With the launch of the iPhone 9 looking like it's imminent, it'll be interesting to see how Apple's new budget handset compares to the likes of the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. The iPhone SE successor is rumored to cost around $400, which has raised questions as to what features and specs Apple might nix to hit that low price point.
Thankfully, it seems the new entry-level iPhone will retain one notable feature that is expected to debut in the next iOS release. 9to5Mac has unearthed code in iOS 13.4.5 that links CarKey — Apple's digital key API for vehicles that support the feature — to TouchID fingerprint sensors, and thus the iPhone 9.
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Because older iPhone models with TouchID authentication lack the ultra-wideband tracking capabilities present in the iPhone 11 family that virtual keys need to work, the theory goes that this hint in code must mean that the iPhone 9 will support CarKey, too.
That would be an important and unexpected inclusion for such a cheap phone. The ability to use your phone as a car key has taken some time to catch on, because the feature's adoption relies on car owners replacing their vehicles with newer rides. That said, the fact Apple is still going to the trouble to build that functionality into the iPhone 9 means those who buy one will be future-proofed, and the technology will continue to proliferate.
9to5Mac goes on to suggest that the iPhone 9 will support Express Transit payments even when the device is powered off or has run out of juice, as well as the ability to read NFC tags. With Apple reportedly looking to release Tile-like NFC tracking tags of its own in the near future, it'd make sense if that feature trickled down to Cupertino's cheapest handset.
Why the iPhone 9 could be the phone of 2020
Couple this latest news with everything we already think we know about the iPhone 9 — namely that it will likely pack Apple's flagship A13 Bionic processor and wireless charging inside a body that melds the iPhone 8's 4.7-inch proportions with the iPhone 11 Pro's stunning materials — and Apple's forthcoming cheap iPhone is beginning to look like one hell of a bargain.
In fact, it's starting to sound like the perfect smartphone at this time of economic uncertainty. Spending upward of $1,000 on an iPhone 11 Pro simply doesn't seem like the most prudent decision right now, to put it mildly — and the iPhone 9 looks to bring many of the same features owners love about those more expensive offerings down to an affordable price.
The biggest one, believe it or not, is performance. Cheap phones typically aren't very powerful. Sure, that affects more demanding use cases, like gaming — but more importantly, a smartphone with a slow processor is also likelier to age faster, and not last you as many years before you're forced to upgrade again.
Even our top pick for the best unlocked phone — the $399 Google Pixel 3a — utilizes a midrange Qualcomm processor, compared to the range-topping silicon found inside the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S20 and Pixel 4. If Apple can offer an iPhone that is among the fastest smartphones in the world, yet costs roughly a third of some flagship models, it'll have single-handedly invalidated every other cheap phone on the market.
Granted, that's not to say that the iPhone 9 will be the perfect phone at the perfect price. A 4.7-inch screen is really small these days, even speaking personally as someone who prefers more compact handsets. And given that it's expected to have an LCD display and single-lens rear camera, chances are the iPhone 9 is not going to satisfy those who especially love taking pictures and watching movies and TV on the go.
But if the iPhone 9 is lightning quick, well made and guaranteed to handle years of iOS updates, customers might find those tradeoffs are worth it. Cheap phones aren't always the easiest to recommend — that's why we at Tom's Guide review so many of them and compile buying guides to help you sift out all the bad ones. Should the iPhone 9 be the phone we hope it will be, it could change the game for the industry — and force all Apple's rivals to up theirs.
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Adam Ismail is a staff writer at Jalopnik and previously worked on Tom's Guide covering smartphones, car tech and gaming. His love for all things mobile began with the original Motorola Droid; since then he’s owned a variety of Android and iOS-powered handsets, refusing to stay loyal to one platform. His work has also appeared on Digital Trends and GTPlanet. When he’s not fiddling with the latest devices, he’s at an indie pop show, recording a podcast or playing Sega Dreamcast.