When Apple discontinued the tiny iPhone SE back in the fall of 2018, it left people who wanted a smaller, less expensive iPhone without many options and was seen as part of a larger strategy to push people toward more expensive phones and drive iPhone profits even higher. Now the iPhone SE is back.
Apple just launched what it’s calling the second-generation iPhone SE. It’s supposed to check off three boxes in the iPhone lineup—smaller, cheaper, and still performant—but the “smaller” part is what’s changed. Back when the original iPhone SE launched, a 4-inch diagonal display was the most popular iPhone screen size. Now, as people have gotten accustomed to larger phones, that average has gotten bigger. So this new iPhone SE has a 4.7-inch display and looks identical to the iPhone 8.
It starts at $399 for a model with 64 gigabytes of internal storage and goes up from there (128 GB and 256 GB versions are also available). Preorders start April 17, and it starts shipping a week later.
The most significant technological feature in this new iPhone is its chip system. Apple has decked out the second-generation iPhone SE with the same chipset that’s in its top-of-the-line 2019 iPhone 11 Pro phones. That’s the A13 Bionic, which has an eight-core neural engine and both a CPU and GPU that is significantly faster than the chip in the original little iPhone SE. This chipset is also a large part of what will make photos captured on the iPhone SE look pretty good. But otherwise, this iPhone SE is a little glass-and-aluminum bundle of older tech—and Apple is wagering that a lot of people won’t mind, given the low price.
Some of the cost-saving elements of this phone are obvious. It has a 4.7-inch LCD, something Apple calls its Retina display, which is not quite as brilliant as the OLED displays on flagship phones. It has an old-school Home button with TouchID but no other bio-authentication features—although the return of the Home button isn’t necessarily a bad thing for people who miss the tactile feel of it on phones. It also has haptic touch, a newish feature that launched with the iPhone XR in 2018. This lets you touch and hold an app to access more menu options for that app, and it was considered by some to be a lower-tech replacement for the 3D Touch technology Apple introduced in 2015.
The new iPhone SE goes on sale April 17 starting at $399.
This new iPhone’s camera system is one of the big differentiators between this new phone and Apple’s flagship iPhones. The front-facing camera, while capable of taking a shot in Apple’s Portrait mode, lacks a TrueDepth camera. This means the phone doesn’t use FaceID to unlock the phone, and any depth effects in photos are applied by software.
The iPhone SE’s rear camera is a single-lens system, while the iPhone 11 has a dual-camera module and the iPhone 11 Pro a triple camera. Similar to how Google made photographic magic happen with limited physical hardware on its older Pixel phones, Apple is wielding its software tools to add Portrait mode, Smart HDR, stage lighting effects, and auto white balancing to the iPhone SE’s rear camera. But it will still have some of the limitations of other single-camera iPhones; Portrait mode, for example, will work only on photos of people but not pets or objects.
The phone has a proprietary Lightning connector, part of Apple’s ongoing refusal to add USB-C to its phones. It also charges wirelessly, via Qi technology, and is capable of fast charging. The phone supports Wi-Fi 6, dual-SIM and e-SIM technology, and fast LTE. But a 5G iPhone this is not, which is not surprising. Apple hasn’t been as fast to roll out 5G-ready phones as some competitors, such as Samsung, and analysts have suggested that Apple won’t introduce 5G phones until late 2020 or even 2021.
The iPhone SE ships running the latest version of iOS software, iOS 13, and is bundling some of its new services with the purchase of the phone—specifically, one year free of Apple TV+, the company’s relatively new original video service. (While the phone is capable of running Apple Arcade games, that will still cost $5 per month.) Services have been an increasingly important part of Apple’s business, growing year over year even as iPhone sales have slowed. Given the storage caps on the new iPhone SE, it’s not unreasonable to think that customers might also opt into iCloud storage plans, too.
Apple first introduced its iPhone SE back in the spring of 2016, citing the popularity of the earlier iPhone 5S as the reason for bringing back the slim, pocketable form factor. It was also much cheaper than the flagship phones Apple would launch each fall: The original 2016 iPhone SE started at $399, compared to the nearly $800 starting price of the iPhone 7 that launched later that year. A year later Apple refreshed the iPhone SE. This newer one included double the storage capacity of the prior model—a good thing, since the 16-gigabyte and 64-gigabyte options in the 2016 phone were dismal.
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But in September 2018, Apple discontinued the iPhone SE, leaving price-sensitive consumers, people with smaller hands, or just die-hard 4-inch iPhone fans dismayed. In bringing it back this year, the company is finally offering people another low-cost option, albeit one with a larger screen.
Apple is launching this new iPhone SE during a time when a global pandemic has killed more than 100,000 people, has ravaged economies, and has created great uncertainty around both global supply chains and consumer demand for discretionary goods like new electronics. Analysts have suggested that, given Apple’s long lead times for planning, designing, and manufacturing phones, most products pegged to the first half of this year should still ship. And Bloomberg News just reported that Apple’s iPhone shipments are rebounding, as manufacturing in China slowly resumes. Any new iPhone launch at this point will help make the point that Apple is capable of shipping its marquee product even under the most dire circumstances.
That doesn’t mean people will necessarily buy new phones this year at the rates they were prior, especially since smartphone replacement cycles had slowed even before Covid-19. At the same time, if people are looking to buy a new iPhone this year, want a solid (software-enhanced) camera, and want to spend less than $500, this new, 4.7-inch iPhone may serve that need.