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iPhone SE review: today’s tech, yesterday’s design

Earlier this week at Apple’s campus in Cupertino, the company announced a brand-new iPhone. The heavens didn’t part, pop bands didn’t play, and people aren’t camping out at Apple Stores to buy the thing. It was a subdued launch, for a smaller, mid-cycle phone that looks exactly like a phone from 2013.

But don’t let its unspectacular rollout or its throwback design fool you: Apple knows exactly what it’s doing with the $399 iPhone SE. It’s a shiny little fishing lure for first-time iPhone buyers or people who feel overdue for an upgrade. Those people might be tempted by the many good Android phones that can be had for less than $400, and Apple is taking them on more directly than it ever has before.

Yes, the iPhone SE is a smaller phone, but it’s not a weak phone. It’s actually a much-improved, well-designed, small phone with great battery life. It’s not the answer for people who have adjusted to larger phones. For people who like a small phone — and by the way, there’s nothing wrong with liking small phones — or for people who have been holding onto their 4s or 5s phones, the iPhone SE will feel like a kickass little upgrade.

It even feels exactly like a 5s. While I can’t say I’d go back to a four-inch phone at this point, I did like the build of the 5s back when I had one. The back is smooth and satisfying, as though the phone just shaved. It weighs just four ounces but feels fairly durable, due in part to its hard edges and the fact that it’s just slightly thicker than the newer iPhone 6s.

It’s unclear exactly why Apple cribbed its own design, though the company has said this is a design people loved. I would also venture to say that the 5s body meant Apple didn’t have to design a smaller phone entirely from scratch. I also imagine a bunch of Apple execs sitting around, wearing indistinguishable button-downs and shiny Apple Watches, conspiring ways to keep this phone a secret. And what better way to thwart leaks than to make a new phone that looks exactly like an old phone!

It’s a little trite to describe the new phone as an “iPhone 6s in the body of an iPhone 5s,” because that’s not exactly true. There are feature differences between Apple’s flagship phone and this one. For example, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus support 3D Touch, which means content “pops out” on the screen when you press on it a certain way; the iPhone SE doesn’t have this feature. The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus also have better front-facing cameras, but the iPhone SE is stuck with a 1.2-megapixel sensor. The iPhone SE doesn’t have a barometer — if you care about elevation tracking. And, technically, the flagship phones have a newer fingerprint sensor, though I didn’t notice any latency with the iPhone SE’s fingerprint sensor.

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