I’ve been using the new iPhone SE for a couple days now, after having a 6s for a while, and I have to be honest: going back to using a small phone feels weird. I’m convinced that Apple has to be aiming this new phone at people who either love small phones or want a reasonably-priced upgrade from a three-year-old iPhone.
Let’s face it, a new iPhone is tempting. It’s a new iPhone! But if you’ve already graduated to a bigger phone, this phone might not be for you.
I say "going back" because a few years ago I got a lot of mileage out of a smaller smartphone — quite literally, since I was able to carry the thing in hand or strap it to my arm during long outdoor runs and it never felt ridiculous. We had some good times, me and the iPhone 5s. It was nice and light, but its carved edges made it feel durable. It fit easily in my back pocket when I was carrying grocery bags, out shooting photos, or doing just about anything else that required manual dexterity.
We had some good times, me and iPhone 5s
Back then, I made fun of phablets. Hard. I wrote a breakup letter to the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 using the phone’s stylus, and said that another 6.6-inch smartphone would probably need to be transported in a flatbed truck. Even a 5.2-inch LG G2 felt too big for me. Who needs a phone this big?
Then things changed. It’s hard to say whether it was just the phones themselves that changed or if it was my own eventual acceptance of them; likely it was both. Overbearingly large phones have reached an elegance in design and level of technical prowess that weren’t there a couple years ago. Case in point: Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge. "Phablets," with their long-lasting batteries and better cameras, are now widely accepted, while phones with 4.7-inch displays have become the new normal.
That’s why switching to the new iPhone SE, with its 4-inch display, feels so strange, both conceptually and practically. Size does matter for some people. In today’s culture we are imbued with the principle that "bigger" is better, and "thinner" is better, but "smaller" might not be.
When I first picked up the iPhone SE the other day and started emailing and iMessaging, I noticed a few things. First, this looks just like the iPhone 5s! Also, I could text with one hand again! And finally, I really do suck at touchscreen typing. Typing on a small keyboard again felt awkward and it took me four tries to correctly enter a password or even just send a quick response to someone. Tweeting felt… risky? All of my apps or app buckets were now squeezed into five rows per page rather than six, pushing some of them over onto the next page.
Oh, and my eyesight has gotten worse. If my recently-adjusted prescription wasn’t enough proof, the iPhone SE is, because I strained to see everything from messages to Maps to photos. (I mistook a photo of someone wearing a VR headset for someone else entirely.)
To that point, big phones are great for media consumption. I regularly watch videos, and read breaking news updates, saved Instapaper articles, and Kindle books on my 4.7-inch phone. But I'm not sure I’ll be reading books on the iPhone SE. Swiping through photos and social media on the iPhone SE was fine, but reading super-long emails on a small screen felt like I was reading them on an actual scroll.
With a large phone you can do so much, which means you are always doing so much
But maybe that has actually been the best part of going back to a small phone: I don’t feel as immersed in it as I do with a larger phone. With a large phone you can do so much, which means you are always doing so much. Yesterday, during a five-minute cab ride, I took a breather, because doing any kind of "meaningful" work on a tiny phone would be annoying anyway.
This isn’t meant to be full review of the new iPhone SE, because as I said, I still think that the people who will be most interested in this are first-time iPhone users or those who are already using a 4s or 5s. There’s still a lot more to say about the iPhone SE beyond, "It’s hard to go back." This is just my experience switching to the new iPhone SE from a larger phone, and personally, I'm likely to go back to a larger phone. But a small screen really makes you feel like you’re not quite as committed to it — and for some people, maybe that will be the point.
Photos by Vjeran Pavic