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How iOS 12 is making my iPhone SE feel like new again

iPhone SE
iPhone SE (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Though I love the four-inch form factor, I've always been a bit disappointed in how Apple treats the SE. Its guts and hardware are years old, technologically. Even when it was only a year old, I had already noticed a slowdown in performance.

Running on beta

When I first wrote this editorial, I was running the developer beta of iOS 12. I'd been doing so since June of 2018. With the official launch of iOS 12 on my SE, I can say that the performance is still as stellar as it was when I first installed the beta version.

The test

Even though I've moved onto the iPhone X, I still keep my SE around because I love the size. This year, I decided to turn it into a beta testing device and installed the public beta of iOS 12.

The performance improvement was immediately noticeable.

When Apple unveiled iOS 12 at WWDC 2018, it noted that one of the major new features coming this fall is performance improvements. The latest software update is supposed to make app launching up to 40% faster, the keyboard to appear up to 50% faster, and the camera to launch up to 70% faster.

"Cool," I thought, but didn't really consider it after that.

Not until I started testing iOS 12 on my iPhone SE. Having switched to the iPhone X, the SE really felt like a dinosaur before. I didn't even like using it very much because everything took so much time to load.

I'd been so happy with iOS 12 on my SE since the beta launched that I was happy to update to the official iOS 12 immediately after it launched.

It's not magic

With iOS 12, it feels like the SE is brand new, with a brand new processor chip and extra RAM, even though it's the same exact iPhone I got two years ago.

We like to say things like, "It works like magic," but really it's not magic at all. The development team at Apple worked very hard to make these significant improvements to iOS performance.

iMore Editor-at-Large Rene Ritchie explains in detail how Apple managed this feat with faster processor ramp-ups, improved scrolling, and fetching data in the background.

Most importantly, Apple made changes to how our devices react to memory requests. In iOS 12, an app will 64, 32, or even 8-bits, depending on what the request calls for. This significantly lowers how often large memory demands are active.

These under-the-hood improvements are not so under-the-hood. It's like dropping a Hemi into a classic Impala. You notice it.

What's old is new again

There's no mistaking that iOS 12's performance enhancements help older devices. It's the little things that I noticed first.

When I launch an app, it loads much faster, even third-party apps. Trello is a perfect example. I basically hate using it, but it's the companywide program for tracking what we write about every day. In iOS 11, on my iPhone X, it would take a very long time to load and often froze for nearly a minute before working at all.

Trello on my iPhone SE with iOS 12 loads in seconds and, though it still freezes up on occasion, it gets back on track much faster.

Many other apps load at the exact same speed on my iPhone SE running the iOS 12 as they did on my iPhone X running iOS 11.4 when they've been opened before. They still loaded faster on iPhone X when launching an app that was previously closed in multitasking, but it's definitely faster than before.

The Camera app loads at the exact same speed as it did on my iPhone X in iOS 11. Whether I'm tapping in from the app, loading from Control Center, or swiping left from the Lock screen. There is no hesitation.

You have no idea how good it feels to see my iPhone SE working faster and smoother than ever before. I'm so proud of the little guy.

My iPhone SE finally feels like a pro

People with newer devices aren't as likely to notice the performance improvements. Your iPhone is already speedy! These changes are going to really feel good to iPhone owners that haven't upgraded in a couple of years. I noticed it as soon as I started using my iPhone SE with the iOS 12 public beta 1.

If you're still holding on to the four-inch form factor and your favorite mobile device is the iPhone SE, with iOS 12, your iPhone SE is going to feel new again, which will make you much happier now that we know Apple has killed the 4-inch form factor.

Have you tried it?

Have you updated to iOS 12 on an iPhone SE? Have you noticed the performance improvements? Tell me about your experience in the comments section.

Originally written in July 2018 after the beta launched. Updated and republished for the official launch of iOS 12.

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).

