Using the iPhone SE in 2019

For the past 5 years or so I’ve been keeping up with the best that Apple has to offer when it comes to the iPhone. I get the new phone the day it comes out and eagerly anticipate the next one after just a few months with each new phone. iPhones have gotten faster, bigger, and killed bezels over time and I’ve been 100% there for it all the way. But through a stroke of luck, I was able to get an iPhone SE for free and have been using it instead of my iPhone Xs for most things for the past week.

I should note that the iPhone SE is of the iPhone 6s generation, which is old by tech enthusiast standards, but it not unreasonable for normal people to be using today. I’m just coming at this from the perspective of someone who uses 2018 flagship phones regularly and is a big fan of big phones.

Size

The first thing I noticed was how damn small this thing feels. It’s tiny! Seriously, here it is compared to the OnePlus 6 (6.1” screen), my current Android phone of choice.

It’s remarkably less screen space compared to the current crop of “bezel-less” phones on the market. But that reduced screen space actually makes for a delightfully one-handed phone. I can easily reach all corners of the 4” screen which makes using it kind of a dream.

I’d rather have more screen space and have to use two hands for some actions, but I can totally see why someone would love this form factor.

Oh, and since it’s so small, it kind of disappears into your pocket. My iPhone Xs is not giant by any means, but I can always tell when it’s in my pocket or not. The SE has left me reaching nervously for my pocket a few times a day to make sure it’s still there.

On the other hand, you get so much less data on screen at a time. Here is the Twitter app for comparison:

I can see literally 2 tweets on the SE which just feels really, really cramped. Even on Apple’s current smallest phone, I get 2x that much.

And Notification Center just gets silly when playing media:

Size Part Two

Despite this iPhone running the same software as my larger iPhone Xs, using it felt completely different, and that’s largely due to the size difference. While the iPhone Xs feels like a mini-computer to me, the SE feels more like a phone…if that makes any sense.

This feels more like a phone meant for text messaging, phone calls, and other quick communications. It’s a device for doing small tasks quickly, not for spending hours doing emails, reading the news, and watching videos. It can do all that, and we all did those things on this when it was the normal iPhone size, but today it feels like it’s not built for those things. This is totally just my feeling and others may feel differently, but to me it feels like the difference between the iPad Mini and Pro. Yes, you can edit video and audio and do multitasking on the Mini, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what that device is for. The Mini is better for browsing the web and watching videos, not doing hard work.

Maybe this is crazy and if I spent more time with this phone I’d begin doing all the things I am used to doing on my Xs, but I really don’t think I would. Maybe that’s a good thing, but healthy phone use is a little outside the scope of this blog post 🙂

Design

I can’t talk about this phone without talking about its design. Of all the iPhone designs over the years, this is my favorite…at least of the pre-X iPhones. Apple has improved their industrial design chops over the years and the iPhone X design is clearly superior to the SE in every way, but when looking at just the iPhones with home buttons, this was my favorite.

The metal construction is solid and feels great in the hand. I feel like I can hold this phone with confidence without a case, which has not been the case for me in a couple years. The design is also quite similar to the new iPad Pros and brings me hope than the new iPhones in a year or two will have a similar design to this, but with the full screen display.

Oh, and this gold! Damn, this gold looks good! Apple has made gold iPhones since the 5s, but none looked quite as good as this to my eye. It’s just perfect.

The only real complaint I have is with the plastic forehead and chin on the back of the phone. They look fine, but they aren’t quite as delightful as I’d like. Maybe if they were a shade of gold as well, I’d like them a little more.

Navigation

The SE has a home button! Control Center is activated by pulling up from the bottom of the screen! I’ve only been on the home button-free iPhone for few months, so I was curious what it would be like to go back to this style of input.

I can say with relative confidence that I greatly prefer the iPhone X-style navigation. Using the home button to go home is easy and works well, but I keep finding myself swiping up to go back or trying to use the swipe-right gesture on the bottom of the screen to go back to another app. Double-tapping the home button to bring up multitasking and then moving your thumb back up to go to the app you want is just a little more work and it’s not nearly as fast as what I can do on the Xs.

I will say that having Control Center on the bottom of the screen is quite nice, though. Even though I could reach everything if it was at the top of the screen, it’s just so logical to have those controls at the bottom of the screen. I don’t have a solution right now, but I think Apple should look for a way to get Control Center more easily accessible from the bottom of the phone.

Touch ID

Ugh, Touch ID is nowhere near as convenient as Face ID for me. Face ID has completely won me over as the best, most transparent way to authenticate myself and get into myt phone. 90% of the time it feels completely invisible to me, and most of the remaining 10% of the time just involves me shifting my gaze a little to look more directly at the screen.

Oh, and the setup process is much slower than it is to set up Face ID. I felt like I had to put my finger on and off the sensor 30 times before it accepted that finger. And then I had to do it 3 more times for the other 3 fingers I would have liked to be able to unlock the phone. At least with Face ID I have one face to recognize and that’s it.

I never want to go back to fingerprint unlocks, please. Maybe as an addition to face unlock, but if I have to choose one or the other, I’ll take Face ID every single time.

Camera

Check out my article devoted to the camera here, but let’s just say the camera is fine, but not up to snuff with what we expect today.

The only thing of note I’ll add here is that it’s so nice to have a phone with zero camera bump again! It’s not the end of the world or anything, and the last 5 years of iPhones have had a bump, but I’d kind of forgotten how nice it is to have a completely smooth back.

Performance

I’m actually kind of shocked how well iOS 12 runs on the iPhone SE. Yes, it is slower than my iPhone Xs at some tasks, but while using it for most things, it felt effectively identical to what I’m used to on my other, newer phones.

When I ran a synthetic test to see how the SE compared to the iPhone Xs and OnePlus 6, the SE was substantially slower than the Xs, but it actually beat the much newer OnePlus 6 in single threaded performance. The OnePlus 6’s Snapdragon 645 has more cores and beat it in multi threaded, but this is closer than it really should be.

I say it all the time, but Apple’s silicon team deserves a ton of credit for making a nearly 4 year old A9 run as fast, if not faster than the current crop of high end Android phones.

Oh, and Apple’s software teams deserve tons of credit for making iOS 12 run like a dream on this hardware. If history is a guide, the SE will get 2 more softare updates before it’s sent out to pasture, so fingers crossed they can maintain this sort of performance for another couple years.

I should note quickly that performs basic tasks very well, but you will feel the difference when doing things that are a little more intense. Using an app like Lightroom for RAW photo processing is handled quite well by the A12 in the iPhone Xs, but it feels like molasses on the SE.

App Support

All of Apple’s apps work on the SE just fine, and I was pleased to see that almost all third party apps I tried worked perfectly well on the tiny screen. The only really exception I found was Castro, which has some clipped text on one of the setup screens. Other than that, everything you use today will work, but it might be really, really scrunched together.

Takeaway

I’m not going to use the iPhone SE as my main phone for any serious amount of time, but it has been fun using it most of the time this week. I just need the better camera, the higher performance, and bigger screen. But if someone came to me and said they want a tiny smartphone that works well, I’d have no problem pointing them towards the SE1. But at $249 from Apple directly, this phone is a freaking steal and might be the right phone for more people than I expected.


  1. Although with only 1-2 years up updates left, I might suggest they go up to the iPhone 7 or 8 to get a little more life from the software.