“I always tell people, the unsheathed SE is the phone Steve Jobs intended and that’s why it’s a great phone,” Wessman says.
He’s not alone in his love for the smaller four-year-old iPhone model best known for being the last from the company to have a four-inch screen. Faithful owners praise the phone’s ability to fit into one hand, its headphone jack and its sturdy construction. They find one another online and keep their SEs in working order with fresh batteries and screen replacements as needed.
But with a new, larger SE going on sale Friday and available April 24, fans are finding it’s hard to be an old-phone holdout in a world constantly pushing the shiny new thing, bigger screens and faster upgrade cycles.
The last iPhone SE put the guts of a faster iPhone 6S into the body of an older, smaller iPhone 5S, then slapped on a $399 starting price tag. Apple stopped manufacturing iPhone SEs in September 2018 and no longer sells it directly, although there’s still a smattering of new SEs and plenty of used and refurbished options online.
Apple’s newest smartphone keeps the SE name but comes in the larger shell of an iPhone 8. It starts at $399, making it the cheapest phone in Apple’s current lineup. It has the faster A13 bionic chip and new camera. Instead of face detection, the second-generation SE still has a home button that works as a fingerprint sensor.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the company has continued some of its planned releases without being able to do its traditional live presentations. Apple announced it was shutting down most of its retail stores around the world March 13. Five days later, the company announced new devices, including a new iPad and MacBook Air, with news releases. Wednesday’s iPhone SE announcement also came through a news release.
The coronavirus has also affected Apple’s supply chain partners around the world, although manufacturing experts say recent products were likely to be less disrupted than those scheduled for release later in the year. That’s because the early stages of designing and manufacturing the product probably took place many months before the outbreak.
The new SE fills an important spot in the company’s lineup — one that might be even more important with the economic impact of the coronavirus and related stay-at-home orders rattling countries globally. It follows the same formula at the original — new inside, old outside, cheaper all around — to appeal to people looking for a more affordable iPhone and customers in emerging markets. But some phone experts say a larger version misses much of what made the first a hit.
“I think that the iPhone SE is probably the best iPhone that Apple has made,” said Matt Zieminski, the director of partnerships at RepairQ, which makes software for repair shops. Zieminski had his own device-repair business for 10 years, fixing up countless old iPhones, and believes the iPhone SE was from an era when Apple cared more about quality than revenue. “The device upheld a little better when you dropped [it] or it was just hanging around your pocket. It’s just a little bit more durable.”
Small phones in general have been left behind by the industry, but there are some signs that more-compact devices could be making a comeback. Companies such as Motorola and Samsung have both announced flip phones that take that smaller shape of the 2000s and slip a large, foldable touch screen inside. But prices for those devices start at $1,380, and some have had reported issues with durability. Other companies such as Palm have tried, and so far struggled, to bring back phones that do and weigh less on purpose, to fight back against smartphone overuse.
The best, most affordable small option for now continues to be an old iPhone.
The original SE is 2.31 inches wide and 4.87 inches tall, and it can be used easily with one hand — a single thumb can stretch across the screen to open apps or tap out a message. Women with smaller hands have been some of the biggest fans.
“My favorite thing is the size,” said Monica Bridgelall, a 27-year-old from Jersey City who has had an SE for two years. After breaking her iPhone 6, she decided to switch to an SE because she didn’t like any of the newer phone sizes. “It fits perfectly in my hand. I’m very clumsy — that’s how I broke my old phone — so just the size. I have the perfect grip on my phone.”
It was also the last iPhone with flat edges instead of the rounded corners that are now the norm on new smartphones. The flat edges make it possible to stand a phone on its side without resorting to something as garish as a kickstand-like PopSocket, provide an excuse to say the technical term “chamfered” in casual conversation, and are a hit at parties.
The iPhone’s hard edge can even be used as a wedge to pop off the tops of beer bottles, much like the side of a table, with minimal wear and tear. “It was surprisingly convenient as a bottle opener,” Zieminski said. “I have a lot of friends who use the iPhone SE or iPhone 5S for this.”
Another selling point is the headphone jack — Apple’s last before its still-controversial decision to remove it from its iPhone lineup. Now, people need to buy its wireless AirPod headphones or use a dongle to connect old headphones instead of charging. Apple’s latest SE announced on Wednesday is also missing a headphone jack and has just the usual Lightning port instead.
“I will go to then ends of the Earth to have a phone with a headphone jack,” said Kyle Wiens, co-founder and CEO of electronic repair resource iFixit. Wiens, who is based in California and dissects smartphones professionally, used to be an iPhone user but says he was pushed to Android when Apple dropped the headphone jack. Now, he carries a Motorola Moto X4.
Online company iFixit sells kits that let people replace a battery or broken screen on their SE themselves. Wiens says that in a recent month there were 20,000 visits on iFixIt’s website from people trying to change their old iPhone SE battery — about the same amount as for the iPhone 6S. iPhone batteries typically last about 500 full-charge cycles but then degrade. The SE was designed to be easily serviceable, says Wiens, which gives it the potential to last a longer time than the average phone-upgrade cycle.
Apple also offers support for old devices up to seven years after it stops making them, at which point owners can typically still find replacement parts from third-parties. So far, the company has included the older iPhone SE in its regular iOS software updates. (Even when an older device is not included in the big annual updates, Apple can roll out important security patches and updates for older iOS versions.)
People keep their smartphones an average of 2.6 years, according to market research company the NPD Group. They’re starting to keep them even longer, due in part to factors like a drop in carrier subsidies and easier battery replacements.
It’s also still possible to buy small phones new or used. Some telecom providers still offer original SEs with a contract, although they are frequently prepaid or locked. There were nearly 5,000 listings on eBay for that iPhone SE last month, and used-electronics site Gazelle had them in stock in most sizes, colors and carriers.
Swappa.com, a site that buys and sells used smartphones, predicts first generation iPhone SE supplies will decline by January 2021 to very low levels. Demand for the small phone peaked in September 2018 on its site.
For all its benefits, holding onto an original iPhone SE can be a lonely existence.
“I’m socially pressured to get a new phone at this point,” said Bridgelall, whose family teases her about her SE. “It’s pretty crazy. I guess it’s because everyone’s so used to their phone and the size of their own screen.”
A self-described SE evangelist, Wessman says he often asks people to hold his phone in their hand to “remember, physically, how good it felt.” He doesn’t think he has persuaded anyone to switch, but he waxes poetic about its size, its feel and the location of its buttons.
Virginia LaRoe hates change. The 37-year old Oakland, Calif., resident has been using small iPhones since 2013, eventually buying an SE. She says she felt as though she was the only person left with a small phone until one day a colleague at the First Amendment nonprofit organization where she works pulled out an even older phone that was the same size.
Recently, she decided it was time to move on. “It’s not that the phone ever died; it was just time. I had replaced the battery, replaced the screen, traded it in after it swam in the river.”
LaRoe bought a nearly six-inch-tall iPhone XR with face-detection technology late last year, and she is enjoying the better camera and longer battery life. But the size of the new phone has proved problematic, prompting her to drop it several times and even denting the camera. Her photos now look like they have a ghost in them.
Her last SE is still at home; it’s an option she said she considers more frequently as the days pass.