Apple could always deliver us a spring surprise, but at this point in time, you'd have to figure that 2024 is going to come and go without the iPhone SE 4 joining the best iPhones lineup. You'd also be excused for wondering if Apple's going to wind up regretting that move.
On the surface, it probably will not. Apple's been releasing smartphones steadily since 2007, and only three of those years involved an iPhone SE release. For its 2023 fiscal year, Apple sold more than $200 billion worth of iPhones, all without release a new SE model during the year. The company's doing OK for itself.
And yet, below the surface, things aren't all that rose. Apple may have sold a lot of iPhones last year, but it still recorded 2% fewer sales than it had the year before. Meanwhile, over on the Android side of the fence, there's never been a better selection of the lower-cost midrange devices that compete with the iPhone SE. And the longer we go without an SE update, the more of an afterthought Apple becomes in this category.
The iPhone 16 updates coming out in the fall and the rumored addition of AI-centric features in iOS 18 should keep Apple's phone business firing in 2024. But it definitely feels like there's an iPhone SE-shaped hole in the company's plans.
What a new iPhone SE could bring
You could certainly understand why Apple might consider an iPhone SE release this year. After all, it's been two years since the iPhone SE (2022) arrived, and that was a hasty follow-up to the iPhone SE (2020), released two years after its predecessor to add 5G compatibility. (On a side note, if Apple holds off on the iPhone SE 4 release this year, it will be the first time in this decade that there's been no new SE model in an even-numbered year.)
The iPhone SE (2022) was a fine update overall, but as it retained the iPhone 8-inspired design from 2017, it quickly began to look dated. And that's even more true as Apple's newer phones have added additional screen space by replacing the notch with a Dynamic Island cutout.
Clearly, a new look needs to be at the top of the iPhone SE 4 wish list, and that's exactly what's rumored, with the new model adopting the look of the more recent iPhone 14. There's also talk of an upgraded camera — think the 48MP sensor featured on the iPhone 15 — and newer silicon than the A15 Bionic found in the current SE model. Ideally, Apple would add missing features like support for night photography, too.
It sounds like we're in for a wait to see if any of that pans out. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo isn't expecting the iPhone SE until 2025 at the earliest, and the rumor mill is more quiet than it should be if an iPhone SE launch was imminent. We're hearing more steady rumors about iPhone 16 models and that phone's not coming until the fall.
Stepped-up competition from Android phones
When it does arrive, the iPhone SE 4 will step into a very different competitive landscape than its predecessors faced. That's because Android phone makers have produced a number of devices in the iPhone SE's price range that are among the best cheap phones available.
I've already gone on at length about how much I appreciate the Pixel 7a, a phone that costs less than $500 but delivers the same kind of AI-powered experiences found on the Pixel 7. (No surprise since both phones use the Tensor G2 system-on-chip.) When the Pixel 8a arrives later this year, you can expect it to match the Pixel 8's feature set, as it's likely going to feature that phone's Tensor G3 silicon.
Samsung's focus may be on its Galaxy S24 flagships at the moment, but after those phones debut next week, it won't be long before the midrange Galaxy A55 arrives. (We're already seeing leaked renders of that phone suggesting that a springtime launch is probably in the works.) We don't know much about the Galaxy A55's specs, but going on how well the Galaxy A54 performed, we could be looking at another device that's as good as or better than the current iPhone SE without costing that much more.
And we're having this discussion right before the OnePlus 12R makes its debut. This is the first time OnePlus is shipping one of its R series phones outside of China and India, but those models typically deliver many of the premium OnePlus flagship features at a much lower cost. If the OnePlus 12R can produce solid photos, it gives budget-minded smartphone shoppers another option while the iPhone SE stagnates.
Speaking of cameras, they're a big reason why the iPhone SE finds itself losing ground to all these midrange models, which can simply do more than Apple's budget phone. I've mentioned the lack of night support on board the iPhone SE — you can see how that impacts the Pixel 7a vs. iPhone SE photo comparison above — but midrange phones from Google and Samsung also offer ultrawide angle cameras. That's missing from the iPhone SE, and while it's a feature some people can live without, it does make rival phones more flexible than Apple's handset.
iPhone SE outlook
Apple doesn't pay much mind to what its competitors are doing when it makes decisions bout its phones. The likely lack of an iPhone SE update this year no doubt reflects Apple's belief that it will benefit from waiting to release an iPhone SE 4. (My best guess for a 2025 launch date? The AI features Apple is planning for iOS 18 may need the processing power of an A18 system-on-chip to run fully on a device, and the A18 isn't going to be available for a new SE model until next year.)
But there is a risk to waiting, especially if the competition continues to move midrange phones forward while Apple stands still. And until a new version of the iPhone SE arrives, stuck in place is exactly where Apple's entry-level phone business finds itself.
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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.
In my opinion, Apple's current product strategy (selling the last two models as lower cost options) has virtually eliminated the possibility of a competitive iPhone SE. Not just in 2024 - maybe ever. For the iPhone SE 4, people currently seem to envision a $500 phone with the iPhone 14's body and OLED display, the iPhone 15's main camera, and the most current SOC. That just seems fundamentally unviable to me. With that phone in the lineup, who would possibly buy an iPhone 13 for $599? Or an iPhone 14 for $699? And honestly, it would get really hard for many people to justify buying the iPhone 15 for $799.Reply
So, how about that phone in 2025? There's little point in selling an iPhone 14 against an iPhone SE that has a more modern SOC and camera and sells for $100 less. And if you suggest it might have the iPhone 16's (rumored) non-pro A18 SOC, then the iPhone 15 looks like a really bad buy. None of this is helped by the fact that all current iPhones are virtually indistinguishable from the iPhone 12 at a distance.
An iPhone SE 4 with the iPhone XR's body and display would help keep Apple's current product strategy intact, but few would call that a competitive phone when $500 Android phones are running 6+" OLED displays at 90+ Hz. An iPhone SE 4 with the iPhone 13 Mini's body and display would delight a segment of Apple's users, but it might look a little wimpy by current standards. I just don't see how you can release anything that competes directly with even a Samsung A54 or Pixel 7a and doesn't cannibalize sales of the last two models that Apple still wants to sell.
Honestly, I'd love to be wrong about all of this. Even better, I'd love to see Apple stop selling old flagships and release Pro, regular, and SE models every year. But when Apple is earning many billions selling older model phones above the mid-range Android price point, I have a hard time imagining that the finance team would allow a competitive iPhone SE to exist.