Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
The iPhone SE is Apple's only 5G phone that costs less than $500. Android competitors are outpacing Apple in affordable 5G options, as proven by the Google Pixel 6A and other devices.
Why it matters
Apple needs to provide more choice when it comes to wallet-friendly 5G iPhones. 5G once demanded premium prices, but it's become the standard in most new phones.
Apple is expected to launch the iPhone 14 in September. When it does, the iPhone 12 Mini could see a price cut that brings it to $500.
Shortly after Apple launched the iPhone 13 in September, I wrote about why the iPhone 11 was (and is) still a great deal at $500. It has Face ID, a sharp dual camera system and a large screen for $300 less than the iPhone 13. What's not to like?
There's only one setback that gives me some pause when recommending the iPhone 11: It doesn't have 5G. A few years ago, 5G was just a buzzword that tech giants used to get customers excited about new products. Companies like Samsung charged a premium for 5G phones back in 2019, even though 5G networks were in the early stages then.
In 2022, you can get by just fine without a 5G phone. But now that 5G has become standard in most moderately priced phones, there's little reason not to buy one if you're already upgrading. Unless you're an Apple fan that doesn't want to spend more than $500, that is.
Many US shoppers likely aren't paying that price all at once since carriers offer monthly installment plans. Most carriers also promote deals to subsidize upgrades, but those discounts usually require conditions like opening a new line or choosing a pricier plan.
Apple launched the $429 iPhone SE in March to provide a wallet-friendly 5G option. But with its small 4.7-inch screen and single camera, it's not for everyone. At the same time, companies like Samsung and Google have been releasing promising 5G phones with many of the same qualities found on more expensive models, like the Galaxy A53 and Pixel 6A.
All of Apple's flagship phones come with 5G, starting with 2020's iPhone 12. But compared to Android, Apple doesn't offer many options when it comes to affordable 5G devices. That could change in the coming months when the iPhone 14 is expected to launch, and I'm hoping it does.
Do I really need 5G in my next phone?
The answer is complicated. In many everyday scenarios, you probably won't notice the difference between 4G and 5G. And 4G networks aren't turning off anytime soon, so you don't need to worry about a 4G phone becoming obsolete.
But if you're buying a new phone, it's best to go with a 5G-enabled device if you can afford one. Carriers are expanding their midband 5G networks, which provide speedier performance than 4G LTE, and low-band 5G can function at longer distances than the super fast (but severely limited) millimeter-wave 5G.
If you want a phone that will last for the next three to five years, I'd recommend buying a 5G phone so that you don't miss out on speedier midband networks as they continue to expand. If you think you'll be upgrading again in the next year or two, it's fine to buy a 4G phone.
The iPhone SE is Apple's only sub-$500 5G phone... for now
With eight iPhones on the market, Apple certainly provides a lot of choice. However, the 2022 iPhone SE is the only 5G option under $500.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about the iPhone SE. It runs on the same processor as the iPhone 13, which means it has fast performance for the price. The camera takes great photos, and its battery life is longer than the previous iPhone SE's. But it also comes with a lot of limitations.
The iPhone SE only has one rear camera even though most modern phones have at least two. That camera lacks night mode -- another feature found on most phones released in 2019 or later. The iPhone SE also has the same design as the nearly 5-year-old iPhone 8, which means it has a small display and old-fashioned bezels above and below the screen. That can make it feel dated compared to many newer devices, like the Pixel 6A. It's also not very different from the $400 iPhone SE that launched in 2020, aside from the new model's 5G support and newer chip.
If you want 5G and more modern features like Face ID, a camera with wide and ultra-wide lenses, improved durability and a larger 5.4-inch screen, your closest option is the $600 iPhone 12 Mini. It's more affordable than other devices in Apple's lineup, like the $700 iPhone 13 Mini, $700 iPhone 12 and $800 iPhone 13. But it's nearly two years old and is out of budget for anyone with a $500 limit.
2022 iPhone Prices
US starting price
iPhone 12 Mini
iPhone 13 Mini
iPhone 13 Pro
iPhone 13 Pro Max
While Apple's sub-$500 5G options are limited right now, that might not be the case for much longer. Apple traditionally lowers the prices of its older iPhones when releasing new models, as it did with the iPhone 11 last year. If Apple follows the same pattern, the 5G-enabled iPhone 12 and 12 Mini could see another price drop that brings the Mini down to $500 this fall.
There's also another possibility. Before Apple launched the iPhone SE in March, rumors suggested Apple was working on a cheaper iPhone with the same design as the iPhone 11. This rumored device has been referred to as the iPhone SE Plus.
Now that the iPhone SE is becoming a more regular part of Apple's iPhone lineup, there's a chance Apple could use this rumored iPhone 11-inspired design for the next-generation model. That would certainly address many of the iPhone SE's current limitations, particularly its small screen and single camera.
But based on Apple's release schedule, we probably won't see a new iPhone SE until March or April 2024. So if you're looking for a cheaper 5G iPhone in the near term, the current iPhone SE or a discounted older model will be your best bet.
The Android competition is moving ahead of Apple
The Android landscape looks vastly different than Apple's. There are plenty of choices for those who don't want to spend more than $500 on a new phone yet still want 5G connectivity. The $450 Google Pixel 6A is probably the best option right now, thanks to its great camera, large screen, eye-catching design and early access to Android updates.
The Pixel 6A isn't alone. There's a growing selection of 5G Android phones that cost $500 or less but have features that once demanded a premium price. Samsung, for example, sells the $450 Galaxy A53 5G and $400 Galaxy A42 5G, both of which have large screens, on-screen fingerprint sensors and multi-lens cameras. The iPhone SE doesn't have any of those features, although it is the only current iPhone with a physical home button and fingerprint sensor.
Motorola's $500 Moto G Stylus 5G has a spacious 6.8-inch screen with a 120Hz refresh rate and four times as much storage as the base iPhone SE model. Although it's not available in the US, the recently launched Nothing 1 phone is another example of an affordable 5G Android phone. For a price that translates to roughly $480, you get a large 6.55-inch OLED screen, a dual camera with a 50-megapixel main sensor and 128GB of storage. You can even find 5G phones for under $300, like the $250 Samsung Galaxy A13, although phones in the $400 to $500 range offer a better balance between features, speed and affordability.
These Android phones offer a lot of value compared to the iPhone SE. But it's important to acknowledge where they fall short. The Pixel 6A is only guaranteed to get three years of major Android version updates, while Apple's upcoming iOS 16 software will run on iPhones that are nearly five years old. Apple also supports phones for much longer than Motorola, which only promises one software upgrade. Unlike the iPhone SE, Samsung Galaxy A53 5G doesn't run on the same processor as the company's flagship phones. During my time testing the Galaxy A53, I experienced occasional software lag and performance hiccups -- an issue that hasn't come up with the iPhone SE.
For those who just want a basic inexpensive iPhone to stay connected to Apple's apps and services, the iPhone SE is probably enough. But Android phone makers are proving that the list of compromises you need to make when spending $500 or less on a new phone is getting shorter. Now it's time for Apple to catch up.