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How Apple will keep iPhone SE relevant

Welcome to the return of the 4-inch iPhone. While Apple hasn't released a new model of the familiar one-handed design since September 2013, the number of iPhone 5 series devices still in circulation makes it seem like they never left.

Though iPhone SE looks remarkably similar to its forebear, Apple has made some subtle but important tweaks to the core components of the device, while expanding both storage options and colour options.

The need for smaller phones

iPhone retains its excellent and vibrant 1136x640 pixel LCD panel. Though some may decry the move, there is nothing wrong with the proposition, even six years after Apple established 326 pixels per inch as its classification for Retina.

While many Canadians have since graduated to larger devices — according to IDC, nearly half of North American iPhone users have moved on to the more capacious iPhone 6 or 6 Plus — there is still a large contingent both desirous of, and, in practical terms in need of, a smaller iPhone.

That need forms the financial core of iPhone SE's two-pronged approach to market validation. On the one hand, it practically renews the market for smaller iPhones; on the other, it immediately becomes the most powerful smartphone in its price range, replete with Apple's A9 chip and 2GB of RAM.

Power packing

It can't be overstated how important the inclusion of the A9 chip is to the SE's success: like the A7 and A8 before it, the A9 is both extremely power efficient and tremendously powerful, providing longevity for a product that is unlikely to be updated for some time.

As iPhone 5s has lived on since its 2013 release, thanks to the versatility of the A7, Apple's first 64-bit chip, iPhone SE could adorn Apple's lineup for as many as three years, staying put (and relatively inexpensive) as larger devices ebb and flow through their annual cycles. As iPhone 5s has been a mainstay for Apple over the last three years, the SE will continue its legacy towards the close of the decade.

Emerging markets

iPhone SE also works to further Apple's inroads into developing countries, or those with still-weak exchange rates against the U.S. Dollar. Canada, for instance, saw relatively slow uptick of iPhone 6s and 6s Plus when they were released in September of last year, owing directly to their $1000-plus price tags. This pushed people towards the year-old iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which lack the 6s line's updated core components. Starting at $579 (for the admittedly-anemic 16GB model), the iPhone SE is the most accessible modern iPhone in years.

Payment plans

Moreover, by replacing iPhone 5s with what is essentially a shrunken iPhone 6s, Apple gives itself another few million units of dominance in the mobile payments sector. With Apple Pay slowly rolling out to more markets in 2016, Apple finds a way to address one of the biggest barriers to mobile payment pickup in countries with established EMV-based payment networks — such as most of Western Europe, where iPhone market share is minimal. Similarly, it is one of the least expensive devices that, with the inclusion of the A9 chip, supports 150Mbps LTE-Advanced, a significant achievement for markets, like Canada, that take advantage of the speeds.

The best (small) camera

Finally, with iPhone 6s' 12-megapixel camera, iPhone SE pushes its enviable combination of hardware and software downmarket. While unlike two or so years ago it is difficult to claim the iPhone offers the best smartphone camera experience out there, by bringing its best to the sub-$500 market, Apple forces the only growing segment of Android devices, the so-called mid-range, to step up its collective game.

We'll have to see whether there are any sacrifices in bringing the 6s camera to a smaller form factor — the regular 6s already lacks the optical image stabilization of its larger sibling — it's great to see Apple move on such technologies as 4K video capture and Live Photos at this price point.

Bottom line

iPhone SE certainly doesn't warrant the fanfare of what, later this year, will likely be the iPhone 7, but it shows Apple, as it was when it replaced the still-hot iPod mini with its nano successor, willing to make seemingly-odd decisions in order to position itself better in an ever-changing market.

Daniel Bader is a Senior Editor at iMore, offering his Canadian analysis on Apple and its awesome products. In addition to writing and producing, Daniel regularly appears on Canadian networks CBC and CTV as a technology analyst.

