In Depth

iPhone SE: Is the cheapest iPhone the best one?

We pitch the tech giant's newest handset against the 5S, the 5C, and the iPhone 6

The release of the iPhone 7 this month has been the biggest day in the calendar for Apple fans so far this year – but the new model hasn't been the only handset to emerge from the tech giant in 2016.

Apple unveiled the iPhone SE in March. It's a small device for those uninterested in picking up the larger iPhone 6S or iPhone 7 and as the entry-level model, it's the cheapest way to get your hands on a brand new iPhone.

At first glance, it looks and feels exactly the same as older devices such as the iPhone 5 and 5S. But the SE packs a considerable punch.

Here's how much:

iPhone SE design

iPhone 5S users will find little in how the phone looks to tempt them to upgrade. It's not because the SE is unsightly, but rather its design is practically identical to the older device. The only differences are a matte finish on the bevelled edges and a new rose gold colour option.

iPhone SE display

Again, there's no real change here. Both devices use a four-inch LCD screen with a resolution of 1136 x 640 and a pixel density of 326ppi, although Apple says the SE's screen is up to three times brighter than the 5S's.

Pre-reveal, some touted that the iPhone SE would get Apple's pressure-sensitive display, allowing it to have 3D touch capabilities as on the iPhone 6S. The rumours were quiet ones, though, and rightfully so – for now, 3D touch will remain an option on flagship iPhone models only.

Forbes is disappointed in the iPhone SE's groundhog-day display. According to the site's Gordon Kelly, there doesn't appear to be any improvements on the surface, despite Apple's claim of the screen being three times brighter. The sub HD resolution is also lacking behind the times – most smartphones now have 1080p and 2K panels - and the lack of 3D touch is disappointing, with the site reckoning that its addition would have given the SE a real boost over the older iPhone 5S.

They acknowledge that putting 3D touch on the SE is more complicated than just introducing the hardware to the handset – it's a niche "but important" part of how Apple intends to market its phones. If the handset were to get the pressure-sensitive display, it might put it too close to the iPhone 6S for comfort.

iPhone SE camera

While the design and display is virtually unchanged – maybe not such a vital thing, considering Apple is selling much of this phone on its size – the hardware is new, with much of it plucked from the iPhone 6S.

The iPhone 5S uses an eight-megapixel rear-facing camera with a 1.2-megapixel setup on the front. On the SE, this is bumped up to a 12-megapixel camera capable of 4K video recording. It has a wider f/2.2 aperture, too, meaning it should outperform the 5S in low light. Also new are the 240 frames per second (fps) slow-motion capabilities and Live Photos.

The iPhone SE retains the 5S's 1.2-megapixel front-facing FaceTime camera, which, says iMore's reviewer, might have been a mistake given the likely appeal of the smaller phone to young, selfie-obsessed users. "I'm not sure why it didn't get a bump to an iPhone 6s-level 5 megapixels," she says, "because selfies really are a thing and really do need the better camera."

The front camera does benefit from the addition of Retina flash, which also allows for better photos in low light.

iPhone SE hardware and internals

Inside the identical casing is an iPhone 6S-inspired overhaul. The iPhone 5S uses Apple's A7 chip mated to 1GB RAM. This is bumped up to the A9 chip from the iPhone 6S and 2GB RAM. Apple claims the new phone has double the processing power and four-times the graphics performance of its outgoing entry level phone.

The result is impressive. "It's snappy," says Mashable. "Apps and web pages open quickly. There isn't any stutter in switching between apps, and high-performance games look great. Just like the iPhone 6S, you can edit two streams of 4K video in iMovie at once."

The iPhone SE also has an NFC chip, bringing ApplePay to all iPhones in the current range, and the battery has been upgraded. Gone is the 1560mAh cell used in the iPhone 5S and in its place is a 1642mAh unit. Combined with processor upgrades, Pocket Lint reckons users should see a decent leap up in battery life.

