The launch of the iPhone SE 3, expected to happen sometime this month, presents Apple with a unique opportunity unimaginable to anyone convinced any device carrying that apple-shaped logo comes with a steep price tag. Should pricing rumors prove true, Apple could establish itself as the go-to maker of inexpensive smartphones.
To be fair, not every one of the best iPhones commands top dollar. The iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 mini are relatively affordable for flagship devices, and the iPhone 12, iPhone 12 mini and iPhone 11 remain available at significant discounts. The current iPhone SE is even among the best cheap phones in our rankings (even if that's largely because the superior Pixel 5a costs more than the $400 limit we set for that list).
Still, those iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 models are between a year and 2 years old, and while $399 is certainly cheaper than every other Apple phone, it's still a lot compared to some of the discount Android devices you can buy.
That's primarily by design. Apple insists that it prices products as inexpensively as it can — it's just that standards Apple holds itself to keeps the cost of Apple hardware on the higher end of the scale, relative to competitors.
"There's some stuff in our industry that we wouldn't be proud to ship, that we wouldn't be proud to recommend to our family and friends. And we can't do it," Steve Jobs said back in 2007. "We just can't ship junk." The Apple co-founder was fielding a question about cheaper Macs at the time, but it's a philosophy that's guided all of Apple's products, including the iPhone.
The iPhone SE 3 offers Apple a chance to change that — not by reversing that "we can't ship junk" doctrine, but rather by lowering the entry-level cost of an Apple-built phone.
To that end, a rumor that emerged in the past week raises a potentially exciting possibility about iPhone SE pricing going forward. Loop Capital Markets analyst John Donovan suggested the upcoming phone could debut for as little as $300 — a $100 discount from the iPhone SE 2020's $399 asking price.
That may be a hard feat to pull off. While an overhaul isn't expected for the iPhone SE, the low-end iPhone model is expected to get a newer A15 Bionic chipset — the same silicon Apple includes in the iPhone 13 lineup — and 5G compatibility. Those kind of components don't come cheaply, so a $100 price cut would be a very pleasant surprise from Apple, especially with most observers hoping the company holds the line at a $399 starting price. (That would still be $50 less than what Google charges for the Pixel 5a.)
There's another way Apple could lower the entry fee for getting an iPhone, and it was floated by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman over the weekend. In this scenario, Apple would launch the iPhone SE 3 — most likely under an iPhone SE 5G moniker if rumors pan out — but keep the current iPhone SE around. The cost of that model would then drop; Gurman suggests $199 as a fair asking price.
Though it's about to celebrate its second birthday, the iPhone SE 2020 remains a solid budget phone. The A13 Bionic inside the SE still outperforms a lot of the newer Android handsets in this price class, and though Apple's device comes with just one rear camera, computational photography features powered by the A13 delivers some pretty stellar shots. No one would suggest that Apple has started shipping junk if the current iPhone SE sticks around at a reduced cost.
While a cheaper price on the iPhone SE may appeal to a budget-conscious segment of US consumers, it would be an even bigger hit in overseas markets where 5G connectivity is less of a selling point — certainly not when a relatively recent iPhone capable of running iOS 15 can be had for less than $200.
Apple still hasn't set a date for the iPhone SE 3's unveiling, though that could come soon. So we've still got a bit of waiting to do to find out how much the 5G model will cost and whether the current iPhone SE will stick around at a discount. It's possible Apple could keep pricing as is, and still enjoy a great success with the iPhone SE 5G. But it certainly feels like the company has a real opportunity to usher in a new era of iPhone pricing.