Should you get an iPhone SE now, or wait?

Commentary: Apple's smallest new iPhone, with more storage, is a better bet than the iPhone 6S -- but keep in mind the internals are now a year older.

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. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
3 min read

One year ago, when it was first released, I really liked the iPhone SE. (See the video above, which is from 2016.) There's a clear reason why: it was basically a smaller version of the iPhone 6S -- the same processor and same camera as the then-current top dog in Apple's phone lineup -- for less money.

A year later, the iPhone SE has gotten its first upgrade. Apple has upped the storage capacity: Now you can get a 32GB model for $399, £379 or AU$679 and a 128GB version for $499, £479 or AU$829. That's up from 16GB and 64GB for the same respective pricing. But there are no other hardware changes.

The iPhone SE is basically an iPhone 6S in an iPhone 5S body. For those who think the body of the 4.7-inch iPhone models feels too large, the SE provides the "classic" iPhone size with a 4-inch screen. But now, it's got the hardware of a year and a half ago, versus six months.

Still, it's enough phone for most people. And besides the pocketable size, it has two things most people want more than anything else: ample storage and really good battery life.

iPhone SE (2016) is the iPhone Mini

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For many, the SE is better than the iPhone 6S

The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus are the best iPhones for now, obviously, but the iPhone SE probably slots in right below them. And while 2015's 6S and 6S Plus remain on sale at reduced prices, the SE and 6S have the same basic specs where it counts. But the SE also has other things going for it:

  • The best battery life of any current iPhone.
  • Its price is at least $150 less than the next most affordable iPhone.
  • It's got Touch ID and Apple Pay.
  • It's the smallest and most compact iPhone.
  • The new 32GB/128GB storage options correct the 2016 version's biggest problem.
  • It has a good old-fashioned 3.5mm headphone jack.

It feels like Apple's MacBook Air, or even the new 2017 iPad: functional workhorse computers you can get at great prices, but ones without the latest bleeding-edge bells and whistles. A budget mainstream model. It would have been nice if the iPhone SE had gotten another small spec update, but for anyone who just wants a good, solid phone, the iPhone SE should still be considered a top pick.

In some regards, it even feels like a valid alternative to the iPhone 7. Besides the larger screen, the iPhone 7 has water resistance, better cameras and 3D Touch, but a lot of people don't necessarily need those. The speed between the 7 and 6S isn't something most apps require.

And, yes, the SE has a headphone jack.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What about the iPhone 8? Or Android options?

Will the iPhone 8 make it feel obsolete? Well, here's the thing: if you're considering a bleeding-edge iPhone, you're probably not buying the iPhone SE anyway. It shouldn't effect your decision. The iPhone 8 sounds like it will be expensive, and full of new features, and it certainly won't be as affordable or as small as an iPhone SE.

Keep in mind that the Android phone world has lots of great options in this territory. The OnePlus 3T offers a slew of features for the same price as the iPhone SE (but it doesn't work with every US carrier). And the promising Moto G5 Plus can be had for half the price of the iPhone SE.

How futureproofed is the iPhone SE?

For those wanting an iPhone or something in the Apple ecosystem, the options get smaller. But will the iPhone SE still feel fast in another year? Or two years? It's hard to tell. I'd guess the next version of iOS -- iOS 11 -- will work on the SE, but what about the one after that?

Ultimately, it doesn't thrill me that the iPhone SE is going on a second year with the same specs. But its overall value still keeps it as a strong pick.

Let me give you a personal example. My wife hasn't upgraded her phone in years. Having the latest tech doesn't matter to her. But I keep encouraging her to make some sort of improvement, because her phone is literally starting to fall apart. Of all the iPhones out there right now, the SE would be the one I'm recommending to her.

A year later, it's still a great little phone, and a great value.

Read the original review of the iPhone SE.

Or, the iPhone 7 review.