iPhone SE Review

Today is the official release day for the iPhone SE, and I was fortunate enough to be able to pick up my unit early this morning. For those of you who will likewise acquire an iPhone SE in the near future, or for those of you who are still unsure about a purchase, have a look at our hands-on video that touches on the top 15 iPhone SE features. We also have a brief look at some of the downsides of the iPhone SE for those wanting a balanced look at the latest new iPhone.

Top 15 iPhone SE features

Form factor

This is hands-down one of the biggest “features” of the new 4-inch iPhone SE. In fact, it’s the main driving force behind its creation. The bottom line is that a lot of people don’t want a big smartphone. For some, such as my wife, even the 4.7″ iPhone 6s is deemed impractical. Apple said that it sold 30 million 4-inch iPhones last year, so my wife certainly isn’t alone in her sentiments.

A9 Processor

If the A7-equipped iPhone 5s was your last iPhone, you’re going to be blown away by the speed of the iPhone SE’s A9 system on a chip. This device, from a pure processor performance perspective, is essentially an iPhone 6s in a smaller form-factor. Considering that the iPhone 6s is Apple’s current flagship device, that’s kind of a big deal. The iPhone SE features some definite downsides when compared to its big brothers, but chip performance isn’t one of them.

Video walkthrough

M9 motion coprocessor with untethered “Hey Siri”

The aforementioned A9 chip features an M9 motion coprocessor embedded on the same die. The iPhone 5s, with its A7/M7 combo was the first device to feature the embedded motion coprocessor, which collects, processes, and stores sensor data even when the iPhone is asleep. The latest M9 motion coprocessor brings always-on “Hey Siri” functionality that can be used even when the iPhone is disconnected from a power source.

Rose gold

The iPhone 5s was the first iPhone to be made available in a gold color, so it’s only right that a device that shares many of the same physical characteristics ships with a rose gold color.

See also:

Inset Apple logo

Instead of a stamped on Apple logo like the iPhone 5s, the new iPhone SE features a color-matched stainless steel inset Apple logo for a more premium look and feel.

iPhone SE inset Apple Logo

Redesigned chamfered edges

The iPhone 5s, to me, is the best iPhone design of all time. I was a bit worried that the newly redesigned chamfered edges, which are now more of a matte variety, would compromise the look. Thankfully, I wouldn’t say that the new edges look bad at all — just different. Apple describes the new edges as being refined, and I’d say that’s a fair description. The edges on the old iPhone 5s were easy to knick and scratch as well, so I’m hoping that the new edges will hold up better from a wear and tear perspective.


Apple never advertises the amount RAM it includes in its mobile devices, but benchmarks show that the new iPhone SE features double the RAM of the iPhone 5s. It’s a well known fact that 2GB of RAM in an iOS device seems to be the sweet spot with recent versions of iOS. It’s not enough for a modern iOS device to ship with 1GB of RAM, as this results in slow performance, and Safari pages that often force-refresh. The fact that the iPhone SE ships with 2GB of RAM is alone enough to warrant an upgrade over a lesser device.

12-megapixel iSight Camera

In its heyday, the iPhone 5s’ 8-megapixel iSight camera was pretty good, but the camera featured in the iPhone SE is straight out of the iPhone 6s, which many consider to be among the best smartphone cameras available right now. Like the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE iSight camera is rated at 12-megapixels and an ƒ/2.2 aperture.

No camera bump

Despite the improved camera, there’s no camera bump to be found on the iPhone SE, and design purists will definitely appreciate this. The lack of a camera bump can likely be partly credited to the iPhone SE’s slightly thicker design.

iPhone SE no camera bump

4K Video

If you’re into shooting video, then the iPhone SE’s upgrade to 4K is a compelling one. Not only can the iPhone SE shoot 4K video, but it can also edit multiple streams of 4K video in iMovie. Even if you don’t own a 4K monitor or television, the benefits of such high resolution are multi-faceted. For instance, you can use 4K videos to perform artificial pans and zooms in your editing software of choice, while still maintaining enough resolution for 1080p output.

240fps Slo-mo

Again if video is your thing, then upgrading to an iPhone SE makes sense. Like the iPhone 6s, the SE can shoot super-smooth slow-motion video at 240fps (720p) and regular 120fps slow-motion (1080p) . The iPhone 5s was only capable of shooting 120fps at 720p.

