Apple’s return to small 4in devices with the iPhone SE was a surprise, but a logical development too. Crucially, personal devices are all about choice and the iPhone SE is essentially the engine of the iPhone 6s in a smaller package.
My first reaction when checking out the new iPhone SE from Apple was just how nice it is to be able hold and use a smartphone in one hand again.
It’s not quite the reaction I expected of myself but it can be wearying holding a smartphone in one hand just to unlock it or jab at it with the fingers of your other hand.
The iPhone SE was a surprise return to Apple’s original iPhone 5s chassis, albeit with some subtle refinements.
My initial reaction on seeing the device when it was unveiled in San Francisco on 21 March was disappointment.
All those rumours of a new 4in device made my mind conjure up a device that sported the same design as the iPhone 6 and 6s dynasty but on a smaller scale.
I wasn’t quite expecting something so familiar. But familiar is good. The iPhone 5 always felt good in your hand and was very light, too.
The more I thought about it, Apple is falling back on a form factor that is actually “beloved” to rob one of its terms. I know this to be true because when I discussed the rumours with my 13-year-old niece she said she and her friends actually preferred the smaller phones and aren’t moved by peak phablet.
‘As small phones go, this is a little monster. It is the guts of the most advanced iPhone, the iPhone 6s, packaged in the body of a 4in device. It’s a pocket rocket’
That said, the penchant for bigger-screened smartphones isn’t a fad – it is all about choice. And the return to 4in devices not only allows Apple to bring out more affordable iPhones built within trusted chassis, it speaks to users’ actual choices.
But the key difference here isn’t appearance, it is actually performance.
Smaller phones should not necessarily mean any compromise in performance. The iPhone SE is, in fact, an Apple declaration on that very point.
Ask any user today what they treasure the most in a device and the first thing they will tell you is battery power, followed by display and camera.
The distinctive features of the iPhone SE are under the bonnet, so to speak.
As small phones go, this is a little monster. It is the guts of the most advanced iPhone, the iPhone 6s, packaged in the body of a 4in device. It’s a pocket rocket.
Look and feel
Like I said, appearances aren’t everything and the main achievement of the SE is being a lower-cost device with the highest-end features, well, most of them.
On first glance it looks – and feels – like an iPhone 5s. Now, for some people who are buying a new phone they want their device to scream different, but, aside from the new metallic finishes it looks identical to the iPhone 5s.
The key design refinements are subtle, but gorgeous. It comes in four metallic finishes – silver, space grey, gold and rose gold – and is made up of bead-blasted aluminium to give it a sumptuous satin-like feel. It also features matte-chamfered edges and a colour-matched stainless steel inset Apple logo.
Another distinct physical difference is the rear iSight camera’s flash is bigger and vertically aligned alongside the length of the lens.
But the most important stuff about the iPhone SE is what it can do.
The most important thing I wanted to see Apple get right with the iPhone SE was the battery, having limped along for a long time on an ageing iPhone 5 that needed to be charged two to three times a day.
This meant I failed to enjoy the true value of the new Apple Watch, at least until now.
The iPhone SE’s battery has so far been everything I wanted it to be – stable – and I have been able to enjoy a full day’s usage and more on a single charge.
I would charge it in the morning for about an hour and by the next day it would still be running with about a quarter or a third of battery life, which is pretty good going.
Performance is key here and, as I said earlier, the iPhone SE has the same A9 processor and M9 motion coprocessor as its more expensive iPhone 6s brethren.
The 64-bit A9 CPU performs twice as fast as the processor in the iPhone 5s, which is critical for better-performing apps and games. The graphic processor unit is also three times as fast as the iPhone 5s.
Bolted inside the A9 CPU is the M9 motion coprocessor, which has advanced sensors for fitness-tracking like measuring distance, footsteps and more.
As well as physical metrics, the M9 coprocessor is also the brains that enables Siri to recognise your voice biometrics when you simply say “Hey Siri” rather than having to press a button.
Siri is the artificial intelligence agent created by Apple that responds to voice-based queries, but just don’t ask it to do beatbox, because it can answer that question all day long.