36 Comments
  • Best small camera? Z5 Compact says LOL Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • So, the Z5 is a 4" phone?
    And there is this: http://www.stuff.tv/features/sony-xperia-z5-compact-vs-iphone-6s
  • One iMore article says the iPhone SE is dead on arrival in emerging markets, the other says it will make inroads. You guys need to have a meeting or an editor.
  • The editors have different opinions?
  • If Apple slimmed down the bezels, the 6s would be about the size of this. Don't need a smaller screen size, Apple just needs to trim some fat with the bezels.
  • I've been saying this for awhile. I thought they might be able to give us a 4.3 inch screen in a 5s case at this point. Sent from the iMore App
  • There's nothing wrong with the bezels on iPhones not the SE or the 6s and 6s Plus, the bezels make it easer when watching a video or movie as your fingers don't get in the way of the screen all there's the home button and and the radios that's why the bezels are there and are as big as the are. Sent from the iMore App
  • All the radios? Do you even know what you're talking about. Others phone have the same radios and don't have bezels that big.
  • Would be more relevant (going forward 18 months) with 3D touch, I feel. Then again, none of the iPads have it either, and not many apps offer 3D Touch functionality beyond some basic peek, pop and home screen icon shortcuts, so maybe it's not that big a deal after all.
  • 3D touch really hasn't caught on . I don't think consumers are really clamoring for it. Notice that none of the major Android players have ripped it off yet .
  • "Ripped off" is a strong term seeing as how Apple wasn't the first manufacturer with it.
  • Serious question: so who was this first manufacturer?
  • Huawei.
  • I love my iPhone 6s+ that I bought on Friday!!! I have never owned an iPhone, because I will only use phablets, I'm 23 and have smaller hands, but my eye sight is weaker, so phablets help a lot. Now that Apple makes a 5.5" iPhone, they got a new customer! Sent from the iMore App
  • I love my 6s+ as well and like you I don't have great eyesight and at 5.5 inches and with the way Apple design the 6s+ it feels just right and the viewing angle of just right as well. Sent from the iMore App
  • You shouldnt have to settle for a 4" screen. What you really need is the 4.7" iPhone without the MASSIVE bezels LOL
  • Quit the complaining about the bezels they're fine as the are. Sent from the iMore App
  • No they aren't. It's engineering laziness in this day and age.
  • Actually it's much more comfortable to use with the bezels. Without them, you end up accidentally hitting the screen, I know from personal experience with some Android phones
  • I personally have no issues with the bezels. What are we asking to get rid of? The home button?
  • I am not settling. I want a 4" screen. I do not want a bigger screen.
  • I'm not a fans of this new iPhone model. But as a point of view of business, this is a smart move. Lower entry price point, powerful hardware inside. Those who love small screen size and still love their 5s definitely gonna upgrade into this. All their accessories are still compatible too. At least, is better than the year that came out the iPhone 5c which basically a rip off. Posted via the iMore App from Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
  • I'll only buy a smaller phone because that's the size that works for me but I won't be buying the SE because it doesn't have 3D Touch. I'm not going to buy a phone that doesn't have all the features of the 6s just so that it's differentiated from the other models.
  • Apple must not hold a lot of value in 3d touch being the future. The components are there to add it in yet they held back. Even at a $100 more the device is still a good value if they had added it in. Emerging eastern markets aren't really the target with this phone seeing as their pricing is already out of reach once converted and taxed.
  • I think the SE is a pretty smart business move. The design of the 5S was a favorite among many people, so I'm to see they brought it back instead of making a smaller 6S.
  • Maybe it's just me. I think the 5 and 5s is one of the worst. Because of the complex back of the phone. I prefer iPhone 4 kind of design. Posted from my Samsung Galaxy S6
  • The iPhone 4 was my favorite, I don't like the bands on the iPhone 5 and the antenna lines on the 6
  • Apple should redesigned the phone. They are far to concerned with bottom line these days in my opinion.
  • They are a for profit business. Bottom line is all that matters.
  • Yeh of course, but I am beginning to wonder if that philosophy may lead to its downfall. Historically Apple has been a company that stirs up a contagious emotion in its users. It's all conjecture on my part, but as a long time Apple fan (way before iPhone), I do feel underwhelmed by the simply logical steps lately. It's certainly a 'currently' very profitable Apple, but is also certainly a very different Apple. Sent from the iMore App
  • Well, here is one long time Apple user who has been emotionally moved by the 12" iPad and the iPhone SE. I’ve wanted a decent-sized tablet since the days of the Newton and the EO. The 6s was the first “s” year I didn’t upgrade because I didn’t want a >4" phone. Both of these products make me very happy.
  • There you go, it differs from person to person. I must say that I do love my Mac and OSX. But underwhelming feeling is more related to my 6s.
  • The people have already spoken, and aside from a very small, niche market, most people have rejected smaller screen phones are prefer the larger ones. I'm sure apple will sell some of these because it's apple, but don't expect blockbuster sales like they did with the 6.
  • They are not expecting blockbuster sales, but 30 million people bought 4" iPhones last year, so there is a huge market for it. "Very small, niche market"?.......no
  • Rene. The Apple fan boy. Nothing wrong with the iPhone SE, but Samsung would be crucified in this community if they rereleased Galaxy S4 or 5 with Galaxy S7 internals. Not that it would make any sense.
    It's an updated iPhone 5. That's what it is. On a 24 month contract, your phone will be over a half decade old design by the time your contract ends. Feels like Apple got lazy. Rene is like a roadie and Apple is the band. Even when they release an average song, you still wet your pants. No 3D Touch. What is Apple saying to developers? "Make 3D Touch enabled Apps but we won't introduce the technology into all our devices. " Nothing mind blowing. Sent from the iMore App
  • No need to call out Rene here. He is an Apple groupie but I don't feel he is hiding it. I saw dude in the crowd on the streamed event. I currently have the 6 and would've considered the SE if it started at 32gb. Don't see much use for iPads anymore.