Hands on: The iPhone SE -- a classic design with modern hardware

For fans of smaller Apple devices, your smartphone has arrived

I've learned in recent years that -- when it comes to laptops, smartphones and tablets -- bigger is better for my personal use and work. So spending time with latest round of Apple devices has been a bit odd, and a little nostalgic.

Not long ago, 4-in. iPhones and 9.7-in. iPads were the high-end options in Apple's mobile lineup. But that was before the 4.7-in. iPhone 6 and iPad Pro (available in 9.7-in. and 12.9-in. models).

Now comes the iPhone SE, and is now shipping for a base price of $399 (vendor price). The design and size are a clear callback to the iPhone 5 series, but with internal hardware originally designed for the iPhone 6S.

The iPhone SE uses Apple's powerful 64-bit A9 chipset and M9 motion coprocessor; offers a 12-megapixel iSight Camera (with support for Live Photos); shoots 4K video; delivers NFC support for Apple Pay in stores; and brings to small-phone fans most of the features that made the iPhone 6S so successful.

The difference, of course, is the 4-in. display.

Having grown accustomed to my iPhone 6S Plus with its 5.5-in. display, I knew using the iPhone SE would be an interesting experiment and I pledged to myself that I would use it -- and it alone -- for an entire month. My experiment didn't last more than a week and a half. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

iphone se rear Michael deAgonia

iPhone SE in the new Rose Gold option.

A classic design

This iPhone SE (64GB, in Rose Gold) came with a typical setup in the box: the phone itself, minimal documentation, a Lightning-to-USB cable, headphones and a wall charger. The phone itself looks just like the iPhone 5/5S, a classic design I've always loved. The backside has a centered Apple logo embedded in an aluminum panel between the two glass inlets framed by the chamfered-edge metal. It's a design that just exudes class. But an iPhone 5, running iOS 9 and the latest apps, is slow compared to the newer, larger iPhones.

Built around a 1,136-x-640-pixel Retina display, the SE packs 326 pixels per inch. The screen, while small, is as bright and sharp as any other offered by Apple. It's offered in two storage configurations (32GB or, for $100 more, 64GB) and four color combinations (gold, silver or rose gold framing a white screen bezel, or space gray with a black screen bezel). Graphics performance has tripled compared to the 5S, putting the SE on par with the 6S in test results, according to Apple. (Geekbench 3 scores confirm that: With a single-core score of 2547 and a double-score of 4427, it bests the iPhone 6S.)

Compared to my iPhone 6S Plus, the SE feels absolutely tiny, and it is. At 4.87 in. long, 2.31 in. wide and 0.3 in. thick, it fits in your hand far better than the Plus-size iPhones. And since it weighs just 3.99 oz., it can nearly disappear into pockets.

SE geekbench Michael deAgonia

Geekbench 3 scores show the iPhone SE to be on par with the iPhone 6S.

Although it seems miniscule, small doesn't mean less powerful. The updated hardware delivers when it comes to daily use. It's easily as fast as my 6S Plus. From editing movies to browsing the Web to navigating the phone's interface, not once did the SE feel sluggish or unresponsive.

Two concerns

There are two things missing on the SE that can be found on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus: 3D Touch and the barometer. The latter allows the iPhone to sense shifts in elevation, such as when you're walking up steps; the former allows actions based on how hard you press down on the screen. On my own iPhone, I use 3D Touch often -- from Home Screen shortcuts to Peek and Pop actions in apps. 3D Touch also pushes developers to be consistent in the features they offer across apps and to come up with imaginative uses for it. Its absence is a missed opportunity for Apple.

I did come across one serious issue with this model: Bluetooth reception in the car for voice calls can sometimes be poor. There are already reports online from users complaining about the problem, and I can confirm this does indeed happen. Sometimes hanging up and calling back fixes the low-quality issue; often, it does not. Users who are working with Apple say the company is developing a fix.

So if you use Bluetooth often to make calls in the car and are eyeing the SE, you might want to wait until this issue is corrected.

A great camera system

I use my iPhone a lot for photos and videos, and happily, the SE's camera system delivers top-notch results. The 12-megapixel iSight (rear-facing) camera comes with True Tone flash, which blends warm and cool lighting based on ambient conditions to achieve more natural results than traditional flash photos. The camera also takes Live Photos, recording a second and a half before and after a photo is taken, giving you a glimpse into the moments around the photo when you press down on the screen.

You'll find the rest of the iPhone 6S camera features here, too: Autofocus with Focus Pixels; 63-megapixel Panorama shots; burst-, timer-, and time-lapse modes; image stabilization and improved noise reduction; and face detection and photo geotagging. The SE also supports recording 3,840 x 2,160 4K video, as well as 1080p high-def video at 30, 60 or 120 fps and 720p video at 30 or 240 fps. (You can also record 8-megapixel stills while simultaneously recording 4K video, which makes it easy to capture photos from video.)

The front-facing FaceTime HD camera only supports 1.2-megapixel photos, but records video at 720p and includes Retina Flash, which amps up the display to 3x normal brightness to act as a flash for low-light selfies. The front-facing camera also supports face detection, timer- and burst- shooting mode, and HDR.

Using the SE as a camera is actually nicer than using the iPhone 6S. Its compact size and shape (with its smaller and squared-off edges) allow for a better, surer grip compared to the larger, heavier, rounded-edge iPhone 6 series. In fact, one of the benefits of the iPhone 5/SE design is that you can stand up the iPhone in portrait and landscape mode, unassisted, for timed shots. I'd forgotten how useful that can be.

Getting a grip

One thing that's quickly obvious: Handling the iPhone SE is a lot easier than maneuvering the larger models. I like being able to reach all points of the screen with my thumb, which was the reason I initially chose an iPhone 6 in 2014. I've learned to use the even larger iPhone 6 Plus, but it's never going to be as easy to navigate among apps or the home screen as it is on the iPhone SE.

So for that reason, I like this phone a lot. I love the styling, the feature set and how fast and responsive it is; I love that I can place it in my pocket and forget it's there because of its size; and I love that I can operate it with one hand.

But despite the SE's many attributes, it doesn't work for me. Even though I had initially planned to spend an entire month using the SE as my primary phone, I decided to call off the experiment early when I found myself having trouble typing on the smaller screen. In fact, we're talking Hulk Smash levels of rage at times. Two-thumb typing on this device was especially infuriating because the delete key is so close to the return key on the smaller display. In addition, I really started to miss the screen real estate of my iPhone 6s Plus.

Bottom line

Using the SE has reminded me that I made the right choice with my iPhone 6S Plus, just as trying out the larger iPhones likely persuaded a lot of iPhone 5 users to hold out for something smaller. In that regard, Apple has smartened up. The iPhone SE is for people who prefer the advantages of a smaller phone.

Although I'm not giving up my 6S Plus, there is a lot to like in the SE (and I don't mind the new Rose Gold color). Clearly, I'm not the target audience. But there are lots of iPhone owners out there who are. For them, the iPhone SE is a smart purchase.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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