Retina Flash

A feature that first appeared on the iPhone 6s, Retina Flash provides flash illumination for the front-facing FaceTime camera. Retina Flash uses your iPhone’s display and a custom display chip that allows the screen to flash three times brighter than it normally does. The tech uses a preflash to measure current lighting conditions, followed by a True Tone flash to match ambient light for a better-looking shot. Unfortunately, as we’ll discuss a bit later, your selfies won’t look as good as they do on an iPhone 6s, because the iPhone SE features the same front-facing FaceTime camera specs as the nearly three year old iPhone 5s.

iPhone SE Retina Flash

Live Photos

The iPhone 5s already allows users to view Live Photos, but with the iPhone SE, you can both view and create Live Photos. The Live Photos feature first debuted with the iPhone 6s, and it lets you capture movement and sound just before and right after a photo is taken. The result is a photo that comes to life with a long-press on the screen, and Live Photos briefly animate as you swipe through your photo library.

Apple Pay

The iPhone 5s shipped before Apple Pay was a thing, so the only way to use Apple Pay on the iPhone 5s is when it’s paired with an Apple Watch. With the iPhone SE, though, Apple Pay can be used natively on device thanks to its NFC chip and secure enclave

iPhone SE Apple Pay

Faster network speed

The iPhone SE is hands-down faster when it comes to both Wi-Fi and cellular coverage when compared to the iPhone 5s. The SE supports 802.11ac for Wi-Fi and features 19 LTE bands with a maximum speed of up to 150 Mbps. The SE also sports the latest in Bluetooth, version 4.2. True, your theoretical speeds won’t be as fast as they are on the iPhone 6s, but it’s still an upgrade over the iPhone 5s.

Better battery life for Internet usage and video playback

The display is usually the most power-hungry component on a smartphone or tablet, and the iPhone SE is no different. But thanks to the device’s diminutive screen, it can still hang with, and at times surpass the bigger iPhone models, even though there is less physical space for batteries.

The iPhone SE gets 13 hours of video playback, and 13 hours of Internet use on LTE and Wi-Fi.

The iPhone 6s gets 11 hours of video playback, 10 hours of Internet use on LTE, and 11 hours of use on Wi-Fi.

5 Not-so-good iPhone SE features

1.2-megapixel FaceTime Camera with ƒ/2.4 aperture

For the iPhone SE, Apple is using the same FaceTime camera specs found in the iPhone 5s. To me, this is the iPhone SE’s most disappointing feature. It’s disappointing in part because the iSight camera got such a massive upgrade, while the FaceTime camera is left to lag behind with only 1.2-megapixels and a smaller aperture.

iPhone SE FaceTime Camera 1.2-megapixel

It’s even more disappointing when you consider that Apple implemented its new Retina Flash technology in the SE, which significantly improves the quality of selfies taken in less than ideal lightning. Yes, selfies will look better in dark places, but the inferior quality of the FaceTime camera is still a major bottleneck to taking a good photo.

Contrast ratio

The contrast ratio on the iPhone SE is the same as the iPhone 5s: 800:1. If you’re coming from an iPhone 5s, this isn’t a big deal. But if you’re coming from a larger iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus — phones that feature 1400:1 and 1300:1 contrast ratios — you’ll likely notice. If you’re coming from one of Apple’s bigger iPhones, you may also miss the Dual-domain pixels, which improve viewing angles.

1st generation Touch ID

For those who consider the iPhone 6s’ second-generation Touch ID sensor to be too fast, this could be a good thing. For the rest of us who love the instantaneous response of the second-generation sensor, it’s a downgrade, but certainly not a deal-breaker.

No 3D Touch

3D Touch, the flagship feature of the iPhone 6s, is nowhere to be found on the iPhone SE because the iPhone SE is using the same display tech as the original iPhone 5s. Although I use 3D Touch on my 6s, not having it isn’t something that would automatically disqualify a purchase of the iPhone SE in my eyes. Of course, I’d be happy if 3D Touch was included in the iPhone SE, but like the 2nd-gen Touch ID sensor, it’s not a make or break feature.

Smaller screen

As someone upgrading from an iPhone 5s, this isn’t a big deal at all, since the screen size is the same. But maybe you’re thinking of upgrading from an iPhone 6, or are considering transitioning from an iPhone 6s to an iPhone SE?

The form factor may be more ideal, but the amount of screen real estate you lose is beyond noticeable. You’re giving up a lot of space by switching from a larger iPhone to the smaller 4″ iPhone SE. Although it’s definitely doable, it’ll take some time to get used to such a smaller screen area.


If you’re an iPhone 5s owner who’s been holding out for an iPhone with a similar form factor, then this is the iPhone you’ve been waiting for. Outside of a few areas, this isn’t last years tech jammed into an iPhone 5s. No, this is almost like taking an iPhone 6s, Apple’s latest and greatest iPhone, and stuffing into the body of a refined iPhone 5s.

iPhone SE vs 5s

Yes, there are a few disappointments to be found, headlined by the lack of an improved FaceTime camera, but for an entry-level price of $399 for the 16GB model, it’s hard to find fault. The iPhone SE is hands-down the best 4″ smartphone ever, and in many ways, it can go toe-to-toe with Apple’s much pricier flagship offerings.

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