iPhone SE: What to Expect from Apple's Next Phone

It looks like the 4-inch iPhone is about to make a return to the spotlight. Apple plans to hold a press event at its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters on March 21, and all signs point to the company breathing new life into the design that used to dominate its selection of smartphones before the iPhone 6 brought larger screens to the mix.

We've been hearing about a smaller iPhone since last year. With the March 21 Apple event rapidly approaching, it's time to take a look at the latest rumors swirling about Apple's slimmed-down phone and pick out what's most likely to find its way into the finished product that Apple unveils at its March event.

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The Name

What the Rumors Say: The expected iPhone has sported several would-be names since rumors of its existence first began to surface. Most commonly, the new phone was known as either the iPhone 5e — a nod to the fact that its screen size matched the 4-inch iPhone 5s — or the iPhone 6c. In February, however, 9to5Mac reported that Apple planned to call the new device the iPhone SE, and that's the name that's stuck ever since.

What We Expect:9to5Mac's Mark Gurman, who reported the SE naming rumor, has a good track record on these sorts of things, and with no contradictory names emerging in the ensuing weeks, we expect Tim Cook to utter the words "iPhone SE" at the March 21 event. If that expectation pans out, it could mark the beginning of Apple moving away from a number-based naming system for its phones, something the company has already embraced with its Mac hardware.

The Screen Size

A reported leak of the iPhone SE that surfaced on the One More Thing forums

A reported leak of the iPhone SE that surfaced on the One More Thing forums

What the Rumors Say:Easily the most notable feature about the iPhone SE will be its screen size, and the rumor mill seems in agreement that the new iPhone will feature a 4-inch display. That's the same size as the iPhone 5s, and while Apple still offers that 2013-era phone, the iPhone SE gives it the opportunity to offer a phone with more up-to-date specs to complement its 4.7-inch iPhone 6s and 5.5-inch 6s Plus.

What We Expect: The screen iPhone SE will likely match the iPhone 5s's display in something other than size — it won't have the 3D Touch features found in the latest flagship iPhones. Reports from both 9to5Mac and Apple Insider say that the pressure-sensitive displays of Apple's current flagship phones are unlikely to find their way into the SE, and we think that's likely. The SE's screen could get a boost from the Retina Display of the iPhone 5s, joining the other iPhones in sporting a Retina HD screen. OLED screens aren't expected for the iPhone lineup until 2017 and will almost certainly skip this forthcoming update.

The Processor

What the Rumors Say: Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo suggested early on that a slimmed-down iPhone would sport the A9 processor featured in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. Other rumor sites weren't as sure, speculating that the A8 chip from the 2014 iPhone 6 lineup would instead power whatever new iPhone Apple had in store. But as we get closer to the iPhone SE's unveiling, sentiment is tilting toward the A9 CPU, with 9to5Mac suggesting the new phone is in for a significant upgrade over the A7 processors found in 2013's iPhone 5s.

What We Expect: An A9 chip makes sense for the iPhone SE, especially if you expect Apple is planning future iPhone releases this fall. (And there's no reason why you shouldn't.) Those future phones will likely feature the next-generation of Apple's processor, giving those devices a performance edge over the iPhone SE.

The Camera

What the Rumors Say: In a report on the iPhone SE's design — it's expected to match the iPhone 5s, in case you were wondering — 9to5Mac said the new phone should have a 12-megapixel rear camera capable of shooting 4K video. That's exactly the same specs as the iPhone 6s, for what that's worth. An earlier Apple Insider report also suggested that 4K video would be part of the iPhone SE's repertoire, based on a promotional video featuring 4K footage captured by the new phone.

What We Expect: Apple will clearly want to improve upon the 8-MP camera in the iPhone 5s. While it may sound odd that Apple would match the camera specs of its top-of-the-line phones, Apple has but an empahsis on picture-taking with recent mobile devices, and having a 12-MP camera in its new phone would be in line with that approach.

Other Features

What the Rumors Say:If the new iPhone isn't going to support 3D Touch, then what other features of Apple's current iPhone lineup can it adapt? Apple Pay support has been affiliated with iPhone SE rumors even before we knew what the phone would be named. And 9to5Mac's pre-March 21 event rundown of rumors says that another feature introduced with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus — Live Photos — will make the cut, even if 3D Touch does not.

What We Expect: It makes sense for the new iPhone to support Live Photos. You can already view photos on devices that run iOS 9, and if Apple's serious about the motion- and audio-enhanced photos gaining wider acceptance, it's got to sell more devices capable of capturing Live Photos. Likewise, Apple Pay support is a no-brainer. The iPhone 5s is the only current device Apple sells that doesn't support its mobile payment system; an iPhone SE release offers a chance to address that.

The Cost

What the Rumors Say: The ever-quotable Ming Chi Kuo puts the iPhone SE in a $400-$500 price range, according to MacRumors. Other sites have settled on that range as well, with $450 as the most popular guess.

What We Expect:Price will depend entirely on how Apple positions this phone: Is it a budget model meant to attract users who shy away from the current iPhones’ $600-plus price tags or is it meant to give users who prefer smaller screens an option on par with the iPhone 6 and 6s? The rumored specs in the iPhone SE suggest the latter, so that $400 to $500 price range seems perfectly reasonable. If Apple’s interested in a budget offering, it can always cut the price tag on the iPhone 5s, which is currently available for $499 unlocked.

The Release Date

What the Rumors Say: For now, the rumor mill is focused on that March 21 event date, with the phone expected to officially arrive before the end of the month.

What We Expect:Apple typically releases its phones a week or so after their unveiling. For example, the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus went on sale Sept. 25, 2015, after a launch event on Sept. 9. Were Apple to follow that pattern with the iPhone SE, that would put the new phone on track for an April 1 release. It’s possible Apple could also speed things up this time around and make the phone available the same week as its launch event.

Other Possible Announcements

Apple's iPad Air has gotten pretty long in the tooth, though the latest rumors have Apple introducing a 9.5-inch iPad Pro to complement the 12.9-inch tablet it rolled out last year.

The last time Apple held a spring press event — March 2015, to be precise — it previewed the Apple Watch. The next major version of Apple's smartwatch likely will appear this fall, but 9to5Mac is reporting that new bands and a software update could be on tap for the March 21 event.

That March 2015 press event also saw the introduction of a 12-inch MacBook with a Force Touch trackpad. We wouldn't expect new Macs to join Apple's mobile devices this time around — though the vigil for the click-wheel MacBook is now in its seventh lonely year.

Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.