Apple’s iPhone has had a pretty uneventful 12 months. The last time the company really pushed the boat out was with its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. Since then it’s all been rather dull and incremental, which is likely why iPhone sales declined for the first time ever in Q1 2016.
Things will of course pick up later on this year with the release of the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, although whether it will be enough to ensure Apple’s growth figures remain in the black remains to be seen. Multiple analysts seem to possess a religious belief that this year’s iPhone release will not be that impactful; that next year’s iPhone release — the iPhone 7s — will be the one that once again drives big sales figures.
In between all of this, though, Apple has released another iPhone. One with a 4in display that is called the iPhone SE. As releases go, this is about as exciting as finding out you have a £10 tax rebate. It’s nice, sure, but it’s hardly going to set your world on fire. I mean, it looks like iPhones from a few years ago and lacks many of the flagship features found on Apple’s current iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
So what is the deal with this phone? Is it any good? Does it work? Is there a niche for it? And what is it like switching from a phone like the LG G5 to a phone that looks as if it just fell through a rip in time and space? I will try and answer all of these questions in my review. But first let’s take a look at the overall design and display technology on show here.
iPhone SE Review: Design
As I said above: the iPhone SE looks exactly the same as iPhone’s did a few years ago. For all intents and purposes, this is the iPhone 5s lock, stock and barrel, just with new internals. Apple did add a new colour scheme into the mix — rose gold — but that’s literally about it with respect to overall design and finish. Now, some people might be cool with this, they might like the way the iPhone 5s looked, and it was a nice looking phone a few years ago, but I expected more, rightly or wrongly, from Apple in this context.
I’m not saying the iPhone SE is a bad looking phone — because it isn’t. What I’m saying is that Apple could and should have done more with the design of the handset. Rehashing a three year old design and marketing it as new isn’t particularly innovative and, when you factor the financial resources Apple has at its disposal, well, it kind of comes across as a little cheap.
I actually rather enjoyed using a 4in phone once I’d gotten used to it; I really liked being able to do everything with one hand and I love just how little space the iPhone SE takes up in my pocket. These are all good things and if you’re after a 4in phone experience the iPhone SE is decent — so long as you don’t mind people confusing your phone with a three year old handset.
But this is the point, really, isn’t it? Imagine you’ve been using the iPhone 5s since it first came out and you’ve been holding out for Apple to release a smaller, more up to date 4in phone, as rumours suggested it would, and then, when it actually does, and you go for the update, it looks EXACTLY the same as your old phone. Where’s the excitement here? Where’s that Apple magic?
Physically, nowhere. The iPhone SE is about as exciting to behold as a bowl of un-sweetened porridge. It doesn’t even have the most up to date TouchID or Apple’s 3D Touch display technology. Physically, the only real change is to do with colour options — you can pick one up in Apple’s rose gold. But, hey, at least you won’t have to buy a new case for it!
This is all I really have to say about the design of the iPhone SE; it’s an old iPhone with new internals. I like the size, actually. I’d forgotten what it was like to use a smaller phone after generations of phablet abuse. It was a refreshing surprise, to be sure, but I just wish Apple had done something to make the handset more appealing. As it stands the iPhone SE kind of feels a tad passive aggressive; like a begrudging concession to all those Apple alienated with its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. And like all begrudging concessions, you get the impression that not much care and attention went into creating the iPhone SE. Just a lick of paint here and there and few internal switcharoos and, BOOM, you got yourself a NEW phone.
iPhone SE Review: Display
One area where Apple could have EASILY made a change is to the iPhone SE’s display. It could have bumped it to 1080p; this would have been painless and it would have greatly improved the handset, as well as give it a USP over the iPhone 6s. But Apple didn’t do this; no, it just stuck EXACTLY the same panel in as was used inside the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s.
And the iPhone SE’s display isn’t just the same resolution — it is the EXACT same technology from 2012, LCD-grade and digitiser et al. This means the panel is duller and nowhere near as crisp and detailed as, well, 99.9% of flagship-class phones now available (and the iPhone SE is NOT inexpensive!). Again, this just feels cheap. A lot of reviewers tend to make excuses for Apple, which I find odd. After all, we’re talking about the biggest tech brand in the world here; it’s not like the firm needs our help to sell phones.
