iPhone SE review: One month later

iPhone SE
iPhone SE (Image credit: iMore)

Do you really need to be told that an iPhone SE is the right phone for you? That one of the only devices with both a 4-inch screen and a current-generation spec sheet is worth your money?

Of course not.

But what I can help you with is how it feels to go from an iPhone 6s Plus or an iPhone 6s back to the iPhone 5s form factor, and how it impacts your life in meaningful, often unexpected ways.

iPhone SE is a wonderful, almost-perfect iPhone. But its imperfections may gall some potential buyers, because it lacks much of what makes the latest, albeit far more expensive, iPhones what they are.

What you lose

Obviously, by going from an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus you lose quite a bit of what makes the latest-generation Apple products so good: 3D Touch; a second-generation Touch ID sensor; and perhaps most important (to me), a Haptic Engine, which replaced the vibrator motor in the iPhone 5s.

And, of course, the iPhone SE has a 4-inch display, which is both smaller and lower resolution than either the iPhone 6s or 6s Plus. Not only are objects slightly smaller than they are on the larger devices, making reading longer documents less comfortable, but the screen itself doesn't show as much information.

What you gain

Here's the thing about a smaller phone: it pushes you to do the right things on the right medium. As my colleague, Serenity Caldwell attests, moving from the iPhone 6s Plus to the iPhone 6s allowed her to defer many tasks she would have undertaken on the phone to the iPad or Mac.

Since moving to the iPhone SE, I've found myself doing the same. For almost a year, the Plus form factor became the catch-all for nearly everything I would have otherwise attempted to do on an iPad, and a good chunk of what I would have kept for a Mac. Perhaps at first I felt constrained by sticking to a phone, but then I felt empowered; here I was taking three potential devices and distilling them into one.

But here's the thing: I know, and have since proven, that undertaking these tasks on a larger phone lulls you into a sense of false productivity, that it is actually faster to get stuff done on that single, all-encompassing device.

Since getting my iPhone SE, I have naturally limited my usage to what feels right on the four-inch screen, which is considerably less than feels "right" on a 5.5-inch one. I'm no longer reading (of half-reading) pieces from the Atlantic, linked through the Twitter app; I have stopped pecking out, and feeling frustrated by, long emails. I can't compel myself to undertake the kinds of tasks that can, but often shouldn't, get done on a smartphone.

Instead, I'm turning to my iPad Pro, or my Mac. And even including the time of transition, I'm getting stuff done in half the time.

The comfort of palming

I had almost forgotten the confidence instilled by a phone that can be subsumed by a human palm, that isn't just thin and light but compact.

Whether I feel more comfortable using the iPhone SE than the 6 and 6s series — it's not as slippery, and I can easily pinch it between two fingers without concern it will slither out and fall — or the reassurance that I will, with one hand, be able to do nearly everything I need, the iPhone SE just feels like the right choice most of the time.

The price factor

The iPhone SE is not only Apple's cheapest iPhone ever, but it's a relatively inexpensive smartphone, period.

Some may balk at the unaltered design, or rage against some aspects of the spec sheet, like the underwhelming 1.2MP selfie camera. But at $399, it's able to reach a portion of the market that wouldn't have even considered an iPhone before, giving Apple not only the opportunity to bring more people into its ecosystem, but to ensure that those upgrading get to use the latest silicon and experience, for a little while, the best of Apple.

The security factor

Then there's the security factor. As we've seen with the various court orders issued to Apple over the past few months, including that of the San Bernardino shooter's iPhone 5c, older iPhones are vulnerable to exploits in ways that newer ones are presumably not.

Much of that extra security comes in the form of Apple's Secure Enclave, which has been built into every on of the company's 64-bit chip since 2013's A7. Making that architecture available at an even lower price means those with older phones, and aging architectures, will have an even easier time upgrading.

A more compact camera

I love street photography. I love quiet moments, hovering on the shutter, trying to eke the perfect moment from the chaos of a city.

With the iPhone SE, I've found the perfect combination of size and capability. With the same 12MP sensor and f/2.2 lens as its iPhone 6s sibling, the SE focuses quickly and intelligently, exposing the right parts of a scene, capturing real-life colors and plentiful detail.

