As fast as an iPhone 6s and as portable as an 5s: a winning mbination

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Welcome to our UK-focused first-look preview of the iPhone SE. At this point we're just calling it a first look, because this article is based on brief hands-on time with the new phone at the launch event under difficult conditions (impossible to properly test audio, camera capabilities etc). This article will turn into our full iPhone SE review once we've got hold of review samples and got them into our labs for serious testing.

For all the iPhone SE news from the launch event, read iPhone SE confirmed: 'Fastest ever' 4-inch iPhone the highlight of otherwise boring launch event. And for general event gossip, read Apple March 2016 launch event as it happened.

Apple unveiled the iPhone SE at its 'Let us loop you in' launch event on 21 March 2016. This is the first smartphone with a 4-inch screen that Apple has launched since 2013's iPhone 5s and 5c.

The iPhone SE has a design almost identical to the iPhone 5s, but its internals match those of the iPhone 6s; it's therefore much faster than its 4-inch predecessor and, Apple claims, will have a far superior battery life, although we will need to test these claims in our labs.

The iPhone SE will become available for pre-order on 24 March 2016 and go on general sale on 31 March. It is available in silver, gold, Space Grey and Rose Gold, like the iPhone 6s handsets, and in 16GB and 64GB storage options; the 16GB model costs £359 while the 64GB model is £439.

That's the basics. But let's look at each aspect of the iPhone SE in a bit more detail.

The iPhone SE is a smart-looking and beautifully engineered device, as we have come to expect from Apple. But some may be disappointed by quite how closely it mirrors the look of the iPhone 5s, which came out two and half years ago, and the iPhone 5 from a year before that.

Above: the iPhone 5s (left) and the iPhone SE. Picture credit: Jason Snell

Jason Snell, getting a feel for the new hardware for our colleagues on Macworld US, reported being "taken back to the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. Apple's newest iPhone model is not a new take on the classic 4-inch smartphone; it's an upgrade to Apple's flagship phone design of three and a half years ago."

Snell points out that the familiar logo on the back of the iPhone SE is a stainless steel cut-out (matching the logos on the iPhone 6 handsets) rather than the silver screenprint seen on the iPhone 5s; while the iPhone SE's chamfered edges are matt, whereas the chamfers on the 5s are shiny. And the iPhone SE comes in Rose Gold, a colour finish that was never offered for the iPhone 5s. But other than these three details, the two phone are identical.

Physically, then, the iPhone SE is backward-looking. But there is a large body of iPhone fans who've been dying for an updated 4-inch model, and we suspect that they will be happy with the SE's conservative design philosophy. It is, after all, a convenient and highly portable device that feels good in the hand - while the components inside have been significantly boosted from the iPhone 5s's internals.

Before we move on to the internals, however, let's briefly mention the iPhone SE's screen - briefly, because again there isn't much new to talk about.

It's a Retina-class display, with the same resolution as the screen on the iPhone 5s: 1136 x 640 pixels at a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch (ppi). Apple used to claim that a pixel density of higher that 326ppi - viewed at standard smartphone distance - was wasted on the human eye, which wouldn't be able to distinguish pixels crammed together any closer than that. Most people now think rather differently; indeed, on its Plus-branded iPhones Apple offers a pixel density of 401ppi.

The iPhone SE's screen isn't equipped with 3D Touch, so if you're looking for that feature you still need to go for an 6s-generation handset.

A brief hands-on is no environment to conduct detailed speed benchmarking, so we'll update this section once we've got some lab time with the iPhone SE. But in the meantime, we can report that the SE is equipped with the same processor (A9 + M9 motion co-processor) as the iPhone 6s and presumably the same amount of RAM (the 6s has 2GB) - because Apple says it's just as fast.

Apple calls the iPhone SE "the most powerful phone with a four-inch display", The company further pledges "two times faster CPU and three times faster GPU performance compared to iPhone 5s, all with gains in energy efficiency for improved battery life".

We've said already that the iPhone SE doesn't get the 3D Touch screen technology with which the 6s handsets are equipped, but it does get one new feature.

Like the iPhone 5s and later, the iPhone SE gets a Touch ID fingerprint scanner - and we understand that this is the older, slower scanner rather than the super-speedy second-generation Touch ID on the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, which is a shame - but unlike the 5s, the SE gets a NFC chip and can consequently use Apple Pay.

The iPhone SE has a 12-megapixel rear-facing iSight camera (which compares well with the 8Mp rear cameras on the 6 and 6 Plus, and matches the 12Mp units on the 6s and 6s Plus) and a 1.2Mp front-facing FaceTime camera (which is less impressive, putting it on a par with the 6 and 6 Plus devices).

You also get the relatively new 'Retina flash' feature - there isn't a proper front-facing flash but when you're taking selfies in low light you can make the display flash 3 times brighter than normal to light up the shot. In our experience this isn't as strong as a conventional flash but is a pretty decent substitute.

We'll update this article with camera benchmarking and test shots once we've got our hands on review samples.

You can also shoot 4k video with the iPhone SE, and you can edit up to 2 streams of 4k video on the iPhone SE using iMovie. The iPhone SE's camera is capable of panoramas of up to 63Mp, "video capture up to 60fps for 1080p video and 240fps for slo-mo, time-lapse with video stabilisation and cinematic video stabilisation".

The iPhone SE also gets the Live Photos feature that debuted with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

The iPhone SE will be available in 16GB and 64GB versions; in the UK the 16GB model will cost £359 and the 64GB model £439. (For comparison, in the US the iPhone SE will start at $399 for the 16GB model and it's $499 for 64GB.)

Apple isn't making a 128GB model of the iPhone SE at this point, which seems odd in this day and age - if anything we were hoping the company might raise the lower storage tier, not do away with the highest one. Then again, perhaps the company doesn't think people looking for a 4-inch iPhone are interested in the higher storage allocation.

iPhone SE pre-orders will start on 24 March 2016 and you'll be able to place your orders here. The iPhone SE will hit the shops and become publicly available on 31 March (but if you haven't preordered you may have to queue).

You can pre-order the new iPhone SE direct from Apple from Thursday 24 March. It's available in Silver, Gold, Space Grey and Rose Gold. The 16GB option is £359 while the larger 64GB option is £439. If you buy direct from Apple, the phone will come unlocked so you can use it on any UK network.

You can't yet pre-order the iPhone SE from any of the UK's four main mobile operators EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three, but you will be able to soon. Remember that if you order from a specific operator, the phone will be initially locked to use on that network, but it is possible to unlock in the future if you decide to switch provider. Here's a run-down of those operators:

EE is allowing you to register interest in the new iPhone SE here. It asks you for your mobile number and email address and whether you are an existing customer. They will then get in touch with more details in the coming days.

Vodafone UK currently only has an information page similar to that on Apple’s official website here. You'll be able to benefit from Vodafone's standard 2-month Test Drive, which is unlimited 4G data access.

O2 allows you to register your interest in the iPhone SE, which will be available in all colours here in a similar way to EE.

Three does not yet allow you to pre-order or register interest, but will be offering the iPhone SE in all colours, and have confirmed that all its network offerings such as free international roaming in 18 countries will stand with the handset. It will also come with a free 6-month subscription to the music streaming service Deezer.

Carphone Warehouse allows you to register interest here.

Mobiles.co.uk allows you to register interest here. 

Turn to the next page for our pre-launch preview - see how much we got right, and how much we got wrong!


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