Even at launch, the Apple iPhone SE wasn't the most exciting phone that the company ever released, but it was a model that people had been clamouring for. A neat antidote to large phones, the iPhone SE was the last truly small iPhone. Now hard to find, bar as refurbished models, the iPhone SE isn't quite the recommend choice than it once was. Still, if you want a very small Apple handset, there's no alternative and the iPhone SE is still an alright phone, and you can even update it to run iOS 13.
- Compact body
- Great camera
- Excellent performance
- Solid battery life
- Average screen
- Poor front-facing camera
- Review Price: £359.00
- 4-inch IPS Retina screen
- iOS 10
- A9 dual-core processor
- 2GB RAM
- Touch ID fingerprint sensor
- 1624 mAh battery
- 16 or 64GB storage
- 12MP rear camera
- 1.2MP Facetime front camera
- Live photos
What is the iPhone SE?
(UPDATED: Apple’s new affordable phone is here, and it brings back the SE name. You can read our iPhone SE 2 review for an in-depth look)
The iPhone SE is the last truly small iPhone that Apple launched. The same size as the older iPhone 5S, the SE slips easily into a pocket and is super-easy to use one-handed. Now, the handset is getting a little old, and it’s increasingly hard to find with only a few refurbished models available. Given that there doesn’t appear to be any sign that the iPhone SE 2 will ever be released, is this still the small phone to buy?
For many people, the answer will be yes. Thanks to the iPhone SE getting iOS 13, it can run the latest operating system, keeping it up-to-date. And, if the size is the most important thing to you, then this is the smallest iPhone that you can get by a long shot.
Yet, there’s no getting away from the fact that the iPhone SE is now a little old, and the iPhone 8 is faster and a better choice for most people looking for a cheaper iPhone, while the iPhone XR makes more sense if you want something with a more modern design, and the iPhone 11 can take care of your flagship needs.
iPhone SE Design, Screen and Audio – Small but perfectly formed
A surprising amount of people I speak to say they want a small phone that packs all the features of a full-fat flagship. Sony is the only manufacturer to have previously attempted anything like this, but even its Xperia Z5 Compact has a not-so-tiny 4.6-inch screen and it’s quite thick. The iPhone SE is much smaller and much easier to handle.
Anyone who’s used an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5S will feel at ease with the iPhone SE – it looks and feels almost identical, except now you can get it in a fetching rose-gold colour and its cut edges are matte rather than shiny chrome.
Those phones have an iconic design and I have no problem with Apple reusing it, especially if it means they can keep costs down and pass the savings on. The best thing about the design of the iPhone SE is that it still feels quality. The brushed aluminium back is both hard and cool to touch, the buttons are solid, and it’s easily small enough to use one-handed, regardless of the size of your hands.
Related: iPhone XS review
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In other ways it’s taken me time to adjust to the smaller screen. It’s not just that I have to move it closer to my face to read text, like my granddad reading the morning paper, I also struggle with the small keyboard. Ironically I often have to use both my hands and thumbs on the phone to minimise the potential for embarrassing autocorrect fails. I’ve gotten more used to it, but I still don’t find it comfortable after a few weeks of using the phone non-stop. The small screen also means watching video is a little cramped and, while the iPhone SE is more than powerful enough to play all the best games, trying to manoeuvre precisely requires daintier digits than mine.
While the iPhone SE still looks good there are a couple of aspects of the design that aren’t perfect, and others that feel dated. For starters, if you don’t use a case with the iPhone SE you might find the edges a little harsh, particularly if you’re more used to the rounded metal sides on contemporary phone designs. The screen bezel is also rather wide – especially at the top and bottom – and that means you don’t get a lot of screen for the size of the phone.
That’s not the only problem with the screen.
It packs the exact same display as the 5S. While the 1136 x 640 resolution provides a perfectly sharp 326 pixels per inch the screen lacks punch and has a reddish tinge that is exacerbated when it’s tilted at some angles. Compare it to Samsung’s colour-packed Super AMOLED screens or even the newer LCD technology on a phone like the HTC 10 and it really starts looking its age.
Still, it’s quite acceptable – bright enough to be used outdoors and sharp enough to read websites on the go without noticing any fuzzy edges to letters.
The speaker located at the bottom of the phone is decent rather than outstanding. Top-level volume isn’t as high as some other phones, but the quality of the audio output is surprisingly good from such a small package – sound is balanced, if a little thin, and there’s no distortion at the highest volume.
Call quality is also strong. The ear speaker is clear and loud and the noise-cancelling mic does a good job of clearing up any distracting external noises when you’re on a call. There are louder call speakers out there but I didn’t have any problems hearing or making myself heard even on windy days with lots of traffic noise around me.
Related: iOS 13 features
Neither the design, screen or sound quality excites the blood much – so far the iPhone SE isn’t very different at all when compared to its predecessors. That all changes, though, when I scratch the surface and take the camera for a spin around London.
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We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.