iPhone SE review: you won't buy this phone - but you will tell someone else to

It's the iPhone for people who think they want an iPhone

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For

  • Powerful for the price
  • Excellent 12MP camera & 4K
  • Easy to recommend

Against

  • Needs a new design
  • No 32GB option
  • No expandable storage

A few months after the launch of the iPhone SE and ahead of the iPhone 7 launch, we've revisited Apple's premium-but-small handset.

Let's get one thing out of the way first: the external design of the iPhone SE isn;t new. Indeed, it's three and a half years since the iPhone 5 made its debut and gave us an all-new aluminium casing to replace the glass-with-metal-band of the iPhone 4.

To be fair to Apple, it doesn't claim the design is new, calling it a “beloved compact aluminium design”. What has changed is there are now four colours instead of two – gold, rose gold, silver and the ol' space grey (that's always looked kind of black to us).

Ours is gold, as you can see.

Even though we've had this casing since Apple gave the iPhone 5 a 4-inch screen in 2012 (rather than the 3.5-incher we'd had since 2007, albeit with retina and non-retina variants), Apple is right about it being beloved - it remains a great design; still thinner than most smartphones at 7.6mm, relatively durable and fairly light (now 113g).

But imagine if Samsung came out with a new phone that packed the Galaxy S7's punch, but was in the 2012 Galaxy S3 Mini (or even S4 Mini or S5 Mini) shell. We'd think it was absolutely bloody crackers.

Enough of the design though - where things get interesting is inside the case. Instead of iPhone 5 or iPhone 5S parts, the innards are, essentially, that of an iPhone 6S. This then, is a powerful iPhone for those who don't want a large screen.

Interestingly, since the iPhone SE was announced, we've heard a lot of people talking about it very positively. People who still have iPhone 5s or iPhone 5Ses. People you'd expect to be happy with a big phone. But they say they don't want a big phone. Interesting, isn't it? It could well be that Apple has stumbled on a clever trick here – while Android phones get bigger and bigger, could it be that there's a market gap for a powerful phone that isn't plus size?

After all, an awful lot of phones are very big now - check it out against the iPhone 6S Plus:

And here it is against my current phone, the wonderful Nexus 6P. It's tiny (and REALLY feels like it when you switch to the 4-inch display from a much larger one). Although it's not tiny, of course. Most people use a smaller screen all the time. And like it.

iPhone SE features and specifications

And this is a powerful phone of that there is no doubt. This can do pretty much everything an iPhone 6S can, such as 4K video recording. There's no 3D Touch, but that's no biggie. There is a slightly smaller battery than you'd find in an iPhone 6S though - 1624 mAh.

Various components such as the memory module are identical to the iPhone 6S, while a few elements are older and can be found in the 1.5 year-old iPhone 6.

While there's a very likeable 64GB model of the iPhone SE (the one we've got here), it's such a shame the 16GB version will be the default for many.

Many iOS apps are now such a size that you need more than 16GB. Many iPhone SE purchasers will end up having to do the fiddly stuff, like deleting apps they shouldn't need to and deleting some of their photos as they're sat at the Christmas dinner table just to take a few new ones.

If the memory was expandable this wouldn't be an issue. But, Apple being Apple, we know this won't happen.

All the controls, grilles and headphone jack are the same as the iPhone 5 and later as are the bundled earpods, which we're expecting Apple to upgrade to have a Lightning connector – or be Bluetooth – when the new iPhone 7 debuts in the Autumn.

iOS 9.3 comes with Night Shift, to change the colour temperature of the screen (aiding better sleep).

The 64GB model comes with pre-installed versions of iMovie and the iWork apps as well as Garage Band and numerous other Apple apps like Music Memos. Here's the first screen of apps you get as default:

And here's the second screen:

iPhone SE performance

As you'd expect from a phone running Apple's latest A9 chip, everything is exceedingly zippy and there's no hint of lag. It's almost like when we first got our hands on a iPhone 5 in the first place. The screen is terrific as before and nothing has changed there. Alongside the A9 is Apple's now traditional M9 co-processor designed for fitness tracking and Siri, too.

Apple claims it's the most powerful phone with a 4-inch display and it's hard to disagee.

As with the iPhone 5S and later, there's Touch ID and Apple Pay support, while the 12 megapixel camera introduces Live Photos as well (they're strangely compelling, we've found). As mentioned previously, there's 4K video at 30fps now, too. In fact, this is where some of the iPhone SE's specs make 2014's iPhone 6 and 6 Plus look rather old, with their 8 megapixel, 1080p-capable snapper, A8 processor and so on.

Verdict

The iPhone SE certainly isn't a ground-breaker, but it is a solid attempt at building a 4-inch smartphone that doesn't compromise on features (and after all, who really, really needs 3D Touch?).

It is a little puzzling why Apple didn't do just a little more work on the design to give it a further point of difference for people who already have an iPhone 5 or 5S, but perhaps it tried to do a new version of the iPhone 5C and decided that bright coloured cases didn't work for Nokia/Microsoft, so why bother?

You will know a lot of people that will own this phone, although you probably won't own it yourself. Starting at £359/$399, it'll sell by the bucketload.

It's an iPhone that's ridiculously easy to recommend, absolutely ideal for all those people who think they want an iPhone because they've seen other people with Live Photos, iMessage and Apple Music but for whom a £500 smartphone is a little too high end.

Liked this? Check out what'll be coming in the iPhone 7