Apple iPhone SE review: Back to the future with a 4-inch pocket powerhouse

iphone-se-main.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.5 Excellent
  • $424.99

Pros

  • Compact, lightweight 4-inch smartphone
  • A9 processor delivers high-end performance
  • 12-megapixel rear camera
  • 4K video recording

Cons

  • Relatively low-res screen
  • No 3D Touch
  • 1.2-megapixel front camera
  • Meagre 16GB of storage in entry-level model

As soon as Apple announced that it was planning one of its mystery product launches at the end of March, the perennial rumours about a 'low-cost' iPhone surfaced yet again. And, in due course, Apple went out of its way to emphasize the fact that the new 4-inch iPhone SE is "the most affordable new iPhone we've ever released".

It's still not cheap of course, starting at £359 (inc. VAT, or $399) for a model with 16GB of storage, but it's certainly better value for money than Apple's last stab at a more affordable phone -- the late, unlamented iPhone 5c from 2013. And with the same A9 processor as the top-of-the-range iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the oddly numeral-free iPhone SE plugs an obvious gap in Apple's product range by providing a high-end smartphone for users who prefer a more compact and pocket-friendly design.

iphone-se-main2.jpg

The 4-inch iPhone SE is dwarfed by its 4.7in. and 5.5in. stablemates, and weighs just 113g (3.99 ounces). It's available in Silver, Gold, Space Gray and Rose Gold (shown here).

Images: Apple

High-end look and feel

The design of the iPhone SE is clearly intended to banish memories of the iPhone 5c altogether. Apple has ditched the curved edges, brash colours, and the cost-cutting plastic casing of that model and reverted to the more rectangular design of the popular iPhone 5s. And, like the rest of the iPhone range, the iPhone SE is constructed out of aluminium, available in a number of colours and with a smooth finish that makes it look and feel more like a high-end smartphone, rather than a compromised cut-price effort.

Admittedly, the 4-inch display looks almost tiny compared to its bigger brothers in the current iPhone range, which measure 4.7 and 5.5-inches respectively. But that's the whole point, of course, as the 123.8mm by 58.6mm by 7.6mm handset can easily be held in one hand, and the weight of 113g is barely noticeable when you slip it into your pocket -- or so it seemed to me after carrying around a 192g iPhone 6 Plus for the last 18 months. My only real complaint here is that I'd forgotten how small and fiddly the on-screen keyboard can be on a device this size.

iphone-6s-plus-se-screens.jpg

Screen real estate comparison: iPhone 6s Plus (left) versus iPhone SE (right).

Images: Cliff Joseph/ZDNet

Admittedly, the 1136-by-640-pixel resolution (326ppi) is relatively modest nowadays, but is still perfectly adequate for a 4-inch screen such as this. It lacks the 'dual-domain' pixels of the more expensive iPhone models, which means that it can't quite match the brightness and viewing angles of those models. Even so, we still found the screen to be more than bright enough for general use, and we rarely needed to raise the brightness above 50 percent during our tests. That helps with battery life too, and the iPhone SE gave us a full 8.5 hours of streaming video with the BBC iPlayer over wi-fi, so Apple's claim of up to 13 hours for more casual internet use doesn't seem too wide of the mark.

Pocket power

iphone-se-video.jpg

The iPhone SE's 12MP rear camera can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second. The front camera has a less impressive 1.2MP resolution.

Image: Apple

There have been some other compromises, though -- most notably the modest 1.2-megapixel front-facing FaceTime camera for taking selfies, and the omission of the 3D Touch feature that was introduced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus last year. But in other key areas the iPhone SE can genuinely go head-to-head with its bigger brothers. It has the same A9 processor as the iPhone 6s, running at 1.85GHz, along with 2GB of memory and a 12-megapixel rear camera with the ability to record 4K video (which you can't do with the more expensive, A8-powered iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which are still on sale). It also includes the M9 motion co-processor for fitness tracking, and you'll feel a lot more comfortable jogging in the park with the iPhone SE strapped to your arm or clipped to your belt than one of the larger iPhone models.

