Apple iPhone SE review:

Small wonder

Compare These
4 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Packs nearly every worthwhile feature (processor, great camera, Apple Pay, always-on Siri) from iPhone 6S into a smaller, more affordable 4-inch phone. Compatible with all iPhone 5/5S cases and accessories.

The Bad Selfie cam doesn't get a megapixel upgrade, and there's no 3D Touch. Older design, while still good-looking, is exactly like the older iPhone 5S. Mid-year release means another iPhone will be coming sooner than later.

The Bottom Line While the rest of us wait for the iPhone 7 later this year, the iPhone SE is a great choice for small phone fans looking for an 'iPhone 6S Mini.'

8.5 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 9.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 8.0

Editors' note: On September 7, 2016, Apple debuted the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and discontinued the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus remain available, however, and Apple has increased the storage capacity of the entry-level models to 32GB and lowered their prices to $549 and $649, respectively. This makes the iPhone SE, introduced in March 2016, the final Apple phone available with a scant 16GB of storage. The full iPhone SE review, first published in March 2016 and updated in April, 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.

View full gallery

iPhone SE in the middle

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

View full gallery
Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Best phones of 2016 See All

  • Google Pixel Phone

    Starting at: $649.00
    4.5 stars

    With the help of an Assistant, Google's first in-house designed Pixel phone makes a kickass...

  • Apple iPhone 7 Plus

    Starting at: $769.00
    4.5 stars

    With two rear cameras and true optical zoom, the iPhone 7 Plus is Apple's most sophisticated...

  • Samsung Galaxy S7

    Starting at: $479.99
    4.5 stars

    We reviewed the new Samsung Galaxy S7 in London, Berlin, San Francisco and Sydney. It's...

  • Apple iPhone 7

    Starting at: $649.00
    4.5 stars

    Beneath a familiar design, the iPhone 7 adds some great improvements, including water...


Discuss: Apple iPhone SE (16GB, space gray)

Conversation powered by Livefyre