Apple iPhone SE Review

Apple iPhone SE

Posted: , posted by Ray S.




Simplistic and efficient, iOS 9's core apps could use some visual flair.

iOS 9.3 on the iPhone SE is in no way different than what's currently found on the bigger iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus. The operating system scales intelligently so the general user experience on the iPhone SE is actually pretty good. The handset's smaller display fits slightly less content within its 4" frame, but the size of text or other items is pretty much comparable to what's found on the iPhone 6s. That's very important, because it means that while there's definitely some more scrolling and panning involved with the iPhone SE, reading and viewing content actually isn't noticeably less comfortable.

Using the iPhone SE is a very simple and straightforward process. First, the user interface is structured in a way that's uncluttered and makes sense, and second, it's very intuitive and reliable – so everything works and reacts as one would expect. The confusing or frustrating moments with iOS 9.3 are reduced to a minimum.


The Phone application in the iPhone SE (and any other iOS 9.3 iPhone) is very simplistic, probably overly so. When it comes to presentation, it's as clean as it gets, which definitely has its advantages, but it'd be interesting to see Apple add some visual flair; for example, by adding some lively animations here and there (like when switching between tabs in Android), or by reducing the largely grayscale-dominated color scheme within core apps like Phone.

You can quickly dial someone with a single tap from the favorites tab, where selected contacts are accompanied by a small picture, or from the Recents tab. Alternatively, the Contacts tab is a simple and efficient list (no contact pictures here), where you can search by typing out the name of the desired person, or by sliding your finger along the letters on the right edge of the screen. Finding a contact inside the list is typically quick and easy, but an option for T9-style dialing straight from the numpad would have been nice.

Messages and Mail

The Messages application actually has a bit more character in it. It's still mostly a grayscale theme, but the conversations list shows the person's image next to each thread, while the text bubbles within conversations have that nice bouncy effect when the user is scrolling up/down. The app may still seem to be on the simplistic side, but it's actually rather smart. For example, starting a new message and adding a contact whom you've already chatted with, will instantly open the thread with all your previous messages. And, attaching a photo, video, or voice message is just a tap away. However, since there is no 3D Touch pressure sensitivity on the iPhone SE, you can't use the Peek gesture to preview threads straight from the conversations list.

The latter also applies to the built-in Mail application, which is equally simplistic in nature, but remarkably reliable and well-formatted. Browsing through the inbox is very convenient and intuitive, as the names of correspondents are easy to spot among the other info such as the subject and preview text. Next in the hierarchy are the subject lines, which are also easy to see, without interfering with the other text. Finally, the email threads in the list are cleverly spaced out from one another, resulting a clean and easy to view layout.

One of the more intriguing things when it comes to working with the iPhone SE and its 4” display is whether or not the screen will be too small to comfortably type on. As can be expected, the smaller screen does mean a more cramped keyboard. Thanks to its clean design and superb response, however, typing on the 4” display is actually not the nightmare some may thing it is. Sure, mis-taps are easier to do than on the considerably more spacious iPhone 6s, but all in all, the typing experience on the Apple iPhone SE is tolerable.

Organizer tools

The iPhone SE, powered by iOS 9.3, comes with a very useful, no-nonsense set of organizer tools. First on the list is the calendar app, which is quite easy to work with. Creating new events is a very quick process, which can happen by simply holding onto the desired hour while in day view. One unfortunate omission, though, is that week view only works in landscape mode, which is pretty discouraging if you've been used to working with week view. Another feature that would come in handy is to have a little weather forecast for each day when in week or day view, in a similar manner to what some Android phones do.

Next up is Notes, which just got a facelift with iOS 9.3, allowing the user to secure individual notes with a password or Touch ID – a very useful feature indeed, though setting it up and getting used to its peculiarities requires a bit of getting used to. For starters, you first need to create a new password that is to be used with the notes you're going to lock. This password is synchronized with your iCloud account, so it's automatically applied to all your iOS devices. Then, once within the Notes app, you need to tap on the 'sharing' button in order to access the locking option, which is a bit weird. After an additional input of the written password, you're finally allowed to start unlocking (and locking) notes using Touch ID only. A nice touch is that once you unlock a note, all of the locked notes get automatically unlocked for you, and they remain so until you lock the phone. Next time you unlock the iPhone and open the notes app, the secured notes will be locked again. One thing I don't like about this seemingly complicated process is that when you enter a locked note, you need to manually engage the Touch ID prompt by tapping on the lock symbol or the “View note” button. On a screen where this is the only real option, I don't see why the Touch ID / password prompt doesn't show up automatically, saving the user a tap, each time they attempt to view a locked note.

