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iPhone 9 (aka iPhone SE 2): Apple's budget iPhone needs to be small and affordable

Commentary: The time is ripe yet again for a truly budget iPhone.

The iPhone SE from 2016 was Apple's first budget phone and a new version of it called the iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2 might be coming out this spring. The timing couldn't come any sooner, since rumors of an iPhone SE 2 have been percolating for a couple of years. That's because back when the original iPhone SE was announced, it was a huge surprise. It came out six months after the launch of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus with similar specs, but had the call-back looks of the beautifully blocky iPhone 5S. When the iPhone SE went on sale, Apple had trouble keeping up with the demand.

For the past year, people have hoped for a similar device and rumors are all over the place. One has it that the phone will have Face ID, and one says it won't. There is a rumor that it'll have a 4.7-inch screen, while another points to it having a 5.4-inch screen. Some rumors call it an iPhone SE 2 and yet others suggest it'll be the iPhone 9, filling in the number Apple skipped going from the iPhone 8 to the iPhone X.

The biggest rumor is that the new phone will have an iPhone 8 body, with the iPhone 11's A13 processor and RAM. For a deeper dive on all the rumors, check out CNET's iPhone 9 (or iPhone SE 2) rumor roundup.

In order for the iPhone 9 to be a success it needs to recapture some of that original iPhone SE mojo. With the iPhone XR and 11, Apple proved it can create phones packed with value. And yet with Apple's focus on services like Apple Arcade and Apple TV Plus, the timing couldn't be more perfect for a budget iPhone, whether it's called an iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2.

iPhone 8

This is not the iPhone 9 or iPhone SE 2. Instead, it's the iPhone 8. A rumor states that Apple might use the iPhone 8's body and put the processor and RAM from the iPhone 11 inside.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The success of the iPhone SE

Let's go back to 2016 and revisit why the iPhone SE was such a hit. The iPhone SE cost $399, the lowest price for any "new" iPhone. Even four years ago that was still cheap for Apple, considering the new iPhone 6S started at $649.

While the "SE" most certainly stood for "special edition" for many it meant "small edition." A year before, Apple released the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and at the time they were the largest iPhones ever. In comparison, the iPhone SE was absolutely tiny, and small phone lovers became enamored instantly.

Perhaps the biggest reason behind the iPhone SE's success, however, were the smart compromises Apple made. Like the 6 and 6S, the iPhone SE didn't have optical image stabilization. It also lacked 3D touch as well. But given this, you still didn't feel like you were getting a phone with "last year's technology" or one that was two years old. The SE could run iOS 9, the same as the more expensive 6S and 6S Plus, and take similar photos. And yet, people were willing to sacrifice on a few features in order to get a phone with a small familiar form and low price.

iphone-se-43.jpg

The iPhone SE used the body of the iPhone 5S and added the processor and camera from the iPhone 6S.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In order for a new iPhone SE to be as appealing to customers as when the first one launched, Apple needs an attractive price, a small size and smart compromises. That means the iPhone 9 needs to be under that same $399 price. I realize that flagship phone prices have increased since 2016, but during that same time budget phones have come out that can be had for less than $300 or even less than $200.

The new budget iPhone needs to be smaller than the current iPhone 11 family, so a screen that's 4.7 inches, like on the iPhone 8 or even 5.4 inches (as rumored) would still be smaller than the 5.8-inch screen on the 11 Pro, which is the smallest iPhone currently available. For reference, the original iPhone SE had a 4-inch display.

Apple also needs to make smart compromises. For example, adding an A13 processor would be wise, and I'd be willing to live with a $399 iPhone if it only had one rear camera instead of the two found on the 11 or three on the back of the 11 Pro.

Apple's iPhone SE recipe adapted by Android

Apple hasn't sold the iPhone SE for nearly a year and a half. During that time other phone makers used a similar budget phone recipe to create compelling Android phones. One of the best budget phones I've used is the Moto G7, which costs $300. It has a Gorilla Glass 3 body, a modern small bezel design and runs Motorola's lightly customized version of Android. It doesn't have the best camera, a high refresh rate screen or a flagship processor. But those are smart trade-offs Motorola made to hit a ridiculously low price.

Last year, Google released the $399 Pixel 3A. It had the same camera found on the Pixel 3 and 3 XL, which even now is still one of the best cameras for photography on any phone. Google added a slightly larger battery but kept the design simple. There were definitely sacrifices. The build was decidedly plastic and it didn't have wireless charging or water resistance. Both the Pixel 3A and Moto G7 are tremendous phones that represent new budget takes that rival the features on flagship devices.

pixel-3a-xl-32

The Google Pixel 3A is a budget phone version of the Pixel 3.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you go on Apple's website, the "cheapest" new iPhone you can buy is an iPhone 8 for $449. That's a pretty good deal as Apple iPhones go, but that doesn't change the fact that you're getting a phone that was released in 2017. In phone years, that's quite old. People looking for a budget iPhone experience have to make a sizable trade-off by being behind three generations.

That's where the iPhone 9 could come in and save the day. Even if it's the same body as the 8, the iPhone 9 packed with the processor from the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro would mean budget buyers would be able to hold onto the phone longer.

iPhone 9 creates an affordable way into Apple services

As Apple makes its services more of a priority, having an affordable entryway into iOS is a must. Last year, Apple revamped its iPod touch and iPad mini, which aside from updated processors, are otherwise both exactly the same as they were in 2015. But that new processor allowed people to run iOS 13 along with Apple ArcadeApple News Plus and Apple TV Plus.

An iPhone 9 would be an affordable way for people to get into those services and keep using them longer than an iPhone 8 would. Theoretically, packing a budget phone with new or current internals would allow you two more years of use.

I'm excited if the iPhone 9 does materialize. Apple declined to comment, but I'd love to hear your thoughts about the phone and what you think it needs in order to be a success.

Now playing: Watch this: Why Apple needs the iPhone 9, aka SE 2
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Originally published last month.