Commentary: Apple wants to draw you into its ecosystem, while Samsung is all about providing premium features at a lower price.
Apple and Samsung seemingly agree on one thing: You don't have to pay close to $1,000 to get a good phone anymore. But their respective visions differ greatly when it comes to what makes an affordable phone worthwhile.
That difference in approach was on full display over the past two weeks. Both companies held virtual keynotes to announce new phones that are priced hundreds of dollars below the headline-grabbing iPhone 13 and Galaxy S22. Apple was first with an event on March 8 to announce the $429 iPhone SE. Apple's lower-priced phone looks like 2017's iPhone 8, but comes equipped with 5G and the same processor as the iPhone 13. Samsung followed on March 17 by introducing the Galaxy A53 5G, a $450 phone that comes with some of the same features as its pricier counterparts, including a nearly borderless screen and multilens camera.
The announcements reveal a lot about the technology Apple and Samsung deem necessary for a modern phone. Apple prioritizes providing the latest processor at a low cost, even if it means implementing an outdated design and a less versatile camera. You could argue that Samsung takes the opposite approach. Samsung's budget phones typically run on less powerful chips than its Galaxy S phones, but they're wrapped in modern design that at first glance could be confused with its more expensive devices.
For Apple, the iPhone SE is a cheaper way to draw new shoppers into services such as iMessage, Apple TV, Apple Arcade and the full App Store. Samsung, meanwhile, is trying to provide premium features for less money.
You'd be forgiven for mistaking the 2022 iPhone SE for the four-year-old iPhone 8. Like Apple's older iPhone models, the new iPhone SE has a physical home button with thick bezels located above and below the screen. It also has a 4.7-inch display, meaning its screen is considerably smaller than even the 5.4-inch iPhone 13 Mini. There's also only one 12-megapixel camera on the iPhone SE, while Apple's more expensive phones have two or three camera lenses.
These characteristics can make the new iPhone SE seem dated, but it's what's on the inside that counts. The iPhone SE runs on the same A15 Bionic processor as the new iPhone 13. Not only should that make performance feel fast, but the new chip also means the iPhone SE will support new iOS features for years to come. While iOS 15 runs on phones as old as the iPhone 6S and original iPhone SE from 2016, certain features are only available on phones with newer chips.
That's the whole appeal behind the iPhone SE. It's not about providing cutting edge tech like a depth scanner, multilens camera or vibrant OLED screen. It's for people who just want an iPhone for basic everyday tasks at the lowest price possible.
The iPhone SE allows Apple to reach shoppers with tighter budgets, who may have dismissed the company's pricier models in the past. And those iPhone SE owners may one day turn into AirPods owners or Apple Watch owners. They might subscribe to Apple Music or one of Apple's iCloud storage plans, too. In other words, the iPhone SE's appeal isn't really about the hardware -- it's an admission ticket to all things Apple.
Despite its lower price, the Galaxy A53 5G looks almost indistinguishable from more expensive Samsung phones like $700 Galaxy S21 FE. Like most of Samsung's recent phones, it has a screen that nearly covers the entire front of the device with just a hole punch-shaped cutout for the selfie camera. The Galaxy A53 5G looks like just about any other phone Samsung could have launched over the past three years.
Samsung's goal with the Galaxy A53 5G is clear: to bring high-end features to a more affordable device. It has a multi-lens camera system that includes a 64-megapixel main camera, a 12-megapixel ultrawide camera, a 5-megapixel macro camera and a 5-megapixel depth sensor.
The screen can also boost its refresh rate up to 120Hz for smoother scrolling -- a feature that was previously reserved for only the most expensive phones. The iPhone SE, by comparison, has just one standard 12-megapixel camera lens. The $1,000 iPhone 13 Pro and $1,100 iPhone 13 Pro Max are the only phones in Apple's current lineup that can crank up their screens' refresh rates.
That's not to say Samsung hasn't made any compromises with the Galaxy A53 5G. Unlike Samsung's more expensive phones, the Galaxy A53 5G lacks a telephoto lens for closer zooming -- a fair tradeoff given its lower price.
Still, Samsung seems to be doing a better job of closing the gap between its budget and premium phones than Apple. I haven't tested the Galaxy A53 5G yet, but its predecessor made me never want to pay close to $1,000 for a new phone again. However, the Galaxy A53 5G doesn't benefit from having the same processor as its high-end siblings as the iPhone SE does.
Instead, the Galaxy A53 5G runs on Samsung's Exynos 1280 chip, which is said to be a middle-range processor with gaming performance similar to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G, according to blog SamMobile. That's the same chip inside the Galaxy A52S 5G, a variant of the A52 that launched in the United Kingdom last year. But the Exynos 1280 was built using a 5-nanometer manufacturing process just like the processor inside the iPhone 13 and Pixel 6. A smaller nanometer measurement typically means more transistors, which should result in more power and energy efficiency.
Samsung and Apple have different visions for what makes a good moderately priced phone, and both approaches seem to have been successful so far. Apple doesn't share sales data for specific iPhone models. But following the previous iPhone SE's launch in 2020, Apple CEO Tim Cook credited the device as being a driver behind the iPhone's growth during its fiscal third-quarter earnings call in 2020. He also said the iPhone SE's small size made it appealing to shoppers who haven't upgraded their phones in a long time. The 2020 iPhone SE was also one of the top 10 bestselling phones in 2021, according to Counterpoint Research.
The Galaxy A series has also proven to be popular for Samsung. Galaxy A devices accounted for 58% of Samsung's smartphone unit sales in 2021, according to Counterpoint Research data provided to CNET. And Samsung's Galaxy A12 also landed on that same list of the top 10 best-selling phones of last year alongside the iPhone SE.
The Galaxy A53 5G and iPhone SE are more than just cheap smartphones. They tell us what Apple and Samsung think are the most important aspects of our mobile devices. For Samsung, the answer seems to be long battery life, a large screen and multiple cameras. Apple, on the other hand, is focused on providing similar performance to what its more premium iPhones offer.