Had Apple upped the display technology to 1080p, or something equivalent, rather than going with a panel that is just about adequate I would gladly cut it more slack. But to essentially re-release the iPhone 5s with slightly undated internals and charge more than the cost of a decent Android flagship is, well, frankly obscene. It’s almost as if Apple thinks it is making phones for people inside a vacuum; people that don’t understand value for money.
I know the iPhone SE is cheaper than “normal” iPhone flagships, but this isn’t really the point: nobody else could get away with this. They’d get crucified. If the phone cost like £150 it’d be OK, but it doesn’t — a new iPhone SE will set you back £359! That’s £110 more expensive than the OnePlus Two and that, my friends, is criminal. This phone should be priced in a similar manner to the Moto G or similar mid-range Android phones. Anything more than that is downright bonkers.
iPhone SE Review: Part 2 – Specs & Hardware
I appear to have angered quite a few people by suggesting that it isn’t cool for Apple to release a phone in 2016 that looks and uses the same display technology as a phone from 2012 and then charging £359 for it. But that’s fine. Opinions are great, and I like it when my opinions are challenged. It makes for a more rounded review, as readers will often consult the comments on an article for rebuttals to what’s been said by the author. So, guys, if you did take the time to comment, positively or negatively, thank you. Your thoughts are appreciated and we do read all comments.
I admit, the first part of this review was pretty negative. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I do actually quite like the iPhone SE and I did enjoy my time with it. But I will 100% stand by my opinion that this phone costs way too much given what’s actually going on with it and when you compare it to other, vastly superior and significantly cheaper Android handsets. For me, the iPhone SE leaves a lot to be desired in the design and looks department; even if I really, really wanted a 4in phone, I’d still be rather depressed this was the best Apple could do in 2016. But that’s just me. You’re free to feel differently, of course.
Inside the iPhone SE things get a lot better, though. I guess this is where Apple believes you’re getting some value beyond its 4in display. The iPhone SE uses the same CPU and imaging technology as the iPhone 6s but in order to keep the price down Apple has included an older version of TouchID, and 3D Touch is not included on any of the SE models. But because it has the same A9 chipset as the iPhone 6s, things really do fly along at a pretty impressive speed. The iPhone SE outperforms the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s in Geekbench 3, which is pretty darn impressive.
In real terms, as in, when you use the handset in real-life, there is ZERO discrepancy between it and the more expensive iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. The iPhone SE simply flies, mauling whatever you throw in its path. Likely a combination of improvements in iOS 9.3 and the SE’s lower-resolution display, the A9 chipset inside it alongside the iPhone SE’s memory simply does not have to work as hard as it does inside the bigger iPhones and the net result is felt immediately. Yes, this phone looks like a throwback to yesterday but, boy, can it perform!
This is one of the most pleasant things about using the SE, as well. You hold it and it feels weirdly small and non-threatening. Power it up, though, and it is a BEAST that is right up there with the best of them, including new Android phones. Now, this might sound like a 180º on what I was saying earlier when I said this was a mid-range phone by today’s standards. But it’s not. The iPhone SE might be powerful, but the cost of building it is very low ($160, according to IHS) — so low, in fact, that Apple could easily charge less and still make impressive margins.
The display, for example, costs Apple over 50% less than it did five years ago at around $20 per unit. I guess this is where my disdain for the handset comes from: price. Apple is effectively charging top dollar for this handset when it costs the company very little to make. I’m not saying retail it at cost, that’d be stupid. But something like £299 (at most, ideally more like £259) would fit a lot more closely to what the iPhone SE is all about. It’d also be a great PR opportunity for the biggest technology company in the world to be seen as “giving something back” to all its loyal fans that have patronised it over the years.
It’s not a bad phone; not by a long shot. But given the costs of making it and the fact it looks no different from the iPhone 5s, I’m sort of struggling to see why it costs so much. Had it been cheaper, I’d be raving about this device. Not only because of its smaller factor, but also because it is a really solid performer across the board.
But if you’re not put off by the price, or by the fact it looks like a handset from 2012, then you’re very much in for a treat because the iPhone SE is an extremely solid performer and, based on historical precedent, it will likely stay this way for a good couple of years. Performance and efficiencies have never been a problem for Apple. And the iPhone SE, like the iPhone 5c before, is testament to that fact. Now if it could just sort out that pricing….
TUNE IN Tomorrow For Imaging Technology & Performance