Jailbreaking the 1st Gen iPhone SE: Optimizing Software for Small Hardware

Adam (Futur3Sn0w)
12 min readMar 24, 2021
The Original iPhone SE in all it’s beautiful, 2012-era glory.

A Bit of Background

The 1st generation of Apple’s iPhone SE (I’ll be referring to it as simply ‘iPhone SE’ or ‘the iPhone SE’) was released back in March of 2016 alongside the iPhone 6S & 6S Plus. It had an identical chipset as the 6S, the A9; a 64-bit processor, capable of running the latest iOS 14 as of March 2021.

The device sported an almost identical chassis to the original iPhone 5 released in 2012, with some refinements, including the same TouchID sensor found in the iPhone 5S released in 2013.

The device’s small, 4in. form factor made it a huge success to the crowd of those who wanted both a budget iPhone, and a smaller one, starting at $399 for the 16GB model, and maxing out at $499 for 64GB.

The SE was a great device for many, and today, it holds up well in the performance department. It doesn’t compete with the newest iPhone 12, but it is insanely quick and snappy, making simple tasks like scrolling through Twitter, listening to music, and even watching some YouTube, a more than pleasant experience.

The Software- Experience?

Although the SE still supports the latest iOS 14, Apple hasn’t done great with optimizing iOS for small, or big screens, being rather ‘just okay’ in both cases. The UI feels cramped and overcrowded on smaller screens, whereas it’s too spaced out and stretched out on bigger screens.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 6 Plus, they added a feature they called ‘Reachability’, which would bring the screen down about halfway by double-tapping on the Touch ID sensor. This made reaching elements at the top of the display easier, but it still felt like there was more to be done, and even in the latest iPhone 12 Pro Max (I still don’t forgive you for that horrible naming, Timmy…), reachability is the only option when it comes to making one-handed use more accessible.

For obvious reasons, the reachability feature was not brought over to smaller devices, as (most of) these devices didn’t need it. After all, the benefit of a smaller device with a smaller display was that you could easily reach all four corners of the display without doing crazy hand gymnastics.

However, as time went on, Apple’s iPhone lineup included less and less smaller display sizes, and iOS wasn’t a forethought for these devices, rather, the devices that had larger screens, or at least, larger screens than that of the SE.

The Control Center on the SE is one specific design that is just a joke on the SE. The controls are absolutely tiny, and elements that aren’t used all the time, such as music controls, are always there- whether you need them or not. Rather than making controls that could fit better on this display, Apple took their controls from one standard display size, and scaled them accordingly on their appropriate screen sizes, again, making the SE’s UI feel claustrophobic, and the bigger device’s screens feel like a miniature TV.

So, how do we solve the issue of the too-much-not-enough software to hardware ratio? Well, that’s where Checkra1n comes in.

Jailbreaking: The Magic of Checkra1n

Without rambling too much about the specifics of Jailbreaking, the basic idea is that; with Jailbreaking, you can unlock your device to make software-based modifications that aren’t normally allowed through the stock software. Checkra1n, a Jailbreaking utility available for download to macOS and Linux, will allow us to unlock our device in this way. (If you’re an expert in Jailbreaking & iOS modding at all, you’ll be happy to hear that I am purposefully simplifying the process & explanations. I know there’s much more to it, believe me, I’ve been jailbreaking since iOS 3!)

The goal is to maximise the screen to its fullest potential, without shoving too much into the small space. Another mini-goal is to make these modifications without altering the performance of the device too much, hence, making it more difficult to live with, not less. We want to make the experience more enjoyable!

If you’ve never jailbroken an Apple device before, any devices (phones specifically) from the iPhone X and below are a great place to start, especially those released between 2015 and 2017, as those are compatible with the Checkra1n jailbreak, and will be until the end of their life cycle.

These devices have a hardware exploit that allows them to always be jailbroken, as long as the Checkra1n creator(s) update their software. Hence, it’s quite easy to jailbreak those devices.

I won’t link any tutorials here, as I’m not sure what the ramifications are on Medium, but if you’re interested, Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and even a simple Google search are all a great place to start. Check out r/Jailbreak on Reddit if you’re interested.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss the modifications I’ve made to my own iPhone SE that make it much more fun to use!

Before We Begin…

There are a few things you should know before I show off my setup.

