There s a line at the beginning of Disney s Aladdin, when the merchant first reveals Aladdin s lamp. Do not be fooled by its commonplace appearance, he chides the audience. Like so many things, it is not what is outside, but what is inside that counts.
It s a lesson we d do well to remember. For the past few months, the tech world has been scrambling at rumors about a new iPhone, one that would bring back the smaller form-factor of yesteryear without conceding any power to modern, flagship phones. I was as excited about the reveal as anyone, but when Apple VP Greg Joswiak took the stage and finally unveiled the iPhone SE to the world, just three words came to mind: Are they serious?
Even to someone who tests a lot of smartphones, the iPhone SE looks just like the iPhone 5s. Releasing a brand-new product that appears two years out of date isn t something you d expect from Apple, but the company has embraced it. After seeing what the new phone can do, I m starting to see why. Like Aladdin s lamp, it s what s inside that counts.
Meet the New Chassis, Same as the Old Chassis
If you ve held an iPhone 5s, you already know what the iPhone SE looks and feels like. The chunky-but-elegant design from two years ago makes its return with just three changes, the most noticeable of which is a new color option: rose gold. The phone s beveled edges are now matte instead of shiny to match the matte-finished sides, and Apple s logo is color-matched on the rear cover.
Otherwise, there are no changes. The phone s dimensions are identical to its older sibling s, and its extra gram of weight is unnoticeable. The same first-generation Touch ID sensor is used for the home button, and even the old, rounded volume buttons are back.
However aging the iPhone SE might appear, inside is technology fit for a modern smartphone. The processor is Apple s custom A9 chip, with the M9 motion co-processor the same silicon you ll find in the flagship iPhone 6s. That s more than enough power to handle whatever apps and games you can throw at it, and it allows you to always use Hey Siri to talk to the phone, even when it s not plugged in.
When it comes to cameras, there s good news and bad news. The iPhone SE s selfie camera is disappointing because it only has a 1.2MP sensor and an f/2.4 aperture. By comparison, the iPhone 6s has a 5MP front-facing camera and an f/2.2 aperture. Expect your selfies with the SE to be about one-fifth the size of what most major flagships can offer, with a relative loss in sharpness.
Fortunately, the iPhone SE s rear-facing camera is another matter. Identical to what the iPhone 6s is packing and backed up by image processing from that A9 chip, the SE s 12MP sensor can capture stunning pictures. It s paired with Apple s true-tone flash for indoor photography and can capture 4K video at 30 fps and 720p video at 240 fps great for fun slow-motion movies. And yes, Apple s GIF-like Live Photos return, too.
A Phone in the Age of Phablets
The whole reason Apple decided to release the iPhone SE was because it saw a continuing market for small-screen devices. Indeed, the SE only has a 4-inch display. Two years ago, that would have been perfectly normal; today, it s almost ludicrously small. Most Android phones start at five inches, after all, and even the iPhone 6s s 4.7-inch screen seems luxurious compared to the SE s meager 4-inch window. Then again, that s the point: If you buy an iPhone SE, it s probably because you want that smaller screen.
I keep waiting for the display to grow on me. After years of scoffing at the ridiculous size of phablets, I switched to an Android phone with a huge, 5.7-inch display a few months ago. Its massive screen is garish and uncomfortable, and I still feel foolish holding it to my ear during a phone call, but I love the extra real estate too much to switch back.
Certainly, I love the feel of the iPhone SE. It slips forgotten into my pocket until I need it, and despite the boxy shape, feels comfy in my hand simply because it s so small and easy to hold. But then I turn the screen on, and I despair there s just not enough room to do everything I want to. Reading a novel has me flipping pages constantly. Watching YouTube videos finds me squinting a bit at the screen. I can t even play games without my fingers covering up most of the display.
I m obviously not the target demographic for the iPhone SE, but more than a few of my coworkers are, and when they got the chance to play around with it, they fell in love. Phones used to be this small for a very good reason: They re just plain easy to use when they aren t overpowering your palm.
Summary: The Mid-Tier iPhone
Smartphones tend to fall into one of three categories. On the lower end are budget phones devices that cost less than $200 unlocked, have CPUs that are a year or two behind the times, and prefer usability over flash. Flagship phones do the opposite. Well over $600 unlocked, they offer the latest and greatest tech and are endlessly marketed the world over.
Between those two extremes sit the mid-tier phones. These devices are decently powerful and relatively affordable the perfect phone for the rest of us. For a long time, Apple has played exclusively in the flagship market. The iPhone SE marks a stark concession: Yes, Apple seems to be admitting, there really is a market for a $399 iPhone.
It s about time they did. Sure, the iPhone SE might not look modern, but that rough exterior hides a diamond underneath.