How Apple made the 2020 iPhone SE so cheap

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2020 iPhone SE supports all Apple services.
The 2020 iPhone SE isn’t stripped to the bone, but Apple cut some corners to get its low price.
Photo: Apple

The 2020 iPhone SE costs just $399. That makes it one of the cheapest iOS handsets ever, equaled only by the original model. But to get this price, Apple had to make some compromises. It’s important to be aware of what they are.

The features of this low-cost model are like a walk through the years.

A display from 2014

Cult of Mac compared the new iPhone SE to the iPhone 8. But in some ways, a comparison with the iPhone 6 wouldn’t be unreasonable. That’s because Apple’s latest handset comes with a 4.7-inch, 750-by-1,334-pixel display, just like the 2014 model did.

Admittedly, there have been some improvements in almost six years. The new screen offers 650 nits of brightness compared to the 500 nits of the older one, for example. But it’s otherwise not much different. And using simpler parts is an easy way to save money.

Remember, this is a considerably smaller screen than in other recent iOS devices. It measures about 9.44 square inches in area, while the iPhone XR has a 14.0 square inch display, for example. That makes the screen in the newest model about 30% smaller.

The display panel is always one of the most expensive components in a phone. By using a relatively small and simple one, Apple can lower the cost of production.

Cameras from 2016

The 12-megapixel rear-facing camera in the 2020 iPhone SE has an f/1.8 aperture. The same is true for the camera in the iPhone 7 from 2016. The front-facing “selfie” camera on the new handset and the iPhone 7 also have the same specs.

Phone cameras can be surprisingly expensive. By using ones that are so basic, and have been available for so long, Apple saves money.

Chassis from 2017

From the outside, the new iPhone SE looks essentially identical to the iPhone 8 from 2017. They’re the same size, shape and weight, right down to the gram.

It costs a lot to create a phone millions of people want to buy. Apple saved a bundle by using a design it already had. And Cupertino passed those savings to consumers.

Prior to the new iPhone SE launch, many people hoped for a smaller model. The original iPhone SE came with a 4-inch display, and some people wished Apple would release an equally small device. But Apple might not have been able to release a tiny iPhone SE 2 for just $399.

The design of the original SE is extremely dated. Apple couldn’t just tweak it a bit. It would have had to incur the expense of going back to the drawing board.

Plus, Apple would have had to find a way to cram all the features of the 2020 iPhone SE into a smaller chassis. Remember that smaller electronics aren’t cheaper.

A processor from 2019

The one really up-to-date feature of the new iPhone is an Apple A13 Bionic processor. This is the same chip in the iPhone 11 Pro. So you can expect this budget model to deliver nearly the same performance as the flagship iOS handset.

It may seem counterintuitive, but this move is also about cost savings. By using its newest processor, Apple will be able to keep selling this model for years without having to put any money into changing it in any way. So don’t expect an iPhone SE 3 in 2021. If Apple follows the strategy it used with the original SE, the model introduced today will hang around for several years before there’s a new version.

Also, marketing for the new handset emphasizes how well it works with Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. The company could be willing to accept a lower profit margin from selling the 2020 iPhone SE if it expects to recoup that money in subscription fees to these services.