The iPhone SE 3 could be 2022’s biggest smartphone surprise

iPhone SE (2020)
(Image credit: Future)

It’s heavily rumored that Apple’s readying another March event to launch a slew of new gadgets - a new iPhone SE, iPad Air, and possibly new Macs - that’s no surprise, but it could herald one of the most impressive iPhones ever made.

Despite Apple’s spring launch not being an annual thing, the wonderfully-named ‘Spring-loaded’ event last year didn’t feel out of the blue - but there did seem to be a lot of online surprise that a new iPhone SE didn’t land.

The lack of iPhone SE 3 really wasn’t surprising. The first iPhone SE (launched in 2016) took four years to get a successor, as it continued to sell pretty well as a low-cost alternative to the ever-spiralling prices of the new iPhone range, as well as some people enjoying a more palm-friendly device. 

One might have assumed the iPhone 12 mini and 13 mini would have stolen that limelight, but stats suggest that they’ve not been the hit Apple had hoped for (more on that later).

The ‘new’ iPhone SE, launched in 2020, felt like Apple waiting until the very last moment to bring out a new budget iPhone, and following the same SE tradition: using an older design (this time the iPhone 8), offering access to old hardware some people still enjoy (Touch ID over Face ID), and stuffing in a high-power, current chipset to improve things like battery life.

iPhone SE review

Interest in the iPhone SE 2020 is mildly starting to wane... is it time for a reboot already? (Image credit: TechRadar)

Given the iPhone SE 2020 is still one of our most popular iPhone reviews, I’m surprised that Apple is heavily rumored to be thinking about refreshing it in just a month’s time rather than waiting another year or two… but all the rumors are really ramping up to that, with the much-respected journalist Mark Gurman predicting the device will land alongside the new iPad Air 5.

While there is part of me that can’t see it happening - Apple doesn’t need to refresh this model when it’s currently buoyed by some of the best iPhone sales in years (despite it still costing $399 / £389 / AU$679 two years from launch) - there is one good reason for Apple to make the leap now: battery life.

I’m still amazed and perplexed by the battery life of the iPhone 13 range. Not in an adoring, isn’t-Apple-so-generous kind of way, but amazed that it took this long. iPhone 13 users are getting battery life that many Android users have been experiencing for years - the lack of panic when you awake and realize you forgot to plug in the charger is quite a relief.

But, thanks to the A15 Bionic chipset and careful tuning of the components, those that have only ever been on the iPhone train will have been stunned at how little they needed to use a charger when they started using a new iPhone 13… performance that would have sparkled even more during a pandemic when we spent less time away from our power-friendly Wi-Fi.

Now imagine that power and efficiency in a phone using older, less power-intensive hardware. A screen that has fewer pixels to drive. Lower-quality speakers. And a prospective user base that doesn’t use every single feature of their new phone constantly, but just wants an iPhone that won’t let them down - your non-tech family member is the perfect target for an iPhone SE with good battery.

And don’t forget the other thing that Apple managed to do with the iPhone 13 range - that great power longevity while also connecting to 5G networks. The iPhone 12 absolutely failed at this task, with battery life that appeared reduced so Apple could stick in a 5G modem to connect to a network few people were using.

We’re nearly two years on from that moment, and ready for a $399 / £389 / AU$679 5G iPhone that would entice budget-sensitive users ready to make the switch to the faster networks.

A new, old era

By launching an iPhone SE 3 now, Apple wouldn’t be ‘forced’ to use a more modern design. The iPhone 8 chassis is just modern enough to still be desirable - indeed, the curved edges will be appealing to those that haven’t fallen in love with Apple’s more brutalist, industrial design since the iPhone 12.

Apple might want to bring out an iPhone SE based on the current design language - not least because of the cost savings of a single manufacturing process - but I still firmly feel there are millions of people who aren’t that excited about a notch-heavy, all-screen design.

Especially for the higher cost it would command.

If, as heavily rumored, there are no hardware changes on the new iPhone SE, that wouldn’t be the end of the world either. The lack of a dual camera will smart, but I was impressed with the way Apple managed to use the power of its A13 chipset in the last iPhone SE to enhance the photos that came out the older lens… and it’s only got better at doing so since then.

iPhone SE review

A single lens looks likely to remain, but with a better sensor (Image credit: TechRadar)

There are even rumors that the sensor inside will be upgraded too. This means the iPhone SE 2022 has even more chance of being a powerhouse with a decent-enough camera on the back - perfect for those that don’t want to spend huge amounts of money just to get a dependable smartphone.

A lot of this is hearsay, of course, and we don’t even have confirmation of the March event yet. But the stream of iPhone SE leaks is starting to build to a river, with reports of testing and production beginning just at the point we’d expect them to.

If Apple does launch the iPhone SE 3 in 2022, that’s a big statement that it’ll be doing the same every couple of years, and puts the prospect of an iPhone 14 mini even further in danger - many people would have bought that just to get a smaller new iPhone, and the iPhone SE 2022 could do that for almost half the price.

So, if I see that event invite land in the next few weeks, and I get one of my regular phone calls from ‘that’ family member asking what new phone they should get… well, I’ll definitely be telling them to hold out for another month or two.

Gareth Beavis
Formerly Global Editor in Chief

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.