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The iPhone SE: A Modern iPhone in a Classic Case

I used to be a small-phone guy, insistent that I would never wield a “phablet” – an awful-sounding term for what I then thought was an equally dreadful form factor. Who would want a phone you can’t use with one hand?

But when Apple released the iPhone 6 Plus two years ago (see “Apple Announces iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus with Larger Screens,” 9 September 2014), I had a change of heart. I was seduced by the 5.5-inch iPhone with its gorgeous and ginormous screen perfectly suited for reading books, watching videos, and editing photos in a non-claustrophobic fashion.

I got rid of my 4-inch iPhone 5s and all my accessories tailored to that form factor and consigned this petite product category to tech history.

Now, to my mild consternation, it’s back.

Two months ago, Apple introduced the iPhone SE (see “Apple’s March Event Reflects Increased Customer Responsiveness,” 21 March 2016), a model that is externally all but identical to the iPhone 5 and 5s, but has internal components like the A9 processor that are more akin to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. It’s a modern iPhone with a classic look, and one that happens to be compatible with all those iPhone 5s accessories I now regret discarding.

To my surprise, I liked the iPhone SE. Slipping it into the front pocket of my jeans, I felt relieved that I didn’t have to struggle to shoehorn a massive iPhone 6s Plus into that tight space. For all my love of the iPhone 6s Plus’s expansive screen, a burden had been lifted.

Small iPhone, Big Market — I’m hardly alone in enjoying the feel of a smaller iPhone.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said earlier this year that about 60 percent of iPhone users who had purchased models predating the iPhone 6 had not upgraded to a large-screen flavor. What’s more, Apple said it sold 30 million 4-inch iPhone models in 2015 alone, a sign of enduring demand for smaller iPhone versions.

Apple hasn’t yet revealed how well the iPhone SE is selling, but I’m betting it’s doing better than the iPhone 5c did. That 2013 model, positioned as “unapologetically plastic” with a nonstandard form factor and outdated internals, is now regarded as something of a blunder.

With the iPhone SE, Apple appears to have learned from its errors. Those investing in a small-size iPhone are no longer forced to make profound sacrifices in gadget construction, features, and horsepower. Though the iPhone SE is not 100 percent equivalent to the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, it’s close. While carrying an iPhone SE review unit around for two months, I seldom felt I was making significant compromises.

As an avid iPhone photographer, I produced photos that are indistinguishable in quality from those I’ve shot with my iPhone 6s Plus. Features like Live Photos, 4K capture, slo-mo, time-lapse video with stabilization, and Retina Flash are all on board. What’s more, the smaller iPhone SE is a more manageable chassis for its glorious 12-megapixel sensor.

I adore the classic design with its chamfered edges, now matte instead of shiny. Those flat sides allow the gadget to be balanced vertically on a table, and the small size and shape lends the iPhone SE to single-handed use.

And the iPhone SE’s lower cost is a major plus. It starts at just $399 for a 16 GB model, compared to an iPhone 6s at $649.

Just a Few Sacrifices — Apple has a long history of staggering its devices’ feature sets to save some good stuff for top tiers while mildly short-changing those in the lesser echelons.

The iPhone SE is no exception. This is a top-flight iPhone, to be sure, though it does lack some features. But how much will you miss these features?

  • 3D Touch: The iPhone SE has only a vibration motor and not the more advanced Taptic Engine necessary for 3D Touch feedback. But few apps have implemented 3D Touch peeking and popping properly.

    I rarely used 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s Plus, and even in those apps that support it, like the Twitter client Tweetbot, I didn’t miss 3D Touch when using the iPhone SE.

  • 128 GB capacity: Apple offers this storage level for the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, but the iPhone SE tops out at 64 GB. That can hurt a bit, but it’s increasingly easy to store content in cloud-based services like iCloud Photo Library and Google Photos.

    For instance, every picture I shoot gets automatically pushed to my Google Photos account, and my Google Photos app can purge local pictures that have been backed up online. So, local storage isn’t as important as it once was.

  • Optical image stabilization: Though the iPhone SE shoots 4K video just like its big brothers, it lacks a feature called optical image stabilization to steady video that would otherwise appear jerky. Only the iPhone 6s Plus provides such stabilization (as well as the previous iPhone 6 Plus).

    This lack makes the iPhone SE a bit problematic for me since, as a journalist, I use a phone as a camera in a professional capacity. I can work around the issue with a monopod or tripod, though. Average users who don’t shoot much video might not miss optical image stabilization.

  • Front-facing camera: While the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus boast a 5-megapixel front-facing camera, the iPhone SE’s camera offers only 1.2 megapixels. That’s an odd reduction, but of concern only to those who take a lot of selfies or who do a lot of FaceTime calls or videoconferencing.