That it lacks optical image stabilization is only an issue in low-light situations — and sure, I wish it was there, just like on the iPhone 6s — but I love being able to take the phone out of my pocket, use my right thumb to access the camera app from the lock screen, turn it horizontal and snap a photo with the volume button in one fluid motion.

A typing revolution

Incredibly, I really like typing on the iPhone SE. Not with the main keyboard, mind you, which I find too cramped in portrait mode, but with one of the many third-party keyboards available on the App Store.

SwiftKey, which I find frustrating to use on the 6s and 6s Plus, supports swipe-to-type that, because my thumb can reach across the entire screen of the iPhone SE, lets me input text more quickly and accurately than I do pecking out long paragraphs on the larger iPhone 6s Plus. And when, inevitably, SwiftKey gets buggy, I switch the SE to landscape mode and use the built-in keyboard.

No-worry battery life

Chalk it up to the iPhone SE's relatively low-resolution screen and power-efficient A9 processor, but I'm finding battery life to be better than on the more capacious iPhone 6s.

While it doesn't hang on for two days like the iPhone 6s Plus often does, I've yet to need to top up the iPhone SE during the day to keep it from dying in the evening. Yes, iPhone SE delivers in the battery department.

It's just a feeling

iPhone SE

iPhone SE

It's not a nostalgia thing. It's not even a screen size thing. There's just something about the iPhone SE that I keep returning to, a bond that I've made with its design that I can't quite quantify. I acknowledge its shortcomings, and they just don't matter as much as I thought they would.

There's something magic about that.

See iPhone SE at Apple (opens in new tab)

