The iPhone SE went on pre-orders last night starting from $399 (S$649), and as many people have already pointed out, it is a shockingly good value. But I feel like a more interesting conversation can be had about this phone, particularly about what we as a society considers valuable in a smartphone.
In recent years the smartphone market has seen a gradual upward creep in prices across the board. High-end flagships in particular, have seen a significant step increase in prices ever since the unprecedented launch of the $999 iPhone X in 2017.
It was around that time when I, like many other people, have started to wonder what it was about the iPhone that could justify it being the same price as a MacBook Air. Some had thought that the price was simply a one-off for the special edition 10th-anniversary iPhone, but the following year saw the iPhone Xs carrying the same price tag.
Shortly after, Samsung followed suit with its thousand-dollar phones. And we now live in a world where OnePlus, who was once the champion of budget “flagship killer” smartphones just a few years ago, is now offering its own thousand-dollar phone.
As Dieter of The Verge has pointed out, the price premium that we pay for phones these days are for what can be considered luxuries: 5G connectivity, ultra high resolution displays, ultra high refresh rate displays, all-screen design, under-display fingerprint sensors, a frankly ridiculous multitude of cameras on the back of the phone, and even radar.
Phone manufacturers are including unnecessary features like four cameras and even radar to justify price increases
It seems that phone manufacturers are scrambling for reasons to push prices even further, even if they have little to no tangible benefits for the consumer. Soli, the radar tech in the Pixel 4 lineup, was a failure. Having multiple cameras with different focal lengths can admittedly be convenient for wide-angle or telephoto shots, but manufacturers often include other pointless cameras such as the “colour filter” camera on the new OnePlus 8 Pro. Other offenders include “black and white” cameras, macro cameras, and “depth” cameras, which serve hardly any function other than to justify a price increase.
Which brings me back to the main question behind this article: what is valuable in a smartphone? Which features are tangible benefits that are worth paying for, and which are luxurious gimmicks?
The iPhone SE seems to be Apple’s attempt at an answer: one of the fastest smartphone processors available, a good camera, fast and reliable TouchID, a tried and tested compact design.
Yes, it doesn’t have a high-resolution, high refresh rate OLED display. It’s got a design that looks dated by 2020 standards with its large bezels.
But it doesn’t come with some of the things I called “luxurious gimmicks” earlier: there’s only one, good camera on the back so you’re not paying extra money for three additional cameras you’ll hardly use. It doesn’t have any expensive under-display fingerprint sensors or IR face scanners.
The iPhone SE still comes with luxuries like wireless charging and an IP67 rating
And to be fair, the phone does have features that I would still consider to be luxuries: wireless charging, and an IP67 water and dust resistant rating. Those are things that you can’t get on the new $699 OnePlus 8. Remember, this iPhone SE costs $399. I’d be remiss to not point out that the iPhone SE also supports the new WiFi 6 standard, and the fact that it will likely receive 4-5 years of software updates. There’s dollar value to be had on these things too.
So, going back to the question, what exactly should we be paying for in a smartphone? Ironically, just as Apple has started this conversation by showing us the extent of unnecessary luxury that can be had in a smartphone, it has also presented us the counter to that in the iPhone SE. If we can have the best performance, a good camera, years of software updates, and reliable hardware, should we be forking out more than double for extra cameras, additional sensors, and a “futuristic” form factor?
I am not saying that we are all decadents for buying top-end phones. For me personally, it would be hard to imagine myself living with the sub-1080p LCD display and ancient form factor that the iPhone SE offers, but it did get me thinking more seriously about what I should — and shouldn’t — be paying for in my next smartphone.