Why Apple shouldn’t make another iPhone SE

Like so many of us, the iPhone SE peaked a few years ago.

The pinnacle came in 2020, when the second-gen model earned the rare distinction of receiving rave 4.5-star reviews from two different Macworld editors here and here. It was a simple and compelling deal: compromise an older design for great performance at a bargain price. With its slightly retro look, the 2020 SE wasn’t for everyone, but it was worth recommending for those on a budget. “Not Apple’s best iPhone,” wrote my colleague Jason Cross, “but by far the best value.”

As is often the case with later entries in popular series, the problem is that the producer has forgotten what made it popular. Customers liked the combination of contemporary components and a reasonable price and were happy to put up with a two-year-old design. In contrast, last year’s inconsistent and disappointing 3rd gen SE tested buyers’ patience by offering a four-year-old design with the same single camera that still doesn’t have a night mode, and by increasing the price yet more damage done by $30. Apple also didn’t do enough to address the previous model’s biggest shortcoming, its so-so battery life. The iPhone SE had dropped the ball and missed the target.

Still, there’s always a next time, right? yes, about it

The iPhone SE 4 could right what once went wrong, but the signs suggest Apple will go too far in the opposite direction instead. Interestingly, sources are suggesting that the next SE could be based on the current iPhone 14, which will still be fairly new. Unless Apple overhauls its iPhone strategy, next year the iPhone 14 will sell for $699 and the iPhone 13 for $599. And if Apple keeps the iPhone 13 mini close, it costs $499.

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That doesn’t leave much room for the iPhone SE, which will almost certainly see a big price hike in its wake. OLED screens don’t come cheap, and Apple prices are trending up anyway, especially outside the US. The outdated design will disappear, but so will any remaining value. Maybe Apple can keep the new model under $500, but at least it feels more like a $549 phone. And like the 10th-gen iPad, this is the wrong price for a phone that’s sure to have compromises.

Nothing special

It’s tempting at this point to wonder why Apple would bother to keep making the iPhone SE when there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to bring value and performance together in the way 2020 has achieved. A combination of performance with the top-of-the-line A13 processor of the time, retro charm and price made a fantastic phone that really felt like a special edition.

But that was during the small window in which the iPhone SE made sense – after Apple switched to all-screen phone designs, but before the previous design became offensively dated. For a while, the company could repurpose its pre-iPhone X chassis to appeal to those on a budget who crave a home button, but those days are gone. The transition was cemented long ago, and interest in home buttons has waned while demand for all-screen designs has exploded.


Of course, the conditions for the SE to thrive may reoccur in the future. For example, if we eventually get a foldable iPhone, it’s possible that a non-foldable design will be marketed and sold as, say, the iPhone SE 7. (I’m pessimistic about the timescale.) On the other hand, this case feels muddier. As well as being a niche proposition for eccentric Luddites, non-foldable phones will co-exist alongside foldable devices until we’re all certain they won’t break in half. A significant market will still want to buy a traditional-style flagship iPhone and be willing to pay top dollar for the privilege.

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Perhaps a simpler example would be the Dynamic Island, the absence of which could be used to differentiate the next SE model (although my own experience with the iPhone 14 Pro suggests the Dynamic Island has a long way to go before it an upgrade becomes anywhere near as important as the move from the home button to the home display in 2017). Or the iPhone mini form factor that could easily be revived as the iPhone SE in 2024. The iPhone 13 mini, for example, has the same A13 chip as the current SE, a larger screen, twice the storage, dual cameras, an OLED display, and Face ID for $599. Apple could drop it $100 next year and stick SE branding on it, and it’d probably be just as good, if not better than the SE 4 that Apple is rumored to be working on.

At the moment, the SE just doesn’t make sense. When someone is looking for a cheaper iPhone, their best option is almost always to buy a model from a few years ago, rather than buying a quasi-new Frankenstein phone with a 2020 processor, 2018 camera, and 2015 design . Apple silicon has good durability, and your day-to-day experience is far more likely to be impacted by an old camera or small screen than an older processor.

In any case, one doesn’t get the impression that Apple is particularly interested in the budget market for which the SE was originally designed. Don’t force it, Apple. Ditch the SE and focus on the flagship phones you really believe in.

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