27 percent in the tank. I got to the end of this post with charging.
Given the phone didn’t arrive with 100 percent charge, this hints at two days use. That’s a big plus. Either way it looks to have better battery life than the iPhone 6S, about the same as the 6S Plus.
iPhone SE storage tops out at 64GB with the $950 model. When I first transferred my data from the iPhone 6S Plus last night I found there was 22Gb that didn’t make the trip. Almost all of that was music files.
That is a likely deal-breaker for some potential buyers.
If you choose the 16GB iPhone SE you’ll need discipline managing the storage. Even 64GB is a challenge when you have a large collection of digital music. I recommend you choose 64GB unless you are certain you’ll not be shooting video, carrying photo collections and listening to stored audio.
Not just storage
There are other possible shortcoming to watch out for. None of them are deal-breakers, but collectively they may add up to a reason not to buy the iPhone SE.
The iPhone SE uses an older version of Apple’s Touch ID sensor. In practice this doesn’t amount to much of a compromise. It just works a fraction slower. Some may find this a blessing, at times the newer Touch ID sensor is a little too quick for comfort.
If you’ve used an iPhone 6S or 6S Plus you may miss the 3D Touch feature where you can press harder on the screen to fire up secondary commands. I found myself trying to use it on the SE even though I knew it wasn’t there.
This is not likely to worry anyone who is coming to the SE from an older iPhone, but if you use 3D Touch a lot, you may be frustrated by its absence.
Apple has used an older front facing camera on the SE. If you make lots of FaceTime calls or use similar video conferencing, this may bother you, but, on its own, this is not a reason to dig deeper and spend on a more expensive iPhone.
Likewise the display doesn’t have as much contrast as the 6S and 6S Plus. I did a side-by-side comparison and its clear that photos have better contrast on the bigger iPhones, but again, this is not a deal-breaker.
Is it worth buying?
There are two questions to consider before choosing the iPhone SE.
First, can you get away with 64GB of local storage? Given that many buy iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models with 64GB, that’s down to how you use your phone and what you want from it.
While most of us can live with this, especially if we store audio, photo and video files in the cloud, some users will find this limit too restricting.
Which brings us to the most obvious question: is the smaller display going to work for you? The larger screen shows much more text or graphics at the same time. Or, you can use the extra screen size to zoom out making text easier to read and picture detail easier to view.
As I found when writing this review on the iPhone SE this aspect of the larger iPhones is a big deal in terms of productivity.
If you don’t use your phone for heavy-duty apps, writing or to read large amounts of material, you’ll probably be happy with the iPhone SE’s trade-off between screen size, pocketability and being able to control it one-handed.
The eyes have it…
In my case the killer deciding factor is eyesight. Until recently I had good eyes and found a four-inch screen more than adequate. That changed when I found I had macular degeneration. This is kept under control with drugs, but for a while I struggled to see a small screen. Many, many people also have eye problems and need a bigger display.
The flip side is that I only need a big screen iPhone some of the time. There are Macs, tablets and PCs at home with all the screen real estate I need.
Some of the time the convience of a small, one-hand device trumps the productivity benefit of a bigger iPhone. And it is much more portable. It fits into short trousers and shirt pockets — bigger iPhones have trouble with both.
Well, that’s the theory. You’ll need to decide on these matters for yourself, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll stick with the larger screen iPhone 6S Plus because on the occasions when I need iPhone productivity, I can’t compromise. And on the days my eyes are bad I’d struggle to read the small display.
… And yet that little iPhone SE feels so right in my hand.
Why is there an iPhone SE?
Apple says it made the iPhone SE because of customer demand for a smaller iPhone.
This isn’t a marketing hunch. It is a hard-nosed decision backed by powerful evidence. Last year 30 million people bought the iPhone 5S.
Which is a good place to start. The iPhone SE has the same four-inch screen as the 5S. The case is the same size and physically similar.
Looks are deceptive
While the outside looks like the iPhone 5S, under the skin it is an iPhone 6S.
This is a marketing challenge for Apple.
Conspicuous consumers — let’s not pretend they don’t exist — want to be seen and noticed with the latest glamorous hardware. The iPhone SE looks like an old iPhone. Few casual observers would see it as anything else.
In the case of the review model in my hands, the only clue that it isn’t an iPhone 5S is that it has a Rose Gold finish. You’d have to be intimate with Apple’s product range to know that colour wasn’t available on the 5 series phones.
Footnote: Writing the iPhone SE review on the phone
I composed, wrote, fact-checked and otherwise researched almost all the text in this post on the iPhone SE. The post took about half as long again to write as it would have taken on a Mac or iPad Pro. That’s maybe 25 percent slower than writing the same story on a large screen iPhone.
In the end I couldn’t do everything from the phone. I had to open the document on my Mac to give it a last proof-read and polish.
If I was writing a story to send to another editor to proof-read, I would have gone straight from the phone, but found my eyes were starting to feel the strain of dealing with over 2000 words on a tiny screen.