The 2020 iPhone SE Is A Case Study In How To Do A Budget Phone

Apple ninja-dropped their 2020 iPhone SE today, and perhaps the most alarming thing about it, was its price. An iPhone that features top under the hood specs, for a mere fraction of the cost of not only the other iPhones, but even other Androids who have seen their prices inflate the past couple of years. 

At $399 for the 64GB base model, the 2020 iPhone SE is a case study in how to do a budget phone.

Resparking The Old Conflict

iOS vs Android, once a heated debate, has now diminished into petty arguments between fanboys that occasionally pop up on various online forums. The truth of the matter is that in the past few years, the two predominant mobile OS’s have become more similar, than they are different, and now the user has to significantly weigh what features are missing from the respective OS, and determine if it really matters to them.

However, despite the software similarities, Apple and Android makers have almost always differed in their approach to hardware and design. The Android space certainly offers more hardware variation across its phones, which has always been a healthy thing as it allows devices to punch in at relatively any price point. 

Contrasted to Apple and iOS, which had comparatively limited hardware offerings. As a result, the prices are more fixed, and users could expect to pay a premium, or “The Apple Tax”, as it’s come to be known. And as a result, Apple has had this reputation come about it that their devices are up-scale, and are viewed by the normies as a status symbol. The personal anecdote of a girl in college with a cracked iPhone 7 asking “Are you poor or something?” when inquiring about my Note 10 one day comes to mind. 

The Budget Space

As previously alluded to, Android has always seemingly had an advantage in the budget space of phones, granted by their allowance in hardware variation, and as the prices of the flagship phones on both the Apple and Android side have inflated, this budget space has become larger, and certainly more people have started paying attention to it. 

Despite gaining real prominence only somewhat recently, the budget space of Android has always been occupied by largely Chinese phone manufacturers like Xiaomi, Oppo, and even some offerings by Huawei and its sister companies. But while that space really grew, it simultaneously became harder to get phones from those companies in the US. Factor in that most of the US consumer base gets their phone on offerings from their carriers, and the fact of the matter becomes that quite simply some of the best budget phones are out of reach for US consumers due to regional availability.

Luckily, more mainstream and easily accessible budget phones made their way into the space in 2019.

The Rise Of OnePlus

iPhone SE
OnePlus 7 Pro. Credit: OnePlus

If it wasn’t already, OnePlus made its way onto a lot of people’s radars last year when it released the 7 Pro. The device was met with high praise for essentially having all the trimmings of a flagship Android smartphone, for much less. Especially after Samsung had released the S10+ for $999 USD. The 7 Pro had essentially all of the features, arguably faster performance, and even some aspects like a 90Hz screen that were just simply absent from Samsung’s devices at the time, all for $695 USD.

2020 is almost no different, with the fresh OnePlus 8 and 8 Pro, OnePlus is looking to carve the same story. They’re off to a great start, but they suffer from the same issue as so many other phone manufacturers start when trying to get more and more competitive specs and features: price inflation.

Skimming over some of the previously written reviews for the OnePlus 7 Pro, one minor con that keeps popping up is the price inflation from OnePlus’s previous generation. Examining the starting price of $799 USD for the OnePlus 8 Pro, and it looks as though the price inflationary criticism could be made once again. While still cheaper than a lot of many other high-end flagships offered by say Samsung, and the 8 Pro arguably offering a better experience in a lot of aspects.  OnePlus is year over year, if not already has, exited what could be considered the budget space and is now getting into the low end of flagship pricing range. 

With even Android “budget brands” suffering from the same price hikes the same as more “premium” Android brands, the argument has to be made, what are you really getting for a $1000 USD Android? Or an $800 USD one? Is it worth the investment for something that will lose major feature software update support in 2-3 years?

