What the iPhone SE Taught Me about the Smartphone Market

For the past two weeks, I’ve switched from my iPhone 6s Plus to the iPhone SE. Seeing the two devices next to each other, it was hard to imagine a more dramatic change in screen real estate for a device I use so much. But I was committed to trying the SE for a week just to make sure I had the full experience of the device. To my complete surprise, here I am two weeks later and I don’t feel the need to go back to the 6 Plus. I’ll explain why and what this experience taught me about the smartphone market as a whole.

The iPhone SE challenged many of my core assumptions about the right screen size for my usage. When I made the decision to go with the Plus sized iPhone, I did so on the singular basis of productivity. I am mobile for a good portion of my daily work routine. I take a lot of meetings and spend less time at a desk using a PC than I do out and about using my smartphone in the course of my day. My belief was the 6 Plus gave me the most screen real estate and therefore, allowed me to be more productive. This logic is the consensus thinking on the traditional notebook and desktop form factors. Bigger screen personal computers allow us to do more and be more productive. However, the tasks which require more screen real estate are generally not the most common tasks. What my time with the SE made me realize was, in general, the benefits I got from the larger screen, in terms of productivity, were things I did less frequently. Perhaps most surprisingly, this experiment caused me to reconsider the productivity and efficiency I lost in being able to operate my smartphone solely with one hand. This is the real stand out observation of my time with the SE.

My conviction that the larger the screen, the more productive I could be, was made without fully understanding the trade-offs of losing one-handed operation. The Plus sized iPhone requires two hands to do just about anything unless you have extremely large hands. Being able to reach every aspect of my screen while holding the phone one-handed might actually be the most productive and efficient scenario for a mobile device. If I was weighing one-handed operation against the many other trade-offs I’ve come across using smartphones of all shapes and sizes, I think one-handed use is the one thing not worth compromising on if possible. Obviously, as folks get older and their eyes get worse, a screen size which displays information larger may become the highest priority. This is where the lesson of the overall market comes into play.

Thanks to some research we conducted, developed market consumers have owned, on average, just over 3 smartphones in their life. In contrast, I have owned a new one every year since 2005, and in many of these years, I try for at least a short period of time a number of others. Most consumers do not have this luxury to try and experiment with such a vast and diverse set of hardware and software features. If even someone like myself had not fully internalized the trade-offs and the value associated with certain features over other ones, then how can a normal consumer have had such a chance to refine their needs, wants, and desires having only used approximately 3 smartphones in their lifetime? Understanding these trade-offs is hard to fully appreciate or understand until you have really had a chance to evaluate what you need. We hear consumers say things like “this device does all I need” or words to that effect. I seriously question if that’s true, given how little a chance consumers have to truly refine and understand what their needs are.

What I’m suggesting is the smartphone market may not be as mature as people think. It may still be in the process of maturing as hardware companies are continuing to add new features and experiences that consumers are wrapping their heads around. We may be a few years off from consumers not just understanding what they want, but why they want it. As much as I loved the Plus sized iPhone, I’ve come to appreciate how much superior my mobile experience is when I can fully operate my smartphone with one hand. The SE also has better battery life than the Plus. In my experience with the 6 and 6s, I killed the battery by early afternoon because of how much I use my smartphone. Again, all things I would not have known without trying them all. Something most people don’t have the luxury of doing.

To this point, I wonder if, as a part of Apple’s iPhone leasing program, they don’t make it easier for consumers to experiment in the future in some way. Most of the things I experienced can not be figured out in a retail store and without using the phone as your main device for a period of time. This would be tricky for Apple since they don’t want an influx of used devices but I think there is something to this point of truly helping consumers get what they want and need.

While using the SE, I feel like I discovered a secret — bigger is not always better and being able to operate your smartphone with one hand may actually be the most productive and efficient way to operate a mobile device. One handed use of a smartphone may also be the most underrated feature out there. I can’t see myself going back to the Plus even though there are something things like 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine I do miss.

