For several years now, smartphones have marched inexorably toward a size resembling the stone tablets on which our ancestors chiseled their email and calendar appointments. One company found that of the 11 most popular smartphones worldwide, only one had a screen smaller than 4.6 inches.
Apple iPhone SE
You can’t beat the hand-feel of a smaller phone. The SE’s battery life is shockingly great. There’s plenty of power, plenty of camera inside this body.
Some website and app designs are leaving small screens behind. The SE is no movie screen, and it’s sure not VR friendly. Your selfies will look worse, and your touches will be less 3D.
The exception to the rule? The two-year-old iPhone 5s. As Apple (and everyone else) released bigger phones with bigger screens, a shockingly large number of people held onto their 4-inch slabs of metal and refused to embrace the sun-blocking monoliths. Other people, people who didn’t already own an iPhone, bought the 5s long after it stopped counting as high-end. Apple said at its event last week that it sold 30 million 4-inch iPhones in 2015. That’s a lot of people buying old phones, and it doesn’t include the people who already had them and kept them.
Given all that, what else is Apple supposed to do? Just keep yelling and making ads in which Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake shout “HUGE” until everyone’s on board? No. Apple gave the people what they wanted: the guts of the 6s within the comparatively teeny-tiny body of the 5s. It’s like Apple took all of Dwayne Johnson’s strength and muscle and charisma and stuffed it into the 5-foot-5 frame of Daniel Radcliffe. The result is the iPhone SE. It’s $399 (or $499 with a non-pathetic amount of storage). It’s small. It’s powerful. It feels a lot like this might be the phone Apple always wanted to build, until everyone got dumb ideas about big screens. It’s not quite convincing enough that you should hacksaw an inch off the phone you’re using now, but it’s a serious case for the idea that bigger isn’t better after all.
I should start by saying that I’m an adult male with aggressively average-sized hands. I can use bigger phones with only mild discomfort. Calibrate yourself to my feelings based on the relative size of your hands. Smaller hands equals stronger feelings. OK, onward.
After a week with the SE, I’ve found I really do use a smaller phone differently. Most noticeably, I’ve dropped this phone zero times. And my pinkie doesn’t hurt from balancing my phone on it, either. Even when I’m using it, the SE’s 4-inch screen is less alluring than a bigger display, less likely to draw me so far in I forget the world around me even exists. I’m not saying I use my phone less now; that’ll never happen. But even when I do look at the SE, simply by virtue of it taking up a smaller space in front of my eyes I’m somehow more aware of the world around me.
There are really good reasons for a bigger phone, especially as they become the hubs of our productive lives. But the SE convinced me that at the very least, downsizing isn’t downgrading.
Far more profound is what happened when I started once again using a phone I can truly handle in one hand. I can touch every corner of the screen with my thumb. That means I can put app icons anywhere, because they’re all equally accessible. It means I don’t accidentally invoke that moronic Reachability feature, which pushes the screen down so you can touch it. It also means using my phone isn’t an all-encompassing activity that requires both hands and undivided attention. I can be doing or holding something else and grab my phone to answer a text or scroll through Instagram. As a result, I’m much more likely to just do the thing I need to do and put my phone away, rather than fall down the “Well I’m already holding my phone, I wonder what’s happening on Twitter?” cycle I fall into 600 times a day.
There are big drawbacks to a small phone. Anytime you’re typing something, it takes up most of the screen. Life with a small phone involves a lot of scrolling, since Instagram shows less than an entry at a time and any group text is going to disappear into the above-screen abyss almost immediately. Forget about using this phone in Google Cardboard, because that’s a blurry mess. Watching movies or YouTube videos is fine. It works, but it’s worse. Typing is harder, too, and even after a week I’m still hitting the delete key half the time I go looking for the letter “M.” Make no mistake: There are really good reasons for a bigger phone, especially as they become the hubs of our productive lives. But the SE convinced me that at the very least, downsizing isn’t downgrading.
Almost everything else about the SE is exactly what you’d imagine. I’d tell you how the phone looks and feels—great, exceptionally well-made and thoughtful, like Apple made the phone it wanted to make rather than having to build something to solve for a giant, unwieldy screen—but you already know that. It’s the iPhone 5s. Other than the (don’t say chamfered don’t say chamfered) chamfered edges that are a little less shiny, the stainless steel Apple logo on the back, and the tiny SE logo underneath the word “iPhone,” absolutely nothing has changed. This is exactly the iPhone 5s. Ask anyone: that’s really good news.
Little Fist, Big Punch
Inside the old body is a completely new machine. The A9 processor is stupid fast, as well-suited to games and AirPlay mirroring and whatever else you want to do as any smartphone ever made. The 12-megapixel camera takes excellent photos even in bad light. I know, because I took really good pictures of Jason Derulo dancing at a Jason Derulo concert. (I have some regrets.) 4K video look great. So do Live Photos. Almost everything the iPhone 6s does, the SE does just as well.
The iPhone SE’s battery life is amazing. Like, how-did-they-do-that amazing.
Three things about the 6s didn’t make the cut for the SE. The selfie camera’s noticeably worse (1.2 megapixels, not 5), which is a bummer especially in bad lighting like at a Jason Derulo concert. There’s no pressure-sensitive 3D Touch tech, which doesn’t really matter. It’s cool tech, and someday will probably be an integral part of how we interact with our phones, but right now it’s definitely a feature you can live without. The downgrade I noticed most by far was the slower Touch ID fingerprint reader, which is now just slow enough that I was forever thinking it didn’t work and typing my passcode a quarter-second before it kicked in. If you’ve never used the faster sensor, you probably won’t notice the difference. I noticed.
But wait, there’s another upside to the downgrade! The iPhone SE’s battery life is amazing. Like, how-did-they-do-that amazing. In all likelihood, how they did that was by making processors that are so much more efficient than the ones in the 5s that you can have almost the same size battery (1642mAh versus 1570mAh on the 5s) and much longer life. I’m getting a day and a half from the SE, easily. That’s better than the 6s, and at least as good as the 6s Plus. Without so much screen to power, the SE just goes and goes.
Put it all together, and the SE sounds like the perfect smartphone. Great battery life, fast performance, really good camera, all in a pretty package that helps you do stuff without demanding you devote your life to gazing upon its wonders. And, indeed, I really like this phone. I wouldn’t call you crazy if you bought it, especially if you’re one of the peaceful-protestor iPhone 5s owners, and I wouldn’t call you crazy if two years from now you’re rooting for Apple to introduce the iPhone SE 2. Or the iPhone SEs. Whatever they call it, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple does keep updating its small phone, giving the people—the new smartphone owners, the resolute one-handers, the small-hands-havers—what they want.
Me? I’m not going back to a small phone. Sure, it’s not as easy to hold in one hand, but my gargantuan iPhone 6s Plus is so much better for watching movies, so much more suited to reading books and long articles, so much more pleasant to type on, that I can’t give it up. The iPhone 5s, and by extension the SE, are for people for whom the smartphone is a tool, not a lifestyle. And for better and for worse, our phones are becoming extensions of our lives. And as we go forward, into virtual reality and the Internet of Things and the connection of every object and surface on the planet, our phones are only growing more important. I want a phone that does the best job of doing the most things. That means I need a bigger phone.
That said, my 6s Plus now feels comically huge. Hey Apple, can you make this thing a little smaller without making the screen smaller? You know, like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge? Big screen, small phone.
Now that would be the perfect smartphone.