Apple iPhone SE Review: Small but not quite perfect

Alex Kidman 4 April 2016


Apple’s iPhone SE is a decent member of the iPhone family, but it’s let down rather badly by its battery life.

The existence of the iPhone SE was perhaps Apple’s worst kept secret in years, with rumour sites openly stating that it was due to be launched on 21 March which indeed it was. It’s perhaps easiest summed up as most of the innards of an iPhone 6s stuffed into the body of an iPhone 5s, although as we found the reality of using it was very mixed.

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The Apple iPhone SE has a smaller 4-inch display and the same processing power as the iPhone 6S. Here's where you can purchase yours today.

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DeviceApple iPhone SE
Screen size4in
ProcessorApple A9
Rear camera12MP
Front camera1.2MP
Display density326ppi


Upsides: Why you’d want the iPhone SE

  • Older design is still very good
    The iPhone SE is undeniably based on the iPhone 5/5s design, down to the point where if you have older 5/5s accessories such as cases, they will work perfectly on the newer phone. It’s a design that’s now effectively 3 years old, but it’s a testament to Apple’s strong industrial design chops that the iPhone SE is still a great looking phone. If you’re not a fan of "phablet" style handsets, the style and general hand feel of the iPhone SE could be a major selling point.
  • Good performance for a small phone
    The iPhone SE shares the A9 processor found in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, so it should be a capable performer. While it’s not top of the tier, it’s impressive in a small body phone, because for the most part this is a segment of the market where vendors tend to throw lower power processors and memory into. It’s not shocking then, that it scored essentially identically to its larger cousins while putting a smaller dent in your pocket.Here is how the iPhone SE stacks up in the cross-platform Geekbench 3 test:

    HandsetGeekbench 3 Single Core (higher is better)Geekbench 3 Multi Core (higher is better)
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge21696446
    Samsung Galaxy S721566240
    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+14924893
    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge13244626
    Google Nexus 6P12514597
    Samsung Galaxy S613474569
    Apple iPhone SE25384455
    Apple iPhone 6S25404410
    Apple iPhone 6S Plus24914391
    Sony Xperia Z513584134
    Samsung Galaxy Note 511113686
    BlackBerry PRIV11963396
    LG G411903313
    Google Nexus 5X11883198

    In 3DMark’s IceStorm Unlimited test, this is how the iPhone SE compares:

    Handset3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Result
    Apple iPhone SE29276
    Samsung Galaxy S728903
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge28402
    Apple iPhone 6s28171
    Google Nexus 6P24703
    Sony Xperia Z519197
    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus17981
  • iOS still scales well to the smaller screen
    Some smaller phone screens struggle with scaling issues, but because the iPhone’s history is in 4 inch displays, there’s really not that much of an issue here, with apps displaying cleanly, albeit small.
  • Decent rear camera The iPhone 6s’ camera -- which is the module in the back of the iPhone SE -- is a 12MP camera with larger individual pixel sites for improved low light performance. It’s since been somewhat eclipsed by phones such as the Microsoft Lumia 950XL and the Samsung Galaxy S7 in photographic terms, but this is still a solid and capable shooter. We found in testing that the smaller screen size was something of a boon when stabilising the phone for shots as well. It’s 4K capable if that floats your boat, although of course you can’t actually watch 4K content on the iPhone SE’s display screen.
  • Adds NFC for Apple Pay
    At launch, only American Express has offered Apple Pay facilities in Australia, though ANZ has recently enabled the contactless payment platform. If you want to enjoy the service, but fancy carrying around something that’s far more credit card sized than the iPhone 6S, the iPhone SE should fit the bill nicely.


Downsides: Why you might not want the Apple iPhone SE

  • Woeful battery life
    Apple promotes the iPhone SE as having "improved" battery life, but all of its comparisons are against the iPhone 5s, a device that is more than two and a half years old at this point. Frankly, we’d hope that a comparison with a phone from more than two years ago would automatically be favourable! Where the iPhone SE stumbles badly is when you compare it against just about any other current handset in battery terms. We frequently found ourselves reaching for a charger before the end of a day of normal usage. This was strongly borne out in more formal battery benchmarking using Geekbench 3’s battery test with screen dimming enabled:

    HandsetGeekbench 3 Battery Test DurationGeekbench 3 Battery Score
    Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge11:55:007150
    Samsung Galaxy S710:01:206013
    Samsung Galaxy Note 59:18:005580
    Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+8:24:105041
    Apple iPhone 6S Plus7:48:104681
    Google Nexus 5X7:14:204062
    Samsung Galaxy S66:51:304115
    Google Nexus 6P6:39:203754
    Alcatel OneTouch Idol 35:42:002276
    Sony Xperia Z55:41:303414
    LG G45:27:503224
    BlackBerry PRIV5:25:403256
    Huawei P8 Lite4:39:402768
    Apple iPhone SE4:27:102671
    Apple iPhone 6s3:52:102321

    The only phone that performs worse in this test than the SE is the 6s, and it has a larger screen to power. It is perhaps notable that the iPhone SE does as much as it does given its very small battery overall, but still, it can’t even redeem itself with a good Geekbench battery score, which shows the relationship between power usage and actual processing power. Any way you cut it, with phones at a fraction of the iPhone SE's price outdoing it in battery life, it’s not good.

  • Not quite the full iPhone 6s experience
    Apple very much wants the iPhone 6s/6s Plus to remain the "premium" device in its range, and that means that while there’s a lot of internal similarity between the SE and 6s/Plus ranges, you do have to do without a few key premium goodies.There’s no 3D Touch capability on the iPhone SE’s smaller screen. The front camera module is the original one from the iPhone 5s at 1.2MP rather than the 5MP module found in the newer phone. You do get the retina flash ability of the newer phones, but at a lower resolution overall. Finally, for whatever reason Apple’s opted to use the older and slower TouchID sensor from the 5s in the iPhone SE rather than the faster module in the 6s/6s Plus. If you’ve used an iPhone 6s and its TouchID facility, the lag in the older module is quite noticeable.
  • Tricky pricing model
    The iPhone SE is Apple’s "affordable" iPhone relative to the outright cost of the iPhone 6s, with the 16GB model costing $679 compared to the $1079 outright price of the 16GB 6s. Still, $679 is high mid-range pricing, and the $829 for the 64GB model is even higher relative to what you’d pay for a mid-range Android device. This marks the iPhone SE as arguably a better buy on contract than for outright purchase.


Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?

If you’re an old school iPhone fan who never got on board with the larger size of the iPhone following the reveal of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, then the iPhone SE has some obvious retro throwback appeal, although we’d strongly argue that if you are keen, then a contract rather than outright buy makes more sense. Generally speaking, the 16GB iPhone models aren’t worth considering as you’ll rather easily fill that space even if you’re only a moderate user.

Taking Telstra’s plans as an example, you’ll pay around $10 more per month for the 16GB iPhone 6s compared to the 64GB iPhone SE with the same data and calling inclusions. That’s a deal that makes sense to us as long as you’re happy with the iPhone SE’s compromises -- especially that poor battery life.

In the smaller phone space, you’ve got plenty of choices, but very few indeed with the same kind of processing power as the iPhone SE, save perhaps for the Sony Xperia Z5 Compact.

Where can I get it?

Apple sells the iPhone SE directly online, or through its stores. It’s also available from a variety of carriers as shown below on contract. You can adjust any variables you’d like or compare it to other devices by clicking on "modify results":

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