  1. Things are subject to change!
    This setup, my tweaks, and even iOS as a whole are all variables in this process. This means that at any time, from the time I post this article, to the time you see it, things might look and/or act different. Tweaks may not be available, they may have new or different functionalities, etc. Keep that in mind when reading this!
  2. My device is used as an archive device
    Okay, so, admittedly, this one may not be as important to some people, but it is worth noting. I use this iPhone SE as an archive device. This means that, even though (as of writing) the latest version of iOS is iOS 14.5, my device is still on the GM of iOS 14.0. It will stay on this version for as long as I can keep it, so I can compare newer versions of iOS in the future.
  3. Jailbreaking comes with no warranty
    It may be obvious, but Jailbreaking is notoriously controversial in the tech space, as Apple doesn’t want you to do it, and the Jailbreak community isn’t the friendliest. If you are one who likes to be (overly) cautious, I cannot stress this enough: DON’T DO THIS ON YOUR MAIN DEVICE!
    I am in no way responsible for any bricked devices (nearly impossible with modern Jailbreaks, but still), severe migraines from pulling your hair out, or sleepless nights due to many failed attempts at anything you read here. It’s not always easy to beginners. But if you’re really enthusiastic, it’s not hard. You can do it!
  4. This is for entertainment purposes ONLY!
    This is not an advertisement or an advisement for or against jailbreaking. This article is just something I’ve wanted to write for a while, and I’m finally doing it. (London Tipton says: Yay me!)
    My own main device is an iPhone 6S+, and, although it is Jailbroken, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been doing this for years. It’s become second-hand nature to me, and it may not always be to someone who comes across this article. Please keep this in mind when reading.

Okay okay, enough with the warnings. Let’s get to the fun stuff.

Part One: The Cover Sheet

The Cover Sheet (or Cover Screen) in iOS consists of two parts: the lock screen and the notification center. In iOS 11, these two components which were previously separate, were combined into one interface, making accessing things from anywhere much easier. So, here are the modifications I’ve made to my Cover Sheet.

The Cover Sheet: Before & After

Alrighty. There only a few things of note here.

  • The statusbar is removed
    This is done to maximise screen space, as most of the elements there, to me, anyways, are unnecessary. The battery percentage shows up when you plug the device in, hence, the battery doesn’t need to be shown. I don’t have a SIM card in this phone, so I don’t need a constant reminder, and I know if the device is locked or not; so I really don’t need the lock icon to remind me. Other items are more ‘nice-to-have’, rather than ‘need-to-have’.
  • The clock & date are redesigned
    You’ll notice that the time & date are completely overhauled from their normal look. This is a choice made for 2 reasons: aesthetic and functional. Aesthetically, it just looks cleaner. The splash of color makes it feel more personalized, and honestly, just more fun! Plus, the addition of the weather, which hides automatically after a few seconds, is a great inclusion for glanceability (about 99% certain I just invented that word.) Functionally, the right-alignment of the text, paired with the matched size of the text, makes the UI feel more consistent, and ‘out-of-the-way’; which is especially nice when using different wallpapers.
  • Misc
    The only other elements, the text & page dots at the bottom, are hidden. I find them unnecessary, since I use iOS all the time. I know that there are multiple pages, and to press the home button to unlock, so I don’t need it to tell me.
    This, of course, frees up a great amount of space for wallpapers, of which, I chose this (oddly aesthetically pleasing) Flamingo-centric one.
  • Behind the scenes
    What you can’t see is the removal of the camera swipe, and the ‘Today’ or Widgets page. I very seldom use these features, so, I disabled them.
    Notifications are also pretty much identical to stock, which is why they’re not shown here.

Part Two: The Home Screen

The Home Screen: Before & After

As you can see, there’s quite a few (smaller) changes here to go over.