    Personally, I think selfies are silly. However, for selfie fanatics, this deficiency could be a deal-breaker.

  • Older Touch ID sensor: Not every iPhone Touch ID sensor is created equal. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus boast a faster second-generation sensor, but the first-generation version found on the iPhone SE is the slower one on the iPhone 5s.

    Faster logins and authentications are great, but the slower sensor on the iPhone SE wasn’t crippling during my time with the device.

  • Display Zoom and Reachability Mode: These screen features, absent from the iPhone SE, are included with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus to help users cope with bigger displays. A too-large screen isn’t an issue on iPhone SE, so there’s no reason to include these capabilities.

  • No LTE Advanced: Some tablets and phones with cellular capabilities have zippier Internet access than others. This is due to LTE Advanced, found only in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus and the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro, that boosts data rates and theoretical throughput. LTE Advanced makes a real difference where it’s supported, with downloads that are often twice as fast.

    The iPhone SE lacks LTE Advanced, which is a bummer. But the feature is more critical to me on a tablet, which I would use more heavily for productivity, than on a phone.

  • Obscure omissions: The iPhone SE doesn’t have a barometer, which would let it determine altitude as well as elevation changes. That’s not something I care about, but it could be important to athletes and outdoor enthusiasts.

    The iPhone SE also lacks “dual-domain pixels,” which improve viewing angles, along with the higher contrast ratios, greater water resistance, and harder aluminum found in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. I haven’t noticed the differences, and I doubt most others will either.

Taking stock of all these omissions, I am hard-pressed to identify one so significant as to decisively negate the allure of a small iPhone. Of course, everyone has different needs. But, on balance, I think Apple has done a good job of producing a smaller iPhone that is competitive with its larger siblings and therefore appealing to a wide range of possible purchasers. In other words, the iPhone SE is a winner.

My Big, Final Decision — After several weeks of iPhone SE use, it was time to return to my iPhone 6S Plus. Would I be dismayed? Relieved?

A little of both, as it turned out.

I missed being able to move about easily with a phone in my front jeans pocket, something that’s difficult to do with the iPhone 6s Plus – especially for me, a pint-sized Puerto Rican, with jeans whose pockets aren’t much deeper than those in women’s jeans. But I easily reverted to my old habit of slipping the iPhone 6s Plus into my back pocket, a position that has worked fine for the last two years.

It’s impossible to have the iPhone 6s Plus in my front pocket while I’m sitting down, something that isn’t a problem with the iPhone SE, but this for me is a hypothetical scenario. Typically, my phone comes out as my butt goes down.

I also mildly missed using the iPhone SE one-handed with thumb gestures, but I’m highly adaptable and don’t mind using a larger smartphone as I would an iPad – holding it with my left hand while jabbing at it with my right index finger. At least in my case, scenarios requiring one-hand phone use rarely come up.

While adapting to the iPhone SE’s smaller screen during my test run didn’t cause me all that much pain, returning to the iPhone 6s Plus’s big screen was a relief in some ways. Display real estate matters for a whole bunch of reasons.

I sometimes use my iPhone to work, at times paired with a wireless keyboard (see “Physical Keyboards for the iPhone 6 Plus,” 25 Oct 2014). While I don’t do this as often as I would on an iPad, it happens frequently enough that a cramped display can sap my productivity.

A smaller screen also is a hindrance in photo work. A bigger viewfinder is always better, and the size of the display becomes even more important when triaging and editing photos. I do more photo processing on mobile devices than I do on a desktop Mac, so the iPhone SE’s tiny display doesn’t cut it for me.

During moments of relaxation, a larger screen is welcome for reading ebooks and watching videos. Though this is doable on the iPhone SE, I found it too cramped to be truly enjoyable.

Prospective iPhone SE buyers have to ask a few hard questions before plunking down their money.

If scoring a smaller and lighter smartphone is of paramount concern, the iPhone SE might be the right way to go, despite its omissions. While not the equal of its siblings in every way, it’s a darn good iPhone.

But people who spend a lot of time on an iPhone, whether for work or pleasure, may want to think about whether the iPhone SE’s smaller screen would be too limiting. For those who regard their handsets as productivity or entertainment hubs, a larger screen may be necessary to avoid eyestrain or digital claustrophobia.

I’ve concluded that I’m definitely in the latter camp, with an affinity for a large display to ease a range of hardcore activities.

But for those who prefer a powerful iPhone that fits better in a pocket or in one hand, the iPhone SE is perfect, and I’m betting it will prove a popular option.

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