The new iPhone SE feels like an old friend

Announced with little more fanfare than a press release, the new iPhone SE's launch felt like a whisper compared to the years of requests for a smaller, cheaper model in Apple's range. The original iPhone SE hit a double-whammy at the time. On the one hand it captured those who felt like the bleeding-edge of smartphones were simply too large; on the other, those who begrudged paying $600+ for a modern handset.

The industry has moved on, but those motivations remain. 2020's iPhone SE has the same price tag as 2016's version. Its screen may feel borderline-anachronistically scaled compared to what many of us are using, but for some it will be a welcome nod back to more hand-friendly times.

Apple keeps its costs low by reusing an old design, of course. That helps the iPhone SE with its $399 starting price, but it also means it benefits from a reality back in 2017 when the iPhone 8 first launched. Those Cupertino engineers sure do know how to make a sweet-feeling smartphone.

This is not something you'd pick up and think "hmm, yes, definitely a cheap device." From the anodized metal frame, to the smooth curve of the glass front and back where it meets that aluminum, there's something both tactile and reassuring about the new iPhone SE. That's more than I could say about a lot of affordable Android phones.

That there's deja-vu doesn't come as too great a surprise. After all, muscle-memory is a powerful thing: we may be several generations on from the iPhone 8, but clearly my hands remember it with fondness. And Apple has, of course, trod this path before with the original iPhone SE.

What has struck me this second time around, though, is the gulf between the feelings from using 2020's iPhone SE and Apple's other most-recent smartphones. Back when the original SE launched, the then-flagship iPhone 6s it sat alongside still had a home button. Its screen was smaller, but it was still flanked with sizable top and bottom bezels. It felt – indeed it was – a smaller version of that flagship.

The 2020 iPhone SE feels like a different species compared to the smartphones Apple launched in late 2019. Putting aside even the clear size discrepancy between it and the iPhone 11 Pro Max that is my daily-driver, next to the iPhone 11 Pro it's a very different experience of an iOS smartphone. In the years since the iPhone X my fingers have built up some muscle-memory of their own, yet here most of their swipes and gestures are out of place.

The reality is that something had to give, and even had Apple wanted to drop an edge-to-edge touchscreen into the new iPhone SE, it probably couldn't. When you make your own processor design rather than buy it from, say, Qualcomm, you can afford to drop the latest silicon into your $399 smartphone. Similarly, when you don't need to completely retool for a brand new external design, you can probably afford to stick with metal and glass.

There's only so far the bill of materials can be squeezed when you're shopping for screens, however. The end result is a feeling of stepping back in time: not unwelcome, necessarily – and I'm sure those finally getting around to upgrading from an iPhone 4s or something equally ancient will appreciate the relative consistency – but jarring all the same.

Even in my first hours with this phone, I've a feeling I can already predict what my broad verdict might be. The iPhone SE does something only Apple, arguably, can, by virtue of what it makes itself, the software it builds, and its iron-grip over the supply chain. I can already appreciate its value as a $399 for a large audience of people, even if I can already foresee a time when I – like many of you reading this – butt up against its limitations as someone used to having the latest-and-greatest in my pocket.

That's fine, though. There's room in the smartphone world for a range of phones, maybe even more so in this current pandemic when budgets are tighter and $1k+ purchases seem increasingly rash. Making new friends is great, but there's nothing quite like catching up with old friends, either.