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Apple iPhone SE (2016) review: Still great, one year later

If you're not waiting it out for the iPhone 8, the little SE is the best choice for a basic more budget-friendly iPhone.

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Scott Stein
Scott_Stein.jpg

Scott Stein

Editor at Large

I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets.

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Update, April 22, 2019: There is a new iPhone SE for 2020 that costs $399. Original story follows.

apple-iphone-se-2017-28.jpg
8.1

Apple iPhone SE (2016)

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.

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: $399 now buys you 32GB instead of 16GB (a welcome improvement), and $499 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.

An Apple's eye view: Photos taken with the iPhone SE

See all photos

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.

The headphone jack is back (and I missed it). The iPhone SE has a headphone jack, unlike the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. To a lot of people -- myself included -- that's a welcome feature. No dongles necessary.

Many iPhone apps feel better on larger screens, though. As much as I love the tiny size of the SE, it's not the ideal canvas for most iPhone apps, which assume you have a larger phone. The more cramped feel of the SE still, amazingly, works, but for all that I do on my phone (mainly photos, editing and some video work) it becomes challenging.

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A smaller screen means more squinting and scrolling.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Could be a good choice for runners. Going full-on into Apple's connected wireless universe with an Apple Watch and AirPods, you're more likely to keep that phone in your pocket anyway. This is a phone that you could attach to your arm with a band.

Battery life is best of the current iPhones. The iPhone SE lasted for 12 hours 18 minutes playing a video loop offline. It edges out the iPhone 7 Plus' battery runtime of 12 hours 6 minutes, and the iPhone 7's 10 hours 55 minutes. That alone could be a reason to go SE.

Your main alternatives: Cheaper, bigger Androids or pricier iPhone 6S

While the iPhone SE is Apple's answer to a "budget" phone, it's really more of a midpriced model. There are very good Android alternatives for as little as $250 or less, most notably the Moto G5 Plus ($185 with Amazon Prime ads) or the Huawei Honor 6X.

If you're looking for something that's more in the price and feature ballpark of the iPhone SE, your two best choices are the OnePlus 3T or the iPhone 6S, which start at $430 and $550, respectively. (See full specs comparison below.)

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Small, affordable, fuss-free

If you don't want a small screen, don't go here. If you live your life on your phone screen and need a large canvas, don't go here. If you're on a budget and want an iPhone, go for it. It's still great. Just note those alternatives listed above, especially if you're OK with living on Android.

The iPhone SE is a really good little phone, the sort of phone that I actually miss a bit. "It's nifty," as a colleague said.

But if you're looking for something new, be forewarned: 2017 phones like the new Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 are making thick bezels a thing of the past. The iPhone 8, expected in September, is sure to follow with similarly radical changes. The SE isn't going to be your ticket to the future. It will, however, be a really nice pocket companion for the present if you're seeking a low-key and affordable iPhone.

iPhone SE vs iPhone 6S and iPhone 7


iPhone SEiPhone 6SiPhone 7
Display size, resolution 4.0-inch; 1,136x640 pixels4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels
Pixel density 326ppi326ppi326ppi
Dimensions (inches) 4.87x2.31x0.3 in5.44x2.64x0.28 in5.44x2.64x0.28 in
Dimensions (millimeters) 123.8x58.6x7.6 mm138.3x67.1x7.1 mm138.3x67.1x7.1 mm
Weight (Ounces, grams) 3.99 oz, 113 g5.04 oz, 143 g4.87 oz, 138 g
Mobile software iOS 10.3iOS 10.3iOS 10.3
Camera 12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 1.2-megapixel5-megapixel7-megapixel
Video capture 4K (720p front-facing)4K (720p front-facing)4K (1080p front-facing)
Processor A9A9A10
Storage 32GB, 128GB32GB, 128GB32GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 2GB2GB2GB
Expandable storage NoneNoneNone
Battery 1,624 mAh1,715 mAh1,960 mAh
Fingerprint sensor Touch ID home buttonTouch ID home buttonTouch ID solid-state home button
Connector LightningLightningLightning
Special features Apple PayApple Pay, 3D TouchApple Pay, 3D Touch, water/dust resistant
Price off-contract (USD) $399 (32GB), $499 (128GB)$549 (32GB), $649 (128GB)$649 (32GB), $749 (128GB), $849 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £379 (32GB), £479 (128GB)£499 (32GB), £599 (128GB)£599 (32GB), £699 (128GB), £799 (256GB)
Price (AUD) AU$679 (32GB), AU$829 (128GB)AU$929 (32GB), AU$1,079 (128GB)AU$1,079 (32GB), AU$1,229 (128GB), AU$1,379 (256GB)
apple-iphone-se-2017-28.jpg
8.1

Apple iPhone SE (2016)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Camera 8Battery 8