By BRIAN X. CHEN MARCH 23, 2016
It is hard to turn back after going big. When people moved up to big-screen televisions, nobody wanted to switch back to small TVs. Larger computer monitors have also ruined smaller screens for many people.
So who would want a more petite iPhone?
Plenty of people, it turns out. Even though Apple’s newer iPhones skew larger — the screen sizes on the devices range from 4.7 inches to 5.5 inches, up from four inches for older models like the iPhone 5 and 5S — more than 30 million consumers bought the older four-inch iPhones last year, according to Apple.
“Some people even pleaded with us to please keep the four-inch products,” said Greg Joswiak, an Apple executive, during the company’s product event on Monday.
So this week, Apple introduced the iPhone SE, a souped-up version of the four-inch iPhone, which will be released on March 31. The iPhone SE, put simply, looks and feels just like the iPhone 5S released in 2013, but it has most of the guts of the iPhone 6S, which made its debut two years later.
Readers had plenty of questions about the small iPhone. Here are my answers to some of those that were most frequently asked, along with my impressions of the device after testing it for a day.
Does the iPhone SE have all the bells and whistles of the iPhone 6S, just smaller? — Joseph Kaplan, Maryland
It has most of the bells and whistles, but some features were left out.
The iPhone SE has the same processor (called A9) as the 6S, meaning it will be just as fast. (In my speed tests using the app Geekbench, the SE was slightly faster than the 6S.) The small iPhone has the same superb camera as the 6S, along with the ability to shoot Live Photos, or photos that turn into miniature videos, and support for Apple Pay, the mobile payments system. The phones also support the same basic connections: the Lightning port for power cables and a standard headphone jack for audio accessories.
However, the SE lacks a number of attributes of the 6S. It does not have 3D Touch, the feature that lets you control some software by exerting pressure on the touch screen. The SE also has a lower-quality front-facing camera (meaning your selfies will come out grainier) and a slower fingerprint sensor compared with the 6S. Last but not least, from side-by-side comparisons, the SE’s screen isn’t as bright or as vibrant as the 6S display.
Why were some 6S features left out of the SE?
Apple says it left some of the 6S components out of the SE largely to fit within the design constraints of the smaller body. Components like 3D Touch would have added thickness to the device, which probably would have made it unattractive.
Will a new iPhone SE fit into the very expensive LifeProof case I have been using for my iPhone 5C? — Robert Di Stasio, Vista, N.Y.
The SE will fit snugly in older cases designed for the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5S. But cases for other iPhones, including the 5C, the colorful four-inch iPhone with a plastic body, will not fit the SE properly, according to Apple.
The iPhone SE, above, looks and feels just like the iPhone 5S, but it has most of the guts of the iPhone 6S. Credit Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Is there any advantage to buying the iPhone SE outright as opposed to going on an installment plan? — Joseph Kaplan, Maryland
Yes, but only for the sake of reducing confusion, not for the sake of saving money. The SE’s starting price is $399. On an installment plan, like AT&T’s Next 24 plan, you could pay $13.30 a month for 30 months with the option to upgrade to a new phone after 24 months.
If you want to avoid getting lost in the maze of smartphone payment plans, I recommend paying for the SE outright. Doing that will give you the flexibility of trading in your phone, and upgrading to a new phone or switching to another carrier, whenever you want.
But if you don’t have that much money to spend right away, installment plans are a safe bet because they incur zero interest fees, meaning it makes no difference financially to pay the full $399 upfront or spread out the cost over a year or two.
Who is a smaller iPhone for?
A few categories of consumers come to mind for the SE:
1. Obsessive emailers or social media users who like the ability to quickly type or juggle between apps with one hand. The smaller iPhone is better suited than larger phones for one-handed use. In my tests, I could type the full alphabet with one hand on a SE about three seconds faster than I could on a 6S. On a 6S, using the phone with one hand is manageable, but all the thumb-reaching can become tiring when using apps; on a 6S Plus, typing with one hand just isn’t doable unless you’re one of those giants in “Game of Thrones.”
2. Parents who want to buy cheaper smartphones for their teenagers. The $399 starting price for the SE is considerably lower than the $650 starting price for the 6S. If you’re looking to save a few hundred bucks by buying your children smaller iPhones, they probably wouldn’t loathe you much. (Because the SE’s front-facing camera isn’t as good as the one on the 6S, their selfies will be a bit blurrier, but they probably won’t notice the difference if you don’t mention it.)
3. People who want to spend less time on their smartphones. The larger screens on the 6S and 6S Plus are enablers for long reading sessions or YouTube streaming. If you just want a smartphone for getting in and out of quick tasks, like shooting off an email, the SE’s smaller screen can certainly make digital media less addictive.
I have an iPhone 5S. Should I upgrade to the iPhone SE, or wait for the iPhone 7? — John Erickson, Nashville
Here’s where buyer’s advice comes in. When I first heard about a four-inch iPhone several months ago, I thought I would want to switch back to the smaller screen because I missed being able to use the iPhone easily with one hand.
But after taking a closer look at the SE side by side with a newer iPhone, the biggest trade-off is the loss of detail in the SE display’s picture. The SE’s screen looks dimmer and the colors are more muted than on the 6S, which significantly affects the experience of using the phone, for example, looking at photos or reading web articles. After weighing all the pros and cons (including the features missing from the SE), I personally would spend a bit more on the larger iPhone and say goodbye to the glory days of one-handed phones.
But whether you wait for the iPhone 7 or upgrade now to the SE should purely have to do with your preference for screen size. If you are married to the four-inch screen, the SE is an excellent upgrade from the four-inch 5S: The SE is extremely fast, takes nice photos and, ergonomically, is the most comfortable iPhone to use in the hand and fit inside a pocket.
If you think you are willing to sacrifice the benefits of a smaller screen and step up to a bigger one, then wait about six months for the next major upgrade to the bigger iPhone models. Apple typically announces new iPhones in the fall.
What kind of reaction has Apple gotten to the SE so far?
I’m told Mr. Joswiak, who spoke at the Apple event about consumers who were pleading for a new small phone, got dozens of customer thank-you emails.