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Apple iPhone SE review: Still great, one year later

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The Good A small, hand-friendly design. Solid speed. Good front and rear cameras. More built-in storage (up to 128GB). The lowest priced iPhone you can buy.

The Bad Older giant-bezel design and limited screen size are love-it-or-hate-it. Hardware hasn't changed since its 2016 debut.

The Bottom Line The iPhone SE is one year older, but its added storage options and strong performance running iOS 10 still makes it a great choice for small-phone fans.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 8.0

My wife needs a new phone. She's used a 2011-era iPhone 4S for years, and it's hanging in there -- barely. The battery is slowly getting worse. Browsing speeds are sluggish. She can't upgrade to iOS 10 or anything later. But, she doesn't want to replace it with something expensive.

Unless she moves to Android -- a definite possibility, but one that would shift her and me off of using iMessage -- there's only one iPhone that really comes close to "budget": the iPhone SE.

One year ago, the iPhone SE arrived just a few months after the iPhone 6S. It was nearly the exact same phone under the hood, just packed into an old iPhone 5S case. Fast processor? Great camera? Longer battery? Check, check and check.

The iPhone SE is still on sale, with no changes other than increased storage options for the same price: AU$679 now buys you 32GB instead of 16GB (a welcome improvement), and AU$829 gets 128GB instead of 64GB.

But how does it compare to the iPhone 7 Plus I've been using daily? I started using this iPhone SE to see for myself. Turns out, Apple's most affordable phone is still a nice little speed demon, and totally holds its own against the larger, newer iPhones, especially when it comes to battery life. You just need to be one of those people who really values a small phone over a large screen to appreciate it.

apple-iphone-se-2017-21.jpg

iPhone SE feels like the perky little sibling next to the 7 and 7 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Size: You'll either love it or hate it. The 4-inch screen and tinier overall size of the SE is total throwback stuff. It's amazingly pocket-friendly. But, the trade-off is that tiny display (and the tiny on-screen keyboard).

Are you OK with retro? It's fun that it looks like an iPhone 5S. But also, it looks like an iPhone 5S.

It's a great little point and shoot camera. The SE's iPhone 6S-level photos and video (including 4K recording) are still really good, especially considering the SE's price. But its front-facing camera's 1.2-megapixel photos aren't as good as the 5- and 7-megapixel selfies on the 6S and 7 respectively.

A speedy phone, even on iOS 10. The SE keeps up with iOS 10 very nicely, and feels as fast as most new iPhones. The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus have a speed edge, but for most instances no one would notice the difference.

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