Apple iPhone SE hands-on: A little old, a little new, a lot smaller

Apple iPhone SE hands-on: A little old, a little new, a lot smaller

Daniel Howley

Technology Reporter
March 21, 2016

Big things sometimes come in small packages, especially when it comes to Apple’s new iPhone SE. Unveiled during a press event at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, the iPhone SE is basically an iPhone 6s packed into the body of Apple’s 4-inch iPhone 5s.

And that small screen comes with an even smaller price tag. The SE will start at just $399 unlocked when it goes on sale March 31. By comparison, the iPhone 6s costs $650 unlocked. I spent some hands-on time with the newest member of the iPhone family and was genuinely impressed with what I saw.

Have we met before?

Prior to the iPhone SE’s big unveiling, we’d heard rumors that the handset would be a dead ringer for Apple’s other small-screen handset, the iPhone 5s. And that’s exactly what we got.

Put the iPhone SE next to the 5s and I’d be stunned if you could tell them apart. They have the same two-tone rear panel, the same aluminum design, the same power and volume buttons, and the same display.

The only way you could really tell the iPhone SE apart from the iPhone 5s is the small “SE” logo on the former’s back.

Of course, you won’t have to worry about confusing the two at the Apple Store, because the SE is completely replacing the 5s in Apple’s lineup.

If you’ve already got a 5s and are looking to upgrade to the SE, you’ll be happy to know that your old case will still fit Apple’s new handset. (I’m sure case makers are real happy with that.)

So why make a new small-screen iPhone? According to Apple, the 5s was still selling very well, especially among first-time iPhone buyers; not everyone wants a giant handset. But the 5s was starting to get a little long in the tooth. So to make its 4-inch phone as lust-worthy as its other handsets, Apple simply upgraded everything but its looks. 

Camera envy

Nowhere is that interior upgrade more obvious than with the SE’s new 12-megapixel iSight camera.

A massive improvement over the iPhone 5s’s 8-megapixel camera, the 12-MP shooter is the same one you’ll find in the iPhone 6s. Heck, it’s even better than the camera in the iPhone 6.

That means you’ll be able to take sharper photos, shoot 4K-video, and capture Live Photos.

The iPhone SE also gets the same front-facing camera as the iPhone 6s, along with its cool Retina Flash, which uses the phone’s screen as a flash for when you need to take a hot picture of yourself in da club.

More power

The iPhone 5s’ processor in particular was starting to get pretty old. Slapping the company’s A8 processor from the iPhone 6 into SE would put it behind the performance curve from the get-go. So the company decided to equip its most petite smartphone with the same A9 processor and M9 motion coprocessor found in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

That means you’ll see the same kind of performance in the SE that you would see in Apple’s top-of-the-line handsets. In other words, your apps will run smoothly and game graphics will look fantastic.

The SE also gets the NFC chip and secure element needed to make mobile payments using Apple Pay. So if you want to splurge on a round of McFlurries at McDonald’s and forgot your wallet in the car, you can just whip out your phone, press your thumb to the Touch ID sensor, and pay for delicious concentrated sugar in a flash.

iOS hits the sack

No iPhone event would be complete without some kind of update to Apple’s iOS operating system. The latest version of iOS — 9.3 — comes with minor updates for things like Apple Health and CarPlay, which add Apple Watch support and new music suggestions, respectively.

The biggest improvement is Apple’s new Night Shift mode. With Night Shift, your iPhone’s display will automatically adjust its color temperature depending on the time of day.

Essentially, the feature reduces the amount of blue light emitted by your phone’s display during the night. This is important as studies have shown that exposure to blue light when you’re going to bed can impact your sleep. By making the iPhone SE’s screen warmer, Apple hopes to avoid this effect.

The price is right

Okay, so we’ve got an iPhone with new high-powered guts shoved into a rehashed design. Where does that leave us? How about at $399 unlocked. Now, that’s for a 16 GB model, which is a bummer, but it’s kind of hard to turn your nose up at a $400 iPhone, especially one with the capabilities this one has.

If you want some actual storage room, a 64 GB will be available for $499.

At $400, the iPhone SE is just $50 more expensive than Google’s 5.2-inch Nexus 5X. And, if the most important part of a smartphone to you is its camera, then it would only make sense for you to get the iPhone SE.

But chances are better that you’re looking at the SE because you want to upgrade from the 5s or because you’re looking to get your first smartphone. In either case, the SE, at least at first glance, looks like a solid buy.

Still, I’ll hold off on making any final judgments until our full review. Stay tuned.

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