Why the iPhone SE 3 will be a much bigger deal than you think

iPhone SE 3 concept design
(Image credit: 4RMD/YouTube)

Update: Display analyst Ross Young has claimed that the next budget iPhone will be called the iPhone SE Plus 5G.

The iPhone 14 gets most of the attention from the Apple rumor mill, but it's not the only big phone release on Apple's 2022 calendar. A new version of the iPhone SE that many are calling the iPhone SE 3 is expected to launch next year — even before the iPhone 14 ever sees the light of day. And it's a bigger deal than you might think.

Next spring marks the second anniversary of the iPhone 2020's launch. And while that phone arrived four years after the original iPhone, all signs point to Apple not waiting as long to come out with a successor this time around.

The reason? While the iPhone SE is often overlooked, it's still an important part of Apple's smartphone lineup — the rare Apple product that's dramatically more affordable than Apple's other offerings. And what Apple ultimately does with this version of the iPhone SE will say a lot about its efforts to capture the one segment of the smartphone market where it doesn't rule the roost.

iPhone SE 3: What we know so far

The iPhone SE 3 — or iPhone SE Plus, depending on which rumor you care to believe — is expected during the first three months of 2022. In fact, the latest rumors from Apple's supply chain suggest that iPhone SE components have been ordered, putting the new Apple phone on track for a spring launch.

iPhone SE 2020 review

It's been nearly two years since the iPhone SE last got an update. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

As with the last iPhone SE, we're expecting a device that features the latest chipset from Apple's current flagship phones. That would be the A15 Bionic, which powers the entire iPhone 13 lineup.

Camera rumors are less definitive, though Apple could continue to use a single lens as it did with the current iPhone SE as a way to differentiate this phone from its flagships while also keeping costs down. The iPhone SE could also feature a two-lens setup — a main camera and an ultrawide angle lens — but with the iPhone 12's optics instead of the iPhone 13's. (The iPhone 13 has a bigger main sensor to let in more light.)

It's possible the iPhone SE 3 maintains the design of the current iPhone SE, which repurposes the old iPhone 8 design, including its Touch ID button and chunky bezels. There's also a rumor that Apple could opt for a bigger 6.1-inch screen that mimics the look of the iPhone XR/iPhone 11/iPhone 12. In this scenario, Apple might release a more compact iPhone SE first, then follow with a larger version next year.

iPhone SE 3: A more competitive market than before

Cheap versions of flagship phones were available prior to the iPhone SE's 2020 release. The Google Pixel 3a, for example, beat the iPhone to market by about a year. But it's safe to say that things have intensified substantially in the nearly two years that the iPhone SE sequel has been available.

Samsung has put serious effort into strengthening its midrange Galaxy A phones to the point where they're perfectly acceptable alternatives to entry-level flagships. OnePlus has tried to rekindle its roots as a low-cost phone maker through the Nord lineup of budget phones that also sport more high-end features like fast-refreshing displays.

pixel 5a vs iphone se camera shoot out

The Pixel 5a (back) has proven to be the iPhone SE's stiffest competitor. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Then there's the Pixel A series phones, which have undergone two updates since the iPhone SE's last release. The latest version — the Google Pixel 5a — sets the standard as the best camera phone for less than $500. It has two rear lenses, a night mode for low-light pictures and 5G compatibility — all features sorely lacking from the current iPhone SE.

That puts Apple in the position of having some catching up to do. The final specs on the iPhone SE will tell us just how seriously Apple is taking that challenge — and whether it sees budget phone buyers as a key part of its audience going forward.

Why the iPhone SE 3 matters

So how will we know the answers to those questions above? Keep an eye on four key factors in the build-up to the iPhone SE 3's release in early 2022 and what Apple actually announces when it's ready to show off the phone.

iPhone SE 5G compatibility: It's a given that Apple's going to include 5G support on the next iPhone SE. Every iPhone model release since the iPhone 12 family debuted in 2020 has offered 5G, and there's no turning back now. We'd expect the iPhone SE 3 to make like other 5G Apple devices and include support for both mmWave- and sub-6GHz 5G networks.

The key thing here is just having a cheaper iPhone that's capable of connecting via 5G. Right now, the least expensive 5G-ready iPhone out there is the iPhone 12 mini, which is selling for a reduced price of $599. Ideally, the iPhone SE 3 will lower the cost of having 5G compatibility on your iPhone even further.

Phone size: The appeal of the iPhone SE hasn't just been its low price; it's also one of the few compact phones in a world where demand for bigger and bigger screens is on the rise.

iPhone SE 2020 review

At 4.7 inches, the iPhone SE is easily Apple's smallest phone. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Compact phones, in contrast, remain a niche market, as Apple has learned from the relatively tepid sales of the iPhone 12 mini. While Apple still included a mini option with the iPhone 13 lineup, that's rumored to be changing next fall when a bigger iPhone 14 Max joins the regular iPhone 14 among the lower-costing flagship options.

That could leave whatever iPhone SE Apple releases next year as the only compact phone in the company's lineup — if the iPhone SE 3 features the same design as its predecessor. Should Apple opt for a bigger screen, that would be a pretty sure sign that the phone maker has decided the era of small phones is truly over.

Camera setup: For a while, phones like the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a proved that two lenses weren't necessarily better than one. The Pixel 5a changed that, though, and its dual-lens setup easily makes it the go-to camera phone for bargain hunters.

iPhone SE 2020 review

We'd guess that one lens on the iPhone SE is going to get some company in 2022. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

We're eager to see if Apple responds by adding a second lens to the iPhone SE. At a minimum, adding support for Night mode is a must if the iPhone SE is going to compete with other low-cost camera phones.

Price: And here's the ultimate question — how much is the iPhone SE 3 going to cost? 

Not that Apple looks to other phone makers for its cues, but the Pixel 5a costs $449. That's a $100 increase over the Pixel 4a, but Google's newer budget phone adds costly features like that second lens and 5G support. If Apple's making similar changes to the iPhone SE, you could easily see its price tag tick up from the $399 Apple currently charges.

Then again, Apple doesn't like replacing one phone with a more expensive model unless it absolutely has to. Consider the iPhone Pro models, which have held the line at $999 for a few years now. We could see Apple finding a way to keep the iPhone SE at the $399 price people are accustomed to paying, especially since the iPhone 11's current $499 cost doesn't leave a big ceiling for any price hike.

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.