Huawei p10Phone designers are running out of options. This year’s phones show less innovation than in years past.  

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week. The early 2017 phone picture is now complete. We now know what the mainstream phone market will look like until Apple reveals its iPhone plans.

Here are ten things we’ve learnt about the state of the phone market:

1. Samsung fans are forgiving, maybe too forgiving

You couldn’t step on a plane at the end of last year with cabin crew reminding you of problems with the Samsung Note 7. Every safety announcement told passengers it was dangerous.

The Note 7’s exploding battery was news for weeks. The tech business has rarely seen such damaging publicity. It seems Samsung raced the product out before completing testing.

According to Ben Bajarin at techpinions that bad publicity is not enough to stop today’s Samsung owners from considering the Galaxy S8.

2. S8 ain’t done until Bixby runs

Bixby is Samsung’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. If it works it will rival Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Samsung says Bixby is different because it strings tasks together. It then manages complex tasks the others can’t. Among other things, Bixby can wrap-up and send your most recently taken photo to, say, your partner. It promises to hunt down, then stream a specific video to a Samsung TV set.

Soon after announcing the S8 Samsung said Bixby features will not all be available on day one.

Unfinished software is not on a par with unfinished and unsafe battery designs. Yet it seems Samsung hasn’t learned all the important lessons from the Note 7.

If the signature feature of a new phone isn’t ready by launch, you might wonder if Samsung still cuts corners. Will anything else emerge, Note 7-like, after the launch?

3. The case of the disappearing bezel

Bezel is the name given to the rim around a phone’s screen. All phone makers have reduced the size of their bezels in recent models. Huawei and Oppo’s 2017 phones have tiny bezels.

Samsung has taken this almost to the logical extreme. There is almost no bezel on the Galaxy S8. The front is almost all glass.

In practice this means two things. First, you get more screen in a smaller package. The display on the Galaxy S8 is larger than the display on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Yet the S8 is roughly the same size as the non-Plus iPhone 7.

4. Much ado about fingerprint scanner placement

Put Note 7 fires and Bixby to one side for a moment. What is the main aspect of the Galaxy S8 that every phone reviewer wants to discuss? Is it the camera technology, the processor speed or large 5.8-inch screen?

It’s none of these. Almost every review mention Samsung’s decision to move the fingerprint scanner. A smaller bezel on the phone’s front means there’s no room for a fingerprint scanner. Samsung moved it to the rear of the phone.

Using the S8 fingerprint scanner is now a little more uncomfortable and a touch more awkward.

Both points are true. It says a lot about phone innovation that reviewers focus on fingerprint scanner placement.

5. Cameras, cameras, cameras

Every phone maker at every launch says their latest model has the best camera on the market. I’ve been to five launches in the six months or so and have heard five different phone makers make that claim. They can’t all be right.

For what it’s worth, all premium phones have great cameras. They can all take excellent pictures in the right circumstances. Exactly what makes up the right circumstances varies a little from brand to brand.

To a degree the camera innovation battle has moved on from hardware to software. At least four of the five big phone brands now offer some form of software-generated bokeh effect. 1

6. Enough with the fashion parades

So far this year Samsung, Huawei and Oppo have all had big splashy phone launches with a fashion theme. Each launch included beautiful people from the fashion world.

Oppo took this furthest with a Sydney Harbour boat cruise. It featured lurid coloured cocktails, a DJ and fashion models cat posing with phones.

A fashion-industry big wig made a speech. She told boat passengers to throw their iPhones overboard and replace it with an Oppo.

It’s worth pointing out that fashion-themed phone launches are not new. LG held a similar event in Auckland 10 years ago.

The message, in case you didn’t get it, is that premium smart phones are fashion items.

7. Hardware innovation slows in 2017 phones

Related to the fashion metaphor is the fetish with phone colours. There are different shades of black, metallic blues, greens and reds and so on. Again, we’ve been here before with premium phones.

In a sense modern phones have reached the point American cars got to in the 1960s. Then Detroit covered cars in chrome and added tail fins. They did this to create the impression of innovation where, in fact, there was little new.

Innovation isn’t quite dead in the phone business, but it has slowed to a crawl. The fact that people fuss over the fingerprint scanner tells you that.