This experiment clarified to me there is still room for the market to mature and try new devices to fully realize what they want and why they want it. Everything in tech is a trade-off and understanding those trade-offs by consumers is when the market will truly be mature.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

28 thoughts on “What the iPhone SE Taught Me about the Smartphone Market”

  1. I may switch To SE from 6s because I want to be less productive on iPhone. Apple Watch has taken over a lot of what I relied on iPhone for. This reduced the iPhone sucking my attention, which is a good thing. But, when I moved to 6s from 5s, iPhone usage seems like it’s gone back up because of larger screen. I prefer rounded edges of 6s and iPhone battery case is brilliant life saver when traveling. But, otherwise, ready to go back to smaller screen.

    1. Honestly, that is another thing that stood out to me specifically on the weekends. I don’t feel as compelled to do too much, so while I find it extremely efficient to do productivity stuff during the week, I also don’t feel as compelled to do as much on the weekend. Not entirely sure how I explain that one.

      It really does feel like the perfect size to me, but I also have average size hands at 5’11. My wife won’t go back from the 4.7 since she doesn’t use a computer or tablet just the phone.

  2. 2 things:

    1- one-handed is a fuzzy concept. I find I can do a lot one-handed on my 7″ phablet because I adjusted my grip (to a… non-grip: the phone rests on my finger pads, I don’t grip it around, so my thumb gains a lot of mobility, with a few contortions). Now I’m having trouble with smaller phones because I lost the “grip like a fork” habit.
    2- It’s not so much about doing more or less stuff, it’s about what’s comfortable for an individual. I’ve used everything from 4.3″ to 7″ in 1″ increments. To me, reading and gaming becomes comfortable at 6″ (I do a lot of reading on my phone), and videos at 7″.

    The litmus test is that I don’t feel compelled to take my 10″ tablet to catch up on videos/news/reading at lunch break, my phone is comfortable enough for that. Around me, most people with small to medium phones to take their tablet along, unless they’re solely messaging.

    I saw somewhere an attempt at renaming phablets to “media phones”. I think that’s the gist of it: larger phones are better for media consumption. Your preference may depend mostly on whether you use your phone for that.

    I’ll probably shoot for a 6.4″ 16:9 phone when I decide to renew my current 7″ 16:10 one. There’s choice at that size, it will make handling a bit easier, and it won’t negatively impact videos which are 16:9 anyway. My main issue with downsizing is losing some widget space; and Office work is going to be even more unpleasant, but that’s a lost cause anyway.

    1. Yea, as I said it is all about knowing your usage. For example, if a consumer does not have a PC or tablet, or if that and they mostly play games and watch videos then bigger is better. Or if you have large hands or tall then bigger works because you can still use it one handed mostly.

      My overall point was just the knowing what you need and that most people have not vetted that fully. Tricky problem.

  3. It’s funny to think that not very long ago nearly everyone considered smaller to be better. Apple bragged that only they could make such a powerful smartphone in such a small package. Now it is a revelation that smaller phones are a better fit for many people than 2-handed behemoths.

    The only reason I won’t switch to the SE from a 6S is that it doesn’t have 3D touch. An unfortunate lapse on Apple’s part.

    1. Sony has stuck with it the whole time, with their Compact variants. They’re barely bigger than the iPse (+5mm/0.2″ in both dimensions, same thickness), in spite of a much larger screen (4.6″ vs 4.0: much smaller bezels), and are reasonably high-end (latest top of the line Snapdragon: 810 on the Z5 Compact). They’ve got a dedicated following indeed.
      Not really anything at the midrange, Sony’s Z3 Compact (again !) serves for that. 2014’s compact flagship, today, $320. The Z5 is barely $100-$150 more though.