It does brilliantly with straightforward commands like dictating an email or SMS, or checking the weather, or getting directions.
The new voice activation capability is a pretty cool feature and you can basically train the device to match to your voice only so it won’t activate when anyone else says “Hey Siri”.
After the battery, the camera was on my list of priorities. The 12MP iSight rear camera is the exact same camera as that on the iPhone 6s.
The camera is complemented by Apple’s True Tone flash, which throws extra light as pictures are being taken and then intelligently edits through over 100 combinations to result in a photo that appears more natural.
Another feature I was dying to check out was Live Photos, where a sequence of photos and sound can be recorded to create the appearance of a dynamic, moving video when you press on the screen.
One of the little-known facts about Live Photos is that they can now be shared on Facebook and Tumblr on iOS as well as through iMessage, iCloud, AirDrop and even on the Apple Watch.
The inclusion of the same technology as on the iPhone 6s makes the iPhone SE a powerful proposition among photo enthusiasts; it also includes Focus Pixels, which allows for faster autofocus.
Another cool feature is the ability to take high-resolution panoramas at up to 63MP. This appears to stitch panorama photos together far better than previous generations of iPhone, resulting in a more solid rather than edgy end-result.
The front-facing FaceTime HD camera also features a new Retina Flash feature that is ideal for people who want to take selfies. The Retina display on the device doubles up as a True Tone flash that detects the lighting around you to present more true-to-life colours in photos.
I haven’t really had a chance to put the device through its paces for video but, in addition to 1080p videos that you can capture in 30fps and 60fps, Apple has added in new cinematic video stabilisation and continuous autofocus features.
Users can also capture slow-motion videos at 1080p at 120fps or even slower in 720p at 240fps.
The iPhone SE also comes with the time-lapse video mode that was introduced with the iPhone 6.
But the big star performer for a phone with a 4in display is the inclusion of 4K video recording.
This allows you to record videos at a resolution of 3840×2160 – four times higher than 1080p HD video.
The processor is really put to the test when you can zoom in on the 8m pixels even while playing back 4K videos.
My main criticism is the 4K video feature isn’t immediately obvious when you cycle through settings, but there’s a good reason for this – it will eat up your storage, which is a nightmare if you are on a 16GB device.
Instead, you have to go into Settings>Photos & Camera> and under Camera switch Grid on and adjust Record Video from 1080p at 30fps to 1080 at 60fps.
Apple has bumped up the wireless capability of the iPhone SE by a factor of knots when you consider that LTE is now 50pc faster and capable of speeds of 150Mbps, while the device is capable of supporting speeds of up to 433Mbps over Wi-Fi.
What sorcery is this? Yes, very soon there will be homes and businesses capable of broadband speeds of 1Gbps, so Apple definitely has its eye on the near future.
I imagined after a long time experimenting with various Android phablets that a return to the 4in form factor would be quite difficult.
It wasn’t. In part, this is due to the sheer technological horsepower under the surface of the iPhone SE, which means no trade-offs when it comes to apps or web and the high density of pixels (1136×640 at 326ppi) resulting in a bright, sharp display.
My first instinct was to go to the Settings and check if Brightness was up to 100pc and I was pleased to find that it was automatically set for just above half, which is quite impressive.
Apple has this habit of doing things that at first seem retrospective but ultimately make perfect sense, such as its decision to bring out the iPad Pro 9.7in device after revealing a 12.9in version months earlier. It makes perfect sense, so much sense that no one saw it coming.
The iPhone SE was not what everyone was expecting. But I’m glad it happened.
Apple is facing into a period where it’s non-stop growth thanks to the iPhone cash cow risks being challenged.
Overall, the smartphone market is saturated. And all the competing devices are uniformly big (around 5in) or bigger (close to 6in).
What Apple has done with the iPhone SE is restore choice to the market without surrendering quality.
People who prefer 4in devices should not miss out on the advances in processors, software or cameras.
The iPhone SE looks no different to the iPhone 5s except for its new colours, which reflect the latest generations of iOS devices.
But it has all the horsepower of the most expensive iPhone devices, minus the 3D touch feature, which isn’t going to change my mind.
This is truly a great phone.