The Pixel Is Not To Be Left Out

One name noticeably absent thus far is Google’s Pixel lineup. While the Pixel 4 series might have been a bit of a misstep, Pixel has always maintained its brand of a true software enthusiast’s phone. Almost pure, unadulterated Android, at the cost of some compromises on hardware. The comparatively lower on paper specs would try to be made up for by superior software design with extra love and care by Google themselves. And for the most part, the formula has worked quite well. 

Furthermore, the Pixel 3A XL was a resounding success, and really put the software ingenuity of the Pixel series to work. Despite being roughly half the price ($399) of its older siblings, it made minimal compromises, and was almost indistinguishable in most aspects the average user base is going to notice. 

Suddenly, the Pixel 3A became THE budget Android phone to recommend in 2019. But not just budget Android, but budget phone in general. Despite many recommendations from techies to pick up the Pixel 3A, the iPhone XR which would have been the 3A’s primary competitor for most of 2019, was still the top selling smartphone of 2019, despite costing $749 USD, almost double the Pixel 3A.

Apple’s Success

iPhone SE
iPhone XR. Credit: Apple

While the price point of the iPhone XR is incredibly debateable in what it could be deemed budget wise, the fact of the matter remains is that it offered essentially the same on paper specs as the iPhone XS series released alongside with it.

The iPhone XR had the same: A12 Processor, the same 12MP primary rear camera, the same 7MP selfie camera, the same video shooting capabilities, the same software, and the same storage as the much more expensive iPhone XS and XS Max. The primary differences came in screen size and panel type. The ladder of which, is much harder to convey the differences on a spec sheet to the average consumer, and unless they’ve used an OLED screen before, probably wouldn’t notice the difference between the OLED and LCD panels between the XS  and XR.

And that, is really what it comes down to. How the average consumer examines the spec sheet between two devices. Coupled with the “social pressure” that exists in the US with owning an iPhone (admittedly, it’s dumb but the phenomena is certainly present), and the argument suddenly becomes “Which iPhone do you want to buy?”. And when it boils down to that, unless the consumer is aware of the real differences offered by the higher end iPhone models, the weighted cost factor takes over, and they’re most likely to choose the cheaper option, but it’s still an iPhone.

Tying It All Together

With all of this in the air, what does it really mean? After all the 2020 iPhone SE hasn’t even been mentioned again since the opening paragraph. 

Put quite shortly: Apple has just announced an iPhone that puts what were once considered the value and budget offerings of Android to shame, at the key $399 price point. With the new iPhone SE, you get a budget phone that will outperform the other devices in its immediate price range, as well as offer on par performance with not only the much more high end iPhone 11 models, but the other much more expensive Android flagships as well. With again, not compromising on the aspects that the average consumer would notice, outside of maybe screen size.

Also, keep in mind that this might be the only new iPhone we get this year. There is a chance that the iPhone 12 will not be released till 2021. If you’re a fan of the home button and you don’t want to break your wallet to get the iPhone 12, then the SE is a good choice. Or you can opt to get last year’s line-up.

In my iPhone 11 Pro Max review which you can watch here, I essentially concluded that the only thing really keeping me on Android was the customizability, and other creature comforts I’ve come to use like an always on display. While the new iPhone SE won’t solve those problems with iOS, it certainly provides what is probably the best smartphone experience at that price point. What’s also insane to think about, is that you can get an iPhone with the latest generation specs, an Apple Watch, and Air Pods, all for $50 USD less than an Android flagship. Namely, the Samsung Galaxy S20 at $999 USD for its base model. 

Die hard Android fan as you may be, hopefully the best to come with this is that it forces or influences Android phones ratchet their prices down, and pack in even better hardware at their price points.

And at the very least, despite the modest price of the new iPhone SE that one girl in college won’t call you poor anymore. 

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Taylor Evans

Taylor has been gaming for as long as he could hold a controller. He has hosted gaming oriented podcasts for four years, and has even started to dabble in writing about anime. Taylor almost enjoys discussing games more then playing them, and when not watching anime or playing games, Taylor can be found going off on rants about the technical details behind the games.

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