Apple iPhone SE Review: An Old But New Smartphone

by Reads (6,503)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Service, Warranty & Support
      • 9
      • Ease of Use
      • 7
      • Design
      • 5
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Value
      • 9
      • Total Score:
      • 7.40
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Great performance
    • Excellent battery life
    • Lowest price per GB for a new iPhone
  • Cons

    • Unimpressive display
    • Looks identical to the iPhone 5S
    • Voice call quality spotty at best
    • No 32GB option: Starts at 16GB and jumps to 64GB

This year’s unveiling of the iPhone SE smartphone felt like a mediocre trip down memory lane. Nevertheless, Apple’s $399 iPhone SE might just be one of the most important releases for the iPhone line in the last three years. At long last Apple has delivered an attractive new iPhone with the perfect combination of new features and low cost to tempt those customers who are still using old iPhones that are long overdue for an upgrade. More to the point, Apple finally has an iPhone that competes directly with Android smartphones that retail for between $350 and $500.

The iPhone SE might be small and looks like an old iPhone but it brings some impressive updates to the table. If you’re looking for a smartphone with better battery life, snappier performance, and abundant storage capacity that won’t break the bank then the iPhone SE probably belongs on the shortlist for your next upgrade. Read more of this Apple iPhone SE review to find out why.

Apple iPhone SE

Apple iPhone SE

Build and Design

We forgive anyone who struggles to spot the difference between the new iPhone SE smartphone and the iPhone 5S from 2013. The simple truth is that Apple leveraged the existing chassis of the 5s to create a new iPhone at reduced cost. The only “obvious” differences between the exteriors of the iPhone 5s and the iPhone SE are the different color options. The newer iPhone SE is available in Silver, Space Gray and Gold but the classic White has been replaced with Rose Gold.

The iPhone SE retains the aluminum frame, chamfered edges, and even weight and dimensions of the iPhone 5 and 5S; weighing just 3.99 ounces, and measuring 4.87 x 2.31 x 0.3 inches.

Once again, the Home button located beneath the 4-inch display features an integrated fingerprint sensor for both password authorization with Touch ID and compatibility with Apple Pay. The backside of the iPhone SE has a subtle upgrade to the main iSight camera, which now has a 12-megapixel image sensor, True Tone flash and supports 4K video recording (3840 x 2160) at 30 fps.

Display

The iPhone SE 4-inch LED-backlit widescreen multi-touch display with 1136 x 640 resolution. This is technically a “Retina display” with 326 ppi but it lacks the visual impact of higher resolution AMOLED displays like those found on the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge.   

DSC03694DSC03703

The older screen technology is both a blessing and a curse for the iPhone SE. The iPhone SE’s smaller size makes the device easier to operate with a single hand than the Galaxy S7 edge and, as previously mentioned, the lower-resolution Retina display is less expensive. Text is still sharp, pictures and video both look good for a small screen and the touchscreen surface is extremely responsive and accurate.

The box contents for the iPhone SE.In the Box

The iPhone SE smartphone ships with a standard 5W USB power outlet adapter, Lightning-to-USB cable, and earbud headphones. The headphones are Apple’s iconic EarPods with in-line remote and microphone. You won’t get anything else (other than the phone) inside the box but we aren’t surprised given Apple’s track record of including the bare minimum accessories with your purchase.

Performance

We would love to describe thae iPhone SE as a smaller, less expensive iPhone 6s but that’s not an accurate description. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus have better front-facing FaceTime cameras and they both support 3D Touch; two features absent from the iPhone SE. The iPhone SE also lacks a built-in barometer for elevation.

That being said, the iPhone SE has many similarities to the iPhone 6s when it comes to raw performance. Both phones use Apple’s 64-bit A9 processor with embedded M9 motion coprocessor along with 2 GB of system RAM. That dual-core processor runs at 1.84 GHz and is backed up with support for the latest LTE and Wi-Fi standards. In short, you’ve got an affordable smartphone with flagship-like speed.

iphoneSEThe single-core Geekbench score for the iPhone SE was 2539 and the multi-core score in Geekbench was 4420. Those scores are slightly better than what the iPhone 6s produced, although the iPhone SE uses a newer update of iOS 9 and probably had an easier time with the rendering portions of Geekbench since the screen resolution is lower. The single-core score from the iPhone SE is better than the score from the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge but the multi-core score from the S7 edge is better than the iPhone SE.

