A 5G iPhone SE Is Coming (But Not Until Next Year)

iPhone SE Plus Concept Image 2 copy Credit: Gadget Match
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While you can pretty much mark your calendar as to when Apple will release its major iPhone lineup each year, it’s a lot more difficult to know with any certainty exactly what the company’s plans are for its more budget-friendly iPhone SE model, and rumours about this one have been all over the place.

After all, Apple has only ever released two iPhone SE models, and those were four years apart. After the original iPhone SE came out in early 2016, many hungered for a replacement for the much more pocketable iPhone, but despite many rumours, we didn’t see the next-generation iPhone SE materialize until last spring, and what we ended up getting was a very different device than many folks were hoping for.

In fact, by the time the second-generation iPhone SE arrived last year, it became apparent that the goal of the entry-level model wasn’t primarily to create a smaller iPhone, but rather a less expensive one that would appeal to those still looking for a more traditional design. In the case of the 2016 iPhone SE, that was the 2013 iPhone 5s, while the 2020 iPhone SE built on the 2017 iPhone 8, in both cases just taking those classic designs and adding the latest A-series CPU.

So, it’s been a fairly obvious trend, but it really begs the question about what Apple might do with the next iPhone SE, since it’s considerably harder for the company to continue hearkening back to older designs.

Following the trend of the first two iPhone SE models would mean that a 2024 iPhone SE would feature the design of the not-yet-released “iPhone 13,” which could make some sense depending on what the flagship iPhone models end up looking like by that time — certainly with rumours of folding iPhones swirling about, the iPhone 12 design that we know today may seem just as quaint and “classic” as the iPhone 8 did last year (and the iPhone 5 back in 2016).

Still, almost all the rumours we’ve heard about the next iPhone SE suggest that we’re not going to have to wait nearly that long, but they’ve still been all over the place. Reports that an iPhone SE Plus is in the works have been around since even before the 2020 iPhone SE was released, although they may have also been largely based on the assumption that if the iPhone SE replaced the iPhone 8, then there also should have been a replacement for the iPhone 8 Plus. Almost a year later, however, it’s safe to say that Apple never cared about replacing the larger model, perhaps expecting that most of those customers would have happily moved to an iPhone XR or iPhone 11, which are still in Apple’s current product lineup.

In fact, there’s a good chance that the 2020 iPhone SE at least partially cannibalized the sales of the iPhone 12 mini, since without any knowledge that a 5.4-inch flagship iPhone was coming, fans of the smaller form factor would have been more likely to jump on the earlier model as soon as it came out — especially after a four-year wait.

What’s Coming

Contrary to reports that the next iPhone SE is coming later this year, however, veteran analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has offered up his own predictions from Apple’s supply chain, noting that the next version of the device is in the works, but isn’t expected to make its debut until the first half of 2022.

If you’re hoping for a major design change, there may be some bad news on that front as well, as Kuo states that Apple is planning to keep the same traditional iPhone 8 design, complete with bezels and Touch ID home button, and will instead simply focus on adding 5G capabilities and bumping up the processor, likely to at least an A14, if not the A15 that will undoubtedly find its way into this year’s “iPhone 13” lineup.

Other rumours have suggested that the next iPhone SE would feature a full-frontal display and Touch ID power button, similar to what Apple did with the fourth-generation iPad Air last fall. Notably, these reports surfaced long before the new iPad Air made its debut, and in fact at the time nobody was even expecting the iPad Air to gain that design change. This means that these rumours weren’t simply based on projecting what Apple might do from an existing product, although it’s also certainly possible that analysts and their sources mistook Apple’s iPad Air plans for the iPhone SE roadmap.

Still, Kuo does note that moving to a Touch ID power button would “significantly improve” the user experience, so it’s definitely something he’s in favour of, but based on everything he’s been told so far, it’s impossible to predict when or even if Apple plans to do so.

Our Take

Kuo’s timing lines up with another report we heard last fall from display analyst Ross Young, suggesting that the third-generation iPhone SE wouldn’t arrive until early 2022, however that report still predicted that it would adopt a design more akin to the iPhone 11, with a full edge-to-edge display and likely the Touch ID power button.

At this point it seems possible that Kuo and Young may still be talking about two different devices, especially since it’s often hard to pin down actual timing from supply chain sources — most know what Apple is working on, but they don’t necessarily know when it’s going to be released.

Right now all the pieces have been in place for Apple to release a 5G iPhone SE, and it does seem odd that Apple would wait until the next year to release a model that offers only 5G capabilities, but doesn’t add any other significant design changes or improvements. This is even more true as Apple’s rivals introduce their own inexpensive 5G-capable smartphones — for example, Google’s answer to the iPhone SE, the Pixel 4a, already gained a 5G update last fall.

That said, it also seems very unlikely that Apple would release a 5G-capable iPhone SE later this year and then turn around and release a significantly redesigned version of the iPhone SE only six months later, so we’d surmise that if a simple “5G refresh” of the iPhone SE is coming this year, it’s going to arrive sooner rather than later.

As for the iPhone SE Plus? We don’t even think that’s really going to be a thing. While it’s likely that the next major design change for the iPhone SE could increase the size a bit, it’s most likely just going to be the next-generation iPhone SE, and not a “Plus” version.

Apple already has enough models in its current lineup, and with the iPhone XR still on sale for only $100 more than the current iPhone SE — and the iPhone 11 likely to fall into that same position this fall — it’s really hard to see where a second-tier “iPhone SE Plus” would fit in.

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