Apple has unleashed 4 new iPhones this year, from the 12 to the mini to the Pro to the Max. But if any or all of those are too rich for your blood, then Apple has a few other, lower priced models still on the virtual shelves. 11, XR, and SE.
If you need to upgrade, if you need a new phone, but you don’t want to pay any more than you absolutely have to, then one of these lower priced iPhones just might be for you.
But which one? What are you getting and what are you giving up?
Price and capacity
Apple has actually held the line on iPhone Pro base pricing and even doubled the storage and lowered the higher capacity options this year. Yeah, a rare 2020 miracle. The iPhone Pro starts at $1000 for 128GB, goes to $1100 for 256GB, the jumps to $1300 for 512GB. Max starts at $1100 and goes to $1200 and $1400.
The regular iPhone 12, though, has gone back up in price. Blame OLED and 5G. It starts now at $830 for 64GB, goes to $880 for 128GB, and $980 for 256GB. And the iPhone 12 mini slots in right under that, starting at $730 and going up to $780 and $880.
If that’s just way too much for you to spend on an iPhone, you can an iPhone 11 starting at $600 for 64GB, $650 for 128GB, or $750 for 128GB, and iPhone XR starting at $500 for 64GB or $550 for 128GB — but strangely no 256GB option — or an iPhone SE, which is basically the guts of an iPhone 11 in an iPhone 8 body, starting at $400 and going up to $450 or $550 — with, yes, a 256GB option.
So, if you know what you want to spend, you can whittle right down to which model and which storage size you want to spend on.
Just remember that, with the smaller storage capacities, you won’t be able to keep as many photos or songs or videos or games or — pretty much anything locally. If you stream all your content and store all the things in all the clouds, maybe you’ll be fine with 64GB. For most people, 128GB is going to be the sweet spot, especially for just $50 more if you can afford it.
Materials and Colors
If you want stainless steel bands, or the more matte silver, graphite, 18K gold, or Pacific Blue colors, you’ll need to go iPhone 12 Pro. Otherwise, you’ll get aluminum bands but an even wider choice of colors.
And yes, even if you put a case on, you’ll still see the color sticking out, so, really, make sure you get what you like.
Interestingly, the iPhone 12 has among the fewest options. Black, white, a slightly more orange Product RED, a deep blue and a minty green. Going to the iPhone 11, you lose the blue but get a light, lavender purple option as well as yellow, a slightly different but still minty green, and a more neutral product red. With the iPhone XR, you lose the purple, get a sky blue back, a deeper yellow, orange coral, and slightly more blueish red.
For the iPhone SE, though, it’s just black, white, and the neutral product RED.
But please, pick the best phone for you first, then the color of that phone you like best.
Display & Size
Ok, so, display technology first. By skipping the iPhone 12s, you’re giving up on the triple density OLED displays that are just all across the whole line now. Those have high dynamic range and contrast ratios for deep, inky blacks, bright whites, lots of detail in shadows and highlights, and rich, vibrant colors. There are some problem areas with OLED, like color shifting, smearing, and more, but Apple’s done a really good job just mitigating all of that. So they look terrific for watching movies, TV shows, and looking at photos.
What you get with the iPhone 11, XR, and SE are double density LCD displays. They’re wide gamut, so you still get rich reds and vibrant greens, but you don’t get the same high dynamic range and contrast. Now, Apple uses really, really good LCD panels with excellent color calibration, so unless you really care about HDR or are holding them side-by-side with OLED, you may not recognize or care about the difference.
In terms of size, if you don’t get an iPhone 12, you don’t get the option for either a Max or mini size. The 6.7-inch Max can either show you more information or show you the same information bigger, if that’s better for your eyes, though it’s harder to use one handed or fit in a pocket. The 5.4-inch mini is the opposite — much easier to use one handed and fit in a pocket, but much less and smaller text on the screen.
What you do get is 6.1-inches on either the iPhon 11 or iPhone XR, same screen sizes as the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro, but just slightly bigger, thicker, and heavier, because they have to squeeze in those LCD screens. Otherwise, goldilocks all the way, all of them.
