First impressions of Apple’s affordable new 4-inch phone

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Welcome to the future. Or is it the past? Hmm. Apple’s new handset, the iPhone SE is here and it’s melding the cutting-edge with the ageing, giving the 4-inch form factor another go and an almost retired design a new lease of life. It’s Apple’s most affordable new smartphone to date too, although with a £359 asking price for the 16GB model (£439 for the 64GB option), it’s still not exactly cheap.

The SE isn’t just about being more affordable than its big brothers though. Its charm, for many at least, is that it’s not too big. Many still covet a smaller screen size, especially when it’s strapped to an uncompromising set of specs. That’s what, for the most part at least, the SE does. Styled like the iPhone 5S, but with a number of iPhone 6S features, it pairs the best of the past with the must have of the now. On first use, however, it doesn’t quite strike the right balance. Here’s why:

No, you’ve not fallen back in time to 2013, this isn’t the iPhone 5S – although it is based around the exact same design. Apart from a couple of new colour schemes – the SE comes in gold and pink (rose gold), as well as silver and space grey hues – and a new type of metal, there’s no design difference between the old and the rehashed.

It’s a classic design, but not one of Apple’s finest. Not as generation-defining as the glass backed iPhone 4, or as sleek as the iPhone 6. It’s solid and stylish, but it’s not going to get heads turning if you pull it out at a party.

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It still lines up at 7.6mm thick, it still features that in-demand 4-inch display and it still weighs near enough the same, up 1 gram to 113g. It still feels a little boxy too. Most smartphones now feature smooth, flowing lines that are comfortable to hold. The SE’s firmly squared edges feel harsh and uncomfortable in contrast. Most of all though, it feels tiny.

Having spent years jumping between phones 4.7-inches and up, switching back to a 4-inch form is jarring – seriously, how did we ever live like this? If you’re yet to adopt a larger phone, it won’t be an issue, but if you’re planning on dropping down from a larger Android handset, prepare for a shock.

Design’s not everything, but even if you’re happy to splash out on a phone that looks a couple of years old, you’re still going to want a screen worthy of 2016 and our binge-watching ways, right? Sadly that’s where, on first impressions at least, the iPhone SE really falls short. Screen quality lets Apple down here.

There’s nothing wrong with the display’s size – it nails that 4-inch form as promised – it’s just a shame that it’s still playing at the lower end of the current resolution spectrum. Picking the device up for the first time, the screen looks recessed, the framing is massive, and the screen itself feels a considerable way behind the glass overlay.

Colours are impressive, but there’s a little graining to text when compared with QHD panelled phones. Even stretched across a paltry 4-inches, the 1136 x 640 pixel resolution feels a little lacking. When the screen looks older than the hand-me-down design, you’ve got to question the true value of Apple’s supposed affordable phone. There’s not even any 3D Touch skills to sweeten the deal – boo.

iPhone SE features and performance: All the power, and classic Apple innards

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The iPhone SE might be lacking in the screen stakes, but under the hood it’s right up there with the big boys. Powered by the same A9 processor as its flagship sibling, it offers more grunt than any 4-inch phone, ever.

There’s more power than you’re realistically likely to need, but that’s fine. It just means the iOS 9.3 OS at its core is beautifully seamless and as pleasingly smooth to use as ever. Here Apple’s on to another winner, with new features like the sleep-aiding Night Shift simply building on the best smartphone OS going.

If you’re an iPhone 5S owner and looking to upgrade, the SE’s got a number of features that its stylised sibling lacked, too. While a TouchID fingerprint sensor makes another appearance, although it’s the original unit slower than that on the 6S, it’s now paired with NFC connectivity options. Why should you care? Well, that means the SE is now Apple Pay friendly, letting you ditch your wallet to make inshore payments with your phone – nice.