When the iPhone 5s launched in September of 2013, it was, for a lot of people, a less exciting launch than that of the iPhone 5 the year before. A tock product of Apple’s tick-tock iPhone release cycle, it was, by definition, an iteration of the phone the year before. Externally, the lauded design remained largely the same, with the exception of the “space gray” hue that replaced the “slate” of the iPhone 5, and the first in Apple’s obsessive fascination with the color gold. The new colors were, understandably, not spectacular enough for a lot of people. The Register’s headline, two days after launch read “Apple, you’re BORING us to death”. CNET, back then still relevant in the technology blogosphere, proclaimed “We live in boring times”.
As with any tock release, Apple focused more on the little things that make the device a better product from an experience viewpoint. Internally, the introduction of the 64-bit chip, while taken for granted today, was a huge deal: it literally brought forth a new era for the mobile phone industry, and made the iPhone more than just a smartphone: desktop-class hardware made the 5s more capable than ever, and kickstarted an app revolution that brought CPU-intensive applications and games, such as Pixelmator and Vainglory, to a mobile phone for the first time. I’m still amazed at how good the Pixelmator app is for image-editing and graphic design on-the-go.
Two and a half years later, the 5s is a bit long in the tooth. Safari purges webpages from memory, apps crash randomly from time to time. As time wears on, I turn more settings off in the interest of saving both battery and CPU usage. As iOS became more advanced and demanding, even for a 64-bit chip and a gigabyte of RAM, the 5s became less capable. Most people annoyed by the sluggish performance of their phones moved on and upgraded to the newer series of iPhones, which had their own design quirks, such as the long-ridiculed camera bulge, and slippery design, not helped by the larger sizes the iPhones 6 and 6s came in. Sure enough, a lot of people missed the older design: the smaller size that fit perfectly in their hands, the square edges that didn’t invite accidents…
It seems like Apple hasn’t ignored this small minority of four-inch fanatics: last Monday, in line with recent rumors, Apple returned a four-inch handset to their iPhone line: this time not as a smaller iPhone 6s, as most people predicted, but rather as a special 2016 update to a three-year-old phone design: the iPhone SE.
And, if you disregard the critics, it’s a very appealing device for almost everyone, coupling an excellent design that never really should have changed with modern hardware components borrowed off last September’s iPhone 6s. It’s pretty damn close to perfection: equipped with a 12MP camera capable of 4K video recording and Live Photos, the 6s’ A9/M9 duo, LTE and Wi-Fi updates, and, yes, even 2 GB of RAM. The only thing it’s missing is 3D Touch—while understandable, given Apple’s firm stance that the SE is a great phone for people “new to iPhone”—it’s still sore for fans of smaller phones who want the best of both worlds.
The iPhone SE poses a dilemma for a lot of people: would you rather buy a 2016 edition of the iPhone 5s, or wait six months for the iPhone 7, potentially another generation where thin and light trumps function and usability?
Even if you do go for the SE, it’s an excellent choice—but what’s the catch? When Tim Cook introduced the iPhone 5c—the colorful, “unapologetically plastic” line of iPhones—alongside the 5s in 2013 as a low-cost competitor to cheap Android phones, it didn’t do very well, and, lo and behold, it was ultimately killed. The SE seems like the spiritual successor to the 5c in many ways: it’s less than two-thirds the price of the iPhone 6s, it’s clearly targeted to people who’re new to iPhones or phones in general: kids. And it’s clear, even if it’s going to stay around, that, judging from the measly 16 and 64 GB the SE retails at, it’s never going to be a serious competitor to the iPhone 7, whatever that may be.