If you want small but don’t want to pay mini prices, there’s also the iPhone SE. It’s a little bigger physically but, at 4.7-inches, has an even smaller display. That’s thanks to the classic forehead and chin design, rather than the more modern edge-to-almost-edge design of all the others. It’s still pocketable and one… hand-able, just with a much lower screen to bezel ratio.
If you don’t get an iPhone 12, you don’t get the new ceramic shield on the front either. That, combined with the flatter design, has Apple rating them as 4 times harder to break than the chemically strengthened, ion-exchange glass on the iPhone 11, never mind the iPhone XR or SE. So, just keep that in mind if you, like me, tend to drop your phones. In other words, invest in a case if you need it.
When it comes to scratch protection though, they’re all the same. So get screen protectors as needed. Particle ingress protection is also the same. IP6, which is basically as good as it gets when it comes to keeping dust and dirt out.
Water resistance varies a lot. Where the iPhone 12 models, all of them, will give you up to 6 meters for 30 minutes, the 11 will only do 2 meters and the XR and SE, only 1 meter. So, you can’t swim or anything with any of them, they’ll fail eventually if you do that, but if accidents happen in the bath, at the pool or beach, or in the rain, you’ll have as much protection as you pay for.
The main differences between the iPhone cameras is how many there are, how good they are, and how many computational modes they have.
They’re all 12 megapixel, all the time, and all have wide angles. The iPhone 12 Max is just a wide aperture, big sensor, low light monster, with the other iPhone 12s being just a step behind.
All the iPhones 12 and the iPhone 11 also have an ultra wide angle, which means you can kind of zoom out to capture more of what’s in a scene, and the iPhones 12 Pro have a telephoto, with the Max being slightly worse aperture but also slightly more… telephoto-y, so you can kind of zoom in to get better close ups.
And yeah, the iPhone XR and iPhone SE just have that single, cyclops wide angle.
For computational modes, the iPhone XR has the original Smart HDR while the iPhone SE and 11 have the second generation and the iPhone 12s, the 3rd gen. The iPhone 11 also has deep fusion for mid-level light and Night Mode for low light, but only on the wide angle. The iPhones 12 have it on all the cameras.
With the iPhone SE and XR, you get single lens Portrait Mode, which uses phase adjust and segmentation masking for decent results. On the 11 and regular iPhone 12, you get wide angle portrait mode with optical depth, which is better. But all of those only really work in decent lighting. The iPhone 11 Pros, though, with LiDAR scanners, can do damn good wide angle and telephoto portrait mode even in low light and full-on night mode.
Which mainly just means they’re all great in normal conditions, especially outside during work he day, but the new models are just that much better, and if you really need full on low light functionality, especially in doors and at night, you’ll really want the new iPhone 12s Pro.
And, yeah, the selfie camera story is very similar. Just 12 megapixels with a slightly wider mode only on the iPhones 12 and 11, and 7 megapixels on the XR and SE.
For a long time, the iPhones have had some of the very best video cameras in the game. And all of these, just all of them, can capture up to 4K at up to 60 frames per second and slow motion at up to 1080p at 240 fps.
The difference is, the iPhone XR and iPhone SE cap out at 4K 30 with extended dynamic range, while the iPhone 11 can go up to 4K 60 EDR. Which is great, expect that the iPhone 12 can now go up to 4K 30 in full-on HDR, Dolby Vision high dynamic range and the iPhone 12 Pro, up to 4K 60 in that mode.
And, of course, you get that video in wide angle on all of them, ultra wide on the 12s and 11, and telephoto just on the 12s Pro.
So it really just comes down to — do you want to shoot casual video under normal conditions or do you want to pay more to shoot next level video under a wider range of conditions.
If you really care about the speeds to go with your feeds, both the iPhones 12 can iPhone 11 go up to Wi-Fi6, which is 802.11ax. The iPhone XR and SE cap out at Wi-Fi5, or 802.11ac.
