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    Apple iPhone SE review: A compelling blend of old and new

    There's lots of power wrapped up in this tiny package.

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    Even though we all knew it was coming, Apple's iPhone SE announcement still managed to raise eyebrows ... and plenty of questions. Is there still a market for a 4-inch iPhone? Is Apple playing it safe with its design? Arguably, the answer to both these questions is yes, but after a week of using the iPhone SE, I can safely say that none of that matters. Regardless of Apple's reasons for making this thing, the iPhone SE is a lovely smartphone for iOS newcomers and small-handed users alike.

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    Pros
    • Great performance
    • Amazing battery life for an iPhone
    • Starts at $399
    Cons
    • Screen too small for some
    • Old front camera, Touch ID sensor
    • Base model only has 16GB of storage

    Summary

    Just because the iPhone SE looks like an old device doesn't mean it acts like one. Apple squeezed flagship-level performance and the best battery life we've seen from an iPhone in years into a familiar (and relatively inexpensive) frame. The phone lacks some of the 6s's niceties and its screen is just too small for some, but the iPhone SE is the best compact phone Apple has ever made.

    Hardware

    Review: Apple iPhone SE

    It's an iPhone 6s in the body of an iPhone 5s. Boom, done, see you guys later.

    Kidding, kidding. Still, while that sentiment is a little too reductive, it's mostly right. Nearly all the things that make an iPhone 6s an iPhone 6s are back, just squeezed into a body we thought we had seen the last of. Apple could have gone the cost-conscious route and given us an iPhone 6 in a smaller body, and I'm equal parts surprised and pleased they didn't. I'll dig more into performance later, but the A9 chipset (with its M9 motion-tracking processor) found in the SE is a dead ringer for the one in Apple's current flagship iPhones, from its clock speed to the 2GB of RAM it's paired with. Long story short, the SE doesn't feel like a second-class machine.

    Gallery: iPhone SE review | 23 Photos

    That extends to the SE's design, too. As I said in my initial hands-on, the iPhone 5/5s's look still stands as my favorite, and I half-wish Apple would bring back this more angular aesthetic. (Fingers crossed for September.) The iPhone SE is as light and well built as the 5s was two years ago, with few physical differences to speak of. In fact, aside from the rose gold color option that the 5s didn't offer, there are just two telltale changes: the SE logo on the back side and the matte chamfers that run around the phone's flat edges. If you liked the old-school iPhone 5s design, then, you're going to feel right at home here. And if you didn't, well, you weren't going to buy this phone anyway.

    There is a third camp, though: people who enjoyed the 5s's design and then embraced a generation of bigger screens. If that's you, I know what you're thinking, and yes, going back to a small iPhone after two years with the 6 family is weird. If you peeked inside my Messages app (please don't), you'd see several texts to friends and colleagues posing variations of the same question: How did we use these things for so long? A week in and I still can't bash out text messages on that cramped onscreen keyboard as reliably as I used to. Hell, I'm occasionally frustrated by how little text I can scan through at once on the smaller screen.

    Still, the size has its upsides. After months of using big smartphones -- the iPhone 6s Plus, Galaxy Note 5 and Nexus 6p, mostly -- my right hand is in pretty rough shape. It gets sore and tired quickly, especially when I'm using my pinkie to cradle the bottom of the phone and stretching my thumb across the screen to tap something in the corner. I'm 27, but my hand feels like it's 40. Using the SE for the week, then, has been like a mini-vacation for my gnarled claw. The small-screen lifestyle isn't for everyone, but there's no denying the iPhone SE is a damned comfortable little device.

    Anyway. My review unit was rose gold (because of course it was!) and came with 64GB of internal storage (asking price: $499). Well, approximately 64 gigs, anyway: After you factor in the space iOS 9.3 takes up, you're left with 55.7GB of usable storage. That the entry-level $399 model comes with only 16GB of storage isn't surprising, but here's hoping this is the last time Apple ships an iPhone with so little space to play with. That's just one of the compromises you'll be making when you go for this form factor at this price. Neither model has 3D Touch. The Touch ID sensors in the home buttons are first-generation models, which is to say it's not as fast as the one in the 6s. And the front-facing cameras are a 1.2-megapixel throwback to the days of the iPhone 5.

