iPhone SE 3: Wait or buy the iPhone 13?

iPhone 13 or iPhone SE 3: which should you buy
(Image credit: Tom's Guide/TenTechReview/xleaks7)

If the iPhone SE 3 rumors are to be believed, in a couple weeks you'll have a new device to choose from when shopping for the best iPhones. Apple is reportedly going to update the least expensive iPhone in its lineup with a new model that features 5G compatibility and a faster processor.

For fans of the iPhone SE lineup, upgrading to the new model seems like a no-brainer. And anyone who grabbed an iPhone 13 since those phones came out last fall is probably happy with their current smartphone situation as well. But what about people who've held out on upgrading their iPhone? Does the anticipated arrival of the iPhone SE 3 change their calculation any?

We won't know about whether an iPhone SE 3 upgrade is worth it or not until Apple makes the new phone official and reveals all of its specs. But based on the rumors so far, we can make some pretty good guesses as to the areas where the iPhone SE 3 will be most appealing and where the iPhone 13 models will still hold the edge.

If you're debating whether to get an iPhone 13 or an iPhone SE 3 once that latter model arrives, here's a rundown of the upcoming phone's likely strengths and weaknesses to help with your decision-making process.

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Rumored vs confirmed specs

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 iPhone SE 3 (rumored) iPhone 13 mini iPhone 13
Starting price$399$699$799
CPUA15 BionicA15 BionicA15 Bionic
Screen size4.7 inches5.4 inches6.1 inches
Adaptive refreshNoNoNo
Rear cameras12MP (wide)Dual 12MP (Wide, ultrawide)Dual 12MP (Wide, ultrawide)
Front camera12MP True Depth12MP TrueDepth12MP TrueDepth
Size 5.5 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches5.2 x 2.5 x 0.3 inches5.8 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Price

Let's face it — if you haven't already bought one of the iPhone 13 models, price is probably a big reason why. Even with the iPhone 13 mini starting at $699 and the iPhone 13 costing $799, that's a lot to pay for some people (though the best iPhone 13 deals can help reduce that cost). 

We don't know yet what the iPhone SE 3 is going to cost, but we feel pretty confident that it will be less than the iPhone 13 mini by some margin. The current iPhone SE costs $399 — a $300 difference. Even if Apple has to adjust that price upward to account for the expense of adding a 5G modem to its budget phone, that's not likely to be a big jump. After all, Google's 5G-capable Pixel 5a costs $449, and it also includes a second rear camera lens — a feature the iPhone SE 3 is unlikely to support.

Apple faces other pressures to keep the cost of the iPhone SE down — namely the rest of its iPhone lineup. In addition to the iPhone 13, Apple sells older models like the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 11, but at reduced prices. The iPhone 11, for example, currently costs $499, and you'd expect Apple would want to keep some distance between that price and the cost of a new iPhone SE. (It's also possible, that Apple could drop the older iPhone 11 from its lineup to make way for the iPhone SE 3, though that's not typically the company's m.o.)

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Size

The iPhone SE has traditionally appealed to fans of the best small phones, thanks to its compact size. And while initial iPhone SE 3 rumors dropped the possibility of Apple opting for a larger screen, the current conventional wisdom claims that Apple will stick with the iPhone SE 2020 design for its current model, meaning another device with a 4.7-inch screen. If you're put off by oversized handsets, the iPhone SE would seem to be right up your alley.

iPhone SE 3 concept on a blue background

iPhone SE renders (Image credit: Apple Lab)

But hold the phone — the iPhone SE is not actually the smallest device that Apple sells. That would be the iPhone 13 mini, which at 5.2 x 2.5 x 0.3 inches is both shorter and not as wide as the 5.5 x 2.7 x 0.3-inch iPhone SE 2020. That's despite the fact that the iPhone 13 mini packs in larger 5.4-inch display.

iphone 13 mini face down on candy bars

iPhone 13 mini (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Assuming the iPhone SE 3 sports those same dimensions as the phone it's replacing, it's going to be larger than the iPhone 13 mini as well. So if compact phones appeal to you, there's no need to wait for the iPhone SE 3's arrival — the small iPhone of your dreams is already available.

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Power

When Apple releases an iPhone SE, it typically turns to the same chipset powering the flagship iPhones that came out the previous fall. That's why the current iPhone SE runs on the same A13 Bionic as the iPhone 11 that preceded it.

Rumors suggest the iPhone SE 3 is going to continue that trend, which would mean that Apple's A15 Bionic chipset is likely to power the upcoming phone. That's the same silicon you'll find inside every iPhone 13 model, from the mini all the way up to iPhone 13 Pro Max.

a15 bionic

(Image credit: Apple)

The iPhone SE 3 may not include as much RAM as those other phones — Apple never discloses how much memory its phones offer — but it will be able to match their processing power. Considering that the A15 Bionic is the fastest mobile chipset we've tested, that's a pretty impressive claim for a phone likely to cost less than $500.

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Camera

With rumors claiming the iPhone SE 3 will retain the current iPhone SE's design, we take that to mean Apple isn't going to add a second camera to join the 12MP shooter the SE currently relies upon. Some camera improvements may be in the works, like the addition of support for Night mode. But an ultrawide angle camera and (especially) a telephoto lens appear to be off the table.

iPhone SE 2020 review

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

That won't necessarily preclude the iPhone SE 3 from joining the ranks of the best camera phones. The current iPhone SE fares pretty well, even if the Pixel 5a is the best budget camera phone. But given the flexibility provided by multiple camera lenses, people who really want a fully featured camera phone would be better off opting for one of the iPhone 13 models.

iPhone SE 3 or iPhone 13: Battery life and charging

This is one category where it's impossible to predict how the iPhone SE 3 will compare to the iPhone 13 lineup until we find out more about Apple's plans. Each model of the iPhone 13 saw an increase in battery size over the comparable iPhone 12 model, and as a result, battery life improved across the board for the iPhone 13.

That said, the iPhone 13 mini is the only iPhone 13 model to finish below the average smartphone on our battery life test, so there's only so much increasing a phone's battery size can do. If Apple also boosts the battery in the iPhone SE 3, that could improve battery life, but given the phone's compact size, it's unlikely to match the staying power of the larger iPhone 13 models.

iPhone 13

iPhone 13 and MagSafe charging (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The iPhone SE could fall behind the iPhone 13 lineup in another way. Rumors suggest Apple won't include support for MagSafe wireless charging, even if it does support wireless charging in general. That means the easily attachable MagSafe chargers won't work with the new iPhone SE model, which would be a bit of a bummer.

iPhone 13 or iPhone SE: Outlook

The iPhone SE 3 figures to be a winning choice for people who want a new iPhone but don't want to pay too much for the privilege. And the likely addition of an A15 Bionic chip means you won't have to sacrifice power to save money. But if you value a long-lasting phone, top-tier photography or some combination of those features, the iPhone 13 may be a better choice. 

We'll know for certain in March, when the iPhone SE 3 is supposed to make its debut at the rumored Apple Spring event .

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.