Aside from this overrated privacy thing (sharing is caring!), the Notes app is actually superb – it enables quick, simple, easy, and clean note-taking, but if you need some more advanced functionality, you can always get it in the form of the built-in drawing instruments, the checkbox list tool, or photo attachment.

Touch ID fingerprint scanner

As you may have heard, the Touch ID fingerprint scanner built into the iPhone SE's home button is the same one that was present on the iPhone 5s and iPhone 6. The iPhone 6s came with an enhanced Touch ID sensor that could perform up to two times faster. However, the first-gen Touch ID scanner is still extremely fast and reliable. I actually find the one in the iPhone 6s too fast, because it doesn't even allow the user to view their lockscreen – it unlocks the phone instantaneously.

But back to the sensor at hand in the iPhone SE – it's very easy to setup, and it works like a charm. Some users do report experiencing issues, with the sensor reportedly refusing to consistently read their fingerprints, but my experience with it has been superb thus far – both on the iPhone 6 and the iPhone SE.

Aside from making your smartphone both secure and easy to unlock, Touch ID on the iPhone SE can also be used for authorization of iTunes purchases, or Apple's contactless Pay service, which is currently available in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and China.

System performance

Being equipped with Apple's best mobile chipset at the moment, and having a screen resolution that is both pleasant to look at, yet not too demanding, means the Apple iPhone SE simply flies. I don't think I've encountered a single stutter or delay while using it.

The 64-bit, dual-core Twister processor running at 1.8 GHz delivers excellent performance for both normal system operations and third-party applications, including games, where the GT7600 GPU by PowerVR flexes its muscle to ensure frame rates never fall below the ideal mark. You can even play desktop-level games like Hearthstone on this entry-level iPhone, but of course, the 4” screen tends to be somewhat claustrophobic in such scenarios. For more casual titles with bigger graphics and less text to read, the screen size is decent.

The Apple iPhone SE is available with 16 or 64 GB of memory, and while the base model's storage space may sound offensively limiting to some, the 64 GB version bumps the price up from $399 to $499, so users should definitely give some thought to how they are going to use the phone, and exactly how much storage they are going to need. Considering the 4" screen and the nature of this budget iPhone as a whole, a 16 GB variant can still pass as serviceable, but looking forward, it'd be nice of Apple to get a bit more consumer-friendly and offer the iPhone 7 with a starting amount of 32 GB.

Internet and Connectivity

The biggest limiting factor in terms of the iPhone SE's web browsing experience is the 4" display. While iOS interface graphics are appropriately scaled so they can be displayed in eye-friendly size, not much can be done when it comes to the visualization of web pages within the excellent Safari browser.

As internet sites are loaded in overview, there's no choice but to scale everything down until it fits the 4" frame. Compared to how things look on the iPhone 6s' much larger screen, web browsing is considerably more uncomfortable on the SE. Of course, you can get around pages relatively easily with Safari's swift handling of zooming and panning, but you might want to mostly stick to mobile-friendly websites, to make your viewing experience more hassle-free.

As usual with iPhones, the SE supports all the current connectivity standards. A truly global phone, it can work on a multitude of different 3G and LTE bands, and it also features VoLTE and HD Voice. I didn't encounter any issues when using the GPS of the handset. Apple Maps has come a long way since its troubled inception, but I think Google Maps still offers the more reliable mapping solution, plus a more comprehensive list of cities with transit directions. Meanwhile, if you need good offline navigation, I'd say Here Maps is a great (and free) app for the purpose.


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PhoneArena rating:
8.8Very good
Display4.0 inches, 640 x 1136 pixels (326 ppi) IPS LCD
Camera12 megapixels
Apple A9 APL0898, Dual-core, 1840 MHz, Twister processor
2 GB
Size4.87 x 2.31 x 0.30 inches
(123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm)
3.99 oz  (113 g)

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