Product review: iPhone SE provides value for those seeking small screen

Product review: iPhone SE provides value for those seeking small screen
Mike Stapley,

Cost conscious Apple iPhone fans have long preferred two to three-year-old technology running iOS to new Android and Windows devices at comparable prices. This makes no sense to me, but the cottage industry for older “new” phone models has been copied successfully by Apple’s competitors of late as well.

I can’t think of another device where consumers are willing to accept outdated technology in new packaging outside of the smartphone. I doubt big box stores get frequent requests to buy televisions from three years ago.

Apple’s latest model, the SE, has worked not only because it’s inexpensive compared to current models; it’s also a throwback to smaller smartphone screens. Believe it or not, there have been iPhone fans who are not impressed with the larger screens that debuted on the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.

By reissuing the iPhone 5S as a “new” SE model, granted with some updates, Apple has appeased both the cost conscious and those longing for the screens of yesteryear.

Overall grade: B

Fit and finish

Arguably, the iPhone 5S was one of the best-looking smartphones ever sold. The aluminum back was ahead of its time and it was a good model to reissue as new. The actual 5S has either been discontinued by some carriers or relegated to only pre-paid plans on others.

The SE is available in the same colors as the current Apple lineup. Space grey, silver, gold and rose gold can all be obtained with either 16 or 64GB of memory. The color of the phone is contained in the aluminum back that is framed by black bars at the top and bottom of the phone.

The phone looks just as good as the 5S it was modeled on precisely because it is the same phone on the outside. Nothing has been updated or modified. The power and volume buttons are where they were then, with power on top.

Interestingly, Apple users complained that the power button never seemed seated quite right when the 5S was new and it still has the loose feel and rattle on this new version. I’m assuming Apple has simply maintained whatever production methods are in place for the 5S and saved money versus making any improvements on the carriage. There are, though, internal improvements we’ll get to later.

iPhones have become more rounded and thinner since this model so it does seem a bit dated — in a good way, however. The 5S was ahead of time in terms of design, so it has aged well.


Most iPhone fans have, if reluctantly at first, come to appreciate the larger screen of the newer 6S. Having the SE in hand feels very awkward at first, simply because the screen is truly small at only 4 inches. Apple did not modify the screen at all to bring it up to current resolution standards. Improvements would likely have gone unnoticed, on a screen this size, regardless.

While the small screen is the SE’s single biggest detriment, it will appeal to those iPhone users who have shunned the larger screens of current models. In essence, the SE provides for updated internals on a smaller platform.

It was nice, I’ll admit, to be able to operate the phone with one hand and have every part of the screen within reach of my thumb. That convenience was quickly outweighed, however, by the tiny app icons and folders of iOS. Apple’s iOS had always longed for larger screens and it seems a shame to allow for the smaller screens of the past to hang on a bit longer.


The camera is where the modern updates for the SE begin. The rear camera is the same one found on the newer 6S. The front-facing camera is the one used originally on the 5S, so it will lag behind the performance and clarity of the 6S, which received a megapixel upgrade.

The 12MP rear camera is a good one, likely second in performance only to Samsung’s cameras. Having the updated camera modes and megapixels of the newest iPhone camera give the SE a boost in terms of value.

In addition to the improvement in picture quality compared to the 5S, the camera boasts 4K-video recording capability.

Performance and intangibles

While Apple created the idea of having past models continue as value-priced alternatives to new models each year, software updates eventually would create a dilemma for iPhone users. iOS updates would be configured for the newest, current model and the processor speeds they enjoyed. At some point, users who hung on to the older, slower models would find themselves needing to upgrade devices or shun the new upgrades.

Phone performance would become erratic as new features overwhelmed older models. There is no chance of that with the SE, as the newest A9 processor is onboard. In addition, 2GB of RAM, always-on Siri, M9 motion processor for fitness tracking, Apple Pay and Wi-Fi calling complete the list of enhancements carried over from the newest 6S.

Since the screen wasn’t updated, 3-D touch does not make an appearance. Battery life is also excellent since the smaller, less-demanding screen is present. Apple claims one to two hours of improvement when on the internet compared to the 6S.

There are two internal memory options, 16 and 64GB. The value of this phone is greatly reduced by choosing the 64GB option, which many will see as necessary as many have found with the 6S. iOS takes up much more internal memory these days than it did when the 5S was new.

The SE is intended to be a good value at $499 on most carriers, with 16GB. Apple smartphones continue to be the worst value on the market when internal memory upgrades, at $100 a pop, are factored in.

Ultimately, the SE’s internal upgrades will make it popular with those longing for the smaller screen of past models and for those seeking value. I can’t see those who have adjusted to the larger screen of the 6S wanting to go back. The processor and feature upgrades create value for the SE. As the iPhone 7 launches in the fall and the 6S sees price reductions, that value will diminish. The SE’s run could be a short one.


Internal Memory: 16GB or 64GB, not expandable

Weight: 3.99 ounces

Display: 4-inch Retina display (1136‑by‑640‑pixel resolution at 326 ppi)

Processor: A9 chip


Camera: 12MP rear, up to 4K video

Apple Pay and Fingerprint sensor included

Contact Mike Stapley at

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