Next Year’s iPhone SE Will Be the ‘Cheapest 5G iPhone Ever’

iPhone SE Product Red 2020 Credit: Walid Berrazeg / Shutterstock
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We’ve suspected Apple planned to bring 5G to its wallet-friendly iPhone SE since even before the company unveiled its iPhone 12 lineup last year, and it appears that Apple’s plans are still on track to release it sometime in early 2022.

The idea of the iPhone SE gaining 5G capabilities began to seem feasible when Qualcomm announced a really inexpensive 5G modem chip for budget Android smartphones, bringing the technology within reach of Apple’s $399 iPhone SE as well. Even though Apple has been working on its own 5G modem chip since at least early 2019, it’s a long process and unlikely to be ready before the 2023 “iPhone 15” arrives.

Meanwhile, Apple is stuck relying on Qualcomm for 5G modem chips, but since these are the chips that also power every 5G Android smartphone, it gives Apple plenty of options to choose from.

With the next-generation iPhone SE not expected to arrive for almost another full year, it’s almost a given that it will include 5G capabilities. However, now it looks like Apple wants to prioritize affordable 5G over adding other bells and whistles, or even giving the iPhone SE a new design.

What’s Coming (and When)

Earlier this year, veteran Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo quashed hopes that the new iPhone SE would arrive this fall, indicating that, as far as Apple’s supply chain is concerned, the new entry-level iPhone won’t land until the first half of 2022.

It’s a timeline that makes a lot of sense, in fact, since that would put it two years after the early 2020 release of the second-generation iPhone SE, while also keeping it out of the way of Apple’s flagship “iPhone 13” lineup that’s expected to land in September (as usual).

While it’s hard to establish a trend from only two product releases, the last two iPhone SE models came out in the spring of 2016 and 2020, respectively. While some have suggested that this makes 2022 too soon for the third-generation iPhone SE, it’s likely that Apple doesn’t want to leave a non-5G iPhone languishing in its lineup for any longer than it has to.

More to the point, however, Kuo has recently doubled down on his previous report that the 2022 iPhone SE will not feature any design changes at all. It seems that Apple would rather add 5G capabilities while keeping the cost down — and the price the same.

After all, the 5G-capable iPhone 12 mini already sells for $699, and includes Face ID, an OLED screen, and a much better camera system. This price point will also likely continue with the 5.4-inch “iPhone 13 mini” when it arrives later this year.

Apple also still sells the 2019 iPhone 11 for $599 and the 2018 iPhone XR for $499. While we don’t know yet what Apple will do after the new iPhone models launch this fall, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the iPhone XR drop off the bottom while the iPhone 11 moves down into the $499 mark.

Even if that doesn’t happen, however, this doesn’t leave much room for the iPhone SE to go up in price. It’s fair to say that Apple intends to keep it at its affordable $399 price point, and Kuo suggests Apple will position it as “the cheapest 5G iPhone ever.”

That would be no small boast, either. While there are some budget 5G Android smartphones available, they don’t hold a candle to even the current iPhone SE when it comes to the overall package of screen, camera, and design elements. In short, they’re all cheap smartphones, not just in price, but in build quality.

A good budget 5G Android smartphone will still run you around $499, which is basically where Google’s Pixel 4a 5G lands. So, a $399 iPhone with 5G capabilities will easily dominate the lower-end of the market.

That said, Apple will do more with next year’s iPhone SE than simply throw a 5G modem chip in. It’s also naturally expected to gain the latest CPU — very likely the same A15 chip that will appear in the yet-to-be-released “iPhone 13” lineup. However, the design will still be very much in line with the current iPhone SE, which was, of course, based on the 2017 iPhone 8. Whether we’ll see any camera or screen upgrades is an open question at this point.

By all reports, Apple still has bigger plans for a future iPhone SE, however, so next year’s model may simply be intended as a stop-gap to get a 5G-capable model out.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve heard multiple rumours of an iPhone SE 2 Plus that would feature an iPhone 11 or iPhone 12 like design without Face ID or a TrueDepth camera (and the accompanying notch). Instead, the power button would include the Touch ID sensor.

What’s interesting is that none of this technology seems all that insurmountable. After all, Apple added power button Touch ID to the fourth-generation iPad Air last fall, and better screen and camera technology has been available since the iPhone XR launched in 2019.

The real challenge for Apple, however, may be in figuring out how to pack all of this technology into the iPhone SE and still sell it for $399. By comparison, the iPad Air 4 starts at $599, and even the two-year-old iPhone XR goes for $499 — and neither of these devices include 5G connectivity.

At this point, Kuo has been a bit quieter on what’s happening with this more advanced 6.1-inch iPhone SE design. Some rumours have said it could launch as soon as 2023, but not only is it still far too early to know anything substantial, but it would also mean moving the iPhone SE closer to an annual release cycle.

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