Does the 2020 iPhone SE rewrite the rules on what a phone should cost?

There are, fundamentally, only three types of smartphone: cheap ones, very expensive ones indeed and those that are somewhere in between.

The new iPhone SE

The reasons to opt for a cheap one are many and obvious, and some extremely good models – last year’s Motorola G7 Play, for instance – can now be had for slightly less than £100.

But unless it’s the company’s money you’re spending, the reasons to choose a model from the top of the range are diminishing by the month.

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The shrinking economy has less to do with this than the launch by the world’s two biggest tech companies of handsets which considerably undercut their previous pricing policies. Google was the first to do this last year, with its Pixel 3a phone – the 5.6in version of which is currently £329 and boasts one of the best cameras in its class, as well as an excellent display and above-average battery life.

But the latest announcement by Apple ups the ante still further. The 2020 version of its iPhone SE, which went on sale a few weeks ago at £419, costs fully £620 less than its current flagship, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Yet it runs the same software and does, for all practical purposes, the same job. Taken together with the Pixel 3a, it makes it hard to for other manufacturers to argue that £1,000 should remain the benchmark for a new phone.

Apple first introduced the iPhone SE in 2016 as a cheaper alternative to its main range of phones, which it updates every year amid much uncalled-for ballyhoo.

It discontinued it in 2018 and in some ways its relaunch is a retrograde step. The new SE has only a 4.7in screen, which was the norm five years ago but is smaller than most newer rivals. It also has only a single rear camera, and a physical Home button, which the more expensive iPhones have done away with. This means there is a lot of wasted black space around the display. On the other hand, it has Apple’s latest processor, the A13 Bionic, and a fingerprint sensor. And of course it has the build quality and ease of use you expect from Apple.

But the iPhone SE and Pixel 3a are not alone in the mid-range sector. The £330, 6.5in Samsung Galaxy A51 outdoes both on screen size and has four rear cameras with standard, wide-angle and macro lenses and a depth sensor to blur the background on portraits.

The lesser known, and therefore cheaper, Chinese maker Xiaomi is also becoming a major player in this sector of the market. Its £234 Redmi Note 8 matches the Samsung in its lens count and has a screen almost as big, at 6.3in.

All of these handsets can be bought free of contract and all but the Xiaomi are widely available on monthly terms through the big networks.

The choice comes down to what you want to do with your phone and in particular, whether you expect it to completely replace your standalone camera. Not many photography enthusiasts would countenance this, preferring to keep their handsets for backup use, and if you’re of the same mind – and you don’t play a lot of processor-heavy games on it – there is really little justification for anything much more expensive than that £100 Motorola G7 Play.

If, on the other hand, you have always fancied an iPhone but not the price, the new SE could be exactly what you’ve been waiting for – especially if you don’t mind it looking five years out of date.

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