The truth is there’s no such thing as an objectively “best” smartphone. There’s a fastest smartphone, and a phone with the best screen, and maybe a phone with the best camera. But, so long as it hits a baseline of good enough performance, the best total package is the one that works best for you.
I say this because over the past year I have come to appreciate Apple’s iPhone SE much more than I anticipated. I am someone who cycles through phones like it’s my job (because it is), and I only bought Apple’s small-screen handset on a lark last April, after shattering the screen on my old Moto X.
Nothing about the iPhone SE’s spec sheet is particularly impressive. It runs on Apple’s A9 chip, which is more than a year old. Its screen isn’t anything special by modern standards. There’s no 3D Touch. Its back camera is easily outclassed by today’s flagships, and its front camera is entirely average. Most notably, its whole design is a total rehash of the iPhone 5s, which launched in 2013.
What the phone lacks in originality, though, it also lacks in size. It has a 4-inch screen, which is tinier than any other major phone to launch in the past two years.
But that, for me, is a very good thing.
The smartphone industry is always following itself. When one company puts two cameras on the back of a phone, they all start to do it. When one company shrinks a phone’s bezels, that suddenly becomes the thing everyone needs to prove they’re on the cutting edge. It’s a state of rapid commoditization.
Much of the time, this is great — a sign that competition begets cool things for you and me. If the iPhone SE has an irredeemable flaw, it’s those engorged bezels, which are just unpleasant next to a Galaxy S8. Other times, though, that persistent need for Progress™ leads to good things getting left behind.
The death of the small phone may be the best example of that. It’s not that companies weren’t justified in making phones bigger — people kept buying them, then they kept spending more and more time glued to those large screens. The jump in display size with the iPhone 6 brought Apple to new heights.
It’s more that the industry turned it into a binary, almost totally killing small phones as a concept, even as those phones remained useful in ways that aren’t as easy to flaunt in a press release. The small-screen phones that have stuck around are almost always cheap and mediocre.
Today, there remains exactly one Android phone maker building handsets that could be seen as “small,” and that’s Sony. Even then, its Xperia Compact series would’ve been called huge earlier in the decade. They’re totally fine phones, but they still give you a good bit more to handle than the iPhone SE.
The iPhone SE doesn’t make any concessions or compromises like that. Most people can reach across its screen with one hand. It knows it’s a small phone, and everything about it is designed to that end. The design is dated, but it’s iconic. It’s supremely light, its boxy shape gives you plenty of room to grip, and its aluminum frame never gets slippery. Being small already makes it difficult to drop; the way it’s built only furthers that. That gives me less need to cover it up with a unsightly case.
The common argument for small phones like this is that they’re more welcoming to those with small hands. That’s true, but I’m a six-foot dude who has no trouble using a Google Pixel XL. What I like about the iPhone SE are the simpler things: fitting it in any pocket; texting with one thumb (use a swipe-typing keyboard like Gboard); comfortably web-browsing without letting go of the subway cart railing. There is a freedom and assuredness to it that isn’t as present with a standard-sized phone. It doesn’t preclude you from doing other things, nor does it make you contort when only one hand is free.
It also understands it’s a phone, not so much a multimedia center. It makes it easier to text and make calls, regardless of what else you’re preoccupied with. It’s not as luxurious for watching videos or reading articles as a larger phone, but “luxurious” is a relative term when the alternatives are smaller than six inches. I have a tablet and a television for when I want to savor something. The SE doesn’t make things smaller; it just shows you less at a time. When you’re dealing with a device you hold inches from your face, it’s not that hard to get used to.
The key to all of this is that the iPhone SE, while not cutting-edge in 2017, is still more than capable from a technical standpoint. The A9 chip still breezes through everything you do with a phone. The screen is not as vibrant as modern iPhones, but it never offends. The camera remains above-average. And, by virtue of having to push less pixels, the battery life is tremendous. It did have a storage problem last year, but Apple fixed that last month by doubling the space across the board.
The kicker is that it’s all more affordable than other iPhones. It starts at $400, which isn’t as good of a deal as it was a year ago, but is still enough to make any flaws here a little more palatable.
I realize I’m in the minority. According to figures provided to Business Insider by research firm IHS Markit, the iPhone SE accounted for just 9.8% of all iPhone sales in 2016. If you factor in older models like the iPhone 5s, 4-inch iPhones accounted for 16% of sales. Small phones were not abandoned by accident. But the iPhone SE is a reminder that the smartphone’s past still has its perks in the present.