Apple iPhone SE Review

Apple iPhone SE

Posted: , posted by Ray S.




A consistently impressive shooter

Inheriting the camera from the iPhone 6s, the iPhone SE comes with the familiar 12 MP shooter that characterizes with a 1/3" sensor, 1.22 μm pixel size, F2.2 aperture and 29 mm focal length. Best of all, the camera is shielded by a sapphire crystal cover, so scratching it shouldn't be easy.

Launching the camera application is extremely fast, and you can do so straight from the lockscreen, by pulling up from the little camera icon in the lower-right corner. The camera itself is super-quick, never wasting a moment as you're changing shooting modes, choosing a focus point, or tapping the shutter button. Capturing images is instantaneous.

The app's interface is very clean, though this cleanness comes at a price – there are no advanced manual options like manual focus, white balance, or ISO settings. Instead, the iPhone SE prefers to handle everything automatically, though it does allow you to tweak the exposure of the scene very easily, so that's something. On the whole, the automatic settings it comes up with are rather accurate and appropriate, so any corrections that may eventually be needed should be minimal, at least when it comes to focus and exposure.
Aside from the improved resolution and sensor, the biggest new camera feature is Live Photos, which made its debut with the iPhone 6s last year. Unlike in the beginning, Live Photos is now deactivated by default, but upon activation, it basically records a very short video snipped around the moment you tapped the camera shutter key. Then, as you view your images in the gallery, you can long-press those which were shot as Live Photos in order to play the video moment.

Image quality

Genaral photo quality is top-notch with the iPhone SE. Images are dynamic and natural, with lively and mostly realistic colors, though not always. Detail level is very high, although it quickly deteriorates when shooting at night, unlike some other top-shelf cameras out there.

Day shots from the iPhone SE are almost identical to those from the S7 and G5, as you can see from the sample pictures. Outdoors, the SE and the S7 sometimes go for colors that are warmer than needed, which is my main gripe with these cameras. The G5, on the other hand, sticks with natural color balance, which seems like the better approach. After all, if you want unnaturally warm colors you can always use a filter, right? Detail-wise, all three cameras are very close to each other. The Galaxy S7 looks as if it has a bit more detail, but that's mostly due to oversharpening of the image. In terms of dynamics, the iPhone SE camera is probably the best – it really feels like a good balance between the S7's artificially boosted visuals, and the G5's realistic colors and softer details. If we could take the strong sides of these three cameras and fuse them into a single one, that would have been the ultimate smartphone camera, but since we cannot, I don't think there's one shooter here that manages to consistently pull ahead of the rest.

Indoors, the iPhone SE is about as good as any other top-shelf smartphone camera. From my experience, it can easily go toe to toe with leading competitors like the Galaxy S7 or G5, despite not having optical image stabilization. When things get real dark, optically stabilized shooters with wider apertures, such as the Galaxy S7, do show their superiority, but that's mostly in cases like shooting in night clubs, bars, and other similar environments. For normally lit rooms, the iPhone SE doesn't seem inferior.

Switching our focus to the front camera, it's a bit disappointing to see Apple settle for the old, 1.2 MP selfie snapper, and not the newer, 5 MP one, but I have to say in most conditions, it doesn't really fall behind the best of the competition in terms of effortlessness and overall quality. In fact, it's easier to get a sharp, nicely framed selfie with the iPhone SE than it is with the S7 or G5, whose front cameras have very wide-angle lenses that don't allow you to frame a close-up portrait shot without skewing your face like a banana. Their front cameras are more suitable for group selfies. Additionally, I found getting the iPhone SE's front camera to focus quickly and sharply easier than with the S7. At the same time, I'm a big fan of LG G5's front camera, which captures way more details and tends to have a stronger selfie flash, but it, too, requires a bit more attention on the user's part in order to deliver optimal results, as you can see in the selfie gallery below.

Video quality

Video recording works as expected on the SE. You can shoot footage in either 1920 x 1080 (30 or 60 fps) or 4K / 3840 x 2160 (30 fps) resolution. Additinally, there's the lovely slow-motion mode which can work in either 1080p at 120 fps or 720p at 240 fps, and allows the user to slow down just a selected segment of the video.

The captured footage tends to have slightly warmed up colors which probably makes it look better to some consumers, but I find it unneeded – I'd rather have the natural version of the scene. Other than that, there's a respectably high level of detail (though it could be even better), but my favorite part is just how smooth and artifact free the footage recorded with the iPhone SE is. It just has a constant flow and stability, uninterrupted by ocassional hiccups or micro-stutters that are otherwise found with many other phones. What's more, the software video stabilization does a great job at stabilizing the footage.


The SE isn't too engrossing when it comes to video, but it's great for music.

The Apple iPhone SE is obviously not intended to be a media powerhouse, at least when video playback is concerned. But if you don't mind the small screen and have no intention of binge-watching TV shows on the SE, it should suffice. After all, the screen is still gorgeous, being so vivid and natural.

Music listening is where it's at with the iPhone SE. The built-in loudspeaker is decent, though it does lack quite a bit of low end. The included EarPods earphones, however, are superb. Having a traditional earbud form-factor, it means they don't isolate you from the environment completely, but are very light and comfortable to wear (no rubbers drilling into your ears). Meanwhile, sound quality through the EarPods is fantastic – they are very well balanced, so there's bass, there's clarity, and there's fullness to the sound.

Apple Music is quite the solid streaming solution. Armed with a tremendous catalog and competitive subscription prices, it can easily rival the other services available out there. And while it works very well, I've found Spotify to be equally well structured, but also besting Apple Music when it comes to ease of searching and artist discoverability. Spotify is also more customizable, allowing you to choose streaming and download quality, as well as easily set a custom equalizer, which is impossible to do with Apple Music.


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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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