Editors' note (March 21, 2017): Apple has updated the iPhone SE, doubling the storage capacity of the entry-level model to 32GB while leaving the $399 starting price in place; the 128GB version still costs $499. Apple has also unveiled new versions of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, as part of the (Red) program, which funds programs that combat HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The company is expected to unveil the next-generation iPhone 8 in September 2017.
The original iPhone SE review, published in March 2016 and updated since then, follows.
I never liked holding the giant iPhone 6 Plus. I could live with the iPhone 6, and its 4.7-inch screen. But Apple's most comfortable phone was the 5. It had a slightly larger screen than its predecessors, and could fit in a pocket. I remember calling it a "discreet smartphone."
The iPhone SE looks like an old iPhone. Sounds boring, huh? But this isn't a phone to show off. It's a phone to go undercover with. It's got nearly all of the same upgraded specs as 2015's top-end iPhones -- the 6S and 6S Plus -- jammed into a body that's identical to the old iPhone 5S, which it replaces. It's a mighty mini phone.
Just know this: the iPhone SE isn't " The New iPhone." That -- the rumored iPhone 7 -- will come later on this year, with near certainty. This, the SE -- Special Edition, Small Edition, whatever you want to call it -- is really just an iPhone 6S Mini. That alone is actually an impressive achievement, and it' s great that, finally, Apple has made all three phone sizes run equally well -- you just get to choose between small (SE), medium (iPhone 6S) and large (6S Plus).
At first glance, the price looks like a steal -- but I wouldn't ever get a 16GB model ($399, £359, AU$679). You need 64. Which sucks, because that means you're spending an extra $100, £80 or AU$150. That's only a "budget" phone by Apple standards.
Still, while 2-year "free on contract" deals are getting harder (but not impossible) to find, most carriers will offer eligible buyers affordable 24-month payment plans. Throw in a trade-in, and you could score the SE for a song. And ultimately it's a far bigger bang for your buck than its older doppelganger, the iPhone 5S -- now you're getting 2015 tech under the hood, not 2013 tech.
The iPhone 6S -- which is better than the SE in a few key areas -- is six months old. And in another six months, it'll get a price drop when the new 7 and 7 Plus models emerge.
In the meantime, the SE is for anyone who still owns -- and prefers -- the smaller screen iPhones like 2013's 5S and earlier.
When you're making that decision, It all comes down to screen. Can you -- or can I -- live with a smaller screen? Maybe you already have a small-screened phone and don't want anything larger. I lived with the SE for a few days between Cupertino, New Jersey and Manhattan, trying to go back to a smaller size. But I realized that, maybe, the SE isn't meant for me. It's meant for those who didn't want a larger 6S in the first place.
Editors' note: This review has been slightly updated with additional information since its original publication. Battery score and camera test photos now added.
6S features in a 5S body
Despite the smaller size, Apple didn't skimp on features in the SE. The iPhone SE delivers nearly every feature of the 6S. And everything listed in italics is a notable upgrade for anyone coming from an iPhone 5S or earlier:
- 4-inch 1136x640 (326 ppi) display
- 16GB or 64GB storage
- A9 processor
- 2GB RAM
- 12 megapixel rear camera, 4K video recording, Live Photos
- 1.2 megapixel front-facing camera, Retina Flash for dim lighting
- Touch ID
- Apple Pay
- M9 motion coprocessor for fitness tracking
- Always-on Siri
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi, LTE, Voice over LTE, Wi-Fi calling
- Colors: space gray, silver, gold, rose gold
The list of 6S features you're not getting is comparatively small: Except for the obvious screen downgrade --it's smaller, with lower resolution and less contrast -- the SE has a lower-resolution selfie cam, no 128GB storage option, and no 3D Touch.
Here's how this all translates in real life: the hardware is stellar, and the camera in particular is really good. See the test photos for a few samples using the rear camera, taken in everyday conditions.