Apple iPhone SE: Unboxing, First Impressions and Tidbits

BY Steve Litchfield

Published 31 Mar 2016

There’s an element of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ to the 2014/2015 iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s designs, I contend, in that, however much the internals are demonstrably better, the all-curved physical designs are somewhat ‘meh’. I’ve been saying for a couple of years that the classic iPhone 4 and 5 designs were prettier, easier to grip and more unique in the 2016 smartphone world. And with this, the iPhone SE, Apple just gave the world that classic design back, but massively upgraded internally. What’s not to love?

I should emphasise that this is just my first impressions of a UK retail device and that a fuller review will follow shortly. So for now I’ll stick to unboxing the SE and the physical aspects of the device.

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

Lovely embossing of the device’s contours above the base cardboard – beautiful attention to detail!

It had been no secret in the Apple world that, however many iPhone owners were loving the new, larger-screen designs, a significant number still wanted a compact iPhone. In the SE launch event, Apple quoted a statistic: in 2015 they sold over 30 million 4”-screened iPhones, i.e. 5s and 5c. There’s a small chance that price will have had something to do with this – the smaller iPhones are cheaper (as indeed is the SE) – but there’s also a seeming pent up demand for an iPhone that could be put in any pocket, however small. And, I contend, for an iPhone that fits beautifully into any human grip, with far less chance of slipping out than the ‘bar of soap’ iPhone 6 designs.

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

The straight-edged, chamfered iPhone 5 design is also a classic – it looks beautiful. And it was designed under Steve Jobs’ watch before his untimely death in 2011, whereas the current larger 6/6s/6s Plus were in reaction to what was happening elsewhere in the industry in terms of form factors, and were designed (by Jony Ive et al) under Tim Cook’s leadership. Which is not to say that the current iPhones aren’t pretty enough – they’re clean-lined and modern. But, despite much copying from other manufacturers, they’re not… beautiful.

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

The chamfers in the aluminium are now matt rather than polished – it’s not a big difference cosmetically, but should help prevent small ‘dings’ being too obvious!

Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions

Still a single speaker, despite the grilles, but of very decent quality and volume….

I’ll discuss the compromises involved in moving to the iPhone SE from the 2015 iPhones in my full review, but what you need to know for now is:

  • the fingerprint sensor in the home button is the same as in the older iPhone 5S, probably for space reasons. This means that recognition is not quite as lightning-quick as on the iPhone 6 onwards, but it’s still plenty fast enough, don’t worry.
  • the front facing camera is the same 1.2MP as that in the 5s, so don’t expect high resolution selfies, if this is your ‘thing’!
  • there’s no ‘3D Touch’. You may remember from my review of the 6s that I wasn’t 100% convinced by this UI feature and it’s really not missed on the iPhone SE. After all, capacitive screens weren’t meant to be pressed surely? I’ll have more musings on this in the upcoming review.

Aside from the lower resolution display (640p, to go along with the 4” dimensions), the internals of the iPhone SE are very much the same as in the iPhone 6s. An A9 chipset and 2GB of RAM mean that the SE absolutely flies. I installed the AnTuTu app and the iPhone SE scores an incredible 128,786, in contrast to the 5s’s 39,030, i.e. at least three times as fast. I’m not sure you can really tell by these benchmark stats, they’re somewhat artificial, but with the 640p screen only, the monster A9 processor (running here at a reported 1.84MHz) just screams into the distance for almost any task. 

Out of the box, the iPhone SE runs vanilla iOS v9.3, though doubtless minor versions will be along soon. As you know from the recent FBI ballyhoo, iOS 9-native phones are fully encrypted in terms of storage. The RAM figure is interesting, since iOS (like Android) really takes advantage of this – my review device was down to 37MB free out of the full 2GB within minutes, as iOS preloaded content and maintained copies of running applications in RAM for quicker access. I’d recommend just trusting Apple here and leaving iOS to manage things!

I bought the 64GB version, by the way, since iOS itself takes up around 4GB and the alternative 16GB version would have left me, the user, with only 12GB free – for everything. Apps, data, photos, videos, music. Plus I was restoring from a 32GB older iPhone, which was around 60% full! I suppose it could have been worse and Apple could still be trying to flog 8GB versions of its iPhones, rather misleadingly.

Box contents

Standard iPhone contents, the Apple earphones and in this case a UK mains adapter.

Colour was a no-brainer for me, black (ok, ‘space grey’) goes with everything, won’t show up marks and dirt too easily, and doesn’t attract the attention of potential muggers as much as (ahem) the ‘gold’ variants. The iPhone SE is physically identical to the older iPhone 5s, meaning that all existing cases and accessories will work just fine, possibly a relief for anyone with old kit lying around.

You can check out the hands-on video by Cody (iTwe4kz) where he compares the iPhone SE with iPhone 6s and iPhone 5s:

There is so much tech here in such a small form factor. But more on that in my full review of the iPhone SE, coming soon.