The iPhone SE needs to die so we can have a new iPhone SE 3

Apple iPhone SE 2020 on grey background
(Image credit: Future)

Apple, no. Just no. You cannot foist the ancient, hoary, albeit nostalgic iPhone 6 design on us once more with the iPhone SE 3. It's wrong, it's ridiculous, and I challenge you to defend the decision.

We still don't know for certain that the iPhone SE 3 (the third generation of this budget-friendly iPhone) will arrive today during the Apple March Event. It might not, but all signs point to yes.

The rumors have it as a 5G phone with the latest silicon: Apple's A15 Bionic, maybe 128GB of starting storage and, after that, the picture gets a little fuzzy. Maybe it'll come in pink. The question is, will Apple paint the aluminum chassis of a classic iPhone 8 body or a new, iPhone 13-style hybrid?

Let's hope for the latter because we have to escape the relic that was the iPhone SE Gen 1 and Gen 2's looks.

Ancient looks

How old is that design? When I reviewed the iPhone 6 in 2014, I noted how it was based on the then pleasing two-year-old iPod touch 5th Generation design. It was so thin, smooth, curved. The flat back was nearly perfect, save the camera bump.

I called the iPhone 6 "exceptional". It was such a departure from the iPhone 4-to-5S designs. They, with their smooth, flat bands enveloping the bodies felt limited, constrained, and didn't jive with our notions of the phone almost disappearing in our hands while we focused on larger and large screens.

The iPhone 6 was so thin, though, that it fit neatly into your back pocket. So lightweight that you forgot it was there until you sat on the phone and bent it. In fact, everyone for a time seemed to be bending their phones. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 both had more rigid bodies.

With the iPhone X, Apple started focusing on edge-to-edge displays and shedding legacy technology like the Home Button and Touch ID.

It was a shock to the system, but we grew accustomed to it and eventually embraced larger notch-bearing phones. Even the iPhone 12 redesign, which blended the best of the X's cutting edge display and biometric technology with the classic band of the iPhone 5S seemed somehow more modern than what had come before it.

The mini problem

For a company focused on the future, Apple's quite unwilling to leave the past behind, always dragging one classic-style phone along to fill the budget iPhone gap. Virtually all legacy devices that sit at the end of the iPhone line have featured the iPhone 6 design (there are subtle differences in the iPhone 8).

Here we are, though, a decade removed from the germination of that look and I, for one, am ready to leave it behind.

Unfortunately, I worry that Apple still is not.

When Apple launched the iPhone 13 last September, it included the iPhone 13 mini, a 5.4-inch screen version some thought it might abandon. Other than size and price, the $699 / £679 / AU$1,199 (128GB) iPhone 13 mini is the same as the 6.1-inch iPhone 13 ($799 / £779 / AU$1,349 for 128GB).

Apple's current iPhone SE (2nd Gen) starts at $399 / £419 / AU$749 for a 64GB model. I hate that it's still just 64GB, but the deal is undeniable. An A13 Bionic smartphone with a solid 12MP camera that, thanks to a very smart algorithm, can still handle portrait mode photography.

The new iPhone SE 3 will at least maintain the single 12MP camera. It might up the base storage to 128GB, the cell capabilities to 5G, and the processor to the same A15 Bionic you'll find in the iPhone 13.

You can probably see the issue.

Just do it

If Apple does upgrade the iPhone SE 3 design, the screen will grow to 5.4 inches (with a notch, naturally). It'll be thick enough to march the 13 mini on battery life, and powerful enough to handle all the same tasks as the full-sized iPhone 13.

If Apple keeps the iPhone SE 3 to a single rear camera and maybe uses an older TrueDepth Module (so unlikely), it could justify the extra $300 to buy an iPhone 13 mini, but it won't be a strong argument.

Apple could split the difference. Creative Strategies Chairman and analyst Tim Bajarin, who has been tracking Apple for decades, told me via email that he expects “a much more updated design with significant difference between it and the iPhone 13.” He added, though, that he isn’t sure they’d include a screen notch.

Assuming Apple does something significant, a redesigned iPhone SE 3 would completely undermine the iPhone 13 mini's marketplace potential – and I don't care.

To move forward, Apple must move past a decade-old design. It's time, and whatever that does to the iPhone 13 mini, Apple should just eat it and look at the iPhone SE 3 as a sort of force multiplier.

Sure, it'll snap up some of that iPhone 13 mini market, but it'll also grow Apple's iPhone market share (probably by attracting more budget-conscious Android buyers) with a truly affordable and exciting new smartphone that finally sheds the past and manages to offer just enough current Apple goodness without breaking anyone's bank.

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.