    Display and sound

    For all intents, the iPhone SE has the exact same screen as the one in the iPhone 5s. That means it still runs at a resolution of 1,136 x 640, which also means the math still works out to a pixel density of 326ppi (same as the iPhone 6s). Look beyond the numbers, though, and you'll see that this throwback of a screen is as bright and well saturated as in the old days. That said, the display might take a little getting used to if you're coming from a 6s. The screen's a tad less bright than that of either the 6s or 6s Plus, and the color temperature is a little warmer, too. If anything, the biggest difference here is the loss of 3D Touch, which some will feel more acutely than others. I'll admit, I was very bullish about 3D Touch gestures when the 6s first came out, but now I rarely use them. Current iPhone users might not miss them, while newcomers won't even notice their absence.

    Meanwhile, the single speaker tucked into the SE's bottom edge is punchier than I expected, especially with highs and mids. You'll still want a pair of headphones for any kind of long-term listening, but there's enough power here to give YouTube videos and the Hamilton soundtrack some needed oomph.

    Software

    The iPhone SE ships with iOS 9.3, which doesn't add much in the way of whiz-bang features. If anything, the most notable addition is Night Shift, a feature that can automatically warm up the screen's color temperature to ease eyestrain at night. It's not exactly a new idea -- apps like f.lux have been doing this for years on the desktop -- but a warmer screen does indeed make evening reading easier than a normal white one. Rather than set up a specific Night Shift schedule, you can manually adjust how warm the screen is. Theoretically, cranking up screen warmth to the max should help ease your screwy sleep cycle, but you're left with a jarringly orange display as a result. None of this helped me crash faster at night, but hopefully it does someone out there some good.

    You can now also lock specific entries in the Notes app; opening them requires either a password or putting your finger on the Touch ID sensor. At last, my list of "Definitive Karaoke Jams" gets the protection it deserves! Also, if you're a Verizon person, you can finally start WiFi-calling your friends as of this update (the other big three carriers have had this for a while). Meanwhile, the Health app now highlights software that pipes in movement and nutrition data, which is especially nice on the SE; its smaller size makes it a more pleasant workout buddy.

    Oh, and Apple News has gotten slightly better at figuring out what kinds of stories I actually want to read. (It still overestimates how much Donald Trump news I want, but that's probably a symptom of a larger issue.) There are also a host of new 3D Touch app behaviors in iOS 9.3, but obviously none of them work here. C'est la vie.

    Strangely enough, I ran into a few weird Siri hiccups after setting up the "Hey Siri" voice activation. While listening to an audiobook in Audible, certain passages -- ones with phrases that don't sound a thing like "Hey Siri" -- would bring my virtual assistant to life and puzzle her with random bits of dialogue. I played the same book on an iPhone 6s to try and replicate the issue, with no luck. Ditto for just putting the phones next to each other; after all, the same sound should trigger Siri on both, right? Nope, it only happened on the SE. It stopped after a while, but I still can't figure out what was going on there.

    Camera

    Spoiler alert in case you haven't yet read our iPhone 6s review: The camera is great. And thanks to the Transitive Property of Component Transplantation (it'll become a thing, just watch), the iPhone SE's camera is great, too. Actually, it's better than the 6s's camera in one subtle way: Since the iPhone SE is a slightly thicker phone, it doesn't have the awkward camera nub seen on members of the iPhone 6 family. See? There's an argument to be made for thicker phones.

    Anyway, I could go on about how Apple's "deep trench isolation" keeps light from spilling into adjacent photodiodes, but that's not really necessary. All you really need to know is that the iPhone SE is capable of capturing some remarkably detailed, nicely colored photos. Surprise, surprise. I've been shooting with both the SE and an iPhone 6s Plus for the past week, and the results they put out are nearly identical. (The 6s Plus pulls ahead when it comes to action shots and low-light situations, because it has optical image stabilization.)

    Gallery: iPhone SE camera samples | 31 Photos

    Speaking of low light, the iPhone SE does a respectable job keeping noise to a minimum in dim settings, though I'd generally give the nod to the Galaxy S7 as the better smartphone camera. The iPhone SE also shoots 4K video, which generally looks smooth and evenly exposed, even when tracking moving subjects. It's nice to have, sure, but if you've got a 16GB SE -- and many of you will -- you'll probably never want to shoot videos at such a high resolution.