      1. The Sony Xperia Z5 Compact (4.6 inch screen) is 5 inches tall by 2.55 inches wide and .35 inches thick. The iPhone SE (4 inch screen) is 4.87 inches tall by 2.31 inches wide and .3 inches thick. Data from each of their websites, and GSM Arena backs it up (although it says the Compact is 2.56 inches wide, not 2.55). From a volume perspective the Sony Compact is about 32 percent larger than the iPhone SE.

        My wife just got an iPhone SE, finally upgrading from her iPhone 4S. The SE is a really nice size, very pocketable, screen is large enough. I wouldn’t want it the slightest bit bigger, certainly not over 30 percent larger.

        The Sony Compact looks like a great phone, but describing it as “barely bigger” is an exaggeration. You can tell it’s bigger with the naked eye. For me, barely bigger would mean I couldn’t tell which is larger just by looking at them, and if you look at any comparison photos or videos, the size difference is obvious. I imagine by “barely bigger” you mean “I hate Apple” 🙂

        1. I’m utterly sorry for the distress I caused you by saying
          1- 0.2″ isn’t a lot of difference
          2- Apple didn’t magically or geniusly reinvent small phones all by themselves.

          Here, have an apple cookie. Want a hug ? Want me to play that iPhone presentation clip ?

          Get a grip, man.

          1. 1. It isn’t 0.2 inches, it’s more than that, almost a quarter inch width-wise. Also thicker (where you said “same thickness”, wrong again), and 32 percent larger by volume. The point stands, barely bigger is an exaggeration. The Compact is noticeably larger.

            2. I didn’t say anything of the sort. My Samsung phone is far smaller than either the SE or the Compact, and predates both.

            The Sony Compact is a nice phone, but it is not barely bigger than the SE. I suppose that could be because I’m more observant and detail-oriented than you. I once spent two hours realigning my 16 ft x 4 ft kitchen island because it was a quarter inch off square. I could see it, easily. I’ll admit it’s possible not everyone can see this kind of thing as easily as I can. So perhaps in your mind the Compact is actually barely bigger than the SE. But of course you’re wrong, you’re just not able to see the 32 percent difference in size.

          2. And it’s 0.13″, not 0.2″, bigger in the other dimension. Sorry for roundign things up and down I guess ?

            Get a grip. that’s less than 5 and 10% in both dimensions. A lot, indeed. An incredibly large lot. A HUGE lot. Let’s have a hissy fit about it.

          3. You round 0.13 up to 0.2? How strange. Why not be exact? It isn’t hard. Also, it’s a three dimensional object, volume is what matters. I suppose if it was a flat piece of paper you’d have more of a point. But it isn’t. Is the size difference huge? Of course not. But it is also not accurate to say the Compact is barely bigger than the SE. It is 32 percent larger. I’m not defending Apple, I’m defending truth and accuracy. Tell the truth and be accurate. That’s a simple choice you have to make.

          4. I told the truth and was reasonably accurate from the get go. You should get some perspective and stop blindly angling and nitpicking for your Apple shares at every turn.
            The iPSE is 0.2″ smaller than the Z5C in both dimensions, it’s not creating nor re-creating a size bracket by itself.
            No go whine somewhere else.

          5. You’re still ignoring the difference in thickness, which makes the Compact 32 percent larger overall. I didn’t say anything about Apple creating a size bracket, only that the Compact is 32 percent larger, and 32 percent is not “barely bigger”. Just admit it, I’m technically correct, and that’s the best kind of correct to be 🙂

          6. You still willfully disregarded that I rounded both ways… “technically correct” you weren’t. “extremely biased” in you partial corrections you were. Is anyone surprised ?

          7. None of your rounding or floundering changes the fact that the Compact is 32 percent larger. Please do have the last word.

          8. If only that 32% mattered. More than the 0.2″ in both dimensions that do matter.
            If only your whole discourse wasn’t proven to be selectively false, idiotic and agenda-driven.

