Back to the Future: The iPhone SE Reviewed

iPhone SE

The Good

  • Strong performance in a small package
  • Great camera
  • Support for Apple technologies like Apple Pay and Touch ID
  • Good battery life

The Bad

  • No 3D Touchscreen
  • Touch ID uses slower, first-generation sensor

When Apple released the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, with their 4.7- and 5.5-inch screens, most observers thought the company would never release another iPhone with a 4-inch screen. The thinking was that everyone wants big screens these days. Not so fast. It turns out that a significant number of iPhone users didn't upgrade to the 6 series (or its successor, the iPhone 6S series) because they preferred a smaller iPhone. This was especially true in parts of the developing world. Seeing that, Apple reached into the past and came out with the iPhone SE.

Back to the Future: iPhone 6S Inside an iPhone 5S

The easiest way to think of the iPhone SE is as an iPhone 6S crammed into the body of an iPhone 5S.

On the outside, the traits of the 5S come to the forefront. Holding the SE is very similar to holding the 5S. They have the exact same dimensions, though the 5S weighs 0.03 ounces less. Their bodies are roughly the same, though the SE sports a sleeker, less boxy design. Like the iPhone 5S, the iPhone SE is built around a 4-inch screen.

Less obvious, though, is the powerful punch offered by the internal hardware. In the iPhone SE, you'll find Apple's 64-bit A9 processor (the same as used in the iPhone 6S), support for NFC and Apple Pay, a Touch ID sensor (more on that soon), a much-improved back camera, a long-lasting battery, and more.

Basically, when you buy the iPhone SE, you're getting the top-of-the-line model in a form factor more to the liking of people with small hands, those who want more portability, and who want to carry less weight. It's kind of the best of both worlds.

Better Performance, Better Camera

When it comes to performance, the SE handily matches the speed of the 6S (both are built around an A9 processor and sport 2 GB of RAM). The first speed test we performed measured how quickly the phones launched apps, in seconds:

iPhone SE iPhone 6S
Phone app 2 2
App Store app 1 1
Camera app 2 2

As you can see, for basic tasks, the SE is just as speedy as the 6S.

The second test we ran had to do with the speed of loading websites. This tests both the speed of the network connection and also the speed of the device in loading images, rendering HTML, and processing JavaScript. In this test, the 6S was just generally faster but only very, very slightly (times, again, in seconds:

iPhone SE iPhone 6S 5 4 4 3 3 4

(The SE has roughly the same Wi-Fi and cellular data features as the 6S, though the 6S does have some faster Wi-Fi options. The faster Wi-Fi wasn't used here.)

The cameras used in the iPhone 6S and iPhone SE are basically the same, at least when it comes to the higher-resolution back camera. Both phones use a 12-megapixel camera that can shoot 63-megapixel panoramic images, record video at up to 4K HD resolution, and support up to 240 frames per second slow motion. They offer the same image stabilization, burst mode, and other features.

From a quality perspective, the photos taken by the back cameras on the two phones are basically indistinguishable. Either model will work great for on-the-go photographers, whether they're amateurs or pros.

One place that the phones are different is the user-facing camera. The 6S offers a 5-megapixel camera, while the SE has a 1.2-megapixel sensor. This will matter a lot if you're a heavy FaceTime user or take a lot of selfies.

Lastly, there's one area where the SE bests the 6S: battery life. The larger, higher-resolution screen on the 6S requires more battery, leaving the SE with roughly 15% more battery life, according to Apple.

Touch: ID, But Not 3D

The iPhone SE has​ the Touch ID fingerprint sensor built into its Home button. This offers improved security for the phone, as well as being a key component of Apple Pay. The iPhone SE uses the first-generation Touch ID sensor, which is slower and somewhat less accurate than the second-generation version used by the 6S series. It's not a big difference, but the performance of Touch ID on the 6S feels like magic; on the SE, it's just really cool.

The theme of the SE being like the 6S falters a little when it comes to the screen: The SE doesn't have 3D Touch. This feature allows the phone to detect how hard you're pressing the screen and respond in different ways based on that. It hasn't been as big a hit as some predicted, but if it becomes more useful and ubiquitous, SE owners will be left out of the fun. 

The marquee demonstration of 3D Touch is Live Photos, a photo format that turns static images into short animations. Both the 6S and SE can capture Live Photos.

The Bottom Line

In the past, Apple filled in the lower price points in the iPhone line by discounting older models. It did that until the release of the iPhone SE: the iPhone 5S could be had for under $100 (now it's discontinued). That wasn't bad, but it meant buying a phone that was 2-3 generations out of date. A lot of improvements get made to iPhone hardware in 2-3 years. With the SE, the hardware is pretty close to current (and in other cases just a year or so old).

Apple updated the iPhone SE in early 2017 (right around it's first birthday) by doubling the amount of storage (without increasing the price). The question, of course, will be whether Apple refreshes the SE with new components, once newer phones are released.

For now, if the iPhone 7 series or the iPhone 6S series is too big for you, the iPhone SE—which packs most of the 6S's key features and performance—is your best alternative.