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

  • Only reason I keep buying the larger phones are for better battery life and most pack better camera hardware and game are better for me on a bit larger screen but I felt as if the 6s @ 4.7" was just a touch to small where I feel 5" is perfect but with plus battery life and screen and camera ... Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm sooooo happy with the SE as well. I'm surprised, honestly, at the number of people I've spoken with (including Apple Store employees!) who tell me they're "really shocked" at how many SEs they're selling.
  • Right, because an Apple Store employee is really going to say otherwise... I'm not saying the SE is selling poorly, but it's definitely not selling at the same record breaking rate as the other flagships.
  • That's because it is not a flagship phone, it is Apples entry level phone. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • you would think people would be smart enough to understand that.
    it appears that's not that case....
  • Then what are we saying? We are either shocked at how many units the phone is selling or we aren't expecting it to sell because it's not a flagship phone? What is the expectation here? When one is "shocked" at how many phones are selling, how many phones is that?
  • Err no, the iPhone SE is not an entry level phone at all. It's pretty much a 6s in the body of a 5s. Sent from the iMore App
  • Exactly. Flagship level is determined by chipset and camera, first and foremost. The SE hits flagship marks. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't know. I decided to buy one yesterday and went to the Apple Store, Best Buy, and the ATT store down the road. All of them were sold out of the SE. Got one on order from ATT. I love my 6 Plus but gets in the way at work (construction) and I'm afford I'll break it!
  • like the article Daniel, interesting viewpoint about the smaller device. I have recently returned to a smaller device - not quite SE small - after having had 'phablets' for a couple of years and I too find that I'm not missing it.
    A Question though..........the device starts at $579 up here in Canada.....does it still offer the same value for money at that price ?
  • Good question. I was wondering the same thing, but then remembered that every other phone that competes with it is equally more expensive due to our declining dollar value.
  • This article was a great read! I do agree with some of the points said here. I have had my SE for 2 weeks so far and I am still enjoying it, and the battery life. Having to charge every other day is amazing! Very impressed. The camera is insane, whoa. Also recently found out that one of my friends also has the SE (we both squealed when we found out, haha). She has the gold and I have the rose gold, both in clear cases.
  • Is it a good phone? I'm upgrading from an iphone 4 and wanted the SE but am getting mixed reviews of good and bad.
  • I'm "upgrading" from an iPhone 6 to SE. Yep, u red it right. I don't like phablets so I had to buy iPhone 6 in 2014 but now SE's the best choice for me. And I haven't seen a bad review yet.
  • It's definately a great upgrade from 4! I've upgraded from the 5C and it's a huge difference.
  • Having just jumped from the 6S to the SE, in the end it feels like the 6/6S just aren't as well considered as the 5 design was. Even at the same size the SE would be more pleasant to use. It feels as if so much work went into making the first large iPhones that they had less time to focus on actually making me them great day-to-day iPhones. Button placement, slipper edges, and other features make for some of the most usage-compromised aspects of iPhone design in the product's history. Yes, the market was demanding larger phones. The market isn't always right, though, and it was a mistake (still is) to use producing larger phones as a reason to ignore deliberate design of a high-end "small" phone, where the experience existed and we would hopefully see much less sacrifice in practical design. It will still be a (design and quality of product-not commercial) mistake when the SE doesn't get upgraded while the 7/7 Plus get released.
  • "It will still be a (design and quality of product-not commercial) mistake when the SE doesn't get upgraded while the 7/7 Plus get released." It depends on whether the 7 will have a more ergonomic design or not. Hopefully smaller bezels. The 4.7" form factor is perfect for me besides the chin being a tad too big.
  • So far, I know of four people who have bought the SE. Three of them shrinkgraded from a 6 or 6s, and one upgraded from a 5s. One of those who shrinkgraded is my girlfriend, and she's been loving the SE so far. She never used 3D Touch (I actually showed her what it did when she got the phone, so it's not like she didn't know it was there) and claims that most of the friends in her chat/social group almost always soften selfies with all sorts of filters, so the potato front camera isn't a big deal-breaker for her. Frankly speaking, I'm tempted to shrinkgrade as well, though it'd be more of a straight upgrade for me (spec wise) since I'm still on a 6. The space grey 5s design is just so classy, more so with the chamfered edges matted out now on the SE, plus the size and the way it feels in the hand. Light years ahead of the 6 series which feels like you're holding a bar of slippery snot. One thing that bothers me is the how cluttered the top status bar is on the lock screen (due to the text being larger sized compared to when it's on the home screen). I hope Apple give us a way to clean it up a bit, or at least reduce the font size when on the lock screen. If your carrier name is longer than five alphabets, you practically have the left portion touching the clock on the center bit. It's a shame that SwiftKey is still buggy on iOS though. Typing in portrait mode was one of the things I was never comfortable with back when I used the 5 - the number of times I've typed "impre" instead of "imore", ugh - and a third-party swipe friendly keyboard would probably be one of the first things I look for if I went for the SE.
  • The iPhone se brought me back. The 6s and 6s plus are ugly looking phones Sent from the iMore App
