Who should (and should not) buy the iPhone SE

The Washington Post

I've spent a week now with a review iPhone SE provided by Apple, and I'm happy to recommend it to anyone who's interested in getting the company's latest four-inch device.

I just won't count myself among them.

That's nothing against the phone itself, which is fast, light and the best value on the market for its $400 price tag. But it's no secret that this phone isn't really designed to draw big crowds -- and reports indicate it's not, as it goes on sale Thursday -- or to lure people into an early upgrade from Apple's larger phones. But it is a logical addition to the iPhone line and one worth considering, for a certain audience.

Headed into this review, I thought I might be among the potential buyers for the SE. I was a slow convert to big screens. My contractual obligations to my carrier kept me on the iPhone 5S through December, and it was the first time I'd ever been wary to upgrade. I liked my little phone. It fit in my pockets and in my hands. When I traded up to the iPhone 6S, it required quite a bit of adjustment in the way I used (and stored) my phone. And I still find myself thinking, on occasion, that it's just a little too big.

Yet somehow, though I've only had my 6S for a few months, going back to the four-inch screen on the iPhone SE felt like using a toy.

I don't mean that in a disparaging way. In terms of critical flaws with the SE, I really don't have any to report. But it lacks the pizzazz of a major phone update -- something Apple itself probably realizes, given that the company introduced the SE in its traditionally smaller spring product launch. This is not a break-down-the-door innovation, though the phone itself is as powerful a device as you could hope or expect at its price. It is solid, familiar and practical.

In my first impressions of the phone, I described the SE as an iPhone 6S in the body of an iPhone 5S, and I stand by that characterization.

Running the same game on my iPhone 6S and the iPhone SE, there was no noticeable difference in performance, which speaks to the power that Apple has packed into the smaller phone. It certainly doesn't feel cheap. In the week I used it, I never had a performance issue at all. Battery life was also about the same -- even though the SE has a smaller battery than its bigger sibling, it has a smaller display to power. There was also no appreciable difference in call quality -- in fact, the smaller phone seemed to fit the size of my head a little better. It also just feels sturdier in-hand than Apple's newer phones, which now feel almost willowy by comparison, and I did like that it slid easily into all of my pockets. (Not to mention all the tiny clutch purses and phone pockets I'd abandoned since getting my iPhone 6S.)

If you're one of the people still holding on to your four-inch phone, then the SE is worth the upgrade and then some. In terms of performance alone, the SE offers you a much snappier, more powerful experience than the iPhone 5S. The SE also has some of the newest bells and whistles from Apple, including the option to summon Apple's voice assistant by saying, "Hey, Siri," as well as Apple's moving, "Harry Potter"-esque Live Photos. It's capable as a photo and video shooter, with the same 12-megapixel camera that comes on the iPhone 6S and has better performance in low light and better stabilization than you could get on the 5S.

But there are things that you give up by not going to the top of Apple's lineup. That means it's likely not an appealing upgrade option for anyone who has bought the iPhone 6 or 6S. The phone lacks Apple's new "3D Touch" mechanism, which can sense how hard you're pressing on the screen. That's not a deal-breaker, exactly, but if you've already become used to 3D Touch, it can be hard to go back. I often found myself pressing down on the screen of the SE, only to remember those menus weren't going to appear.

Unless you miss the smaller screen size, though, you will definitely find yourself wondering where the rest of your display has gone. If you watch a significant amount of video on your phone, or even if you do a lot of reading or surfing, you'll find yourself longing for your bigger screen.

In fact, that's a pretty big theme overall: Switching back to the SE for a while made me realize how much I'd grown accustomed to the world of bigger screen sizes.

So if you're happy with your larger phone, I'd give the iPhone SE a pass. Yet the SE arguably now fills the niche that the iPod Touch used to, as the gateway into the wide world of connected devices. It's a solid option for kids angling for smartphones of their very own, or an older person dipping a toe into the smartphone world for the first time. It could also be an appealing option for people who want more storage on their phones, perhaps for music or apps but aren't watching a lot of video. After all, you can get a 64 GB SE model for $400 instead of the $750 you'd pay for a comparable iPhone 6S. For the price, you can't really do much better -- it's certainly the best option at its price level for Apple fans.

Essentially, what I'm saying is that anyone who might have sought out this review now -- just as the iPhone SE goes on sale -- should probably not buy Apple's new smaller phone. Chances are if you're excited about being an early adopter, then you're not in this phone's target market. But maybe, just maybe, you should buy it for someone else.

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