The launch of the all-new iPhone SE might not have come as a surprise to most, but the spec sheet sure did. Performance that comes close to that of the top-of-the-line iPhone 11, wireless charging, water-resistance, and access to the incredible iOS app ecosystem for the same $399 price point as the Pixel 3a? What’s not to like. In fact, when my colleague, David, reviewed the iPhone SE, he called it an impressive phone with a surprisingly capable camera and top-notch performance.
In India though, the iPhone SE is an altogether different beast. The phone costs Rs. 42,500 (~$560) in the country which puts it squarely in the “affordable-flagship” price band. Apple’s entry-level phone is all about distilling the essentials of an iPhone experience and upselling the value of its ecosystem and brand cachet. And if Apple’s sales figures hold true, for a lot of buyers those hold a lot of value over the number of cameras or processor gigahertz.
Our verdict: Apple iPhone SE (2020) review: Old is new, again!
Now, India has been a key focus area for growth for Apple. The second-largest smartphone market in the world with over 158 million shipments in 2019, India also one of the few regions where Apple hasn’t really had a break-out success story. Sure, it might sell the overwhelming majority of ultra-premium smartphones (Rs. 45,000 and above) in the country, but that is still a minuscule number of total shipments — the real numbers are in the sub-flagship segment where OnePlus and, in more recent times, Xiaomi come out to play.
As Apple makes strides towards becoming a larger platform and ecosystem player with the Apple Watch, Apple TV, and the accompanying streaming service, as well as cloud services, it needs a hit that moves numbers, and the iPhone SE is positioned to be just that device.
Let’s talk about Apple and India.
How is this any different from Apple’s previous attempts in India?
The 2020 iPhone SE is obviously not the first attempt by Cupertino to make a dent in India’s smartphone market. However, context and market maturity is key to understanding why the new iPhone SE has the potential to be Apple’s first mass-market success in the country.
When the first-generation iPhone SE launched in India back in 2016, the premium smartphone market contributed just 3% to India’s smartphone sales. The iPhone SE cost Rs. 39,000 (~$520) in a market where competitors like the OnePlus 3 were trying to gradually shift up the price ladder and cost about Rs. 27,999 (~$370).
Meanwhile, the flagship Samsung Galaxy S7 cost a princely Rs. 48,900 (~$650) in the country. The iPhone SE didn’t quite have the prestige of a full-blown flagship to go against a top-tier Android phone, and just didn’t offer enough incentive for buyers to splurge over the new-fangled crop of affordable flagships.
India's premium-segment market has been propelled forward by the likes of OnePlus and is growing dramatically year-on-year.
Since then India’s premium smartphone market has expanded at a remarkable pace, but this growth has been driven mostly on the back of affordable flagships like those by OnePlus. In fact, OnePlus was the number one premium brand in the country for all of 2019 and captured one-third of the entire premium smartphone category (Rs. 30,000/~$400 and above) with just over two million shipments for 2019.
As market acceptance for higher-end phones has increased, Apple has also ridden the wave. The iPhone XR has helped Apple grow its market share in India by 41% year-on-year. The phone enjoyed multiple discounts throughout the year bringing it to as low as Rs. 49,000 (~$650) in the country and festive schemes drove down the price even further. The numbers were enough to make the iPhone XR the best selling device in the Rs. 45,000 and above category in India. With the iPhone SE pitched just below that category and more in-line with a sub-flagship segment, Apple could see a significant boost to those numbers.
India is notoriously brand-conscious and Apple is the de-facto aspirational choice
One key advantage Apple has is that India is a notoriously brand-conscious market and the Cupertino company is the de-facto aspirational choice. The iPhone 7, a phone from 2016, is still readily available in the country and enjoys a reasonable amount of sales. Apple isn’t unaware of this fact either as it partnered up with contract manufacturer Wistron to manufacture the phone in the country to off-set the 20% import duty on smartphones in India. In fact, both the iPhone XR and iPhone 7 are manufactured in the country.
The iPhone SE is a phone that’s perfectly positioned to bring users on to the Apple platform. Providing cutting edge internals that will endure and stay competitive against future rivals also means that Apple is ensuring that users can buy into the larger ecosystem piecemeal over the coming years — an advantage that is unique to Apple.
