Today's Apple launch event came with three major announcements. The first was the public release date of iOS 9.3, the second was the 9.7" iPad Pro, and the third was a successor to the 2013 iPhone 5s in the iPhone SE. Interestingly, this phone eschews the number from the name of its predecessor, presumably because we've moved two generations beyond the 5s already and will likely be seeing a 7 appear in the next iPhone's name. Instead, Apple has called it the iPhone SE.

The iPhone SE comes in at a time when the high-end market has transitioned (almost) entirely to larger 5.2-inch and up smartphones. Apple was most resistant to that trend but eventually made their own larger screen devices, leaving the group of users who wanted a smaller device to opt for the aging iPhone 5s. With iOS becoming more resource intensive over time, and the iPhone 5s getting older, Apple needed to create a new 4" device if they wanted to continue offering one. Being able to offer it at a lower price than the larger models also helps with selling to new and emerging markets, especially when Apple quotes that new iPhone users tend to move towards a 4-inch device.

While the iPhone SE is a small phone, it is no slouch when it comes to the hardware, and the only aspect that is reminiscent of the iPhone 5s is the design of the chassis and the display. Almost everything else borrows from Apple's newest flagship smartphone, the iPhone 6s. You can check out the specs for the 5s, SE, and 6s in the chart below to see the similarities and differences between the three.

Apple iPhone Line
  Apple iPhone 5s Apple iPhone SE Apple iPhone 6s
SoC Apple A7
2 x 1.3GHz Apple Cyclone
Apple A9
2 x Apple Twister
GPU PowerVR GX6450 PowerVR GT7600
RAM 1GB LPDDR3 2GB LPDDR4
Display 4.0-inch 1136 x 640
IPS LCD
4.7-inch 1334 x 750
IPS LCD
Size / Mass 123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm
112 grams
123.8 x 58.6 x 7.6 mm
113 grams
138.3 x 67.1 x 7.1 mm
143 grams
Camera Rear Facing
8MP iSight with 1.5µm pixels + True Tone Flash

Front Facing
1.2MP F/2.4
Rear Facing 12MP iSight with 1.22µm pixels
+ True Tone Flash
Front Facing
1.2MP f/2.4
Front Facing 5MP F/2.2 + Retina Flash
Storage 16GB
32GB
64GB
16GB
64GB
16GB
64GB
128GB
I/O Apple Lightning connector, 3.5mm headset
WiFi 2.4/5GHz Dual Band
1T1R 802.11n 
BT 4.2
2.4/5GHz Dual Band
1T1R 802.11ac
BT 4.2, NFC
2.4/5GHz Dual Band
2T2R 802.11ac
BT 4.2, NFC
Price 16GB: $449 16GB: $399
64GB: $499
16GB: $649
64GB: $749
128GB: $849

The iPhone SE is a substantial upgrade to the iPhone 5s. Starting with the internal hardware, we see that the SoC moves from the Apple A7 SoC to Apple's A9. Going by Apple's numbers, the iPhone SE's CPU performance is reported to be 2x higher than the iPhone 5s, and the GPU performance is roughly 2.85x higher.

On paper, the display is the same as the one used with the iPhone 5s. It's a 4" IPS display with a resolution of 1136 x 640. It looks like the panel is the same as well, as it doesn't benefit from the improved contrast enabled by the use of photo alignment tech on the iPhone 6s.

The camera also carries over from the 6s. Advances in sensor technology and image processing over the past two and a half years have allowed modern smartphones to greatly surpass what was possible with the camera on the iPhone 5s, and so the iPhone SE adopts the same 12MP sensor used in the iPhone 6s. This provides an increase in resolution, and the advancements that come with the A9 SoC's ISP will further upgrade image quality over the 5s through improved noise reduction, HDR, and tone mapping.

The new ISP and higher resolution sensor also allow for higher bitrate video recording with better image stabilization, as well as 30fps UHD video and 1080p120 slow motion video, which is an improvement over the relatively low bitrate 720p120 clips from the 5s. Like the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the iPhone SE supports taking Apple's Live Photos which pairs a video stream (MPEG) and a higher resolution still image. Since the SE doesn't have 3D Touch a user will have to interact with them using a long press in the same way that the iPad does

Connectivity on the iPhone SE improves as well. When it was launched, the 5s was only on 802.11n while some Android vendors were making an early move to 802.11ac. The SE brings 802.11ac support along for 433Mbps WiFi speeds, along with Category 4 LTE which enables downstream speeds of up to 150Mbps. This isn't on par with the Category 6 LTE in the iPhone 6s, but it's a significant improvement over the iPhone 5s. At this point we can't confirm the modem inside, which could be a number of things.

The iPhone SE starts at $399 for a 16GB model, with the upgrade to 64GB bringing the price to $499. For users still on a contract carrier in the US, it will be free on a new two-year term. Orders will begin on March 24.

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  • SaolDan - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    i never liked it. looked long. kinda stretched. Reply
  • raazman - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    Yeah because of those huge bezels from 5 years ago. Reply
  • KoolAidMan1 - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    Because its a better design. I wish the iPhone 6 was designed more like the 5, those curved edges are so slippery. The 5 was also very thin but those angles made it feel much sturdier and secure in the hand. Reply
  • GruntboyX - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    Tooling.. they have already depreciated the equipment for the 5/5S design cycle. They get more life out of it which is what helped drive the price down. Less cost to production. less cost to recoup. And its a cheep risk in case the whole thing flops. Reply
  • PromotedPawn - Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - link

    For a few reasons:
    1: It's still a wonderful design for a smaller phone. Where the hard edges wouldn't work on a larger one, here they allow a great grip on the device and greater durability.
    2: It keeps costs down. Apple gets to keep the 5S production lines rolling with a few tiny tweaks instead of designing and supporting a whole new product line - this is likely the biggest factor that allows them to stuff 6S guts into a 5S price point.
    Reply
  • CharonPDX - Friday, March 25, 2016 - link

    Seems odd to me since they had established the 5c's plastic form factor as the "inexpensive 4" iPhone" body. They even said that the 5c was far more popular than the 5s at the time, and continued to be very popular after the 6/6 Plus came out. I guess they figured they might as well keep the "luxury" look of metal. Reply
  • jjj - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    Same device as the 5S but instead of dropping the price by 100$ when the iphone 7 launches, they do minor upgrades (SoC, modem and cam) and drop the price by 50$ now. Reply
  • DCide - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    You have an odd definition of what constitutes 'minor updates.' And yet they still dropped the price.

    Except for the screen size, it's a significnatly better phone than the 6 for $150 less.
    Reply
  • magreen - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    It's totally not the same device as a 5S--it comes in pink! Reply
  • MrSpadge - Monday, March 21, 2016 - link

    WTF.. often you whine about differences in the 5 - 15% range as if they mattered. Now there's a switch from an A7 to an A9, which yields a performance improvement by a factor of 2 to 3! Check AT bench, if you don't believe it:
    http://anandtech.com/bench/product/1157?vs=1562
    Reply

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