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Review: iPhone SE puts the same engine in a smaller exterior

David Pogue
Tech Critic

On March 31, you’ll be able to buy the newest member of the iPhone family: the iPhone SE.

What does SE stand for? Apple says Special Edition, but you could also sum it up this way: Same Engine, Smaller Exterior. Because Apple has crammed the chips, guts, and camera of the iPhone 6s into the crisp-cornered body of the tiny iPhone 5s.

On one hand, Apple now seems to be following the Samsung model of spewing out phones and tablets in every conceivable size, rather than innovating in more substantial ways.

On the other hand, Apple is correct that a certain chunk of the population doesn’t like the jumbo-ification of smartphones, such as the big iPhone 6s and even bigger 6s Plus. Some people, small of hands, still cling to the three-year-old iPhone 5s (with its 4-inch screen) despite the gigantic improvements in speed, camera power, and wireless abilities in the newer phones.

Three things about the SE are newsworthy: First, the battery life is about 30 percent better than the iPhone 6s’s (good for 13 hours of Web browsing, Apple says) — a side effect of having a screen the same size as the 5s.

Second, at $400 without a contract (for the 16GB model), the iPhone SE is the least expensive iPhone that Apple has ever offered. Finally, with its 4-inch screen, the SE is now the smallest brand-name smartphone sold in America.

The SE is loaded with features (Apple Pay, Live Photos, fingerprint unlocking, 4K video recording, hands-free “Hey Siri” voice commands, and more), but not a single one of them is new in the SE.

It actually lacks one modern feature of the iPhone 6s: It doesn’t have 3D Touch, which makes shortcut menus pop up when you apply additional pressure to the iPhone 6s’s screen. (Compared with the 6s, the SE screen isn’t quite as colorful, the front camera not quite as good, and the fingerprint reader isn’t quite as fast, either.)

In other words, a review of the iPhone SE would, for all intents and purposes, be a re-review of the iPhone 6s. Therefore, to save us both time and effort, here’s what I said about the 6s, in lightly updated form. After all: If Apple can recycle its finest ideas, why can’t I? (You can skip to the final paragraph for my final thoughts on the new phone.)

Things you’ll appreciate all day long

The biggest new thing is speed.

The  processor inside: Apple says it’s “up to 70 percent” faster than the iPhone 6. Opening apps, switching apps, processing things — it all happens faster.

Apple also says that it has tuned both its Wi-Fi and its cellular (LTE) antennas to make them faster. This, too, is screamingly obvious when you call up websites side-by-side on the old and new phones. Who doesn’t like faster Internet?

Things you’ll appreciate occasionally

Apple makes much of the iPhone’s new camera. It takes 12-megapixel photos, up from 8. And it can capture 4K video (that is, four times the resolution of high definition).

But as Apple itself has pointed out many times, having more megapixels does not mean you take better photos. More megapixels can be useful when you want to crop a wide photo down to a smaller subject and still have enough resolution for a print. Otherwise, more megapixels just means bigger files — and your phone will fill up faster.

I’ve been taking lots of pictures in lots of lighting situations with the old and new cameras side by side, and I can’t tell any difference. Can you?

(Hint: The iPhone SE photos are on the right.)

Now, it’s not a slam to say that photos taken with the SE don’t look any better than those captured on an iPhone 6 or 5s; the iPhone’s camera was already among the best ever put into a phone. But you shouldn’t expect a leap forward in most of your shots.

As for the 4K video: Once again, not much to write home about. First, because more pixels in a video doesn’t mean it’s a better video; the only guarantee is that it eats up more storage on your phone. (Fortunately, you can turn off 4K recording in Settings.)

Second, because you probably don’t have anywhere to play the 4K video you’ve captured with this phone! Paradoxically, iPhone itself doesn’t have enough pixels to play 4K video. And don’t think you can wirelessly beam them to your television using an Apple TV; even the new Apple TV can’t handle 4K programming.

(You can post your 4K video to YouTube, although very few people can play them back in 4K.)

But there is one camera enhancement that’s pretty awesome: the selfie-screen flash.

The new iPhone offers a “flash” for taking selfies. At the moment you take the shot, the screen lights up to illuminate your face. Better yet: It samples the ambient room light and adjusts the color of the screen’s “flash” to give your face the best flesh tones.

