The iPhone SE is not a step back – more like a step sideways

One of the privileges of working as journalist in the technology arena is that I get to use some of the coolest tech around. For the last decade or so, that’s meant having the best the smartphone and tablet world can offer. But over the last few months, I’ve taken a step back. Instead of having the priciest and most feature-rich smartphone, I’ve decided to shift to an entry-level smartphone. And I’ve discovered that having all the latest features isn’t such a big deal.

Image: Apple

Since about 2011, I’ve either purchased or had access to review units of the latest iPhones from Apple. Some of those were accessed through Apple’s program for providing review units to journalists while others were purchased.

As I’m doing a lot less consumer technology reporting these days, I decided that the ethical thing to do would be to turn in my iPhone 11 review unit and purchase my own phone. With COVID-19 throwing uncertainty into my personal economic situation and a special offer deal from my carrier, I decided to buy an iPhone SE (Second Edition) – Apple’s lowest cost smartphone.

Budget is a matter of perspective

At $749 the iPhone SE is dearer that the first iPhone – a device that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer lambasted when it was released.

But the world has moved on and it’s not hard to find smartphones from many makers that cross the $2500 barrier if you max out screen sizes and storage. While those super-expensive and powerful pocket computers appeal to a part of the smartphone market, not everyone needs four lens camera systems, high resolution 6-5-inch displays and facial recognition.

But what the makers of premium smartphones have done is desensitised the market so that we think a phone that costs less that $1000 is cheap.

iPhones and the Apple Tax

So, I know what some of you may be thinking. I’m one of the Apple Sheeple, paying more for a smartphone when a $200 Android headset will probably meet all of my needs. Well, that is possible but my trust level is pretty low with low-cost Android handsets. Many aren’t regularly updated and maintained by manufacturers and the Google Play Store has a security record that is best designed as ‘inconsistent’ in my view.

So, sure, I could save a few bucks but I’d be losing one of the core benefits of Apple’s sometimes constrictive ecosystem. The vast majority of the time everything works. And after about 15 years as a contributor and editor at Macworld Australia, it’s fair to say I’m very comfortable working in the Apple ecosystem.

The cost of change, in new apps and time to learn how to do the same things in different ways doesn’t feel like a good use of my time.

What’s it like on a ‘budget’ iPhone?

The iPhone SE may be Apple’s lowest-cost iPhone but it’s not a budget smartphone. Outwardly, it looks and feels like a five year old iPhone 6 – although I did go for the PRODUCT (RED) version rather than the usual black or white. But that didn’t cost extra.

A look at how much of the 512GB of capacity I was using on the iPhone 11 Pro Apple provided to me for review revealed I was using about 30GB of the available capacity. So a 64GB iPhone SE would more than suffice. So, I was truly sitting at the entry level of Apple’s range.

Perhaps the two biggest adjustments I had to make were getting used to a smaller display – dropping back from the iPhone 11 Pro’s 5.8-inches to 4.7-inches, and using the Home button instead of flicking up from the bottom of the display.

That took me a couple of days to adjust to.

Image: Apple

The iPhone SE has a single camera rather than the multi-camera systems in more expensive smartphones. Thus far, I’ve been happy with the images it shoots but I’m jot a famous ‘grammer and mainly use my phone for the odd short of my dogs at the park and other random stuff. So, my camera needs are modest and that may be a factor to others considering a similar move. My suspicion is that many people are seduced by the number and specifications of camera system rather than buying them for a specific need.

What I’ve really noticed over the last couple of months is that I still use my phone in the same ways as before. Going cheaper has not made my smartphone any worse. I’d say, in my experience (and I acknowledge that others may have a different experience) lower cost has not translated into worse.

One spec does matter to me

While Apple has gone for a smaller, less technically advanced display and camera system for the latest iPhone SE they chose to use their latest processor, the A13 Bionic Chip. That means I can expect to get several years of life from this handset. And even if I don’t keep using it after two or three years, I can hand it down or sell it, confident that it will remain a supported model for a another two or three years.

When I look at low-cost Android handsets, this is where they often skimp. They use a processor that two or three generations old resulting in slowing performance over time.

Its also worth noting that while the iPhone SE looks like last decade’s iPhone, it does boast modern features such as wireless charging (handy as I have a charging pad on my desk) as well as support for the latest 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5 and a number of other current standards.

For those who have hung on to their iPhone 6, 7 and 8 and are looking for an upgrade that gives them most of the current standards without requiring a bunch of new cases and accessories, the iPhone SE represents a great path forward.