16 Comments
  • Installed ios12 beta on iPad mini 2 hoping for speed improvement. It seems about the same as it was under ios11, which is quite slow and laggy. It was fine under ios10. Had higher hopes for ios12 after reading about the performance enhancements but so far it’s been disappointing I also have an iPhone SE which seems fine under iOS 11. It’s a primary driver so I’m going to hold off updating it for now.
  • On my iPad Mini 3 (by the way, the only difference between the 3 and the 2 is that the 3 has touch id) I noticed an INCREDIBLE speed improvement! I still keep telling everyone I know how fast it has become. It feels like it's a brand new device. The performance may not be on par with an iPad Pro, but it feels MUCH better than on iOS 11. I am using my iPad a little more and my mac a little less because I don't have to wait as long for things to load on my iPad. I LOVE IOS 12!!!
  • Eh they just finally got rid of the steaming pile of garbage that IOS11 was.
  • The only problem with my SE is battery life. Does iOS 12 beta improve that?
  • Battery life on my SE took a heavy hit on beta one. I expect that in a first beta so I wasn't too concerned. However, I did find it concerning that battery life on my Apple Watch took a heavy hit since it was not running beta software. I guessed it was pinging the phone more in the early beta. Beta 2 was better, but still not as good as iOS 11. Now in Beta 3 I find my watch is now at 73% at bedtime, which is what I expect. Without a metric I'd say the phone is better but still seems a little short of iOS 11 in battery life. Close though. I expect the battery life to generally improve because of the optimizations made in iOS 12. It certainly is close to iOS 11 already. (Beta 3)
  • Not exactly encouraging. Perhaps those of us with tiny and old hands will get new hardware.
  • An SE 128 owner here: I was not having issues with iOS 11 speed, maybe because I am mostly using Mail and Safari? Anyway, certainly not slower and perhaps faster now. I don't have a metric to compare so it is only a feeling. Early betas suck battery but now (Beta 3) I find the suck to be close to par with iOS 11.
  • “ In iOS 12, an app will 64, 32, or even 8-bits”. Say what?
  • Everything is noticeably faster on my SE. Battery life is not obviously different. My favorite feature is in Safari; when loading sites using 2PA (2-page authentication), I was forced to manually enter my email, then access my password on p. 2. Now, tap-fingerprint-tap-fingerprint and I'm in.
  • Just read a report that is everyone’s favorite feature.
  • "It's like dropping a Hemi into a classic Impala."
    Sacrilege! A Chrysler engine in a General Motors vehicle? NO!
  • I look forward to installing iOS 12 on my iPhone 6s Plus. If the performance is good as I'm hearing, I'll hold off on getting a new phone for a while longer.
  • After reading this I loaded it on my iPhone 5s that I use for my business. Mostly it does nothing more than take and make phone calls. I have been playing with it running iOS 12 and I have to say wow! Major difference. I do want to note that I did have a new battery put in to so interested to see what it is capable of now.
  • "even though it's the same exact iPhone I got three years ago"
    -- released on March 31, 2016 "Its guts and hardware are years old, technologically. Even when it was only a year old, I had already noticed a slowdown in performance."
    -- The SE had ample performance reserves at launch, I don't see the problem myself It's very nice that Apple did some work to make older devices seem faster, especially because it risks losing some sales (it exposes the 'planned obsolescence' myth). On the other hand, superior support even on older devices may well enhance trust in the brand, convincing more users to enter Apple's ecosystem.
  • Yes, I was on iOS 12 Beta 1 and it's amazing. The Speed is Superior. My issues is our battery already on 84% quality, so it's a little bit terrible. And I can't accept it, so I decided to refresh my Device with iPhone 8 Plus and this device is stellar
  • I've got the 6S which I believe is the same processor as the SE. I've noticed pretty much the same things you've mentioned. A few bugs here and there but it is a beta so... I'm kinda shocked at how polished it feels though compared to iOS 11. There were so many point updates in iOS 11 I don't understand how it was so bad. My battery was wrecked on the daily but iOS 12 makes it feel like a normal phone again. My battery is depleted (max capacity is at 84%) so for it to even be sufficient for normal use at this point is amazing. I'll be opting for that battery replacement in the next month or two. I hope iOS 12 holds up on the performance end. It's impressive thus far minus a couple little bugs.