Top ZDNET Reviews

Running the GeekBench 3 test suite confirmed that the two phones provide virtually identical processor performance, and the iPhone SE even managed to beat the iPhone 6s when running the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics benchmark (although the lower resolution screen gives it an advantage there):

iphone-se-geekbench.jpg
iphone-se-3dmark.jpg
Images: ZDNet

That level of performance certainly proves that Apple has avoided the worst compromises of the iPhone 5c. The sting in the tail, though, is that the entry-level price of £359/$399 only includes 16GB of storage, which is barely adequate for a high-end smartphone such as this. Even more annoying is the fact that Apple doesn't sell a 32GB model, which would be perfectly adequate for many people, so your only other option is to step right up to £439/$499 for the 64GB model. There's no 128GB model either, as that option is only available with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

Conclusion

There's nothing innovative or ground-breaking about the iPhone SE: to all intents and purposes, it's simply a smaller version of the current iPhone 6s. It provides comparable performance and a broadly similar range of features wrapped up in a more compact 4-inch design with a £180/$250 price cut. It's not the genuinely low-cost iPhone that Apple-watchers perpetually dream of, but it's certainly an improvement on the iPhone 5c. And with network contracts coming in at less than £30/$50 a month, it should make an attractive option for people who prefer a truly pocket-sized smartphone.

Read more on the iPhone SE

Specifications

Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor, digital compass
Additional Features Multitasking, FaceTime, AirPlay wireless streaming, AirPrint wireless printing, iCloud Photo Sharing, AirDrop function, Apple TV support (2nd, 3rd), Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, CarPlay function, Family Sharing feature, QuickType keyboard, iCloud Keychain, Spotlight Search, Notification Center, M9 motion coprocessor
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Cellular
Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
Type smartphone
Integrated Components audio player, front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, voice recorder
Navigation A-GPS, GLONASS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900 / CDMA2000 1X 2100/1900/800 / AWS 1700/2100
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider AT&T, Verizon Wireless
Operating System Family iOS
Operating System iOS 10
Payment Technology Apple Pay
Intelligent Assistant Siri
SIM Card Type nano SIM
SIM Card Slot Qty single-SIM
Input Device Multi-touch
General
SAR Value 1.19 W/kg (body) / 1.17 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, audio player, voice recorder, navigation
Body Color Silver
Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Color silver
Color Category silver
Body Material glass, satin aluminum, stainless steel
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Yes
Communications
Data Transmission DC-HSDPA, EDGE, EV-DO, GPRS, HSPA+, HSUPA, LTE, TDD-LTE, VoLTE
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.2, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Display
Technology Retina Display with IPS technology
Display Resolution 1136 x 640 pixels
Pixel Density (ppi) 326
Contrast Ratio 800:1
Diagonal Size 4 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 10.2 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 4 in
Protection fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating
Color Support color
Display Languages Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Catalan, Korean, Malay, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Chinese (simplified), Thai, Turkish, UK English, US English, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Chinese (traditional), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English
Processor
Manufacturer Apple
64-bit Architecture Yes
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards AVI, MOV, M-JPEG, MPEG-4, H.264, M4V
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, AAC, AIFF, PCM, Audible, MP3, Apple Lossless, AAC-LC, HE-AAC, Audible AAX, Audible AAX+, protected AAC
Environmental Parameters
Min Operating Temperature 32 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Humidity Range Operating 5 - 95% (non-condensing)
Battery
Run Time Details Talk (WCDMA): up to 840 min
Standby: up to 240 hrs
Active online usage (WCDMA): up to 12 hrs
Active online usage (LTE): up to 13 hrs
Active online usage (Wi-Fi): up to 13 hrs
Playback (video): up to 13 hrs
Playback (audio): up to 50 hrs
Header
Brand Apple
Product Line Apple iPhone
Model SE
Packaged Quantity 1
Connections
Connector Type Headset jack - mini-phone 3.5 mm
Lightning
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, digital compass, proximity sensor, three-axis gyro sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Additional Features AirDrop function, AirPlay wireless streaming, Spotlight Search, Wi-Fi Calling, iBeacon microlocation, iCloud Keychain, iCloud Photo Sharing, multitasking, AirPrint wireless printing, Apple TV support (2nd, 3rd), CarPlay function, FaceTime, Family Sharing feature, M9 motion coprocessor, Notification Center, QuickType keyboard
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, AAC-LC, WAV, protected AAC, AIFF, Apple Lossless, Audible, Audible AAX, HE-AAC, MP3, PCM
Supported Digital Video Standards AVI, H.264, M-JPEG, M4V, MOV, MPEG-4
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 32 GB
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty, technical support
Service Included consulting
Full Contract Period 1 year, 90 days
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 1.2 Megapixel
Lens Aperture f/2.4
Features Exposure control, FaceTime HD camera
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty
Dimensions & Weight
Width 2.3 in
Depth 0.3 in
Height 4.9 in
Weight 3.99 oz

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Mobility, Reviews

Top ZDNET Reviews

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Where To Buy

Apple iPhone SE (32GB, silver)

Part Number: MP8L2LL/A

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All