Like some technological version of King Cnut, WIRED’s product editor has been battling the unstoppable increase in screen size of recent years, praying this fashion would die a horrible death. This, of course, did not happen and now phones in general are massive compared to handsets from only three generations ago.
Incidentally, WIRED feels the same about watch sizes, which have been marching towards 50+ millimetres and thus looking more akin to saucers stuck on the wearer’s wrist rather than a nice timepiece. Case in point: the 38mm Apple Watch looks much better than the 42mm, unless you have forearms like Geoff Capes.
The point is that small is, occasionally, better. Which brings us to the whole raison d’être for the SE. In 2015, Apple sold 30 million 4in iPhones. Thirty million. Despite the global Market seemingly seduced by super-sized screens, there is clearly a decidedly sizeable market for smaller phones. And that’s where the SE comes in.
Like Sony has laudably done previously with its smaller handsets, Apple decided not to punish its customers for wanting a diminutive blower by cutting the specs and performance. Instead it opted to squeeze the guts of the excellent 6s into the stubbier frame of the SE – so those who like a small phone get the best of both worlds: less heft but all the performance of higher end models. Win-win.
When WIRED first switched from the 5s to the 6, it took some getting used to. With average-sized hands there was often the need to awkwardly balance the phone on a small finger in order to reach the upper-parts of its 4.7in display. With the SE this is not the case and swiftly tapping any part of the screen is a breeze. Another bonus is that there’s no need to use, or dismiss after mistakenly activating, the “Reachability” feature – something of a bugbear for WIRED.
The smaller size means the SE is inherently more difficult to fumble and drop. For the first time ever, WIRED broke its 6s as the case slipped out of sweaty fingers at the gym. With the SE there haven’t even been any close calls – keeping tight grip of the handset as it nestles safely in your grasp is all too easy.
There are downsides to the smaller screen. It wasn’t until WIRED switched back to a 4in display that we realised how comfortable we had become with the larger keyboard on the 6s. Now WIRED’s stubby fingers were regularly hitting the wrong keys and infuriatingly sending half-baked messages with unintentional presses of the return button. And when the keyboard is on screen, it is remarkable how much space it takes up. Was it like this before? Yes, but nobody noticed it until screens got so big.
The same goes for watching movies. WIRED’s commute is about an hour – just the right amount of time to catch up on all the TV and films we need to catch up on. The SE screen is clear, bright and works well – but its smaller size makes it inferior to the 6 or 6s. That extra 0.7in makes a huge difference to streaming Netflix or watching downloaded iPlayer shows. And the smaller screen also isn’t suitable for watching VR video. The loss of the dual-domain pixels for wide viewing angles on the SE may have something to do with this, too. But if you aren’t a heavy video viewer, then this shouldn’t concern you.
Focusing on the considerable positives, it’s quite a feat that Apple has managed to re-engineer the inside space of the old iPhone 5 to house so much tech and reproduce the functionality of the 6s so closely. This is practically a 6s in a 5s shape. There’s 4K video shooting, live photos, the A9 processor, 12MP camera on the back (the front camera however is only 1.2MP compared to the 5MP of the 6s) and Retina Flash all on board. Apple is to be congratulated on this achievement. Get the £439 64GB version, mind, as you’ll run out of room fast on the £359 16GB option.
There’s no 3D Touch on the SE and the fingerprint sensor isn’t the second generation version of the 6s. WIRED found it to be ever so slightly slower, but this isn’t something you would notice without having previously used the 6s.
The biggest drain on any phone’s battery is, you guessed it, the screen. One major plus for the SE’s 4in display is a stonking battery life. Some 13 hours video playback, 50 hours of audio, 12 hours of 3G web and 13 hours Wi-Fi. WIRED found there was still ample juice left in the SE for way more than a day’s normal usage, and almost two if you are careful. That’s much improved on the old 5s, besting the 6s and almost equalling the 6s Plus.
What Apple has made here is a typically well-constructed handset. The smaller size and high-end performance make this a phone for people who like a mobile smartphone – not a mobile TV or PC that happens to be a phone as well.
Considering initial reservations, WIRED was surprised to miss the larger screen of the 6s (and we feel a right Cnut admitting that). But that said there is very little to find fault with in the SE. It delivers in spades, for ages at a time, and is a great phone. If you haven’t gone big yet, or just prefer a smaller mobile in general, you want an SE.