  • The removal of the status bar
    Okay, so, this one was a bit crafty. Since iOS 14 allows you to place widgets on your home screen, I decided to eliminate the status bar in favor of the two widgets on top: the battery percentage, and the clock. The larger view of the information makes it much easier to read than that tiny status bar, and also adds a bit of space at the top of the screen to give the content room to breathe.
  • Shifting downwards
    You may notice that the main content-view of the home screen is moved slightly down from the stock home screen. This is done to further enhance one-handed access, as well as, again, to give the content room to breathe.
  • Labeless
    You may notice that the suggested apps view, the two rows of apps on the home screen, have no labels when compared to stock. There are a few reasons for this. For starters, this device, for my usage, only hosts about 20ish apps, including the stock ones. I removed as many apps as I possibly could, as I use this device for testing. That, paired with my years of knowledge of the iOS icons means that I just don’t really need the labels. This is purely preference based, if you ask me, so some might prefer to keep them enabled. To have things all in one size (with the exception of the automatically hiding weather) makes the UI feel more consistent, and The widget labels are also removed to simplify the UI. You can choose to enable just the app labels, or just the widget labels, but I removed all labels.
  • Aesthetics
    Starting off, you’ll notice that the app icons are different from stock. This is to give the UI a refreshed look and feel. Any icon pack can do this, but I really like the ‘kindaStock’ icons used here. Next, you’ll notice that the icon radius is a bit increased. I’m a sucker for rounded corners, and I love the look of the increased border radius, but it’s purely for looks, and provides no extra or removed functionality. Lastly, you’ll notice that the dock has rounded corners, mimicking that of the iPhone X (and later) devices. Again, this is purely for stylistic purposes, and although it doesn’t change the functionality of the device, it does make things feel a bit more fluid.
  • Behind the scenes
    So, what am I not seeing? Admittedly, not much. To keep the device running as smooth as possible, I didn’t want to include a bunch of extra tweaks or features that could potentially slow the device down, so I kept my tweak quantity to a minimum. The only main changes are the app library, which I switched to show only the list view, and not the ‘categories’ view, and the addition of the double-tap to lock gesture, so I don’t have to press the sleep/wake button every time I want to lock the device.

Part 2.5: The Keyboard

The Keyboard: Before & After

The keyboard is one of the most important, and intricate parts of any smartphone. The idea is to keep things simple on the outside, while letting the tech on the inside be as complex as necessary.
So, let’s discuss what I changed.

  • Colors
    The stock iOS keyboard changes colors for seemingly no reason throughout the UI. In some applications, it’s dark (as seen in the before image), and in other apps, it’s light. My solution? Make the theme follow the system-wide dark mode! The background is a translucent white in light mode, where in dark mode (seen in the after image), it’s a stark, opaque black. While this is mostly for aesthetics, it also makes the keyboard better suited to its’ surroundings. The color-toggling when enabling/disabling dark mode is just common sense to me, as it matches whatever the theme is in the UI you’re using.
    You’ll also notice that the keycaps & shadows are removed. This is to make the keyboard feel bigger on the tiny display, without actually changing the size of the keys themselves.
  • Number row
    Although this goes against the ‘less on screen, not more’ MO that I’ve been going with so far, this is mainly a preference thing. I like having the numbers accessible anytime I’m using the keyboard. I honestly wish Apple would implement this into stock-iOS, as this is truly one of the first modifications I make when jailbreaking a new device.
  • Behind the scenes
    The only major difference that you can’t see in pictures (besides the light-mode keyboard), is the predictive-text, smart bar. The number row is part of a larger ‘Predictive Bar’ feature that automatically switches from numbers, to word predictions in applicable text fields. It means that, in most scenarios, the option you require is there whenever you need it, be it numbers or predictive text. Additionally, if you’re in a case where you need the numbers instead of the predictive text, or vice versa, you can swipe vertically to change the view to the alternate. I think this is a massively underrated feature, and I use this even on my personal device.

Part Three: Apps

The Experience within Apps: Before & After

Okay, so, there’s quite a bit to digest here. We’ll start from the top (literally) and work our way down through the UI.

  • The status bar
    For starters, you’ll notice that the status bar is completely redesigned. As you may have gathered by now, I mainly use this device as a sort of… iPod Touch. Hence, you’ll notice that all mentions of cellular are removed from the status bar. I also removed some common items, such as rotation lock, and location services icons, since they just clutter up the already limited space.
    I also moved the clock to the leftmost side of the screen, since there was nothing on that side after removing cellular info. It just felt right to move it from the center to the right.

To Be Continued…

This is just the first part of the design changes on my iPhone SE. Come back soon to view and read the rest of what makes this phone so great!

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Adam (Futur3Sn0w)

I’m Adam, better known online as Futur3Sn0w. I’m a graphic designer and (sometimes) music producer/DJ. I also moonlight as a writer!