This trick — flashing the screen — is inherited from the Photo Booth app on the Mac. It’s been flashing MacBook screens white to light up your face for years.

Of course, the iPhone screen is too tiny to supply much light, even at full brightness. So Apple developed a custom chip with a single purpose: to overclock the screen. In selfie situations, the screen blasts at three times its usual full brightness, just for a fraction of a second. It is crazy bright.

(It’d be cool if you could turn that on manually — to improvise illumination for an emergency plane landing, for example. But you’d burn out your screen and eat up your battery charge.)

Anyway, it works fantastically well. Compared with phones with no front-facing flash, or compared with other phones’ noncolor-corrected flashes, the iPhone 6s’s front-facing screen flash is clever and effective. Every time you take a flash selfie, the results are as clear-cut and dramatic as this comparison:

And one thing that’ll make you scratch your head

The other much-touted feature is something called Live Photos: still photos that play back as three seconds of video, with sound.

What you’re getting is 1.5 seconds before the moment you snapped the photo, plus 1.5 seconds after. (During this 3-second capture period, a LIVE indicator glows on your screen.) In the phone’s Camera app, there’s a special icon at the top; that’s the on/off switch for Live Photo capturing. (The factory setting is On.)

Your obvious concern might be: “Whoa, Nellie! 12-megapixel photos? At 30 frames a second, that’s 90 frames, each 12 megapixels — 90 times as much storage as a still image!”

Well, no. The actual photo you snapped is a full 12-megapixel shot. But the other frames of the Live Photo animation are only screen resolution — not even one megapixel per frame. Overall, Apple says, an entire Live Photo (still, video, sound) takes up about twice as much space as a still photo.

(The downside of that clever compression scheme: You can’t extract a full-resolution still image from one of the video frames. That’d be cool.)

Behind the scenes, a Live Photo has two elements: a 12-megapixel JPEG still image and a 3-second QuickTime movie.

When you try to share a Live Photo, a special icon reminds you that you’re sending a larger-than-usual file. You can tap to turn it off (and therefore send only the JPEG):

If you decide to proceed with the Live Photo turned on, what happens next? Depends on what kind of device receives it. If it’s running the latest Apple software (iOS 9 or OS X El Capitan), the Live Photo video plays on that gadget, too. Facebook accommodates Live Photo playback, too.

If it’s a device or software program that doesn’t know about Live Photos — you send it as a text message, for example, or open it in Photoshop — only the JPEG image arrives at the other end.

This whole three-second video business isn’t new. HTC’s version, back in 2013, was called Zoe; Nokia’s, last year, was called Living Images. Pocket cameras like the Nikon 1 have a dedicated button just for capturing them.

Maybe Apple was inspired by the popularity of animated GIFs, or 6-second Vine videos, or 15-second Instagram clips. I’m not exactly sure what you’d use Live Photos for, or how they’re an improvement over a video clip you’ve shortened yourself — but then again, I’m not one of those crazy snake people.

A new era of pricing

You can get the iPhone SE for “free” with a two-year contract from Verizon or Sprint. It’s available in four colors of metal back: silver, gray, gold, and rose gold.

“Free,” of course, is a subsidized price; you’re paying off the phone’s actual price over the two years.

Nowadays, more people prefer to buy the phone outright and pay monthly only for cell service. For that, it’s $400 for the iPhone SE; add $100 to get four times the storage (64 GB). You should definitely do that; 16 gigs won’t get you far. (And why doesn’t Apple offer the most logical, in-beween capacity, 32 gigabytes? Insert your own evil conspiracy theory here.)

But there’s a third way to do it: Rent the phone. Each cell carrier — and now, Apple itself — is prepared to lease you your phone. You pay nothing up front, and then you pay a monthly equipment fee of around $16.50 a month. (That’s T-Mobile’s and AT&T’s price for a two-year rental. The other carriers haven’t yet announced their pricing.)

What SE really stands for

The $400 for this Smartphone Extraordinaire is a Smart Expenditure. On one hand, it still has the Sharp Edges of the iPhone 5s, and its addition to the lineup will remind critics of Samsung’s Excess. On the other hand, its 1.5-day battery life means that it only Sips Energy. This is a piece of very Solid Equipment, even if it is a Special Edition for people with Small Extremities.

David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. He welcomes nontoxic comments in the Comments below.