The Best iPhone

A black iPhone SE on a white table.
Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin.

The iPhone SE is the most boring phone that ever existed. Almost nobody notices you have a new phone; when someone does, the conversation ends quickly and invariably in a sentence like “it’s just like the old one, only faster”.

I love this.

The body of the 3rd-gen iPhone SE, released last April, is indistinguishable from the 2020’s 2nd-gen iPhone SE, which was almost identical to 2017’s iPhone 8, which retained the same design of the 2014’s iPhone 6, only swapping the metal finish used until the 2016’s iPhone 7 for glass to enable wireless battery charging.

The iPhone SE looks old. Or, as I prefer to say, it looks like a well-finished product. Its aesthetic is the apex of the first iPhone era, the phone that defined what a modern phone is; the era of phones that could be used with one hand. The old design makes for a low-profile phone, one that doesn’t call attention for itself. At this point, you can say it’s “utilitarian”.

Despite the outdated look, the new iPhone SE brings new features. Some, admittedly, are subtle, such as the slightly darker black finish and the centralized, more prominent Apple logo on the back, and a slight reduction in weight, of only 4 grams (or 2.7%) compared to the iPhone 8, even with a 10.8% larger battery capacity.

The new iPhone SE and an old iPhone 8, both black, but different blacks.
Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin.

The lightness is most likely due to the removal of 3D Touch, a feature introduced in the 2015’s iPhone 6S that added a layer of depth to the touch screen. Many people thought it was silly. I liked it and miss it.

The biggest new features of the iPhone SE are inside, hidden: upgraded chips.

It is a crazy strategy of Apple to put the “brains” of its most expensive phone, the iPhone 13 Pro Max (+USD 1.099), in its entry model, low cost (USD 429). No other company does this.

The A15, besides being very fast, gives the phone new powers. The 3rd gen iPhone SE can take pictures with the background blurred and identify text directly from the viewfinder. The only feature that Apple has denied for any reason other than technical is night mode when taking pictures at low light, absent here.

The single camera, by the way, is very close to the main one on the top models. Apple’s marketing gives the impression that every year the new iPhone cameras leave the old ones in the dust. The truth is, I’m having a hard time distinguishing between the photos of the iPhone SE, those from my girlfriend’s iPhone 11 and my iPhone 8. They all come out great. (Some samples here) The better overall quality from newer cameras just appears in direct comparisons. On video recording (samples on this YouTube video), the feeling is reinforced. iPhone cameras have been great for at least five years.

Otherwise, I don’t have much to talk about. Oh, the other big internal change is that the new iPhone SE supports 5G networks. I haven’t noticed any use for it yet, though.

Front of a 3rd-gen iPhone SE showing iOS' main screen.
Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin.

It is very likely that this is the last iPhone SE of its kind, the last “iPhone with a button” (a recurring joke here in Brazil). The reception from critics has been lukewarm and sales, apparently, below expectations. That’s a shame.

I have already argued in the past that I prefer this iPhone model over any newer one with Face ID. It is perhaps the closest to a perfect gadget I have ever used — no wonder I’ve bought the “same” device three times over the last seven years (before, the iPhone 6S in 2015 and the iPhone 8 in 2017). If, despite all the rumors, there’s a “5th generation iPhone SE” in five years with the same look and another round of updated internals, it will most likely be my next phone.

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