Why I’m skipping the iPhone SE for the iPhone 12

(Image credit: EverythingApplePro/Apple)

So I'm the guy who back in 2016 bought an iPhone SE as soon as he was able to. I'm also the guy who spent the better of the past two years demanding that Apple release a follow-up to its low-priced compact phone. And when Apple finally did exactly that, I'm the guy who proclaimed that he was going to buy the iPhone SE, even though I knew the iPhone 12 was on the way..

Which is why it must be a surprise to everyone — me, most of all — that instead of carrying around a 4.7-inch device that's the cheapest iPhone available, I instead have been using an iPhone 11 Pro Max. If you're keeping score at home, that's Apple's biggest, most expensive phone — as far away from the iPhone SE you can and still be in the same county.

I feel like I need to explain. Or at least confess.

No, I didn't migrate from my original iPhone SE to the iPhone SE 2020 like I said I was going to back in April. And while Apple's newest phone remains at the head of my wish list, at this point I may hold off until the fall, just to see if the less bulky members of the upcoming iPhone 12 family hold any special allure for me. In the meantime, I should probably detail the circumstances that conspired to keep me from fulfilling my iPhone SE destiny.

Upgrading your iPhone: Why the timing wasn’t right

First of all, there's a global pandemic on — you might have read about that in the papers. And while the $399 iPhone SE may be uniquely situated to capitalize on shoppers' desire to be more frugal these days, buying a new smartphone feels like a nice-to-have in an uncertain economic environment if you can get away with not upgrading.

The trouble was, my current iPhone SE was having problems charging, as I noted back in April. All the online troubleshooters who wrote in to tell me it was probably some wayward debris blocking the charging port proved to be correct, but my ability to dislodge the lint with a toothpick proved fruitless. And Apple Geniuses were in short supply, since all the Apple stores in my area were shut down due to well-founded coronavirus concerns.

I could have upgraded from the dying iPhone SE then and there, but I also wanted the rebate for trading a functional phone. It was a small amount in the greater scheme of things, but it would have been enough to cover the cost of upgrading the on-board capacity on the iPhone SE. I wasn't about to leave money on the table, so I decided to wait out the COVID-19 outbreak with a replacement phone.

This is definitely not an iPhone SE.

This is definitely not an iPhone SE. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

This is where I get to reap the benefits of my chosen profession. Because I review and write about phones, I happen to have a good selection on hand. (That's the one plus of tech journalism to contrast against the decidedly larger con of the entire industry cratering around me.) I removed my SIM card from the now-unable-to-charge iPhone SE and placed it inside a loaner iPhone 11 Pro Max I use to write up how-tos and take test photos to compare against other flagships, and that became my daily iPhone.

You're probably thinking that this is the part of the story where I — a fan of the best small phones — declares that the scales have fallen off my eyes and that now I finally see the merits of having a handset with a comically oversized display. You have thought wrong — fumbling with this giant iPhone for the past two months, inadvertently pressing the Siri button every time I grab for it and generally having to use two hands to perform even simple tasks has me more convinced than ever that small phones are the only phones for me. Before I was willing to concede that liking bigger screens was a matter of personal taste; now, after using a 6.5-inch iPhone 11 Pro Max, I'm convinced that all you phablet freaks are irredeemable weirdos.

When Apple Stores in my area re-opened for scheduled Genius Bar appointments in June, I grabbed my face mask and brought in my MacBook Air keyboard to be replaced — yes, this has been a banner year for hardware in the Michaels household. While I was there, I had the helpful Apple Genius do what my toothpick couldn't and remove the debris from my iPhone SE. It charges now, but the four-year-old phone doesn't really hold a charge throughout the day. At this point, it's best suited to backup duty while another iPhone serves as my daily driver.

Don't worry, my iPhone SE is still being put to good use as an iOS 14 testing device.

Don't worry, my iPhone SE is still being put to good use as an iOS 14 testing device. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As it turns out, that's about the same time the iOS 14 beta became available. So I installed iOS 14 on my old iPhone SE — that's one of the Apple devices that can run iOS 14, after all — and looked at a calendar. It was now July or about two to three months before the iPhone 12 models were slated to arrive, depending on which rumor you care to subscribe to.

Why I’m waiting for the iPhone 12

At this point, I decided to do something I had ruled out back in the spring — before coronavirus shutdowns, before iOS 14 hands-on testing, before I stared into the infinite display of an iPhone 11 Max. I decided to wait to see what Apple's phones had to offer.

It's not the faster A14 processor or even the promised 5G connectivity that appeals to me. Rather, it's that we have more information about the 5.4-inch iPhone 12, which sounds like a compelling handset.

It's going to have an OLED screen, not an LCD panel like the new iPhone SE uses. Battery life should be better, too — honestly, you'd have to work very hard to have worse battery life than the iPhone SE showed in our testing. And a 5.4-inch display may not be as compact as the 4-inch iPhone SE I'm used to, it's a lot closer to the compact phones I prefer than Apple's supersized Pro Max models. If that's what Apple has planned, why not spend another two months gritting my teeth with the iPhone 11 Pro Max and using my old iPhone SE to familiarize myself with iOS 14?

iPhone 12 vs iPhone SE vs iPhone 7

The size on an iPhone 12 (the one in the middle) might be right for me. (Image credit: iZac via MacRumors)

Besides the 5G connectivity and faster processor, the iPhone 12 should have other benefits over the iPhone SE. If Apple follows the iPhone 11’s lead, the new phone should offer two rear cameras, compared to one for the iPhone SE, allowing the former to take ultra-wide photos. Ironically, the iPhone 12 will probably look a lot more like the original iPhone SE, too, as it’s rumored to offer flat sides and squared-off edges.

As for the price, the iPhone 12 is rumored to start at $649, which is a good deal more than the iPhone SE’s $399 price tag. But since I plan on holding onto my next iPhone for at least three to four years, I’d rather have something that’s more future-proof.

When’s the best time to upgrade your iPhone?

Everyone's circumstances are different, of course. While I have the backup devices on hand to put off an upgrade, another person in an otherwise similar situation may not. The time to get a new phone is when you can get the phone you want at the price you want to pay, not necessarily because there's something potentially better looming on the horizon. I have to laugh whenever people speculate if the iPhone 13 will wind up being a better buy. That device isn't arriving until 2021, man — we'll be lucky if we still have currency by then.

That said, there is a time when you should wait for something that's supposed just around the corner — when that corner itself is just around the corner. Over the next couple months, we're going to see a whole spate of smartphones — the OnePlus Nord (whether it comes to the US or not), the long-awaited Pixel 4a and four different iPhone 12 models. (That doesn't include the Galaxy Note 20, which is a lineup of super-sized phablets and therefore unacceptable to all but our tallest giants.)

Certainly, if you can afford to wait until that parade of smartphone releases wraps up, you should. And since I can, I will.

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.