New $429 iPhone SE a worthy upgrade for less

Apple’s New $429 iPhone SE: A Worthy Upgrade—but Not for the 5G

Not interested in paying $700 or more for a big iPhone with Face ID and a bunch of cameras? The updated SE, arriving March 18, is a great option.

iPhone SE, iPad Air, Mac Studio: A Guide to Apple’s New Gear
An iPhone SE with 5G, an iPad Air with a laptop-grade M1 processor, a brand-new Mac Studio and a stunning Studio Display were among the products Apple announced at its March event. WSJ’s Joanna Stern has an early take. Photo illustration: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal

By Joanna Stern, March 9, 2022 5:30 am ET

At a virtual event Tuesday, Apple AAPL -1.17% showed off a new iPhone SE with 5G. “You get superfast downloads and uploads, lower latency and better experiences in more places,” a company representative said. 

Allow me to edit that.

“You get superfast downloads…though not as fast as you’ll get on pricier iPhones. And you’re really only going to see the benefit of 5G if you have to do an emergency on-the-go download of, say, 10 seasons of ‘Law & Order.’”

I’m available for hire as a speechwriter.

Ah yes, 5G, the cellular technology that’s become the gospel of wireless carriers. Sure, it’s faster than what you have now (probably 4G LTE), but on a smartphone you’ll only notice that speed improvement for very specific things, like downloading files. I’ve been using a 5G iPhone 12 for more than a year now, and it hasn’t changed my digital life in any considerable way. In fact, I often turn off 5G to save battery life.

The new iPhone SE comes in midnight (aka black), starlight (aka white) and red (aka red).PHOTO: BUSINESSWIRE/AP

No, 5G isn’t the reason to run out and buy a new $429-and-up iPhone SE, which arrives March 18. There are plenty of other reasons, however, to upgrade to Apple’s most affordable iPhone, what I call the “I Hate Change” iPhone.

I get it, you don’t want Face ID or a phone the size of an IKEA parking lot. Like the old SE, the new SE has the smaller 4.7-inch screen with the beloved home button right under it. This time around, however, it adds a new A15 Bionic processor—the same chip that’s in the iPhone 13 models—and a higher-capacity battery.

Those two factors make this an appealing choice for first-time iPhone buyers or people who haven’t upgraded in a few years. (I’m looking at you iPhone 7 and 8 owners.) If you fall into either camp, allow me to answer some questions.

What’s really new here?

Other than the 5G, the biggest change is the A15 Bionic chip, up from an A13 Bionic. If you’re coming from an old iPhone, you’ll feel an immediate performance boost, even when you’re just launching apps or scrolling menus. That processor also gives new life to the 12-megapixel camera, which itself isn’t meaningfully improved.

The camera and the processor work together to do things like brighten images (Apple term: Smart HDR) or bring out details (Apple term: Deep Fusion). Videos you record will also have reduced noise in lower light and better white balance, the company said.

The real reason you might prefer the SE? The classic home button with the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.PHOTO: APPLE

When I reviewed the iPhone SE two years ago, I was disappointed with the relatively short battery life, and so I feared adding 5G would make it even worse. Apple, however, said the new processor and larger battery allows this model to last up to two hours longer during your day. We shall see about that!

Should I just pay $70 more for an iPhone 11? 

Previously the iPhone SE was priced at $399. This year, Apple upped the price to $429—hey, inflation—which brings it closer to older models still on the market, particularly the $499 iPhone 11.

If the 11 is Arnold Schwarzenegger, the SE is Danny DeVito. If you wanted a big phone at a not-so-big price, you probably already have the iPhone 11, with its Face ID, dual rear cameras and much larger screen. The reason to choose SE is its more compact size—or else you want to hold on to the home button with Touch ID.

You should check with your carrier or Apple about trade-in deals on higher-end models, which might make an iPhone 12 or 13 a better choice. At the Tuesday event, Apple did release green-hued iPhone 13 models. Because what better way for Apple to boost high-end iPhone sales midyear than to sell a phone the actual color of money?

So what about this 5G? 

Indeed, if you upgrade to this new SE, you’re going to get 5G. That’s not a bad thing—unless you find it sucking battery life. To conserve battery, Apple does have a Smart Data mode, which switches between LTE and 5G depending on what you’re doing. You can also just go back to 4G in the cellular settings menu.

An Apple product marketing manager enthusiastically announces that 5G is coming to the iPhone SE.PHOTO: APPLE

If you really do care about 5G, you should know that the SE doesn’t have the fastest flavor of it, called millimeter wave. Instead, it has the slower but more widely available version of 5G. Still, Apple said these 5G capabilities will make high-definition gaming, streaming and FaceTiming better over the cellular network.

Also, just because your new phone can run on 5G doesn’t mean you need to pay for some expensive 5G plan. If you’re really buying this phone for the price, be careful with your carrier agreement. Read the fine print. Ask questions. Don’t let them sucker you into some pricey plan.

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t need a flashy phone, and you only upgrade every three to five years, this phone is probably a great choice. You may not care about 5G now but in a few years it may be a lifesaver and you’ll be ready. (Besides, older 3G networks are getting phased out.)

In the meantime, you can enjoy watching how fast you can download all those “Law & Order” episodes.

PHOTO: TAMMY LIAN

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Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

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