We only have two complaints that we feel compelled to mention in the performance section. First, the entry-level iPhone SE only ships with 16 GB of storage capacity and there is no option at the time of this writing to upgrade to 32 GB of storage. If you want more than the paltry 16 GB you’ll have to pay for 64 GB of storage. This seems like an obvious money grab by Apple since 32GB would be a perfectly reasonable middle ground between the lowest and highest capacities.

Second, we found that the iPhone SE smartphone delivers noticeably inferior voice call quality compared to the iPhone 5, iPhone 6s and even the ancient iPhone 4s. Granted, an ever increasing percentage of smartphone owners rarely use their phones for voice calls. Still, if your device has the word “phone” in its name then people expect the phone portion to work. We regularly experienced problems getting people to hear anything we said unless the phone was set to speaker mode. We felt like the Verizon guy from 10 years ago constantly asking people, “Can you hear me now?”

Ports, Sensors, and Connectivity

You don’t buy an iPhone because of its stunning array of ports and the iPhone SE is no exception. The right-hand side of the iPhone SE only includes the slot for the nano-SIM card The top right corner is where you’ll find the physical button for on/off/sleep/wake. The left-hand side of the device contains the switch for ringer/silent and volume up and volume down buttons.

DSC03685DSC03682

The big things that the iPhone SE lacks are all those extra sensors you’ll find on the latest Android-powered flagship smartphones and no microSD card slot for upgrading the internal storage after purchase. You don’t get the heart-rate sensor built into the back panel like the Galaxy S7 edge and, as previously mentioned, if you don’t pony up the big bucks for the iPhone SE with 64 GB of internal storage then you’re going to fill up the iPhone SE’s 16 GB storage capacity very quickly.

The list of supported cellular and wireless connectivity options varies based on the model of iPhone SE that you purchase (Model A1662 or A1723) but all models support 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2 and NFC. The cellular options run the gambit from LTE, TD-LTE, TD-SCDMA, CDMA EV-DO, UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA, and GSM/EDGE.

Location services are supported via GPS and GLONASS, digital compass, Wi-Fi, Cellular and iBeacon microlocation.

Camera

As previously mentioned, the rear-facing camera inside the iPhone SE is the same backside-illuminated 12-megapixel image sensor inside the iPhone 6s and it’s a significant upgrade over the image sensor inside the iPhone 5s.

If you’re stepping up from an old iPhone 4s or 5s one of the first things you’ll notice is that this camera focuses faster and makes it easier to grab snapshots of quick action. The combination of the f/2.2 aperture lens and the 12 MP sensor captures more than enough detail to let you crop photos and still have a large image for full-screen display or printing. Color accuracy is great and the “True Tone flash” does a reasonably impressive job capturing accurate white balance as long as the shooting environment isn’t filled with a terrible mixture of differently colored lights.

Sample images:
12MP Macro12MP standard image
12MP HDR12MP Flash image

Arguably the best camera feature in the iPhone SE smartphone is the support for 4K video recording at 30 fps. What really makes this a standout feature is that you can capture an 8-megapixel (3840 x 2160 pixels) still photo even while you’re recording 4K video.

Granted, the image quality of the 8 MP still images taken from the 4K video isn’t as noise-free or detailed as the 12 MP still images, but if you’re trying to capture images and video of a once-in-a-lifetime moment then it’s nice to have to option to just shoot 4K video and grab your still shots from there.

Of course, if you’re planning to use your iPhone to record 4K video then you really need to pay for the 64 GB storage capacity since 16GB will fill up before you’ve had the chance to record more than a few minutes of footage.

