17, Apr, 2020
THE NEW IPHONE SE IS A SHOCKINGLY GOOD VALUE
Yesterday, Yesterday, Apple announced the new $399 iPhone SE. The TL;DR appears to be really simple: the iPhone 8’s body, the iPhone 11’s processor, and the iPhone XR’s camera system with a few new capabilities. I’ll obviously wait to review this phone to tell you if it’s any good, but assuming Apple lives up to its usual standards I can tell you something right away:
At $399, the second-generation iPhone SE is a shockingly good value.
The most important thing to know about the SE’s value proposition is simply that it has the A13 Bionic processor, which is bar-none the fastest processor you can get on any smartphone at any price, full stop. You could spend $1,449 on a fully maxed-out iPhone 11 Pro Max and it wouldn’t be faster than the iPhone SE. You could spend $1599.99 on a maxed-out Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G and it would be theoretically slower (with the exception of 5G downloads).
This isn’t just a matter of processor megahertz per buck, it’s a matter of the longevity of the phone itself. More than any other phone company, Apple supports its phones for a very long time. Since this iPhone SE has the most modern processor available, it’s quite likely that it will receive software updates for many years to come.
Hell, Apple even did the right thing with storage: offering a humane 64GB at the base level and making the 128GB model only $50 more.
Over the course of 2019, we marveled at the level of quality you could get in a long series of relatively inexpensive Android phones. That’s still true today, but those phones will receive three years of updates from Google at most. And as my colleague Chris Welch will argue later today, the iPhone SE sets a bar that the upcoming Google Pixel 4A will have an incredibly difficult time clearing.
Again, we’ll need to review the new iPhone SE and the Pixel 4A to know whether one of them has an advantage with any particular feature (like the camera). So no final judgements here. But I just need to point out that for most of 2018 and 2019, every Android maker has had a bit of a greenfield to play in phones that cost less than $500.
Google, Asus, Samsung, and many others did good work in that green field, but now there’s real competition from Apple.
On Tuesday in this newsletter, I had half a thought about these low-cost phones. Forgive me for quoting myself:
Increasingly, I find that “flagship” phones are mainly about luxuries instead of tangible benefits to most people. Those luxuries include screen quality, 5G, wireless charging, face unlock, speed, overall build quality, camera quality, and a smattering of other things.
Will the iPhone SE match the iPhone 11 or 11 Pro on most of those metrics? Nope. But when I wrote that I hadn’t imagined that Apple would use its newest chip. The inclusion of the A13 Bionic means the SE will match the most luxurious phone on speed and on longevity.
I know I’ve now brought up software updates twice now, but it’s super important. $399 spent on this iPhone SE means it’s less likely you’ll be forced to spend another $399 next year or the year after.
There are several things to be bummed about with the iPhone SE 2 — starting with the fact that Apple calls it the “second-generation iPhone SE,” which is a bad name. Eventually we’ll settle on what to call it, but until then prepare for iPhone SE, second-generation iPhone SE, iPhone SE 2, iPhone SE (2020), the new iPhone SE, and probably something I can’t imagine right now. Ugh.
I kid, that’s not really a real problem. Neither is the claim that this is just a “parts bin” phone. Yes, Apple is using a lot of parts that have been bouncing around its product lines for years. But, and I want you to really feel this: who cares? It doesn’t matter how old the parts are if they’re good.
No, there are real issues we know about already just from the basics. For example, this form factor — the same as the iPhone 6 — isn’t especially inspiring. I hate the size of the bezels. It seems like a petty complaint, but reducing them really does change your experience. You get more screen in a smaller body. Plus, it’s something most Android phones accomplished by putting a fingerprint sensor on the back or under the screen.
Speaking of size, this iPhone SE is larger than the last iPhone SE, which means that even ‘small’ phones are big now, as Dan Seifert observed yesterday. Finding a truly good, truly small smartphone is nigh impossible right now.
And though I know many people will tell me to just get over it already, the fact that this low-cost iPhone lacks a traditional headphone jack is a bit of a bummer. Other low-cost Android phones explicitly include them. Bluetooth headphones aren’t just another thing to charge, they’re another thing to buy and another thing that could break.
Apple has a reputation for overcharging for hardware. It’s become a point of contention in the flamewars between Apple, Windows, and Android stans. My take is that sometimes Apple is guilty and sometimes it’s not. The new MacBook Air is a great value. Selling Mac Pro wheels for $699 and literal metal posts for $299 is so incredibly hilarious that even pointing out that it’s become self-parody feels so obvious it’s embarrassing.
On that spectrum, the new iPhone SE (or whatever we decide to call it) is not just a good value for Apple. It’s one of the very best values I’ve seen in the smartphone market in years. In theory, at least: now we just have to test it and see if it lives up to its spec sheet.