Almost every hardware improvement in the last year has been incremental, cosmetic or unimportant. Screen resolution passed the point where the human eye could notice a different a few years ago. It’s been even longer since a phone processor wasn’t fast enough for all everyday tasks.

8. The price isn’t right

Premium phone price have climbed faster than inflation. This isn’t because of currency effects, phone prices are going up everywhere.

In part this is because phone makers did not make much profit in the past. Although Apple has always enjoyed a good margin. Even Samsung struggled at times to earn a decent amount from selling hardware.

In 2013 the Samsung Galaxy S4 cost NZ$1150 and the 16GB iPhone 5S was $1050. Today the cheapest iPhone 7 is $1430 and the bottom of the range Galaxy S8 is $1300. You can go all the way to $1830 with Apple or $1500 with Samsung.

You can argue that you get more phone, or at least more memory and more screen. But that’s not the point, it now costs Apple fans over 30 percent more to buy the least expensive iPhone. Samsung customers pay around 20 percent more.

Huawei has pushed its prices up even faster. Four years ago it made bargain basement phones, today the P10 is NZ$1000 and the Mate 9 is $1100.

Bucking the trend Oppo’s $700 R9s has most of the features found in a Samsung phone for almost half the price. There’s a huge opportunity for a brand selling good phone hardware at that price.

9. Everyone has a phone

Almost every person in the rich world who wants a modern mobile phone now has one. This means phone sales have slowed to a crawl compared with the past decade.

It also means phone makers rely on shortening the upgrade cycle to turn over more product. That keeps the money rolling in. There is one big problem with that…

10. There are few compelling reasons to upgrade

Today’s premium phones are good. When it comes to practical functionality they are not much better than the handsets on offer two years ago. Most of the changes in that time have made little difference to an owner’s everyday life.

There are always going to be performance obsessed geeks who argue for some esoteric reason they need an even faster processor. But in reality, it’s been a long time since phones were slow in everyday use. Likewise, any new hardware feature, is often only of interest to a minority.

Few people will hold onto phones for, say, 10 years, as they do with PCs. Apart from anything else, they take a physical beating day-in, day-out and get dropped or otherwise worn out after a few years. Most users who are not on plans have already moved away from annual or bi-annual phone upgrades. In the future more of us are likely to hang-on to devices for even longer.


  1. I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎

apple iphone 7 plus

Forget all the nonsense you’ve read about the missing headphone jack. It isn’t important. The key to the iPhone 7 Plus is that it carries a second camera with a telephoto lens.

Every new iPhone comes with a camera that is better than the last iPhone. Apple has been relentless when it comes to increasing camera speed, pixel numbers and camera performance.

This time both the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a 12-megapixel camera with the means to collect a wider range of colours. It also has optical image stabilisation.

New everything

Apple upgraded everything in the camera. There’s a new lens system, updated sensors.

The flash is brighter and delivers a wider range of colours. All this adds up to better pictures than you can get from earlier iPhones. The camera performs better in daylight and in poor light conditions. You’ll get better skin tones and more realistic colours all round.

While these tweaks are a step forward, they are only incremental changes from last year.

Second camera

The big difference is on the iPhone 7 Plus. Here Apple added a second camera with a zoom lens and half the field of view of the first camera. In effect, you get two different looks at the same image.

This gives you 2X optical zoom. That’s a useful hardware addition. It  brings the camera experience closer to what you might find on mid-price standalone digital cameras. Being able to zoom like this means the iPhone can do something other phone cameras are unable to do. At least for now.

Digital zoom is often disappointing. On the iPhone 7 Plus images from the two lenses combine so that you can get up to 10X digital zoom. The processing all happens in software. The effect is closer to what you might expect from optical zoom.

The iPhone 7 Plus 2X optical zoom appears as a button at the bottom of the screen when taking photos. If you press and hold this button you can crank up the digital zoom.

Portraits, close-ups

Two lenses mean you get better quality portraits and close-ups. That’s something other phone cameras struggle with.

