7 ways Apple could cut the 2018 iPhone '11' price

Commentary: A cheaper iPhone with Face ID would require deep feature cuts.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A 6.1-inch Face ID iPhone for just $550. That's one welcome rumor after 2017 became the year of the thousand-dollar iPhone X. But to achieve a modern-looking "midprice" iPhone with Face ID and an edge-to-edge screen, Apple would have to cut many of the iPhone X's top-notch features. 

Let's back up a bit. The going rumor-fueled theory is that Apple will update the current iPhone 8, 8 Plus and iPhone X with three new iPhones later this year, all with Face ID. 

Two members of this trio would follow in the iPhone X's high-priced footsteps, a 5.8-inch successor and a new jumbo-screen 6.5-inch model that would both supposedly stick with OLED screens (possibly from LG). And if anything, that giant-screen model would cost more, not less.

It's the third model that would supposedly bring that deeply slashed price. And weirdly, it would actually have a bigger screen than the current top-line iPhones: 6.1 inches, according to the rumor, instead of the 5.8-inch iPhone X or 5.5-inch iPhone 8 Plus.

The rumor is Apple could sell an iPhone with Face ID that's even cheaper than the iPhone 8.

Sarah Tew/CNET

So, if this scenario were to pan out, and I have my doubts, which features would get the axe?

What a 'bargain' big-screen Face ID iPhone would look like

Apple could deliver a cheaper, modern-looking iPhone by following the same trail it blazed with the iPhone SE, iPhone 8 and recent 2018 iPad: Judiciously trimming those top-end features. To that end, here's how Apple could make a more affordable iPhone "11" (for lack of a more substantial name).

  • Screen: Return to LCD instead of pricier OLED technology
  • Camera: One rear camera instead of two, like on the iPhone 8
  • Front-facing camera: Stick with the first-gen TrueDepth selfie camera system, not the next-gen TrueDepth 2 that's expected for 2018's iPhones
  • Drop: 3D Touch, or the features that deliver better color response to current 2017 iPhones (True Tone display, Wide color display)
  • Dial back the RAM: For instance, the iPhone X and 8 Plus have 3GB, while the 8 only has 2GB
  • Stick with the A11 CPU: Don't jump to new A12 we assume Apple will use for 2018's iPhones
  • Cut wireless charging: Even though that means selling fewer AirPower wireless charging pads when Apple finally releases it

Wait, doesn't Apple already have budget iPhones?

There are already iPhones you can buy for less, but they're not new, and they don't embrace Apple's Face ID technology.

The iPhone SE, left, is a model for a cheaper iPhone that works.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple's true budget model, the iPhone SE, now sells for $349 (32GB) and $449 (128GB). Launched in 2016 and given a storage upgrade in early 2017, it's essentially an iPhone 6S in a iPhone 5S body. Regardless, the iPhone SE shows us how a cheaper iPhone can be done, and done well. 

The so-called iPhone SE 2, which would likely just be the existing model with a newer chip (and possibly wireless charging?), may not even wait until September: It's rumored to hit anytime between now and Apple's WWDC keynote on June 4. 

There are also discounts to be had on older model iPhones. As Apple raised the prices of its 2017-2018 lineup, starting at $700 for the iPhone 8, the company also knocked $100 off of the iPhone 7iPhone 7 PlusiPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus.

There was also Apple's first experiment with a budget iPhone, the bright, colorful iPhone 5C, which the company never refreshed.

So, why does Apple need a cheaper Face ID iPhone?

It's simple, really: The iPhone X has apparently sold well, but it may have already peaked. 

The thousand-dollar iPhone X rocked the phone world when Apple became the first mainstream phone maker to break that price barrier, with an aim to raise Apple's profits. CEO Tim Cook said in a Feb. 1 press release that the "iPhone X surpassed our expectations and has been our top-selling iPhone every week since it shipped in November."

iPhone 8 Plus

Stripping out wireless charging could be one way to lower an iPhone's cost.

Sarah Tew/CNET

A recent report from Counterpoint Research estimates that the iPhone X was responsible for a whopping 35 percent of global phone profits in that same timeframe, too -- the fourth quarter of 2017. However, there are also indications that demand has slowed in recent months. 

We'll get more insight into the relative success of iPhone sales on May 1, when Apple announces its quarterly earnings. But it certainly sounds like Apple wants a new iPhone with the latest look and feel -- the edge-to-edge screen with Face ID support -- at a price closer to that of the $700 iPhone 8.

Can a Face ID iPhone really only cost $550?

Honestly? Probably not. Consider the most recent disappointment for those seeking an Apple price cut: The prevailing rumor for the US pricing on the "cheap iPad for schools" was said to be $260. But when the 2018 model was finally unveiled, it was still the same price as last year's model: $329, albeit with a $30 discount for the education market.

The situation could be ready to repeat for the new "cheaper iPhone." If this is a successor to the iPhone 8, though, there's really no reason why Apple would have to dip below that phone's $700 price tag. 

Still, even a $700 iPhone would give wannabe iPhone X owners a handset with the same basic look and feel for a huge $300 discount -- and still give them the biggest iPhone they've ever owned, if the screen size is really 6.1 inches. Apple would get to keep a tidy profit margin by making some or all of the compromises listed above.

Meanwhile, Apple megafans who can cough up a premium for the best of the best can still buy an iPhone X Plus (or whatever it'll be called) for supposedly upwards of $1,300, packed with the latest and greatest dual rear camera, TrueDepth 2 Face ID and every other state of the art feature. 

For Apple, cutting back features to sell a loss leader is still a lot of win.