After a hands-on review, Buzzfeed confirms that prediction. "Apple claims 13 hours of pure internet use over wi-fi and ten days of pure standby time," its reviewer says. "Battery life varies so much with usage and reception, but I was able to get results that were certainly better than my 6s." Other reviewers have been even more impressed. "The battery life is amazing," says Wired. "Like, how did they do that amazing."

Specs wise, the SE retains the 16GB entry level storage option. A 32GB phone is off the cards – the only other choice is a 64GB handset.

The 16GB iPhones are becoming a punch bag for smartphone reviewers – with camera upgrades bringing 4K video and highly detailed photographs, there simply isn't enough space for most people. The SE could be the final iPhone to ship with the paltry storage option.

iPhone SE price

Apple has quietly altered the price of the iPhone SE since the introduction of the iPhone 7. The 16GB model costs £379 sim-free – a £20 increase on when it first launched.

The good news is that the handier 64GB phone is now slightly cheaper. It costs £429.

iPhone SE verdict

Early hands-on impressions suggest Apple has added a compelling smartphone to the bottom of its range.

According to Slashgear, the SE presents a familiar experience but with optimised hardware that really makes a difference. It feels "significantly faster" and introducing some of the latest machinery means it's been fairly future-proofed. The SE and the 5S are in "different leagues", it adds.

Engadget is also impressed, saying the iPhone SE feels like a "compelling blend of old and new" and that Apple's entry level option no longer feels like a second-rate device.

However, not everyone is convinced. Kate Knibbs, writing for Gizmodo, says the SE is more a "shrewd marketing strategy" than a new handset, arguing that there's nothing fresh in terms of design and software and that the phone is just an 5S with a "moderate gut upgrade".

For David Pierce of Wired, it's much better than that. "I really like this phone," he says. It has "great battery life, fast performance, areally good camera, all in a pretty package that helps you do stuff without demanding you devote your life to gazing upon its wonders".

It's enough to make him think about "downgrading" from an iPhone 6S Plus, which feels "comically huge" by comparison - but only to think about it. He eventually decides that the big screen advantages outweigh the drawbacks, but the decision is closer than he expected. If you're looking for a four-inch phone, he says the iPhone SE is the one you want.

As for Know Your Mobile, they say that the iPhone SE is an "AMG edition" iPhone 5S, and that it's the best 4ins smartphone on the planet bar none, hence the steep, premium price tag for Apple's small phone.

The display technology used is a bit of a let-down – it's the same 720p display used on iPhones since 2012, and buyers will have to avoid the 16GB model, but in terms of sheer performance, the powerful little SE "really comes into its own" and is a solid small smartphone.

Is it worth upgrading to from an older iPhone?

If you've stuck to an older Apple handset because you prefer the smaller screen size, then the SE is the only new iPhone for you.

Apple is targeting users of iPhones 5, 5S and 5C and given them a good reason to change to the new model – it's more powerful than the larger iPhone 6.

While the handset's looks aren't new, they're still different to the iPhone 5C, with metal taking the place of the plastic casing. The SE is substantially more powerful than the 5C, too, and comes equipped with a markedly better camera. There's also much more storage space on offer so it should prove to be a futureproof option if you want to keep your phone for a few years.

The same goes for iPhone 5 users, although the phone won't look any different.

Compared to the 5S, the power upgrades won't be as significant, but standout features such as 4K-video cameras and the inclusion of Apple Pay mean the SE is a good option.

And compared to the 6 and 6S?

In terms of raw power and features, the phone sits in the middle of Apple's two most recent flagships. The 6S gets exclusive features such as 3D Touch and a better selfie camera, but the 6 actually lags behind the SE, with its A9 chip and 12-megapixel iSight snapper. If you're a 6 owner and not bothered with 3D Touch, the camera or the larger screen, the SE offers a route to 6S power at a cheaper cost.

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