Software updates are in the pipeline that will extend the dual lens camera. Apple says an iOS update later this year will do this. Example photos taken with the camera and the new software show a bokeh effect. The subject in the foreground is in sharp focus while the background is a blur.

Apple isn’t the only phone maker to add a second lens. The Huawei P9 features a dual camera that is co-engineered with Leica. Unlike Apple, Huawei uses one lens for colour and the other for monochrome. This works to improve shots in low-light conditions.

Until now you needed to buy a mid-range or better digital camera to get this kind of photographic effect. A bigger physical camera with a larger lens and more depth between lens and the sensors can still take better photos. Yet, having a good camera in your pocket all the time trumps having a great camera in a cupboard. There’s something else too.

Turning point

With the iPhone 7 Plus we are at a turning point. Earlier waves of camera phones wiped out the digital point and click camera market.

Since then some consumers have bought digital SLRs because they can get better pictures than phones. Despite the sophistication of dSLRs, most people never get much beyond the automatic settings. They want to take better pictures. That’s all.

There will always be demand for digital SLR cameras from professionals and enthusiasts. Yet most everyday photographers now have all they want from a camera in the iPhone 7 Plus. Expect more devastation in the camera market.

To use a camera well, you need a good quality display. It’s subtle, but the iPhone 7 Plus has a better screen than earlier iPhones. You have to see two iPhones side by side to notice how much better the display is on the 7 Plus.

The difference is most noticeable indoors. It’s brighter. Colours look more saturated. The effect isn’t as eye-catching as on a phone with an OLED display. In particular, blacks don’t look quite as black.

Other changes

While the headline says the iPhone 7 Plus is all about the camera, there are other important changes.

Some folk are going to miss the headphone jack. In the long-term we’ll all get over this. It’ll be like getting rid of floppy discs or optical disc drives on Macs.

For now there will be holdouts who will either hang onto old iPhones longer or buy another brand of phone.

Apple demonstrated AirPods to journalists at a product briefing. They are far more impressive than you might assume and have a whiff of magic about them. Bluetooth pairing is better than normal. Apple has tweaked standard Bluetooth to make it work better at this task.

Their small case is about the size of a TicTac packet. It carries about 20 hours of charge. The AirPods themselves have about five hours charge. So on, say, a long flight, you can recharge them enough to listen all the way to Europe.

Magic

When you take an AirPod out of your ear, perhaps because someone wants to talk, the audio track pauses. This, again, feels a little like magic. Built-in microphones at the bottom of the AirPods mean you can make phone calls.

A lot of people are critical of AirPods and the way they look. There is something nerdy about them. Yet this is Apple, they are not going to become unacceptable like, say, Google Glass. This time next year people will be wearing them on buses and trains like it is no big deal.

Apple hasn’t made a lot of noise about the iPhone 7 Plus processor. It’s not something that will make or break the buying decision for most users. Yet, the processing power inside the phone is off the scale. Throw what you like at it and it will cope. More than cope.

Elsewhere the new home button design with haptic touch is big step forward in phone usability. While the button doesn’t move, it feels like it does. When you put pressure on the button, there’s a kick as the phone vibrates. You get these haptic feedback kicks all over the place. At first it feels odd, within an hour or so phones without haptic feedback feel odder.

Should you buy the iPhone 7 Plus?

If you’re an iPhone fan looking to upgrade, you’ll get a lot moving straight to the iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. If you like smaller phones, then the iPhone SE will be a better choice.

Most Android fans won’t like the iPhone 7, but you wouldn’t expect them to. Someone switching to an iPhone 7 from Android might find not being able to tinker with every aspect of the phone frustrating. Android users who prefer not to fiddle will find a slick alternative. Once they’ve adjusted, is easier to master and be productive on.

The question of iPhone 7 or 7 Plus is down to the screen size and the importance of having the far better camera. Both are big phones, but the Plus model is giant-sized.

Some Apple critics have described the iPhone 7 Plus as boring or lacking creativity. If that’s the case, you could say the same about every new phone in 2016. Putting the camera aside, it’s a steady-as-she-goes upgrade. You should get at least two years of value from the iPhone 7 Plus. It won’t look tired or jaded in 2018.

