At this point, there’s no doubt that Apple’s iPhone 12, which is expected to launch later this year, will offer support for 5G networks. However, while nobody has really been talking about what Apple might do with its iPhone SE in that regard, new developments in 5G chip technology mean we might see a 5G-capable model of Apple’s budget iPhone soon too.
Up to this point, the big problem with 5G technology is that it’s expensive. The chips themselves aren’t cheap, and the effort required to engineer them into modern smartphones, ranging from building antenna-in-package (AiP) modules for the 5G frequencies to addressing performance and power consumption issues means 5G is not yet for the faint of heart or light of wallet when it comes to building smartphones.
In fact, it was these issues that led many to believe last year that 5G could only be coming to the “iPhone 12 Pro” models, or that these models might somehow get “better” 5G than the standard iPhone 12, however most recent reports have suggested that the entire lineup will be getting ultra-fast mmWave 5G when it finally arrives this year, with the only real outstanding question not being if they’re coming, but when they’re coming.
Wither iPhone SE?
So where does that leave the iPhone SE? Like most people, we’ve assumed that Apple won’t be in any big hurry to add 5G technology to that model, and considering everything that the iPhone SE already offers at a great price, it’s hard to be disappointed. Expecting 5G on a budget iPhone like that could very well be asking for too much.
Then there’s the fact that we really have no idea when Apple will even refresh the iPhone SE. The original model, released in 2016, lasted for around two years before it was discontinued, and then it took another two years before Apple came up with a replacement. Since the current iPhone SE already sports the same A13 processor as Apple’s iPhone 11 models, it’s very likely that it will continue to be supported at least through iOS 16, and Apple doesn’t need to be in a hurry to release an updated version.
The catch, however, is that lower-cost 5G smartphones are coming, and Apple isn’t going to want to be left behind. While Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X60 and Snapdragon X55 chips are arguably too powerful and definitely too expensive to pack into a $399 iPhone, the veteran chipmaker has just released a new upstart that could change the entire 5G landscape: the new Snapdragon X51.
Right now the X51 is part of Qualcomm’s newest 600-series CPU, the Snapdragon 690. These 600-series chips are typically used as the processors in very inexpensive Android smartphones, and while Apple uses its own A-series chips at the core of its iPhones, until Apple manages to get its own modem chip business off the ground, its 5G modem chips are coming from Qualcomm.
As The Verge notes, however, the new Qualcomm 690 will help to drive sub-$200 Android phones with 5G support, and once these begin arriving on the market—which may still take a year or so—it stands to reason that Apple is going to need to eventually follow suit. The Verge predicts that the first budget 5G smartphones could land as soon as Q2 2020 from vendors such as LG, Motorola, and Sharp.
Of course, these low-cost 5G smartphones aren’t going to support ultra-fast mmWave technology — the Qualcomm X51 only supports sub-6GHz frequencies anyway — so Apple’s flagship iPhones are still going to have the 5G advantage, but sub-6GHz is more than enough in a budget smartphone, especially considering how sparsely mmWave has been deployed so far.
While there’s basically no way that Apple will release a new iPhone SE before next spring, it’s certainly possible we could see a 5G-capable iPhone SE by this time next year, not to mention the reports that an iPhone SE Plus is still coming, and Apple could even chose to lead with that one as its first 5G-capable budget iPhone.