  • Glad someone agrees with me on that one. the 6 series is just plain Ugly.
  • I'm one of those people who disagrees, the iPhone 6 series are beautiful designs and are more modern than what is my second favourite design after the 6 series in the 5s design which the iPhone SE design is based upon. Sent from the iMore App
  • So the SEs value is that it forces me to use my other devices? Meh. Skip it.
  • Yeah I can see your point. If you don't have an iPad and Mac that are being collecting dust from you using your giant phone, there's not as much of a point.
  • I think this totally depends on the person and their habits. For some people, it allows them to better streamline what they do on their phone. For others, that doesn't happen because there's never been a need to streamline activities on our phones.
  • Personally, I got the SE and find it a reason to stay with apple as I appreciate having a smaller phone. I have an iPad if I ever wanted a tablets use. I had the iPhone 6 and wasn't a fan. Sent from the iMore App
  • Shrink graded from 6s to SE. Wasn't easy to find one. Had to resort to craigslist. Got a great deal, at $300. Will be able to sell my 6s for around 500. Not a bad deal and I absolutely love the smaller form factor. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd probably buy a 64GB iPhone SE if it wasn't f***ing $829 AUD ($645 USD).
  • $600 - $650 USD is what most people outside North America have to pay for an SE today. Apple recently adjusted prices due to the USD strengthening against many currencies (your Australian and my Singapore dollar included), but they haven't yet readjusted the prices now that those currencies have gained back ground. Having said that, we're never going to get US prices even if/when Apple readjusts the prices back. Apple devices outside North America have always been more expensive, sadly. That's why many of us often scratched our heads whenever Apple execs claimed that MacBooks represented more value, spec-for-spec, compared to other premium laptops. Might've been true in the US, but not the case outside. It was worse when the iPod just came out. We'd look at the US prices, and then go to our local stores and almost pass out looking at how high they were priced here.
  • I didn't like the large form factor, so I replaced my 6s with an SE. The review pretty much sums up my experience with my SE with one HUGE exception: I had bluetooth problems like many other users of the SE. Specifically, distorted audio during phone calls on bluetooth devices. Before the problem became widely known, Apple replaced my SE with another one. The bluetooth problem persisted with the replacement SE. A thread in the Apple Support Community is growing (up to about 22 pages at this writing) as is a thread on MacRumors, full of complaints about the bluetooth issue from users around the world on different carriers and using different bluetooth devices in cars and earpieces. Apparently Apple is aware of the issue and is investigating, but has so far kept quiet about the problem. It's unclear whether it's a hardware or software issue, but users that are using the public beta of 9.3.2 have indicated that the issue isn't resolved in the current release. The bluetooth problem happens in 9.3 and 9.3.1. There is no announced timeline for a fix. So, I decided to return my (now 2nd) SE to my carrier within the 14 day buyer's remorse period. I'm using a 5C until Apple fixes this defect, then I will buy the SE again.
  • So the iPhone 5SE has caused you to use MORE devices. I feel we are going backwards as a people technology-wise. We used to want to condense devices. We don't want to carry an iPod, a phone and wear a watch. So lets put our music on our time-telling mobile phones! Now we've cut three devices down into one. But in this article it seems to be rationalizing a smaller phone by saying, "This phone has forced me to do things on bigger devices because thats where things should probably be done anyway". Personally, I enjoy being able to do as much as I can on my mobile device until I absolutely NEED to switch. But to justify a smaller phone by saying, "It has created the need for me to use other devices" seems silly and backwards to me. Just in my opinion. But whatever works for others is awesome.
  • I think it's just really about how much one is willing to compromise. For many people in the world, the smartphone has become the primary, and in many cases the one and only, device to do any computing on. If you're one of those people, the 6/6s Plus models would probably be the most logical single purchase in the Apple lineup. You can practically do anything on it (except torrent sh*t, which is what 99% of most smartphone "power users" want but won't admit when they diss iOS), but not all those tasks could be done as well as with some other larger or smaller devices. You won't be able to do MS Office work as quickly on a Plus as you would on a Mac or iPad, and you're not going to be as comfortable checking messages on the move as you would with a standard 4" - 4.7" screen iPhone. In that sense, I get where the author is coming from. I've got more than one computing device, and I've often forced myself to type out a long email on my 6 even when my Mac, which was just a few feet away from me, could've done it way quicker. Someone like my sister on the other hand, who never got along with with regular "desktop" computers, absolutely loves her 6 Plus. She does everything on it and doesn't even have a computer anymore. Only supplementary device she owns is an Apple TV (the older, not ridiculously priced one) to stream Netflix. Horses for courses, as they say.
  • Well said! It's really interesting how people have so many uses for their tech. I know a few people like your sister who does everything on their phones and they haven't turned on their computer at home in months? I'm glad that you shared the example of your sister because people who do this, they exist too and sometimes it's easy to forget that they do. There are people like this guy I know that uses his phone for social apps (i.e. Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, etc) and of course, the phone stuff. He has a 5s, and his usage is actually similar to mine. Basically, he reads emails on his phone, listen to music, take pictures of the kids, and watch an occasional clip. At least that is what I have seen him do. He also has an iPad that he likes to watch TV and movies on too. My usage is similar to his, but different. The difference is that I read a lot on my phone, it's part of the enjoyment for me. And no, it's not so small, I'm just fine with the size of things on my SE. I increased the font a little bit on my ebook apps, but that's about it. I prefer to watch videos on my computer, but if I feel like watching them on my phone, I will and I don't get how the experience sucks? Whoops, didn't mean to leave such a long comment.