    Two other things are worth pointing out. First, the iPhone SE supports shooting Live Photos, moving images that add a little flair and context to your shots. Since there's no 3D Touch here, a long press on a Live Photo will make it spring into action. The other thing is that your selfies just don't turn out as nice as they do with the 6s. Apple didn't bother upgrading the 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera that sits atop the screen, even though the 5-megapixel sensor in the 6s doesn't take up much more space. The result is muddier photos that, while totally fine for Instagram, lack the liveliness the bigger sensor is capable of. At least the SE has its Retina Flash, which lights up the screen to add some extra brightness.

    Performance and battery life

    The iPhone SE is far more powerful than its old-school looks suggest. The combination of Apple's current-gen A9 chipset with 2GB of RAM is enough to keep things running smoothly, from swiping through home screens to switching between apps to firing up graphically intensive games. The last time Apple released a cost-conscious 4-inch device -- the second-class citizen that was the iPhone 5c -- it felt dated from the get-go. For Apple to squeeze the most important parts of its flagship mobile into a small, $399 iPhone is refreshing. For the first time in years, you can buy a 4-inch iPhone without feeling like you've had to sacrifice performance for size.

    Just to drive the point home, check out the benchmarks below. They're more or less identical to the most expensive iPhone you can buy.

    iPhone SE iPhone 6s iPhone 6s Plus iPhone 6
    3DMark Unlimited IS 27,729 24,601 27,542 16,689
    Geekbench 3 (multi-thread) 4,440 4,427 4,289 2,885
    Basemark OS II 2,378 2,354 2,428 1,441
    SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms) 227 230 220 351
    SunSpider: Lower scores are better

    When Apple refused to talk about the capacity of the battery inside the iPhone SE, I was more than a little worried. I shouldn't have been. It'll be a little while yet before the inevitable teardown reveals the battery's size, but you can rest easy knowing the iPhone SE will get you through a full day and then some. (If you've read my past reviews, you'll know a typical day for me involves firing off lots of emails and Slack messages, taking calls, listening to podcasts and playing games in the bathroom.) After pulling the SE off its charger at about nine in the morning, it would make it through 11-hour days with between 30 and 40 percent of its charge left. I've routinely had the phone go over 24 hours without needing a charge (though, in fairness, I was asleep for that last stretch). Suffice to say, I'm very, very pleased.

    Turning to our video rundown test (looping an HD video with WiFi on and the screen brightness set to 50 percent), the iPhone SE hung around for 13 hours and 40 minutes. While that's not quite as good as the 50 percent improvement Apple has claimed, the iPhone SE still has the best battery life of any iPhone we've tested in the past two years. That's a lot of power packed into such a tiny package.

    The competition

    The iPhone SE's combination of price and power -- the 16GB model is the cheapest new iPhone Apple has ever released -- means it occupies a sort of charmed space in the company's mobile lineup. There's officially no reason to buy an iPhone 5s from a carrier, so the biggest question is whether would-be iPhone owners should buy an SE or a 6s. (One could go for an iPhone 6, I guess, but the 6s is only $100 more without a contract. Why settle?) As I've mentioned ad nauseam, the 6s shares the iPhone SE's horsepower and packs a more spacious 4.7-inch screen that's pressure-sensitive to boot. That bigger size is still pretty comfortable to use, though you'll lose out on the SE's long-lasting battery in the process.

    If you're looking to spend about $400 on a smartphone and aren't tied to Apple, consider LG and Google's Nexus 5X. It, too, offers good performance at a reasonable price, but its plastic body doesn't hold a candle to the iPhone SE's first-rate build. On the plus side, though, there's plenty of power to be wrung out of its Snapdragon 808 chipset, and we already know it will run Google's forthcoming Android N (complete with split-screen multitasking!).

    Wrap-up

    It's clear that the iPhone SE isn't for people like me: people who have embraced the advent of more spacious screens despite the weird bulges they form in our collective jeans pockets. When you look at the SE as a newcomer's iPhone, though, it all sort of makes sense. It's pretty cheap -- an enticing proposition for people finally ditching their flip phones. Its small size will also appeal to people who stopped upgrading their iPhones when they started getting too big. And most important, it's powerful. Apple fans itching for more of a game changer should sit tight until September; this thing was never meant for you. But if you're looking for a first-rate smartphone that won't break the bank -- or your hand -- the iPhone SE deserves a spot on your shortlist.

    Photos by Will Lipman.

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