The iPhone SE is finally in line to get a modern look — but is it arriving too late to matter?

iPhone SE 2022 back of phone
(Image credit: Future)

There's some good news if you're eagerly anticipating an updated look for Apple's most affordable iPhone. Based on the leaked renders, it looks like the iPhone SE 4 will actually look like a handset released this decade instead of one with a rapidly aging design.

But there's bad news, too. We're not any closer to actually seeing the iPhone SE 4 up close and in person.

Yes, CAD designs for the next version of the iPhone SE have appeared, and they deliver an updated look and feel for a phone that's more than ready to shed its circa-2017 design. But most Apple observers are expecting a 2025 release for the iPhone SE 4, meaning we'll be cooling our eyes for at least another year, waiting for a cheaper alternative to Apple's assorted flagships.

That's certainly a bummer for anyone in the market for a new handset who doesn't want to pay top dollar for the best iPhones. But it's an issue for Apple, too. As I've noted on numerous occasions, the market for midrange devices priced at around $500 is getting more competitive all the time. The longer Apple stays on the sidelines here, the tougher time a new iPhone SE is going to have making an impact, no matter what it looks like.

New look for the iPhone SE?

iPhone sE 4 renders from 91mobiles

Leaked iPhone SE CAD renders (Image credit: 91mobiles)

Still, you have to take some encouragement from the leaked iPhone SE 4 CAD renders published at 91mobiles. If accurate, they show that Apple realizes it's time to file away that iPhone 8-inspired look and its chunky bezels once and for all.

In case you haven't seen the renders, they reveal a new iPhone design that looks a lot like the one Apple last used on the iPhone 14. Sure, Apple abandoned that look for its flagships this past fall with the iPhone 15 release, but turning to a design last used in 2022 would be a big step forward for the iPhone SE, which takes its current design cues from a 2017 handset.

The renders show a single camera cutout on the back of the phone, along with a notch for housing the front camera and Face ID sensors on the front. There's no sign of the Home button nor the vast swaths of bezel needed to house that physical button.

For some, it will be a disappointment that the iPhone SE 4 won't feature a Dynamic Island cutout or that it's sticking with the single camera setup currently featured on the iPhone SE (2022). There's also no trace of the Action button introduced with the iPhone 15 Pro and likely to come to other models when the iPhone 16 debuts later this fall.

But these are the kind of sacrifices you're going to make to get a cheaper iPhone. I wouldn't mind a second camera lens on the iPhone SE 4 myself, and I think the Dynamic Island has been one of the better additions to recent iPhone models. But would I drop both of those feature requests if it meant saving $300 or more off the iPhone 15's starting price? In a heartbeat.

I'm also not too sad to see Apple leaving behind the 4.7-inch screen of the current iPhone SE for what looks to be a 6.1-inch display even though I'm a big fan of smaller phones. In my experience, Apple's 6.1-inch models — currently, the iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro among the latest flagships — are compact enough to use with one hand.

Why the wait, Apple?

Google Pixel 7a vs. iPHone SE

The iPhone SE (right) has already been overtaken by the Pixel 7a (left), and another Google phone is coming soon. (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

What's less understandable is why we need to wait for a new iPhone SE. It's been two years since the current model came out, and that launch date was two years following the arrival of the iPhone SE (2020). It's true that Apple shortened the time frame in between iPhone SE releases to add 5G compatibility to the SE, but you could argue that the dated look of the current model is as every bit a pressing concern now that the lack of 5G support was back then.

And yet, waiting is something we need to resign ourselves to, if the people who make a living forecasting Apple's various moves are anything to go by. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has flagged a 2025 release date for the iPhone SE and the fact that Apple seems to be favoring product announcements by press release instead of an in-person spring launch event would also seem to suggest that an iPhone SE 4 launch is far from imminent. So 2025 it is.

Other phone makers haven't seem to have gotten that memo, though, because they're certainly not standing in place. Later this spring, we're expecting to see both the Pixel 8a and Galaxy A55 — new versions of phones that already out-paced the iPhone SE. And depending on when the iPhone SE ships in 2025, successors to those still unreleased updates could also be upon us. Throw in a new R series phone from OnePlus — the strong reviews for the OnePlus 12R almost certainly mean another global launch for that midrange phone — and that's a lot of competition for the iPhone SE 4 before it even sees the light of day.

Apple famously doesn't give a rip over what its competition does, and company executives have spoken disdainfully about releasing cheap phones just for the sake of releasing them. But that's not what Google, Samsung and, now, OnePlus are doing — they're putting out good phones that happen to be cheap. And that's raising the bar for what the iPhone SE 4 has to do to compete, whether Apple cares to acknowledge that or not.

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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.