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In Defense of Apple’s Perfectly Adequate iPhone SE

Did Apple’s phone design peak when they released the iPhone SE back in 2016?
iPhone SE
Apple’s best iPhone? (Dids, Public Domain)

While everyone gloms onto the latest and greatest iPhones — because bigger screen, better camera, Face ID, etc. — I’m still using an itty-bitty iPhone SE, and I love it. True, it doesn’t have any of those aforementioned features, but it fits comfortably in my pocket and I can do practically everything on it with one hand, and that counts for a lot in my book.

Oh, and it also has an honest-to-goodness headphone jack. Jealous yet?

It’s far from the biggest or best phone out there, Apple or otherwise, and yet the SE is perfectly adequate for my needs. That may seem like I’m damning the device with faint praise, but far from it.

Let’s all agree that any smartphone is a luxury item. It might pain us to say it, because smartphones are awfully cool and useful devices, but very few people actually need one to make it through the day. Furthermore, I’d wager that even fewer people really need the latest and greatest model. But we think we do, because Apple, Google, et al. are really good at advertising and creating solutions to problems that didn’t really exist before. (Consider Apple’s steady stream of new cables and connectors.)

That’s not to say there’s no such thing as innovation. Though I had my doubts at first, Apple’s Touch ID is a very elegant and obvious solution for a real problem (i.e., keeping the often highly personal and sensitive data on your phone safe). But while it sounds really cool, is Face ID really that much better in practice than Touch ID? What problems does it actually solve? And does solving those problems justify the extra cost?

Obviously, others will come to different decisions and be willing to make different trade-offs than I am. But at the risk of sounding like a luddite, I’m tired of constant proclamations that this year’s model is the greatest phone ever created, when the exact same thing was said about model(s) released last year. (I love ​‘em, but Apple is notoriously bad at this.) And I’m tired of this expectation that I should be, not just willing, but eager to ditch a phone that perfectly meets my needs now, and does so in ways that phone manufacturers (in their infinite wisdom) have deemed no longer relevant or necessary.

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way. Juli Clover (via) notes that whenever SEs go on clearance at Apple, they tend to go quickly, ​“suggesting there’s still quite a lot of interest in the 4-inch device.” Furthermore, she notes that for many commonly used apps, like Mail, Messages, and Calendar, the SE is just as fast as newer iPhones. (Naturally, it’s slower for apps designed to take advantage of newer iPhones’ technology.)

Her conclusion: ​“If you don’t care about camera quality, prefer a smaller screen, and don’t need to use processor-intensive apps and games, the iPhone SE is a compact, easy-to-hold smartphone that still holds up even in 2019.”

Jeff Benjamin praises the SE’s ​“timeless” design, which he calls ​“the pinnacle of Apple [phone] design.” While his article concludes by listing all of the advantages that newer iPhones have over the SE (e.g., bigger screens, gesture controls, 3D Touch), he does think Apple would do well to release ​“a smaller budget iPhone inspired by the highly-adored iPhone SE.” (He includes some concept designs of a smaller bezel-free iPhone.)

Devin Coldewey goes even further, calling the SE ​“the best phone Apple ever made” while lamenting its passage and what he sees as Apple’s willingness to sacrifice quality for novelty:

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack.

I’d love to see Apple roll out a new 4″ phone that fits modern features like Face ID and gesture controls into a smaller form factor (just no camera bump, please). However, I’m not holding my breath for an iPhone SE 2 (though others are more sanguine). Apple’s been pushing ​“bigger is better” with their phones for awhile now, and I don’t see that ending anytime soon. Which is a shame, because as the above articles point out, there’s still a lot to like about the iPhone SE’s size, design, and feature set.

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