Why I’m Still Using the iPhone SE

Covering CES every January doesn't just give me a chance to check out what's new in the tech industry. Since I work across the country from all of my Tom's Guide colleagues, it's also a chance for me to catch up with them and field the kinds of friendly questions from co-workers like the one posed to me by Editor in Chief Mark Spoonauer when he saw me checking email on my smartphone.

"What... is that?" There was a mix of both concern and horror in his voice as he pointed at my phone. His lip may also have been curled in disgust.

That was my iPhone SE, my personal phone that I purposely bought with my own money in summer 2016 and have been using ever since, even as my co-workers have their heads turned by every flashy, new smartphone trotted out by Apple, Samsung and others.

Is it weird to still be using a device with a 4-inch screen at a time when other phones sport increasingly larger displays with almost comically oversized proportions? Not for me, it's not. Is it unusually that someone who writes about phones for a living continues to cling to a nearly three-year-old model when he's done testing out loaners and review units of the latest and occasionally greatest mobile devices? I'll grudgingly grant that you may have a point there. But I think I have a pretty good counter-argument for why I'm going to stick with my iPhone SE.

I like using this small iPhone more than any other smartphone I've tried since. Here's why.

It's compact

People, like phones, come in different sizes. Some of us have gigantic, bear-like paws that can easily handle the ever-expanding sizes of smartphones that manufacturers are cranking out these days. Others of us are cursed with normal-sized hands. Two guesses as to which side of the divide I fall on.

Put another way, holding and operating a phone that's 5.5 inches or larger with my hands is uncomfortable at best and an act of physical comedy at worst. In the past month, I've used both an iPhone 8 Plus and a Pixel 3 XL — along with their respective 5.5- and 6.3-inch screens — and I've fumbled both out of my hands with stunning regularity. At least the sight of me batting a giant phone around has amused onlookers. (There are limits to my devotion to small screens. I tried the 3.3-inch Palm Phone recently, and that device felt like a phone you'd hand someone as a punishment.)

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Even worse than holding a big phone is carrying it around. When I'm done holding my iPhone SE — comfortably — I can slip it into the pocket of jeans, and almost forget that it's there. That's simply not possible with a big-screen device, which adds considerable bulk and bulge no matter how thin phone makers try to squeeze it.

I'm an iOS guy

I've got nothing against Android, and even appreciate some of its features, like how it handles notifications. But I've been using iOS since the first iPhone came out, and I'm just more comfortable with it.

It helps that Apple hasn't been shy about adopting some of Android's own features for its own mobile OS — look at the improved notification management capabilities in iOS 12, for example. So I get a constantly improving OS that still enjoys robust support from app makers, too.

One other aspect about iOS I appreciate more after using Android phones: Apple's extensive support for older models. My iPhone SE is approaching it's third birthday, and yet I'm still able to run the latest version of iOS. My wife is making do with an even older phone — an ancient iPhone 5s — and she's running iOS 12, too. It's safe to say that if we were using similarly old Android devices, we wouldn't get a sniff of Android 9 Pie.

I hate paying more than $500 for a phone

Perhaps I never got over the end of carrier subsidies — that bygone era when you could pick up a top-of-the-line phone for a couple hundred bucks and all you had to do in exchange was sign over the next two years of your life to a wireless provider. But I see smartphone prices climbing ever closer to a $1,000, and wonder how people can shop for phones these days without bringing a bank loan officer along as their wingman.

My iPhone SE cost me less than $500, but only because I paid up for more storage and bought the phone before Apple lowered its price tag. At one point, you could have had an SE for less than $400, which is an incredibly low buy-in to Apple's extensive iOS ecosystem.

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We're speaking in the past tense, of course, since Apple stopped offering the iPhone SE last fall. These days, if you want a low price tag on an iPhone at Apple's store, you have to buy a $449 iPhone 7 — a phone that's nearly as old as the SE in my hands right now. If you want something newer, the cheapest iPhone on offer is the iPhone XR, which at $749 only costs nearly twice as much as the SE.

Those SE specs are still pretty good

The iPhone SE may have come out nearly three years ago, but I'm still satisfied with the performance I get from this phone. Because I opted for more storage at the start, I have plenty of room for music and photos on my phone.  The A9 chip hums right along, and thanks to the under-the-hood improvements in iOS 12, I haven't noticed the slowdowns that can come as a phone ages. I can even play PUBG Mobile and rack up my share of chicken dinners without running into dropped frames or performance issues.

Yes, there are trade-offs. The camera on the SE is adequate at best, and when I needed to shoot photos at CES earlier this month, I grabbed the Pixel 3 XL. I need to plan on charging my phone periodically during the day, and that battery life, more than anything outside of a catastrophic drop, is going to be what pushes me to finally upgrade. Overall, though, I'm not looking at more powerful phones with any measure of envy.

My phone has a headphone jack...

... and your newer, shinier iPhone most certainly does not. Who's the winner in that scenario? Let me just simultaneously charge my phone and listen to music while I await your answer.

Where have all the small phones gone?

Look, I know I'm swimming upstream against the trend toward larger phones. Device makers have decided that consumers want bigger screens, so that's what they're going to sell. Fans of compact phones like myself are likely going to have to adjust our expectations on what constitutes a suitably small screen.

And yet, I hold out hope. Smartphone sales are stalling, Apple's included. Perhaps in an effort to find some way — any way — to convince people to buy a new phone, Apple might figure it needs to build a device that appeals to us compact phone devotees, reviving rumors of an iPhone SE 2 that briefly surfaced last year. I hope that happens. And until it does, you can have my current SE when you pry it out of my apparently tiny hands.

Credit: Tom's Guide

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.