All of them are Bluetooth 5.0, but only the iPhones 12 and 11 have the new U1 ultra Wideband chip, which… actually doesn’t do much now but will be playing a big roll in the future with features like CarKeys, or virtual keys for your car, and Find My, so you can exactly locate your stuff, like down to the inch, especially if and when the long-rumored Apple tags actually roll out.
The biggest difference is cellular. The iPhones 12 all support 5G NR, maybe you heard? Of course, whether your carrier in your area supports it or not is a bigger question. And sure, getting a 5G iPhone now will future proof you if you get 5G soon, but if not, future iPhones will have better, more efficient 5G radios, so you know my advice here — wait as long as you can to buy, then buy when you absolutely need to, and then enjoy the hell out of what you buy and have zero regrets, because there’ll always be something better coming next, and that just means something better for you to buy the next time you really need to.
For 4G LTE, the iPhone 5s go up to 2 Gb, while the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE go up to 1 Gb and the iPhone XR tops out at LTE advanced. Which is, yeah, slower than 1 Gb.
Another key difference is biometric authentication, or what lets you skip having to enter your password, making it easier and faster to unlock, authenticate for purchases, use Apple Pay, all that stuff.
Almost all the iPhones currently available use Face ID, or Apple’s facial geometry scanner that identifies you based on the structure of everything between your eyes and nose. Which, in normal times, is super quick, almost transparent. But, it doesn’t work almost at all with masks, because masks when worn properly cover your nose. And all of us are wearing masks a lot more these days.
The iPhone SE, though, still has a Home button and that means it still has Touch ID, or Apple’s fingerprint scanner that identifies you based on your swirls and ridges. It has some problems if you’ve just washed your hands, and doesn’t work with gloves, but masks are zero problem.
Probably not what you want to base your whole decision on, but important info to consider either way.
The iPhone 12 Max, by virtue of its size, just has Max battery, because there’s so much of it. Rated for up to 20 hours of video playback. On the flip side, the iPhone 12 mini, also by virtue of its lack of size, has mini battery life, because there’s just less battery. So it’s rated for only 15 hours of video playback.
The iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 are both around 17 hours and so is the iPhone 11, and the iPhone XR is just behind with 16 hours. That leaves the iPhone SE dead last at 13 hours.
And, yeah, the iPhone 12s are all OLED and all A14, they get a boost. If you go on 5G though, especially mmWave in the US, that’ll drain away fast, especially on mmWave in the US.
They can all charge inductively on Qi standard pads up to 7.5 watts, but the iPhone 12s can also use the new MagSafe magnetic inductive charging system to get to 15 watts.
They all also have Lightning ports, sorry, still no USB-C, and can fast charge up to 50% in 30 minutes with something like Apple’s new 20 watt AC adapter.
So, the only big differences here, MagSafe aside, are bigger more expensive phones have longer battery life, and the little, less expensive phones have… less. Funny that physics.
If you want the fastest, more energy efficient processor in the game right now, you’re going to have to go with the iPhone 12 and the brand new A14 Bionic. It’s on a 5 nanometer process, with better CPU, GPU, a 16 core neural engine, blazing fast machine learning, with 4GB of RAM for the regular models and 6GB for the Pros. That’s enough overhead for all the compute you need now, and probably 5 years or so of iOS updates down the road. So, like iOS 19 in 2025.
The 7 nanometer A13 Bionic in the iPhone 11 and iPhone SE is no slouch though, and probably still better than what’s in most other phones still to this day. Not quite as much compute as the A14, but still has 4GB of RAM, and that means you should still get up to 4 years of updates, to about iOS 18 in 2024.
The A12 Bionic in the iPhone XR is a little older now, but still 7 nanometer and similar architecture, just not as much power, 3GB of RAM, and probably only good for updates out to iOS 17 in 2023. Which, to be fair, is the maximum currently offered by the best of the best Android phones by the likes of Google and Samsung.
Day to day, you’ll only really notice the difference in things like how many photographic modes you get and how fast they resolve, and how long big apps like social media and games stay in memory before being jettisoned.
So, yeah, more is always better but enough is also enough. Especially with just how damn good Apple silicon is in general.