But wait… premium Android phones have never been better
Let’s address the elephant in the room.
The iPhone SE might not be Apple’s premium phone, but priced at Rs. 42,500 (~$560) it certainly is a premium phone in India. Unlike in some of Apple’s other core markets like the US and UK, the iPhone SE isn’t a steal that destroys the competition.
In India, there are more than a few Android phones around the Rs. 40,000 price point, and they’re all, for the most part, very good. The beauty of Android is the options it affords, and there are several depending on your preference.
Xiaomi recently launched the Mi 10 in the country to bolster its space in the premium segment. Meanwhile, the vanilla OnePlus 8 and Realme X50 are stand-out recommendations that go up against the iPhone SE, and trounce it if you start comparing specs, or indeed the aesthetics.
Some might call the iPhone 6-style throwback design a modern classic, but let’s be honest, it doesn’t really hold up against the edge-to-edge, high refresh rate panels that the competition brings to the table. Ironically though, the ubiquity and familiarity of the iPhone SE’s design ID might just play to its strengths. After years of affordable Android phones trying to look like iPhones, here’s an almost retro-esque iPhone that doesn’t look anything like the competition.
As for the spec sheets, these rarely tell the entire picture and that’s true here. When you spend Rs. 40,000 (~$520+) for a phone, a spec sheet isn’t all you are looking for. You are paying for quality and for a premium user experience without paying top-dollar. At the risk of being called an Apple shill, the iPhone leads the pack here.
For once, Apple seems to have a clear understanding of what the affordable flagship segment truly wants and the iPhone SE is a testament to the strengths of the category. It delivers the same A13 Bionic chipset as the full-blown iPhone 11. Combined with Apple’s general focus on optimization, you are getting a phone that is hands-down one of the fastest on the market, all without having to break the bank.
The Apple App Store is a much better curated space with a higher threshold of quality for apps.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of Android, the Apple App Store is also a much better curated space with a higher threshold of quality apps across the board. Not only is the quality of games, apps often better, but so is the variety. From content creation to games, there are some categories that simply better addressed by the App Store than Android’s de facto app store.
Using the same chipset as the iPhone 11 also means that users will get years of updates. The latest version of iOS includes support for phones going back as far as 2015, including the original iPhone SE and iPhone 6S. That’s unheard of in the Android world with even the much-loved OnePlus promising two years of updates at best.
The high resale value of iPhones is a good incentive for users looking to upgrade.
Then there are the smaller, but equally important features like security and resale value. Touch ID and Secure Enclave on the iPhone are proven features that are tough if not impossible to crack. This means that everything from your online transactions to personal data on the phone is a lot harder, if not impossible, to get access to. Meanwhile, iPhones simply hold value a lot better. Given the long term stability of the platform, support for updates, Apple’s hardware can command well over 50% of the initial cost even after a few years of use. The same just isn’t true for Android hardware.
The iPhone SE is a well thought out long-term play over the short-term volume-driven products often seen in the segment. The phone holds back just enough to not dilute the proposition of models priced higher-up in the chain in the ultra-premium segment (the iPhone 11 starts at Rs. 64,900, ~$850), yet manages to deliver the essence of what makes an iPhone, an iPhone.
Why should you care
Look, I’m not going to say that you should ditch your Android phone for an iPhone when looking to buy your next smartphone. There are ample reasons to like or dislike either platform and what you chose to buy is a much more subjective decision that paper specs. The iPhone SE is, simply put, a great alternative to look at while picking your next phone.
However, it can’t be denied that pricing the iPhone SE the same as popular flagship killers puts them on notice. As Apple continues to increase its market share in India, the iPhone SE is sure to move numbers on the back of aspirational branding and the quality of services and this puts pressure on Android OEMs to up their game with better services and an improved support ecosystem.
The iPhone SE has Apple getting down and dirty with affordable flagships and attacking them right where it hurts.
Specs and flashy features are great, but if a back-to-basics iPhone can spur Android brands to develop a better user experience, improve long term software support, and the quality of after-sales support, that’s a win for customers.
The iPhone SE has Apple getting down and dirty with affordable flagships and attacking them right where it hurts, and that’s great not just for prospective buyers, but the Indian smartphone industry as a whole.