Like so many of us, the iPhone SE peaked several years ago.
The high point came in 2020, when its second-gen model secured the rare distinction, here and here, of being given gushing 4.5-star reviews by two separate Macworld editors. It was a simple and compelling deal: compromise on an older design, and in return, you get superb performance at a bargain price. With its mildly retro looks the 2020 SE wasn’t for everyone, but for those on a budget, it was well worth a recommendation. “Not Apple’s best iPhone,” wrote my colleague Jason Cross, “but its best value by a mile.”
As is often the case with later entries in popular series, the problem is that the maker forgot what made it popular. Customers liked the combination of up-to-date components with a low price and were happy to accept a two-year-old design as the payoff. Last year’s uneven and disappointing 3rd-gen SE, by contrast, tested buyers’ patience by offering up a four-year-old design with the same single camera and no night mode, and added insult to injury by hiking the price by $30. Apple also didn’t do enough to address the previous model’s biggest failing, its mediocre battery life. The iPhone SE had dropped the ball and missed the mark.
Still, there’s always next time, right? Yeah, about that.
The iPhone SE 4 might put right what once went wrong, but the omens suggest Apple will instead go too far in the opposite direction. Intriguingly, sources suggest the next SE could be based on the current iPhone 14, which will still be fairly new. Unless Apple overhauls its iPhone strategy, the iPhone 14 will sell for $699 and the iPhone 13 will cost $599 next year. And if Apple keeps the iPhone 13 mini around, it’ll slide in at $499.
That doesn’t leave much space for the iPhone SE, which will almost certainly incur a big price hike. OLED screens don’t come cheap, and Apple prices are trending upward anyway, particularly outside the U.S. The elderly design will be gone, but so will any remaining value. Maybe Apple can keep the new model under $500, but it feels more like a $549 phone at least. And like the 10th-gen iPad, that’s the wrong price point for a phone that’s sure to have compromises.
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 of bringing together value and power in the way it achieved in 2020. A combination of power with the then-top-of-the-line A13 processor, retro charm, and price made a fantastic phone that truly felt like a special edition.
But that was during the small window when the iPhone SE made sense—after Apple had switched to all-screen phone designs, but before the previous design became insultingly old-fashioned. For a while, the company could re-use its pre-iPhone X chassis to appeal to those with a small budget and a hankering for a Home button, but that time has passed. The transition was cemented long ago, and interest in home buttons has dwindled just as demand for all-screen designs has exploded.
Of course, the conditions for the SE to thrive may arise again in the future. If we eventually get a folding iPhone, for instance, it’s possible that a non-folding design will come to be marketed and sold as an iPhone SE 7, say. (I’m pessimistic about the timescale.) Then again, that case feels muddier. Non-folding phones won’t be merely a niche offering for eccentric Luddites, but will co-exist alongside folding devices until we’re all sure they’re not going to snap in half. A significant market will still want to buy a flagship iPhone in the traditional style and be willing to pay top dollar for the privilege.
Maybe a simpler example would be the Dynamic Island, the lack of which may be used to differentiate the next SE model (although my own experiences with the iPhone 14 Pro suggest the Dynamic Island has some way to go before it becomes anywhere near as significant an upgrade as the switch from the Home button to the Home indicator in 2017). Or the iPhone mini form factor, which could easily be resurrected in 2024 as an iPhone SE. The iPhone 13 mini, for example, has the same A13 chip as the current SE, a larger screen, twice the storage, a dual camera, an OLED display, and Face ID for $599. Apple could drop it by $100 next year and slap SE branding on it, and it would probably be just as good, if not better than the SE 4 Apple is allegedly working on.
For now, the SE simply doesn’t make sense. If someone is looking for a lower-priced iPhone, the best option is nearly always to buy a model from a couple of years ago, rather than a quasi-new Frankenstein phone with a 2020 processor, 2018 camera, and 2015 design. Apple silicon has a good shelf life, and your day-to-day experience is far more likely to be marred by an old camera or a small screen than by an older processor.
In any case, one doesn’t get the sense that Apple is especially interested in the budget market for which the SE was originally designed. Don’t force it, Apple. Give up the SE, and focus on the flagship phones you really believe in.