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iPhone SE 3: The 6 most important features rumored for Apple's phone

iPhone SE 3 concept on a blue background
(Image credit: Apple Lab)

The iPhone SE 3 is widely expected to be Apple's next phone release, as Apple looks to freshen up the cheapest iPhone you can buy with some new features that are noticeably absent from the current version.

With the current iPhone SE just a few months shy of its second birthday, it may seem like a relatively short gap between updates, especially since Apple went four years between the launch of the original iPhone SE and the 2020 version. But trust us — it makes sense for Apple to push out an update sooner rather than later if the low-cost iPhone is to maintain its appeal.

Apple watchers expect an Apple event in March or April where the iPhone SE 3 could make its debut. When it does appear, expect these features to be on the new iPhone's spec sheet.

1. 5G connectivity

5G is the likely reason we're getting an iPhone SE update now.

Frankly, this is the likely reason we're getting an iPhone SE update now. When the iPhone SE 2020 arrived, 5G networks had been around for barely a year, with speeds only a little bit faster than LTE in most cases. The ensuing two years have seen 5G rapidly spread across the country. T-Mobile's nationwide network now reaches 308 million people, and 200 million of that total have access to the carrier's fastest Ultra Capacity 5G speeds. By the time of the iPhone SE 3's rumored launch, AT&T and Verizon will have thrown the switch on their 5G expansion based on C-Band spectrum, delivering faster speeds to more of their customers.

In Apple's current lineup, the iPhone SE and the iPhone 11 are the only phones to lack 5G support. Those also happen to be the two least-expensive phones Apple has on offer. At the same time, Android phone makers have been adding 5G connectivity to devices that cost $500 and less. Our list of the best 5G phones includes several low-cost models.

Apple has come to embrace having a low-cost option among its smartphones, as it expands the company's appeal beyond premium smartphones. (It also helps with Apple's overseas business in countries where people aren't willing to pay top dollar for an iPhone 13 Pro Max.) For the iPhone SE to remain an attractive option for bargain hunters, the phone will have to work with 5G.

2. A15 Bionic chip

Apple follows a pretty recognizable playbook with its iPhone SE releases — take the chipset that powered last fall's flagship iPhones and insert it into the low-cost model you introduce the following spring. That's why the original iPhone SE ran on the same A9 system-on-chip found in the iPhone 6s and why the iPhone SE 2020 used the iPhone 11's A13 Bionic chipset.

a15 bionic

(Image credit: Apple)

Should Apple stick to that same pattern with the iPhone SE 3, we're looking at the A15 Bionic chip that debuted with the iPhone 13 family last fall. That's great news if you're in the market for a new iPhone but don't want to pay $699 or more for one of the iPhone 13 versions. The A15 Bionic remains the best performing mobile silicon that we've tested. Any phone powered by an A15 should keep pace with the competition for several years — even if the phone powered by that chip is a budget model like the iPhone SE.

3. Night mode support

It seems unlikely that Apple will ramp up the number of lenses from the single camera that's been a mainstay of the iPhone SE. It does have to differentiate between that phone and the iPhone 13 mini some way, after all. But there are photographic features that Apple could add without having to opt for a second lens.

iPhone SE 2020 review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The biggest thing missing from the current iPhone SE is support for Night mode. Presumably, the iPhone SE will have enough horsepower under the hood to support the computational photography needed to improve low-light shots. Google's Pixel 5a has a night mode, which helps place this low-cost device among the best camera phones, so the iPhone SE 3 will need to keep pace.

4. A better battery

As much we appreciate the current iPhone SE, one area in which Apple's phone does not deliver involves battery life. When we tested the iPhone two years ago, the iPhone SE last a little more than 9 hours, which is below average for a smartphone.

iPhone SE 3

(Image credit: MajinBu)

There's only so much Apple can do with battery life, given the rumors suggesting the design of the iPhone SE isn't changing for the new version. (More on that in a bit.) However, last fall's iPhone 13 release does give us hope that Apple's figured out a way to boost battery life for its phones. After every iPhone 12 model save for the iPhone 12 Pro Max took a step backward with battery life, Apple bolstered longevity for each of the comparable iPhone 13 models, with a couple even landing on our list of the best phone battery life.

True, the primary way Apple did this was by opting for bigger batteries for the iPhone 13, which may not necessarily be an option available to the iPhone SE 3. Still, we hope Apple's learned something about power management that will allow any new phones to last longer on a charge.

5. Face ID for the iPhone SE

Every phone Apple sells except for the current iPhone SE supports Apple's face unlock feature. It's rumored that this will change for the iPhone SE 3, even if Apple maintains the phone's current design. (And from what we've heard, it will.) The idea is that the upcoming phone will still find a way to add the necessarily sensors to support the feature while also maintaining the Touch ID fingerprint sensor that occupies the bottom bezel. That could make the iPhone SE 3 the only current iPhone you'll be able to unlock with your mask still on.

6. A new name for the iPhone SE

The iPhone SE 2020 is officially just the iPhone SE — that "2020" part is thrown in there just to not confuse it with the original model. Now that there's a third iPhone SE in the works, though, Apple may be motivated to come up with a more distinct name — and not just by sticking a "3" after the "iPhone SE" part.

At least one rumor suggests the new device will debut as the iPhone SE Plus — a potentially confusing name, given that apple typically uses the Plus moniker to differentiate devices with smaller screens. It's also possible that Apple could name its new phone the iPhone SE 5G as a way of calling out the most significant thing about this particular model.

What we're not getting: A new iPhone SE design

When rumors of an iPhone SE 3 first surfaced, many assumed Apple would take the opportunity to update the phone's look and feel from the iPhone 8-inspired design it currently uses. But that's apparently not happening — the latest rumors suggest Apple is keeping that 2017 look right down to the 4.7-inch screen surrounded by sizable bezels on the top and bottom of the display.

In one sense, you can understand where Apple is coming from. Adopting a notched design, even if it meant a bigger screen, would make it hard to differentiate the iPhone SE 3 from other phones in its lineup — chiefly the iPhone 11 or iPhone 13 mini, depending on the size of the display the company wound up using. Keeping the current design keeps the iPhone SE separate from the rest of the lineup. That it also likely keep costs down is another reason to stick with the current form factor.

Still, that doesn't make the iPhone SE's likely look feel any less dated. And it would have been nice to usher in a new design with a new phone.

Philip Michaels
Philip Michaels is a senior editor at Tom's Guide. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics and old movies. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.