The iPhone SE's major win over cheap Android phones isn't hardware — it's software updates

Iphone Se 2020 Ac Website
Iphone Se 2020 Ac Website (Image credit: Jared DiPane / Android Central)

Ever since Apple announced the much-anticipated second coming of the iPhone SE, tech reviewers on both sides of the iOS vs. Android camp have been dumbfounded by just what a great value the smartphone seems to be. And while it is an impressive specimen in terms of fit, finish, and features, the hardware and appearance of the device are not what make it truly special. They're also not what makes the phone a legitimate threat not only to mid-range Android devices, but ostensibly to the entire Android ecosystem. No, that honor goes to something less obvious, less flashy, less — sexy. The iPhone SE's real allure is all about the software/security updates and support. Period.

Some SE background

Iphone Se 2020 Ac Site

Source: Jared DiPane / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jared DiPane / Android Central)

There had been rumors and speculation about the iPhone SE (2020) for years. Ever since the outsized popularity that the undersized 2016 handset generated, Apple faithful, as well as those still longing for quality, smaller phones with smaller price points, have been clamoring for a replacement to the original value iPhone.

It doesn't happen often in life, but in the iPhone SE (2020), fans basically got more of what they asked for.

Small iPhone fans were hopeful that any refresh to the 2016 SE would keep the original four-inch footprint, but bring a better processor, camera, and maybe some extras like wireless charging. This doesn't happen very often in life, but in the case of the SE, fans got most of (and in some cases, more of) what they wished for.

For a quick recap, the 2020 edition has a home button with Touch ID, a smaller and lighter form factor (though admittedly not as small as the original), the latest and greatest A13 processor, dual-SIM, portrait mode photos, IP67 water resistance, wireless charging, and the same affordable price from four years earlier.

For a thorough review of the iPhone SE (2020), head on over to iMore to read what my colleague Lory Gil had to say about the device.

The details that actually matter

Iphone Se Software Updates May

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Phone nerds (and not just Android fans) are quick to point out the iPhone SE's flaws and where it doesn't quite measure up to the mid-range Android devices it's positioned against from a price perspective. It's true, the design of the SE does look a little dated (if iconic) compared to something like the Pixel 3a, Nokia 7.2, or even Moto G Stylus. It has a much lower resolution screen than phones at that price point and cheaper, and it doesn't have a high megapixel camera, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB-C charging port, super-fast wired or wireless charging, or the large capacity batteries of many of its competitors.

The thing that got most tech folks excited about the iPhone SE was not the nostalgic form factor or stunningly fair price from Apple. Rather, it was the fact that Apple put its latest high-powered A13 processor into the device. The A13 is objectively better and more powerful at most tasks than anything that Qualcomm, Samsung, Huawei, or MediaTek have to offer the Android world, and it enables features and capabilities that most current mid-range Android phones can't match, (like enhanced image signal processing that makes the SE's iPhone 8-grade camera hardware perform on par with the iPhone 11 series).

The other thing that A13 enables is longevity. There's so much processing overhead in the chip that, at first glance, seems entirely unnecessary. Apple could have (and was expected to) easily gotten away with putting in an older A11 or A12 generation chip, and the SE still would have been a mid-range performance champ. But the secret is not about present-day performance — it's about the long haul.

The A13 processor is overkill for now, but allows for long-term platform and security updates, among other improvements.

Apple's devices, and in particular, its iOS devices, are known to receive software and security updates for several years beyond what Android handsets get. iOS 13 is the current version of the software (iOS 13.4.1 at the time of writing, to be exact), and iPhones back to the 6S series and original SE, released in 2015 and 2016 respectively, are both capable of running it. And even though Apple forked iPadOS from iOS in 2019, iPads back to the Air 2 can run iPadOS based on iOS 13 (that's a 2012 device!).

This strategy helps Apple to not alienate fans who are slower to adapt to change, allows them to attract price-conscious smartphone shoppers and potential platform switchers, and allows them to follow their stated environmental focus by keeping phones in use and out of landfills for longer.

Older iOS devices can indeed run current software and get near-immediate, over the air (OTA) updates without waiting for carriers or other OEMs to make any changes, but that doesn't mean that they'll be able to take advantage of new platform features that rely on new hardware like advanced camera features and futuristic AR capabilities. But that's not the point. If flashy new hardware features are what you really want, then you're likely to fork over the additional cash for a more premium device like the Samsung Galaxy S20 series, OnePlus 8 Pro, or iPhone 11 Pro series.

Thanks to that beefy A13 and Apple's commitment and ability to push platform and security updates, by the time 2024 or 2025 rolls around and we're here reviewing what Moto G15 or Samsung A56 phone to get, the SE will probably still be ticking along just fine on iOS 17 or 18. Not too bad for $400 spread out over four or five years!

For a more thorough discussion of this topic, I encourage you to listen to the latest Android Central podcast with guest Lory Gil of iMore.

How it should be

Iphone Se 2020 Software

Source: Jared DiPane / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Jared DiPane / Android Central)

I know that most people reading Android Central would scoff at the idea of switching to iOS in general, or the iPhone SE in particular, and that's not what I'm advocating for here at all. I simply wish that more Android OEMs would dedicate themselves to supporting the platform and their devices for longer than they currently do.

