In the spring of last year, Apple launched a new model in its irregular but hugely popular iPhone SE series. The iPhone SE (2020) is very similar in style and features to the iPhone 8, but offers tech specs closer to the iPhone 11. This combination appears to have been a hit.
In this article we turn our gaze towards the future, and what we expect from the next update to the SE range. We've rounded up all the latest leaks and rumours about what might appear in the iPhone SE 3 when it arrives.
If you're hoping for a larger device, take a look at our coverage of the rumoured iPhone SE Plus, which could arrive later in 2021.
When will the iPhone SE 3 be released?
We expect the iPhone SE 3 to launch in autumn 2021, alongside the iPhone 13. That's roughly 18 months after the launch of the second-gen iPhone SE, which came out in April 2020.
Most iPhone models receive an upgrade each year, but the SE range's schedule has been more unpredictable. The original iPhone SE first arrived back in 2016, with only a storage bump the following year. This model was then retired by Apple in 2018, only to have the name resurrected two years later with the iPhone SE (2020).
If this approach is replicated, we shouldn't expect to see the iPhone SE 3 until 2024! And maybe, as we've argued elsewhere, Apple simply doesn't care very much about budget products.
We're not quite that pessimistic, but you'll struggle to find a pundit who thinks Apple will launch the third iPhone SE model exactly 12 months after the second. The main voice in favour of this theory is the Japanese blog Macotakara, which predicts an April launch.
(There is plenty of reason to expect a spring event, most likely in March or April. We just don't think the new iPhone SE will be announced at it.)
Most pundits expect a longer wait. Display expert Ross Young, for example, thinks there will be a two-year gap, putting the launch at spring 2022. But we're more convinced by the always-reliable Ming-Chi Kuo, who is betting on autumn 2021.
How much will the iPhone SE 3 cost?
We expect the new iPhone SE to cost £399/$399 for the entry-level model.
Again, there's not a long history to guide us in this area, but with the original baseline iPhone SE launching at £379/$399 (albeit for 16GB of storage) and the iPhone SE (2020) coming in at £419/$399 for the 64GB entry-model, it seems very likely that any new version will try to keep around the £400/$400 mark.
If Apple follows its usual SE strategy, expect the new model to copy the external design of an older iPhone that's being discontinued. The SE (2016) came in the frame of the iPhone 5s, while the SE (2020) uses the iPhone 8 chassis, with that model now retired. In both cases the components were upgraded, but the outward appearance was old-school.
With this in mind, it would make the most sense to us if the iPhone SE 3 finally adopts the guise of an all-screen iPhone. One option is the iPhone XR, as it's the cheapest non-SE model in the current range, and looks unlikely to be upgraded significantly. But analysts believe it's more likely to be the iPhone 11, which by the time the iPhone SE 3 is launched will occupy a similarly lowly position in Apple's range.
So much for the traditional view. But Svetapple, which makes a habit of producing attractive concept illustrations for unannounced Apple products, has made a slightly more ambitious suggestion: the new SE could be based on the 12 mini.
This theoretical SE is stunning, with a design that's bang up to date and even slightly improved from the 12 mini's 2020 heyday, with the notch swapped out and replaced with an unobtrusive pinhole for the front-facing camera. Just look at it:
As I've discussed elsewhere - read the full analysis in New renders of iPhone SE 3 based on iPhone 12 mini - this seems rather unrealistic at this point. In the past Apple has based its SE models on three-year-old designs, whereas the 12 mini would be just six months old by the time of a spring 2021 event or a year if we have to wait until autumn.
It's a lovely idea, though. You can see all the illustrations on Svetapple's site, which also supplied the main image on this article.
One final design theory: could the iPhone SE 3 be made of titanium? Apple recently applied for a patent covering titanium finishes, and the associated images showed the iPad, MacBook and iPhone as well as the Apple Watch that's currently available in this metal.
As with so many of these rumours it depends on how long we have to wait for the next SE. But the timing of the patent would not lead us to expect anything concrete in 2021. This might be something we can look forward to in the iPhone 14 or thereabouts, with that design ported to the SE line in something like 2025...
What features will appear in the iPhone SE 3?
When it comes to new features, much depends on how the SE now fits in with the rest of the range, and when it's next updated.
If the new SE comes out alongside the iPhone 13 and co in autumn 2021, Apple could implement some of the same new features on the whole range: 120Hz screens, say, or under-screen Touch ID. But if the SE comes out separately, the company won't want to give it any new features that haven't already been road-tested on more expensive handsets - otherwise the owners of those more expensive handsets are going to feel mighty aggrieved.
We're therefore going to focus on features that could be ported across from the 12-series to the SE models, since these are the most realistic to hope for.
One area that could be addressed is Night Mode, the camera software setting that massively improves low-light photography on both 11- and 12-series iPhones. The late-2020 models got some improvements to Night Mode, too, with the iPhone 12 able to use it on selfies and time-lapse videos, and the 12 Pro gaining it for portraits as well.
The current iPhone SE (2020) seems like it should be capable of Night Mode in purely hardware terms - it has the A13 chip, so the processing power is there - but so far it's been absent.
Night Mode shot taken on iPhone 12 Pro
Adding Night Mode to the SE in 2021 would make a nice bump in the usefulness of a newer model, especially as photography is such an important aspect for people buying smartphones. There's also the issue that Google's cheaper Pixel devices already include Night Sight, which is a very similar feature.
Following the launch of the 5G-ready 12-series in autumn 2020, any iPhone that isn't ready for the new connection standard is going to look pretty undercooked. By the time the iPhone SE 3 comes out, 5G coverage will be far more advanced, and we'd be very surprised if Apple doesn't make sure the phone is ready to take advantage of this.
Another area that would be welcome on the iPhone SE 3 would be 4GB of RAM rather than the 3GB found in the latest SE model. In our iPhone SE (2020) review we noticed that although the cheaper device had many of the same specs as the iPhone 11, the latter outperformed it in terms of speed. This could be attributed in a large part to the iPhone 11 coming with 4GB of RAM, which gives the extra headroom that allows the speeds to stay high.
The iPhone SE had a screen size of just 4in; the iPhone SE (2020) upgraded this to 4.7in. Ross Young, the display expert we referred to earlier, thinks this will jump to 6.1in on the iPhone SE 3.
As discussed above we think Apple will give the SE an 'all-screen' design, removing the Home button and following the chassis design of the iPhone XR. But note the inverted commas: the XR, like all iPhones released so far, still has narrow bezels around the screen. The company is currently exploring true all-screen designs for its iPhones as well as iPads and Macs - or at least it appears to be, based on patent activity - but this is unlikely to appear first on the SE.
Ross Young also thinks the next iPhone SE will support Touch ID, but it's unclear if he thinks the sensor will appear in the power button, like on the iPad Air, or if it will be embedded under the screen.
We'll keep looking for news and rumours and updating this article when they arrive. So be sure to check back regularly to see what we unearth about the iPhone SE 3.
For more information about what Apple will launch this year, read our guide to the new Apple products coming out in 2021.