Then on Friday we had Mark Gurman’s reporting that Apple was planning Live Photos, an iPhone 6s feature, for the expected 4-inch iPhone 5se (which likely won’t be called 6c). Today that reporting was followed up with the possibility that the iPhone 5se could have the same processor and co-processor as the iPhone 6s, albeit with fewer pixels to push with a smaller display.
Suddenly the iPhone 5se is sounding less like last year’s hardware recycled and more like a serious 4-inch phone to consider. But who is the iPhone 5se for and is it really worth considering if you’re like me and run to the latest and greatest hardware? I’m still thinking through this prospect myself, and I have a few thoughts worth considering before the device is officially unveiled …
The easiest answer to the question over who the iPhone 5se is for is people who prefer smaller displays. The iPhone stayed at 3.5-inches for five models with the iPhone in 2007 through the iPhone 4s in 2011. Then we had the taller iPhone 5, 5s, and 5c models introduced in 2012 and 2013 with 4-inch displays after pressure from phablet-sized Android smartphones which had only gotten bigger by then.
Then Apple went further by increasing the standard display size to 4.7-inches with the iPhone 6 in 2014, adding the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus option, and leaving the 4-inch iPhone hardware unchanged. While there’s no reason to think Apple will ever return to 3.5-inch iPhones, it looks like modern 4-inch iPhones are about to become a serious option for fans of smaller devices.
And there’s plenty of reasons to prefer a smaller iPhone over a larger option. Apple advertised the one-hand optimized screen size with the iPhone 5 when it was new, which was a rather defensive move against giant Android handsets. The larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones rely on a trick called Reachability to make higher elements on screen accessible with one-hand use.
But there’s no solution for reaching screen space too far to the right or left. I still can’t one-hand the Plus model reliably and switch between the alphabet and emoji keyboard. This is less of an issue for me with the 4.7-inch model versus the 5.5-inch model, but I imagine users with smaller hands see it on both screen sizes.
One last point here. I believed before that Apple Watch would free me up from needing to ever really one-hand an iPhone, but it quickly becomes apparent that Apple Watch is not a totally hands-free device and often not even a one-hand device. Just try walking quickly through an airport with a hot cup of Starbucks in one hand lugging a suitcase in the other. Suddenly the Apple Watch becomes sort of read-only, but back to iPhones…
Beyond what Apple calls Reachability, there’s also pocket-ability to consider. Larger iPhones tend to fit more comfortably in back pockets for whatever reason, which helped lead to the 2014 #bendgate controversy that seems all but resolved with stronger series aluminum, but I can see the appeal of a more pocket-friendly iPhone even beyond the 4.7-inch model.
With the smaller display, you do miss out on a better photo and video viewing experience, larger canvas for web browsing, and generally see less information on screen at once, but I’m coming around to the idea that the iPad and Mac are better suited for those tasks anyway.
For me, the iPhone is primarily used for taking photos and videos, messaging, playing podcasts and music, and of course catching the occasional phone call. A smaller iPhone would likely mean shorter battery life, which is something even the larger iPhones haven’t totally nailed yet, but I’m already used to packing external batteries on serious trips and charging frequently.
Then there are those hardware specs to consider. I can live without 3D Touch and 4K video. I use the pressure-sensitive display feature often but I could lose it without being slowed down too much, and I’m shooting 4K video now but it takes noticeably more time to edit and process and required upload time is much longer for me than 1080p video. I wouldn’t want to drop from 12MP to 8MP for the rear camera, though, and the difference in FaceTime camera quality for still photos would be dramatic at 5MP versus 1.2MP.
The trickiest part here is that the 4-inch iPhone still won’t be up to speed with the larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models, so it’s hard for me to jump on board knowing that there’s technically a more state-of-the-art iPhone to be had. For a lot of people, I suspect having a smaller iPhone makes it “technically better” than larger models, but for me the 4.7-inch iPhone is probably the best solution.
So why even consider the iPhone 5se at all? I tried an iPhone 5 for a couple of days a few months and was super impressed with how easy it was to use one-handed. Your eyes adjust to the difference in size either direction after a bit of use. I’m currently using the iPhone 6s Plus, which I generally appreciate, but sometimes find uncomfortable for me during one-handed use.
I’d put my money on me likely trying out the expected 4-inch iPhone 5se when it launches long enough to give it an honest and informed review, but I can’t imagine it’ll be appealing enough to me to sit out on the next iPhone 7 when it follows later in the year.
The decision of which iPhone is best for you is very complicated and the correct answer can easily change and be informed by other devices. iPhone 6s Plus made more sense to me before I gained an iPad Pro. Now I’m considering optimizing for the occasion: more portable when on-the-go, and more capable when I need it.
As ever, I suspect my preferences will change year-to-year, maybe even month-to-month, but I imagine other readers are similarly second-guessing which iPhone in the increasingly complex lineup is best for the job.
My final thought is that the decision would be made all the easier if there was truly a state-of-the-art version of the 4-inch iPhone, not a “special edition” version with a mix of hardware from various generations, but I’m sure 4-inch iPhone fans are pleased to learn that Apple Pay, Live Photos, and a faster processor are all in the cards for the next 4-inch iPhone update. As ever, let us know what you think in the comments.