  • Or you could look at it the other way around - I deliberately bought a 5s (before the SE came out) rather than a 6 or 6s (or plus version of either) precisely because I already spend most of the day at a computer, so I don't need it to be capable of substituting for one. By the same token, I haven't got an iPad or any kind of tablet for that matter. It would simply be redundant and an extra thing to lug around with me. The small phone, however, works fine for making calls and running apps that I use when I'm on the go (e.g. spotify for music, navigation in the car, for example), but doesn't take up too much space in my pocket.
  • The iPhone SE hasn't been out for a month yet, though. Sent from the iMore App
  • They got review units way before the public, remember?
  • Way to throw it in our faces, huh? Haha Sent from the iMore App
  • I bought a iPhone 6 and didn't like it. So got a used iPhone 6plus and not bad for work I use a iPhone 5s and tell everyone is a SE lol what I don't understand why Apple would lie about live picture? How come I can do it on the iPhone SE but not on the iPhone 6 and what about retna flash? With the iPhone SE that show how marketing at Apple works.
  • Nice to hear from someone else who went from a 5/5S to a giant 6Plus like myself, and back. Love the phone but Plusie's going to have to take one for the team, as iPad and Mac are feeling neglected and collecting dust. Plus it would be really nice to have a phone that's a lot smaller, more compact and lighter for running, cycling and weight training, which my phone spends a lot of time doing. Plus Rogers is offering 2 years of free Spotify.
  • Currently on a 6 Plus and waiting for my SE to be shipped. I'm going to the SE because of one handed use. Owning it since launch I've enjoyed the screen size but lately one handed use has become difficult. The curved edges are not idea for good comfortable grip. I will be getting an iPad soon and will use that for my media consumption/ web browsing. The SE will be for calls, messaging & music.
  • There are 2 reasons why I'll never go back to the 4 inch iPhone, love love the form factor of my 6s Plus, the better battery life and better screen at 1080p. Oh well I guess that makes it 3 reasons. Sent from the iMore App
  • I enjoyed my time with the 6S+, but the SE just suits my lifestyle much better. So much easier to use and pocket - especially during the warmer months. Once I'm situated while working it's mostly a computer or tablet I'm using, so the 6S+ was overkill. Very glad they brought this form-factor back with a beefed-up model.
  • Apple should make a 4 inch phone with all the same specs as the flagship & give us a no compromises choice of just the size. Then they can see how many 4 inch devices they will sell. Another thing,the bigger phones are the reason why the iPad sales are plummeting. You should do on your phone what you need to do in your phone & the same goes for the iPad & MacBook. That's what they were meant for! Sent from the iMore App
  • ... That's exactly what they did.
  • I remember the cell phones from the early 1990s that were as big as a brick and had about 20 minutes of talk time on a battery that weighed what seemed like 5 pounds. Then I remember waiting weeks to get my hands on Motorola's revolutionary, ultra small StarTac (and the many identical form factor Motorola phones, like Teleport, that followed it). Now we've come full circle and it seems everyone wants their next phone to be as big as an SUV. Seriously, though, I do get the advantages of an iPad Mini sized phone if that's your only computing device. But I use a full sized iPad 90% of the time. I even make phone calls on the iPad using Apple's Handoff service, along with Skype and FaceTime. My iPhone SE is primarily a phone, camera, audio player and occasional back-up to the iPad for those times with the larger device is inconvenient to carry. Sometimes I wish Apple made an iPhone that was just cellular voice only so I didn't have to waste $10 a month on a data plan for it. (Yes, I know visual voicemail needs the data plan). If my Apple watch could be a simple cell phone, I probably could live without an iPhone (not something Apple would like to see, I'm sure). Then again, I'm not sure I want a powerful cellular radio radiating my arm with EMF 24/7. If I could buy a full sized iPad with a cellular radio, that might be something to consider. That could work for a lot of people.
  • Why would anybody in there right mind want this?
  • Again, please tell me that you are speaking for yourself.
  • I have had an iPhone 6Plus for quite some time now and, when I tried out the SE for a while, it just feels as if I need to hold it closer and squint my eyes to see anything on that screen. And typing - especially in portrait (which is forced onto user by way too many apps) - and in languages which do not offer auto-correct is just a chore. I do not even want to reply to any messages.
    I can't go back to small phones anymore. Since I do not wear skinny jeans with tiny pockets, I have never found the size of 6 Plus to be problematic. The round shape also makes it nicer in hand. And the lock button on the side is right under my thumb when I grip the phone naturally. The screen is big enough for me to comfortably read e-mails, use navigation, browse web and watch an occasional YouTube video.
    The Plus versions of iPhones are - in my opinion - the best decision by Apple in a long, long time. Hopefully all next iPhones will offer the same choice - regular and Plus.
  • Was a BB user for 10 years; came from a BB Q10
    IPhone SE rocks! totally, user friendly; wifi call