The front-facing FaceTime HD camera is actually a step beck from the 5 MP sensor in the iPhone 6s; the new iPhone SE features the old 1.2 MP image sensor. This is still perfectly adequate for 720p HD video calls. And 1.2 MP is enough resolution to check your hair or makeup using the FaceTime camera, just don’t expect to capture selfies with stunning amounts of detail if you’re using the low resolution of the front-facing camera.

ios9point3Software and Features

Of course, one of the main reasons that people purchase iPhones is the reliability of Apple’s iOS software. The iPhone SE ships with iOS 9.3, which we covered in-depth in a separate review (http://www.notebookreview.com/softwarereview/apple-ios-9-for-iphones-review/). All models of the iPhone SE come with 33 built-in apps ranging from FaceTime and Safari to iCloud Drive and the Apple Watch app. If you purchase the iPhone SE with 64 GB capacity Apple also preinstalls iMovie, Pages, Keynote, Numbers, iTunes U, GarageBand, Apple Store, Trailers, Remote and Music Demos.

The single biggest advantage that iOS brings to the table, other than the wide variety of 3rd-party apps available in the App Store, is that Apple doesn’t include the bloatware common to many Android smartphones and you can easily uninstall any carrier-specific apps if your service provider preinstalled anything you don’t want.

Battery

Our team of editors was worried that the new iPhone SE would deliver terrible battery life compared to the iPhone 6s due to the fact that both phones use the same processor but the smaller iPhone SE runs on a physically smaller battery with lower total capacity (1624 mAh in the iPhone SE vs 1810 mAh in the iPhone 6S).

Much to our surprise, the iPhone SE and the iPhone 6s deliver virtually identical battery life thanks to the lower power consumption of the smaller display and lower resolution. The Geekbench 3 battery life benchmark showed the iPhone SE lasted five hours and 32 minutes. That’s roughly 16 minutes more than the iPhone 6s but it seems less impressive when you compare those battery life numbers to the old Samsung Galaxy S6 (6 hours and 49 minutes).

Apple claims the non-removable Lithium-polymer battery inside the iPhone SE smartphone will last for up to 240 hours in stand-by mode on a 3G network and deliver up to 14 hours of talk time. If you’re just using your iPhone as a glorified iPod the you can expect to play music for up to 50 hours according to Apple.

Editor's choiceApple iPhone SE Review Conclusion

Our editors were initially quite skeptical heading into this Apple iPhone SE review. Sure, there are people who want a low-cost iPhone with many of the latest features in a smaller package. However, the low-res display and tired exterior design seems to run counter the position that Apple iPhones typical hold in the marketplace: premium smartphones that serve as luxury items and status symbols.

At the time of this writing Apple CEO Tim Cook claimed during a recent quarterly earnings call that Apple failed to anticipate the “overwhelming demand” for the iPhone SE and Apple can’t make them fast enough. Honestly, it has been a few years since Apple experienced a supply shortage with new iPhones and that might be the single best indicator that Apple has a hit on its hands.

The single biggest advantage that the iPhone SE delivers is lower cost … both in terms of the total cost of design and assembly for Apple and in terms of delivering a high-performance phone with a low cost per GB of storage.

Sometimes you don’t need the absolute best of everything in a smartphone. Apple’s iPhone SE proves it’s possible to strike a balance between excellent performance and affordability.

The box contents for the iPhone SE.Pros:

  • Great performance
  • Excellent battery life
  • Lowest price per GB for a new iPhone

Cons:

  • Unimpressive display
  • Looks identical to the iPhone 5S
  • Voice call quality spotty at best
  • No 32GB option: Starts at 16GB and jumps to 64GB



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4 Comments

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  1. Rochambeau

    This review was in no way influenced or paid for by my overlords at Apple.

    All Hail Tim Cook.

  2. polotown

    The biggest advantage for a lot of us with small hands is the size. That is why many people kept buying the 5s after the 6 was released.

  3. trajan2448

    Bad call quality??? Wow. Don’t think I’ll buy one of these.

  4. mk553

    I can’t say I’ve personally had any trouble with voice call quality, and overall love the new (smaller!) phone.