          9. The actual size of a three dimensional object actually does matter. The Compact, while a very nice small phone, is less pocketable than the SE, especially given the rounded corners on the SE. Hey, Sony could use this slogan: “Sony Compact, One Third Less Pocketable.”

          10. Indeed, the pocketability measure is a mainstay of most phones reviews. I’m sure you have plenty of examples ?

            Or maybe… pocketability is mostly a binary quality ? And mostly irrelevant ? Especially compared to usability, which is what Ben wrote about ?

            Keep digging your hole… what next ?

            – I’m rounding the wrong way, except I’m rounding mostly the right (for iFan and iShareholder you) way.
            – Then you introduce volume as a measure of usability, which nobody ever did anywhere.
            – Carefully ignoring the iPhone’s huge bezels which by pushing the screen away lower usability much more than thickness; But that’s not in Apple’s favour, so that’s obviously ignored by iGorilla. Apt nickname you chose by the way.

          11. Heh, so with your idea of rounding, that means the iPhone 6 is “barely bigger” than the Sony Compact. Sweet.

          12. with your idea of volume, it’s actually smaller. Surprised nobody noticed it. Or not. Because volume doesn’t matter much if at all.

            Keep going, this is fun !

            Also, quasi half an inch bigger is significantly bigger. To anyone but biased bad faith iFan such as you.

          13. I did notice the iPhone 6 was smaller by volume. So if I’m hearing you correctly you’re saying the actual size of a three dimensional object doesn’t matter. That’s an interesting interpretation of reality. It’s good news if true though, imagine all the space we’ll all save now that you’ve shown us volume doesn’t matter.

            Also interesting that you say “quasi half an inch bigger is significantly bigger” and yet a quarter of an inch (in your mind) is somehow “barely bigger”.

          14. You do realize we’re talking about phone usability. Indeed, 0.05″ extra thickness makes no difference. Glad to enlighten you. Again. And again. And again.

            Where do you reckon the difference between “barely” and “significantly” is when talking about 5″ ? I’m standing by 0.13″ is “barely” (3%) , and 0.44″ is “significant” (9%). Let me guess, you think in “magic” and “genius” (someone else, obviously ?)

        1. Tolerances are way below 0.2″, but indeed that’s a very small difference when you don’t have them side by side.

          75% of smartphone owners use a case, so the chamfer/roundness is provided by that , I guess.

  4. You would experience several such surprises trying a Palm Treo.

    The physical keyboard makes it possible to type while looking at the text, instead of jumping between looking at fingers and text all the time. Because you can feel where your fingers are, like on a PC keyboard. Result: much faster text input.

    The much higher resolution of the touch sensitive layer allows to position the cursor precisely behind the one wrong letter with one targeted tap. Result: the typo is corrected long before iOS would even start to display the magnifying glass.

    Entering a time is done by pressing digit keys. I have entered the start and end time, before people with iOS or android have managed to stop the scroll wheel at the intended position for the starting hour.

    And it goes on and on. Notes can be arranged in groups etc. etc.

    I’m now on my third iPod Touch and on my second iPad. But I still use the Treo for scheduling the day and for taking notes, because it is so much better.

    The touch screen with virtual keyboards was phantastic for people who entered text by pressing the digit “2” three times to get the letter d. But for people who know how great good tiny keyboards can work, it was a huge step back.

  5. Interesting, I’m going through basically the same thing switched from having a personal phone (6Plus) to just having my work phone (5S). I traded my 6Plus to offset the purchase of a 9.7″ iPad Pro so I’ve gone from mostly using a large smartphone only using a 4″ phone. Shocking, but the same lessons that you saw are now apparent to me as well. The adjust period was surprisingly quick. I’ve eliminated some things I used to do on the phone and those either won’t happen at all or will happen later on the iPad or Mac and my day actually improves with this method. My plan was to get a new personal 5.5″ in September, but suddenly I’m thinking I don’t need the big phone at all!

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