Huawei MWC

Phone sales are flat. The industry shipped a total of 343.3 million smartphones worldwide in the second quarter of 2016. That figure is up just 0.3 percent on the 342.4 million units in the same quarter last year.

Top-selling phone brand Samsung turned in a solid performance with a year-on-year growth of 5.5 percent. In a flat market that means increased market share.

Third-placed Huawei did even better showing 8.4 percent growth year-on-year. On the surface, second-placed Apple had a bad year with a 15 percent drop in units.

Yet year-on-year figures can be misleading when read in isolation. When you look at the last two years, it’s clear the three top brands are pulling away from the pack when it comes to global markets.

For now the fourth and fifth brands on IDC’s list are, for the most part, restricted to China so are less important in a global context.

Huawei biggest winner

Huawei is the biggest winner. Its sales grew 48.1 percent in the year to Q2 2015. Over the past two years Huawei’s phone sales are up 59 percent. In just 24 months the Chinese company came from well behind Samsung and Apple to cement a place in the top three.

Over one year Apple looks in bad shape. Go back two and a different picture emerges. Apple’s  two-year performance is not as stellar at Huawei’s, but growth over the two year period is a respectable 15 percent. That’s a little ahead of the market which collectively grew about 13 percent over the same period.

Apple’s poor 2016 showing has a lot to do with a strong 2015 performance  where pent up demand for the iPhone 6 models set a high bar that could not be repeated. In the second quarter of 2015, the brand was up 34.9 percent on the same period in the previous year.

Samsung the giant

Samsung remains the leader by a long margin. It sells almost twice as many phones as Apple. Over the two-year period Samsung sales climbed by almost three percent. That’s behind the total phone sales growth and represents a loss of market share.

The way phone sales figures are often reported in the technology press hides the fact that the global phone hardware market is about these three companies. Every other phone maker is an also ran.

Top Five Smartphone Vendors, Shipments, Market Share, and Year-Over-Year Growth, Q2 2016 Preliminary Data (Units in Millions)
Vendor2Q16 Shipment Volumes2Q16 Market Share2Q15 Shipment Volumes2Q15 Market ShareYear-Over-Year Change
Samsung77.022.4%73.021.3%5.5%
Apple40.411.8%47.513.9%-15.0%
Huawei32.19.4%29.68.6%8.4%
OPPO22.66.6%9.62.8%136.6%
vivo16.44.8%9.12.7%80.2%
Others154.845.1%173.650.7%-10.8%
Total343.3100.0%342.4100.0%0.3%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, July 28, 2016

There’s something else that is often overlooked. The focus on phone hardware sales by brand misses the point that Apple and Google are the real dominant players in phones and tablets. Samsung and Huawei make hardware, but that’s where their involvement ends. They don’t command customer loyalty in the way Android and iOS do.

The relative numbers for iOS and Android ebb and flow. Android is bigger than iOS, but perhaps not by as much as some people assume.

A back-of-an-envelope calculation puts the number of iOS devices in use around the world at three-quarters of a billion. In January Apple announced it had a total of a billion activated devices. Apple’s number includes Macs, Watches and iPods, which squares with the estimate of three-quarters of a billion iOS devices.

There are at least twice as many Android devices connected to Google Services. The number is more than 1.5 billion, but less than two billion. There are about another half a billion Android devices in China that are not connected to Google services. No other phone operating system registers more than a rounding error in comparison.

On January 9 2007 Apple chief executive Steve Jobs stood on a stage and showed the world the iPhone.

It seemed important at the time. Yet nobody knew just how significant this would turn out to be.

Thanks to the iPhone Apple became the world’s most valuable company. It defined our times.

It isn’t hyperbole to divide the history of personal technology into eras before and after iPhone.

End of the consumer PC

Apple’s iPhone did something else. It killed the consumer PC market. This didn’t happen overnight and it hasn’t finished yet. But it happened.

It may seem remarkable to talk about the death of consumer PCs when one contemplates the massed ranks of glowing Apple logos one often sees on laptop lids. But, while those computers may be fun, they are mainly used for work or education. They are not mere consumer computers.

PC sales didn’t stop immediately. It took until four years after the first iPhone appeared for sales to peak.

