“Honey, someone has shrunk my iPhone!” That was my first reaction when I held the tiny iPhone SE for the first time. I’m an iPhone 6s Plus user and my hands felt really large while holding the iPhone SE. Heck, everything feels large in front of it — I slid the phone into my pocket and it disappeared into the void, unlike the iPhone 6s Plus, which kept peeking out of the other pocket. It’s been years since I used a 4-inch iPhone and I’m now accustomed to massive displays. Will I even be able to go back to a tiny display?
While I fought mental battles in my head, trying to decide whether I should take the plunge and use my primary SIM in the iPhone SE, Apple executives were feeding me with data about why a 4-inch iPhone makes sense. Apple claims it sold more than 30 million iPhones with a 4-inch display last year alone. But the last such iPhone Apple had made was the iPhone 5s, which was launched in 2013. Apple says people like the size so much that they can’t let go of the smaller iPhones. That might be the case for some, but I suspect majority of these users bought older (and smaller) iPhones just because that’s the only iPhone they could afford.
The iPhone SE isn’t cheap by any stretch of imagination. It might be the lowest priced iPhone Apple has ever launched, but at Rs 39,000 for the base 16GB variant it is still pretty expensive. The choice of using the same design as the iPhone 5s also baffles me. Apple says people love that design but I feel it has more to do with Apple not having to put in a lot of resources in redesigning a 4-inch iPhone. The ability to use some of the same components as the iPhone 5s, as this teardown reveals, translates into a lot of dollars saved. In the US, Apple has passed on a part of the savings to buyers, where the base variant is available for just $399, which is great value for money. Unfortunately, the import duties in India and the volatile value of the Rupee, the iPhone SE costs as much as it does in India. I’m hoping that market forces would lower the operating price of the iPhone SE just as it has played out for the iPhone 6s. Better still, this should be a reason enough for Apple to start assembling at least the iPhone SE in India.
But using the same design as the iPhone 5s also makes people perceive the iPhone SE as a souped up iPhone 5s. And that perception doesn’t warrant a Rs 39,000 price tag, when you can get the latest iPhone 6s for just Rs 42,000. Of course, Apple would say that the MRP of the iPhone 6s is 62,500 but who cares? When the phone looks like an iPhone 5s, people don’t realize that its guts are those of the iPhone 6s, including the same A9 processor, M9 co-processor and 2GB of RAM. It also has the same 12-megapixel iSight camera as the iPhone 6s but sadly just a 1.2-megapixel FaceTime camera. But what most people would see is an overpriced smartphone.
I wonder if the perception would have been different had the iPhone SE looked like the iPhone 6s. Would everyone then think of it as an iPhone 6s variant in a smaller form-factor? An iPhone 6s mini, if I may? Because that is exactly what the iPhone SE is.
I took the plunge. Using a 4-inch display smartphone in 2016 feels, well, weird. Especially considering I was making the jump from a 5.5-inch display. Apart from the obvious difference of how the phone feels in the hand, I could feel the lack of display real estate in almost everything I did — be it Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, Slack, emails… — everything required more scrolling than the iPhone 6s Plus. In iMessage the keyboard alone took a comically large portion of the display that left little space to see the earlier conversations.
But the iPhone SE’s tiny footprint had its obvious advantages. After years I could again use a smartphone with one hand. I didn’t have to unnaturally stretch my thumb to reach that remote top corner on the display where the crucial close button or the option to go back to the previous app resides. My thumb could easily reach every corner of the display while I held the phone naturally. I didn’t have to shift the phone in my palm to reach any particular part of the screen.
My biggest worry with the iPhone SE was typing on its tiny display. The aggressiveness with which smartphone displays have increased in size, we have moved from single-hand thumbing to holding the phone in between both palms and using both thumbs to type. Initially, I found it difficult to type on the iPhone SE. I would constantly hit the wrong buttons, thanks to my thumb’s muscle memory after using phablets. It would regularly reach out a bit extra to hit the ‘s’ key on the left and end up hitting ‘a’ instead or hitting the ‘l’ key instead of ‘k’. But the aggressive autocorrect on iOS usually ensured I didn’t make many typos.
The surprising bit, however, is how quickly I got a hang of typing again on a smaller display. A few hours into using the iPhone SE, I was typing perfectly. It felt like coming back home after a long while. It felt new, yet familiar. I could type with one hand while walking or if I held stuff in the other hand. I was dragging my cabin bag down the plane’s aisle with one had while booking an Uber with the other hand. No more putting bags down to type out a quick message or risk dropping the phone while attempting to type with one hand. I now remembered why I held on to my iPhone 5 for so long. The joys of a smaller display.
Lost behind the iPhone 5s design is the fact that the iPhone SE is a flagship smartphone. It has the same A9 processor as the iPhone 6s, complete with 2GB of RAM and the M9 co-processor. When compared with the iPhone 5s, there is a significant noticeable improvement in performance. Apps open faster, web pages too load faster, game play feels better and there is an overall feel of things being moving more fluidly. The Wi-Fi radio has also improved and there’s LTE connectivity too. In fact, the performance is better than that of the iPhone 6 too, just in case you were wondering. Apple says the processor is powerful enough to edit two streams of 4K videos simultaneously, but I doubt anyone is going to do that on such a tiny display.
Even the 12-megapixel iSight camera is far better than that found on the iPhone 5s and are on par with the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. I clicked similar shots from the iPhone SE and iPhone 6s Plus and there isn’t much of a difference. The photos are sharp and feature closer to reality colors. You can shoot 4K videos from it too though like the iPhone 6s, even the iPhone SE doesn’t have optical image stabilization. The only disappointment I found was the 1.2-megapixel front facing FaceTime camera, which just doesn’t belong here.
The biggest surprise about the iPhone SE is its battery life. During my usage, I could easily stretch it for a day-and-a-half with still about 15 percent battery to spare. I could easily get about five hours of screen-on-time with 4G LTE, location services and Wi-Fi always switched on. I have never seen any iPhone give this sort of battery performance, not even the mighty iPhone 6s Plus with its huge footprint and massive battery. Clearly, it is the smaller display, which has fewer pixels to light up that enables this sort of battery performance. Compared to the iPhone 5s’ 1,560mAh battery, the iPhone SE also has a slightly bigger 1,624mAh battery.
So should you buy the iPhone SE? Despite having a great camera, the top-of-the-line processor and a stupendous battery, the iPhone SE isn’t for everyone. The tiny display isn’t what many users may find appealing and considering the iPhone 6s not being much more expensive than the iPhone SE, it is an obvious better choice.
However, if you find the displays on other smartphones too big for your comfort, the iPhone SE makes perfect sense and not just from an iPhone perspective. Think about it, is there any smartphone with top-end features that can be used with one hand? There is no flagship Android smartphone in the market that has a display smaller than 5-inches. If you want a smaller smartphone you have no option but to buy a low-end smartphone. The iPhone SE fills that gap. Now only if market forces push its price down below Rs 35,000, Apple could possibly have a winner on its hands.
As for me and my apprehensions of using a 4-inch smartphone, I’m now a convert.