From iPhone 4 and beyond, I’ve never skipped out on buying a flagship iPhone. The white AT&T iPhone 4 in May 2011 was my first model, then iPhone 4s in November a month after its launch. Starting with iPhone 5, I’ve bought every flagship iPhone on day one (even camping out in line overnight at least twice). I pre-ordered the off-cycle release iPhone SE last month and switched from the top-of-the-line iPhone 6s Plus. I fully reserve the right to change my mind between now and September, but my experience with the iPhone SE so far and the current crop of iPhone 7 rumors has me thinking I just might hop off the upgrade train for the first time. Here’s why:
A reoccurring conclusion across almost every iPhone SE review (mine included) was that it’s competitive to the larger iPhone 6s and 6s Plus for now, but that likely won’t be true in September when the next generation of iPhones debut. Despite the appeal of a 4-inch iPhone for some people, whatever new features Apple packs into newer iPhones will make the iPhone SE less appealing for users that like using state-of-the-art technology.
But I’m strongly considering just keeping the iPhone SE in September and beyond and not upgrading any iPhone on my family’s plan. Like the period between the iPhone SE being rumored and Apple actually announcing the device, I have a few ideas about what the new iPhone needs (and doesn’t necessarily need) for me to — this time — consider not buying it.
It starts with the expected (and in some cases surprising) appeal of the iPhone SE to me.
Three weeks later, the iPhone SE generally feels like what an iPhone is supposed to be (with those a few exceptions). The app icons no longer look huge, and it’s easier for me to tell what app icons are inside folder previews. The share sheet still needs to be optimized for the 4-inch screen like it was in iOS 7, but I’m holding out hope for this in iOS 10.
The viewfinder in the Camera app is still noticeably smaller than what I was used to on the iPhone 6s Plus, but the photo and video quality is identical save for the lack of optical image stabilization and a weak selfie camera. Using iPhone SE without a case as a camera with the volume toggles as shutter buttons makes it feel like using a nicely designed point-and-shoot just like the iPhone 4-5 days.
The lightness and smaller body makes it especially great in pockets. I mentioned this before, but I continue to notice it so it’s worth repeating that iPhone SE feels much better in gym shorts pockets compared to larger iPhones that swing around on the treadmill or elliptical. One-hand use without relying on Reachability– the double-tap Home button to lower the screen trick–4 is also super nice when using the iPhone SE during exercise or other activities.
iPhone SE has also been a nice conversation piece over the last few weeks. People notice it, especially people that expect me to have the latest and greatest iPhone. The idea of a new iPhone with the old design certainly gets people thinking about which size they’d really prefer if given the choice of all other specs equal, and 3D Touch is rarely if ever mentioned as something people I talk to would miss.
There are measurable benefits to hopping off the annual upgrade trade too. I bought my 64GB space gray iPhone SE Sim-Free, so it’s unlocked and has no carrier contract but only cost $500 new. I’d likely opt for a mid-storage 4.7-inch iPhone next time, which would put me at $750 new if I upgraded. My monthly phone bill currently has three monthly payment plans for different family members, but paying those off and not starting any new would make my phone bill look a lot less like the cost of rent.
Having the latest technology is often important for my job, but my colleagues will surely have new iPhones and I can provide a rarer perspective in the future if I keep using iPhone SE. Like whether or not we see those 4-inch iPhone UI design optimizations I keep mentioning in the future. See my iPhone SE review for more examples of what Apple can improve.
Keep in mind that I’m writing this without actually seeing the next generation iPhone and rumors are somewhat light this year, but if what we expect so far pans out (like it often does), it will actually be somewhat easy to sit out on the 2016 flagship iPhone and possibly stick with the iPhone SE until the 2017 flagship iPhone.
This is something people say every year which typically makes me roll my eyes, but my affection for the iPhone SE makes it apply to me this time around: iPhone 7 would need to be revolutionary, not evolutionary, for me to compromise on screen size and go bigger again.
A slightly redesigned 2016 flagship iPhone followed by an all-new design next fall would make using the iPhone SE for a full 18-months okay. Rumors that this year we could see a cleaner but similar design with a thinner body and missing headphone jack make iPhone SE sound just fine. It’s the nearly all glass redesign that some believe will be re-introduced next year that really catches my attention. I don’t think the iPhone 6-era design will go down in history: it’s the larger screen sizes that make it memorable, but iPhone 4-iPhone 5 are still highly regarded so a return to form will be welcomed.
The best case scenario for iPhone SE fans would then be to see three new 2017 flagship iPhones next fall. Let this September stick to just new 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models, test the waters with the 4-inch iPhone SE, then if sales are fine then go all in with a flagship 4-inch iPhone at the same time as the larger models next time around. There’s no evidence this is Apple’s plan, but it would sure work out well for me even if the price was higher than iPhone SE (as long as the selfie camera improved).
Still not convinced that the iPhone SE should exist in the flagship lineup? Aside from the reasons detailed above, the 4-inch iPhone noticeably makes iPads more useful (d’oh!). A 4.7-inch or 5.5-inch iPhone is much better at viewing photos and browsing the web than the 4-inch iPhone, but any size iPad is far superior at both tasks. The same is true for other tasks like reading iBooks or browsing Twitter or Facebook.
Personally, I’m finding that having a smaller iPhone and a medium iPad gives more purpose to both devices depending on the situation, and iPad sales could certainly benefit from not being as cannibalized by the larger phones if others feel the same.
The 4-inch form factor has other not-so-obvious benefits too. For example, I recently launched a frequently used iPhone app that hasn’t been updated since iOS 6. It looked sharp, really sharp, and at first I thought it was a new version; the difference, though, was that I was looking at an iPhone 5-sized app on an iPhone 5-sized display. That benefit obviously doesn’t scale to the overly crowded status bar or the oddly padded share sheet, but here’s to hoping iPhone SE means iOS 10 will ring in new optimizations for smaller screens.
If Apple fixes those issues, releases a new iPhone this year that feels like a second shot at the S model, and plans a bigger upgrade next fall, I’m totally fine with sticking to the iPhone SE for the next 18 months.