From business to consumer and back again

In 2011 the world bought 380 million personal computers. According to IDC, consumers purchased 54 percent, a little over half the total. The rest went to businesses and government.

Since then PC sales numbers have dropped. Or to put it more accurately; they have dropped off a cliff. By 2015 the total market had fallen to around 275 million units a year. Consumer PC sales fell faster than business computer sales. IDC put the consumer share of the total sold in 2015 at around 49 percent.

In round numbers that means consumer PC sales dropped by around one-third from roughly 200 million to 130 million. That fall took four years.

The end of the world as we know it

It is not the end of the PC story. It is the end of a chapter.

Analysts like IDC and Gartner expect PC sales will continue to fall over time. They think that, eventually, business computer sales will stabilise.

For now there is still a need for workers to use desktops and laptops to keep the wheels of industry spinning. Long term that market is also at risk.

Happy days

Nobody makes a similar optimistic forecast about consumer PCs. There is no happy ending in sight. The end point may or may not be where zero consumer PCs are sold. If we stabilise at a point before that one, the number will almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the 200 million units sold in 2011.

Almost overnight PCs are less relevant to people’s away-from-work lives.

IDC runs a programme called ConsumerScape 360 to track how people use technology. In 2012 about 90 percent of PC owners would check email on their computers each day. By 2015 the number had dropped to 65 percent.

Out of favour

If you need to check work mail away from the workplace you no longer have to use a home PC. You can do it just as efficiently on a phone or a tablet.

In fact more efficiently. With a phone or tablet you can reply while on a bus, in a train or while sitting in a pub. PCs are not that flexible.

IDC found similar declines in other popular computing activities. It turns out that when it comes to reading mail, checking news, web browsing and social media, using the PC is often far too much trouble. We now have more convenient devices close to hand all the time.

Planet of the phones

Today, most people are more likely to go to their phone first when doing anything online.

It’s not just Apple iPhones. People also use Android phones from brands like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. They are also using tablets like the iPad, which is, in effect, more phone than PC. But all these devices can trace their roots back to the moment Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.

That was the turning point.

Rocking all over the world

In developed countries this represents a major change in technology use patterns. It’s an even bigger revolution in much of the developing world: phones the only computers most people in those places have ever known.

Modern smartphones outsell personal computers four to one. Despite the name they are more personal and, sometimes, better computers. They know far more about you than your PC does.

Phones are ubiquitous. About half the global adult population owns a phone. By the end of this decade that number will reach 80 percent.

Replacing PCs the Microsoft way

Even if people buy new consumer PCs, they won’t buy as many or buy as often as in the past. There are tasks which don’t work well on phones and tablets, but the list gets shorter every year[1]. Soon it will be negligible.

Some of those consumer PC replacements will be devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, which is as much tablet as PC.

After ignoring the march of progress, Microsoft has responded to the change with a dramatic change of focus. It is one company, possibly the only company other than Apple, with the ability to build a tightly coupled combination of hardware, software and services. It comes as no surprise that companies like Samsung and Huawei are now making Surface-like devices.

Microsoft has also responded by bowing to the inevitable and making great versions of Office available to phone and tablet users.

No consumer PC rebound in sight

There’s little question the consumer PC is now in a death spiral. As sales numbers decline, the demand for apps and services declines. Developers will put less investment into satisfying user needs.

What was a virtuous circle fuelling the rise of consumer computing during the 30 years until 2011 has become a vicious circle on the down slope.

It’s hard to see how consumer PCs can rebound from this. At best there will be a long, slow slide into irrelevance. Expect to see PC makers consolidate further, with some brands disappearing. Expect to see hand-wringing at more angst at PC dependent companies like Intel.

Consumer PCs are not dead yet, but it is now only a matter of time. Customers have moved on.


  1. Games are one consumer area where the PC still beats phones and tablets hands down. Even the best iOS or Android games are unsatisfactory compared to PC games. And don’t get me started on the horror of “in-game payments”.  ↩

Apple iPhone SE with IPad Pro
Apple iPhone SE with IPad Pro

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 post on the iPhone SE. 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.

Small screen

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

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.

Flat

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.

Storage

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 review on an iPhone SE

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.