It's rare to find even premium flagships that promise more than one major platform update (outside of Google and OnePlus), and even rarer still among the mid-range and low-end segments of the market. I realize the adage "you get what you pay for" applies in tech as elsewhere, but I still wish more could be done here.

I know that Apple has several advantages that allow it to produce an affordable mid-ranger with long-term software support. It designs and manufactures its processors, software, and hardware, and has the benefit of only dealing with a handful of suppliers and economies of scale to push its prices down (when it wants to). But there are way more Android manufacturers and customers, and only a couple of chip manufacturers that matter, so you would think that some of them could find a way to compete here with the SE where it matters - longevity. Hopefully, some of them (ahem, Samsung and Google), are getting their rears into gear for 2021 and beyond.

Our recommendations

Right now, if you don't want to spend a lot on a good smartphone but you do want the guarantee of multi-year platform and security updates, your choices are between the Google Pixel 3a, and the iPhone SE. Right now, both are available for under $400, and we're eagerly looking forward to a similarly priced, but better specced, Pixel 4a any day now!

Jeramy Johnson
Editor-in-chief

Jeramy is proud to help *Keep Austin Weird* and loves hiking in the hill country of central Texas with a breakfast taco in each hand. When he's not writing about smart home gadgets and wearables, he's defending his relationship with his smart voice assistants to his family. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeramyutgw.

125 Comments
  • So I guess because the battery life sucks on the SE you had to spin it a different way to try to upsell it? I thought this was an Android site?
  • You thought wrong. This hasn't been an Android site for a good while.
  • Yes judging by the number of ads here it's now called Advertizing Central so it will promote anything that companies pay them to promote Apple included. Don't see these ads on Windows Central.
  • Don't get this sites push on the iPhone.. Numerous "android users agree" rationales. It's a cheap iPhone. I guess if someone kicks you in the balls once an hour, the one hour they forget will be like this iPhone. Useless old parts (except for the a13 of course).. It's like they put a Ferrari engine inside a Lada. No leather bucket seats no ac, etc... But its fast! I want great cameras, screen, sound, ram, battery, storage etc on my phone.. And some chip to get it moving... Not a great chip and crappy hardware. OH! The updates! That's the selling point now? What are updates going to do for your crappy hardware? Sure they have some security improvements but the rest is just Gui.
  • So you’re happy with buying a new phone so you can get security updates and newer features and be beholden to whatever carrier you have actually allowing those features and updates to get through. That is aftermaths what both Google and the carriers want you to do since that’s how they get their income.
  • People buying mid-range phones don't care what Android their phone is running. Most don't even know what an update is.
  • And the Android fanboys are foaming again. Whether you Android fanboys like it or not, it's not just updates that set the iPhone SE apart from the mid range Android phones, it's also the fact that you're getting a lot of phone for your money, the A13 bionic chip (which is more powerful than Android flagship), wireless charging and IP68 water resistance to go along with 5 years of software support and the best app ecosystem and experience that no Android phone can match and your data and privacy are SAFER with an iPhone.
  • You're on an (ostensible) Android site you damn hypocrite. It wasn't that long ago you were singing the praises of your Pixel and poorly arguing with anyone who had any criticism for it. You're the fanboy, you just proselytise whatevers in your hand at the time your mouth opens.
  • I don't even own an iPhone SE(and have no interest in buying one, the iPhone 11 is my perfect phone) I'm being objective here, You're one of Android numpties who foams when there's been an iPhone article and whether you narrow minded fanboys (I actually like both platforms but yes I sightly prefer iPhones) like it or not the SE is a fantastic deal for some looking to get into the Apple ecosystem and doesn't want to spend more on an iPhone 11 and apart from Google coming close with a better display, bigger battery and a better camera, the Pixel 3a's internal hardware is no match for the A13 bionic chip inside the SE. If you don't like Android central posting facts not dogma about the reality of what the iPhone SE had done to the mid range market then that's your bloody problem not mind. Your name is fitting because fuzz is all that's in your brain @Fuzzylumpkin.
  • Don't let him wind you up fuzzy, he's this thing of praising handsets he doesn't own same when he harped on about the Pixel for months and didn't own one he was using some cheap Chinese phone. Now he's bigging up Apple and guess what he doesn't own a iPhone either!
  • It's so easy to get you Android numpties foaming. I love it. And yes I'm heading back to Apple in the summer and I intend to stay there but I won't abandon Android completely especially as the joke that is the "Android community" on here can get easily would up by an iPhone article like that @FuzzyLumkin clown.
  • Nobodys foaming? anyone that's been here along time and knows your history here like me knows your opinion is pointless because you don't own the handset your actually banging on about and two you flip flop depending on what day of the week it is! Good luck finding the android central app on the Apple store as last time I looked Apple wouldn't allow it, but then again you'll get used to that anyway when you go down that route as Apple will tell you what you can and can't do and decide what you want in your phone for you.
  • I will still have an Android phone so I won't be flip flopping all that will change is that I'll be an iPhone user (and ilalso Pad again) I don't have to prove anything to you Android numpties. If my opinion was "pointless why respond?
  • No need to be childish? who calls people numpties like really? are you 5? I'm all for debating points and discussing different devices etc it's a android forum at the end of the day but the reason I replied is because your spouting guff nonsense about a handset you don't own and you've history of doing so. You've mocked apple users before, you've mocked samsung users before and now it's Android users in general? so now can anyone here take anything you say seriously?