I’ve been reviewing smartphones for seven years now, but in all that time, I and other reviewers like me have failed to address one of the most important factors in deciding the suitability of a phone: habit. It’s impossible to do, frankly, since everyone has a different set of baseline presumptions and expectations from phones, so all we can provide are abstract analyses and comparisons. We can pinpoint the best camera, in general terms, identify the best ergonomics, for most people, and pass judgment on the best user interface, for the majority of users. But when we write these things, I urge you to adapt those generalities to your specific case: how does the new thing relate to the old, and how will you adapt to it?
I like big phones, but the SE reminds me that I love small ones
The iPhone SE has been my main phone for the past month, pretty much by accident. This year has seen my SIM card jump around between handsets from Huawei, LG, HTC, Samsung, Sony, Moto, Xiaomi, Meizu, Oppo, and even a company named Zopo, so I guess I was due for a switch back to iOS. My first impressions of the SE were the same that everyone else had: the design is too familiar to be exciting and the size is too small to match the functionality of present-day smartphones. I was wrong. Not on that first day, and not a week later, when I was convinced the SE is too small for me to use, but I am definitely wrong now. My favorite phone today is the iPhone SE and the reason is that I gave it that full month to make its strengths apparent — and for me to grow habituated to them.
Let’s start with the most obvious factor: the SE’s size. I can tuck this 4-inch phone into a shirt pocket or in one of those backpack phone compartments that modern smartphones sneer at with oversized indignation. The sheer practicality of a phone this small is hard to articulate without a litany of small anecdotes recounting where it’s proven easier or more useful than rival alternatives, so I'll just leave it at saying that I know of no better device for single-handed use. That’s in part because of the polish of iOS and in part because the top corners of the screen are within easy reach.
Your favorite will differ from my favorite and that's perfectly okay
Do I use the iPhone SE to watch Euro 2016 matches? Nope. The players look like ants on the pitch. But do I use this phone to listen to podcasts, play Sudoku, check email, send Telegram messages, call Uber rides, check Twitter, and take sick photos of preposterous cars? Yes, yes I do. I also plug in Lightning-powered Audeze headphones that make the SE sound like a much larger and more expensive audiophile media player.
But I don’t want to get carried away advocating for my choice of phone. It’s enough for you to simply believe that I’ve grown so used to its advantages that I’m willing to look past its weaknesses. I have an iPhone 6S Plus and Nexus 6P sitting pristinely untouched in a drawer simply because I value the mobile aspect of phones most highly.
For others, it’s different. My mother has been an HTC loyalist for the past five years after a positive first experience with the Sense UI. My brother, on the other hand, swears by Sony’s simpler, more elegant interface. For them, and for most other people that don’t switch between phones as often as I do, the best smartphone is much more likely to be one that closely matches the experience that they’re used to. I’m willing to believe that there are still Windows Phone holdouts in the world who simply don’t find a welcoming home on Android because they’ve developed all their habits around Microsoft’s interface. I’m sure those people exist.
It would actually be pretty weird if we all liked the same thing
My point, in brief, is that the final judgment for any smartphone or gadget’s usefulness has to be informed by the user’s particular and specific desires. Bassheads love Beats headphones, phablet doodlers love the Galaxy Note, and a whole bunch of people have developed a fondness for Amazon’s Alexa. I might not be among their number, but I appreciate that different circumstances, habits, and needs command different conclusions about each product.
In competitive markets, every single device has its tradeoffs. If there were ever one that lacked any downsides, the market would quickly stop being competitive. And so it is with smartphones, where we’ll never be able to legitimately and objectively crown a single best device. As phones mature and hard differences between models and manufacturers start to melt away, the determining factors will increasingly be the personal ones. Do you want a double tap of your home button to launch multitasking or the camera? Do you prefer your fingerprint sensor on the back, front, or side? And how many Lightning or USB-C accessories do you already have?
The iPhone SE has been a positive surprise for me, though it shouldn’t have been. I’m probably the most vocal supporter of small smartphones outside of HP Veer fan forums, and Apple’s new 4-inch device has rekindled my love of small things and served as a reminder of my preference for compactness. And even though I can recognize that other phones are better in abstract terms, and superior at performing various tasks, I’m favoring the SE as the best phone for me right now.