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Apple iPhone SE unboxing and first impressions: a Chiclet in a phablet world

|April 10 2016 |Apple iPhone, Apple, 4G, 4G LTE, First impressions, Unboxing

“The iPhone SE is a special smartphone that promises the world in a tiny form factor” 

We recall the time when we reviewed the first generation Samsung Galaxy Note, and called it a ‘device only for a select few’, mainly due to its “gargantuan” 5.3-inch screen. Of course, we had to eat our words later when the so-called phablet went on to become a big hit. Samsung is widely credited for making large-screened smartphones popular, though there was the Dell Streak that came earlier,with a “massive” 5-inch screen. And then there’s Apple, the company that stubbornly stuck to compact phones before it finally gave in and launched the 5-5-inch iPhone 6 Plus (review) in 2014. Launched alongside, the more mainstream iPhone 6 (review) came with a 4.7-inch display, up from the 4-inch screen sported by its predecessor, the iPhone 5s.

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Fast forward to 2016, and it seems that the word phablet has almost become irrelevant, given that 5.5-inches is easily the most popular screen size on smartphones these days. And yet, Apple has fired a new salvo in the phone wars by launching the iPhone SE, a 4-inch smartphone that, crudely put, uses the iPhone 5s body but packs in powerful internals, mostly borrowed from the iPhone 6s, the brand’s current mainstream flagship. Strange much? We think so. Clearly, the world has accepted large-screened phones with open arms (or should we say open palms?), and here’s Apple trying to thrust a 4-inch handset into the hands of the masses. Hold on, the pricing, which is pegged at Rs 39,000 for the 16-gig model, and Rs 49,000 for the 64-gig, isn’t really something that’d be digestible to the masses. So where does the iPhone SE fit in?

As we mull over these questions swirling in our minds like agitated bees that have been rendered homeless (possibly due to someone flinging a phablet into a beehive), we’ll go ahead and open the small box containing the goodies. Did we mention that the ‘SE’ in the moniker stands for ‘Special Edition’, and not ‘’Small Experience’, ‘Still Expensive’, or ‘Senseless Edition’, as speculated by the Twitterati on the day of the launch?

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The signature white box, quite small, given its contents, doesn’t look different from the usual iPhone packaging we’ve seen before. The lid opens to reveal the phone (looking suspiciously like an iPhone 5s, but we know for a fact that it’s the new iPhone SE, mainly because the box says so on the sides) lying inside atop a cardboard tray. There’s the documentation and a SIM eject tool inside an envelope, a two-pin charger, a USB to Lightning cable, and a pair of Earpods packed inside a small plastic box. No surprises here.

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Coming to the phone itself, it gives us a sense of déjà vu as we lift it and cradle it in our hands. And wonder of wonders – it almost disappears in our palm. Clearly, it’s been a while since we handled a 4-inch phone (and it’s also been a while since we held a smartphone with its top and bottom edges using a pincer grip). Apart from the 4-inch screen that dominates proceedings at front, you’ll find the usual earpiece, front camera and sensors on top. The signature circular home button is also at its usual place, and integrates a Touch ID sensor for fingerprint authentication.

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The premium-feeling aluminium body, the matte-finished chamfered edges – it’s an iPhone for sure, no doubt about that. The controls are the same too – with discrete, circular volume buttons on the left spine along with the mute switch, a nano-SIM tray on the right, power button on top, and the Lightning port, headset socket, and speaker, all crammed together at the bottom.

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The rear sports a dual-tone finish, with the primary camera sitting flush with the body on the top left, along with the secondary mic and the true-tone flash. There’s the usual Apple logo, iPhone branding with a small ‘SE’ etched, along with the usual regulatory info and the device’s serial number closer to the bottom.

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Fire it up, and we’re greeted by the usual setup screen, requiring us to pop in a SIM to activate it (some things never change, huh?). The platform is, unsurprisingly, iOS 9.3, with all the usual Apple apps installed... covering the likes of Health, iMovie, GarageBand, Pages and Numbers. The latest iOS 9.3.1 update is available to download (weighing 35MB in the iPhone SE’s case) as soon as you set it up. The 4-inch screen rocks a resolution of 640 x 1,136 pixels – not worth shouting about, we admit, but the 326 ppi pixel density is good enough for the compact display and it looks crisp and vibrant. The usage is butter-smooth, thanks to the powerful A9 processor which is joined in by the M9 coprocessor.

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You get the ability to not only shoot 4K video, but also to edit it directly on the phone – quite remarkable for a tiny device like this. The connectivity options are full-fledged, and includes support for a variety of LTE bands, plus Apple Pay and Wi-fi 802.11ac. Yet another noteworthy aspect is the primary shooter, that matches the one on the iPhone 6s, bringing a 12MP sensor with phase detection autofocus, f/2.2 aperture and a true tone flash. The front camera hasn’t received the love though, and is stuck with the same 1.2MP sensor found on the 5s. However, you do get the retina flash feature that brightens up the screen before clicking low-light selfies.

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We tried out a few games and were quite impressed with the snappy performance. The primary camera dutifully captures lovely photos, regardless of lighting conditions, though we’re sure we’ll have more to say on this in our full review. It’s a tad early for us to comment on battery life yet, so that’s another aspect we’ll leave for later. Our 64GB review unit comes in gold, and offers about 51.5GB free to use for your own apps and content. Apart from gold, you can also buy the SE in silver, space grey, and the new rose gold hue that was introduced last year.

Worth noting that the iPhone SE doesn’t support 3D Touch, a feature we hailed as the next big thing in touchscreen technology. Apple seems to have reserved it for the more premium 6s and 6s Plus for now. As far as the SE is concerned, the lack of 3D Touch isn’t necessarily a deal killer, since frankly, it hasn’t turned out to be as much of a must-have as we thought.

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Agreed, there would be many out there who covet compact, yet powerful phones, and the iPhone SE fills that lacuna very nicely. Its diminutive form factor and sleek profile makes it a cinch to use one-handed, and slip it into a (tight jeans) pocket as easily as a hot knife goes through melted butter. That said, the 4-inch screen real estate might require a learning curve, especially for tasks like typing... given that the available space seems feels quite cramped. Not to mention the fact that stuff like web browsing, gaming and video viewing could also feel a tad restricted, thanks to the limited viewing area. We aren’t sure if the SE will make compact phones a rage again – that idea is a little too far fetched anyway. However, there’s no doubt that it’s a special phone, and many would want to get their hands on it. Our main gripe however, high pricing apart, is the design that doesn’t look exciting enough, especially for those that buy iPhones mainly for their flaunt value. It remains to be seen how well the SE is accepted by Indian consumers, and whether it can justify ‘Sales Exceeded’ as another apt alternative for its name suffix.  

 

Related read: Apple iPhone SE vs iPhone 5s vs iPhone 6s: what's different



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