iPhone SE Review: A Pocket-Sized Phone with Good Specs

In a day where it seems that smartphones are only getting larger, the iPhone SE is a bit of fresh air. Sure it is nearly identical to the iPhone 5/5S – actually, externally it is identical – but it is a tried-and-true form factor that just works.

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You just now have the innards of the iPhone 6S inside, providing you more performance, a far superior camera, and better battery life than the iPhone 5 or 5S could ever achieve. It is a nice step up from the old 5 line up and if you are just not into the larger iPhone 6 line, this could be the best value and best bet iPhone for you.

Specifications & Form Factor
When I say that the iPhone SE is identical externally to the iPhone 5S, I’m not joking or exaggerating. It is, in every way, identical. The button locations are the same, the dimensions are the same, the screen size is the same. You get the idea. In fact, if you have any accessories — like cases for your old iPhone 5 or 5S — they will work on the iPhone SE.

Externally, the SE measures 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm or, in old money, 4.87 x 2.31 x .30 inches and weighs in at 113 g or 3.99 oz.

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Internally, however, the iPhone SE is vastly superior to the iPhone 5S. Essentially what Apple has done is taken the iPhone 5 chassis and shoehorned in the guts of the iPhone 6S, more-or-less. That means as a user, you get all of the updated technological benefits that Apple has been working on these past couple of years in a smaller, easily pocket-able device. To start, the SE is powered by the Apple A9 processor, a dual-core processor running at 1.84 GHz. This is coupled with PowerVR GT7600 six-core GPU for improved graphics and all of this is supported by the 2GB of RAM in the device. Storage on the SE comes at either the 16GB or 64GB level and as is the case with all iOS devices, cannot be expanded with a MicroSD card.

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The 16GB or 64GB option, without a 32GB option between, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Arguably, Apple went with a 16GB model to keep costs down but, to be frank, storage is so cheap these days that offering a 32GB or 64GB unit makes more sense. For many, the 16GB option isn’t really an option. It just doesn’t offer enough storage, which means you are committed to the 64GB model and $100 more in price.

The display on the iPhone SE is fundamentally the same as it was on the 5S. It is a 4” IPS LCD display rendering at 640 x 1136 at a pixel-per-inch level of around 326. This makes viewing the screen for long periods of time easy on the eyes despite the smaller display. The screen-to-body ratio, therefore, also remains the same at about 60.8%. This again is an area that could have had a bit of improvement (a slightly larger display in the same chassis size), but I also understand that they wanted to keep all the available accessories out there as an option. I get it but this feels like a miss on Apple’s part.

While the new A9 processor is welcomed, perhaps the best improvement of the SE over the 5S is the camera. The new SE has a 12MP f/2.2 rear camera with phase detection auto-focus along with a dual-tone LED flash. The flash is the same as the 5S but the camera is a massive improvement in overall image quality. On the front of the iPhone SE you have the identical 1.2MP f/2.2 camera that you found in the 5S. Again, this feels like something Apple could have improved upon when designing this device.
When it comes to the battery, the iPhone SE has a 1640mAh battery which is slightly bigger than the 1540mAh that was in the iPhone 5S. Obviously that isn’t much of a change but when you marry that battery with the A9 processor and the battery life improvements that have been made in iOS 9, you can stretch the iPhone SE for a full day under normal use.

Wi-Fi has also been improved in the iPhone SE over the 5S. Now you have 802.11ac, so throughput on wireless connections is very fast. You will also find up to 19 different LTE bands (depending on your location) in the SE so LTE coverage on any major carrier isn’t going to be an issue.

General Performance
Using the iPhone SE has a certain level of familiarity to it given its form factor but equally, there is a nice bump up in overall speed and performance thanks to the updated processor and iOS 9. Performing basic day-to-day functions will not necessarily feel much faster. Watch videos on YouTube, streaming other content or game play will certainly feel smoother and more responsive. I found in testing for this review that YouTube videos loaded several seconds faster on the SE than they did on the 5S and there was far less pixelization at the beginning of that video.

Frankly, there is nothing really to complain about in the overall performance of the iPhone SE. It just works and works well.

Camera Performance
The biggest improvement you will notice between the iPhone SE and the iPhone 5S is the camera quality. Images are much sharper and far better color accuracy on the SE. I found that whether I was indoors or outdoors, photos were crisper overall, even when I used the pinch-and-pull digital zoom built into the camera app. While it is not at the level of similar cameras on some Android devices, it is certainly getting close and better than what we had in the iPhone 5S.

Flash photo quality also is slightly improved, but I am chalking that up to the improved camera given that the flash is more-or-less the same.

Unlike the 5S, the camera app in the SE does give you some of the newer features and functionality that you find in the iPhone 6 lineup. That includes thinks like slow motion (120 fps) and Time Lapse.
If you were pleased with the camera in the iPhone 5S, then you are going to love the camera in the iPhone SE.

Battery Performance
While the battery in the iPhone SE is slightly larger than that of the iPhone 5S, coupled with the improvements made in the A9 processor and iOS 9, battery life on this device is far superior to its predecessor. Through normal use, you can easily make it a day on the SE, where at best you would make it to about dinner time on the 5S in most cases. This means, in real terms, you are far more likely to take the camera out of your pocket (because it will fit in your pocket) and take photos or send that text message without worrying about eating up even a tiny bit of battery life. Much like the camera, this is a small but significant improvement for the SE that makes it shine.

Is the iPhone SE the right device for you? That really depends on what you need or want out of a device. If the design and style of the iPhone 5S was your thing, and you still want a device that you can fit into your pocket with ease, this is the device for you. It is also a great choice if you have a lot of iPhone 5S accessories and cases.

If however you want the cutting edge of what Apple has to offer, no, this isn’t the device for you. The 4” display will likely feel cramped, and overall the iPhone 6S is going to out perform the SE.

There are a lot of things to like about this phone and a few things that are not so great. I do think Apple could have shoehorned in a larger display while keeping the chassis the same size, and they could have done away with the 16GB model and just offered 32/64 and maybe even 128GB. So it isn’t perfect but I would still recommend it if you want a pocket-sized phone with good specs, a great camera, and all day battery life.

The iPhone SE starts at $399, and it is available from Apple.

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About the Author

Clinton Fitch
Clinton is the owner of ClintonFitch.com and has been writing about mobile tech since 1998. You can follow Clinton on Twitter @clintonfitch. When not writing about tech, Clinton is an avid baseball and F1 fan and is a ski bum in the winter.