Apple debuted new, smaller versions of the iPhone and iPad Pro and a price cut for the Apple Watch at a subdued spring product event Monday, a day ahead of the company's courtroom showdown with the US government over encryption.

The iPhone SE combines the 4-inch (10-centimetre) size and design of the iPhone 5 with the features of the iPhone 6, including a faster processor, 12-megapixel camera and an NFC chip which supports the built-in Apple Pay mobile payment system.

While the SE had been widely expected, the smartphone's price, 399 dollars in the US and 489 Euro in Europe, was something of a surprise.

It also could be a challenge to competition at the lower end of the smartphone market. Apple had for years avoided that market segment, keeping profits high at the expense of market share.

But iPhone sales have slowed recently, and the current quarter is expected to deliver the first decrease in sales since the gadget's debut in 2007.

The company also introduced a smaller iPad Pro - its top-end tablet - with a lightweight, 9.7-inch (24.6 centimetre) screen. The iPad features new screen technology that senses and adjusts for the colour temperature of ambient light, as well as support for accessories like a "smart" keyboard and Apple Pencil.

The devices start at 599 dollars in the US and 689 Euro in Europe for a 32-gigabyte version, and go on sale Thursday with delivery beginning March 31.

The trend toward smaller also applied to Apple's wrist-worn Apple Watch, which along with new bands got a new price, 299 dollars in the US - a 50-dollar price cut.

Nearly year after the device's debut, Apple has yet to release sales data for the watch. Analysts estimate Apple's share of the worldwide smartwatch market at about 60 per cent.

The event at Apple's Silicon Valley headquarters contrasted with flashier product debuts in recent years, which have been held at high-profile venues in San Francisco and featured fashion and music personalities.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook opened the toned-down presentation with remarks about the company's ongoing legal battle over encryption, set for a hearing Tuesday in federal court in Riverside, California.

Cook said the company "did not expect to be in this position, at odds with our own government," but he said the company "will not shrink" from the responsibility to protect data and privacy.

"We need to decide as a nation how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy," he said.

The court has ordered Apple to hack iPhone security protocols to help the FBI gain access to a phone used by one of the assailants in the San Bernardino terror attack in December.

Cook refused, setting off a legal battle and public debate over data privacy and public security.

Perhaps especially mindful of its corporate image a day before the hearing, Apple on Monday took pains to present itself as a force for good, spending more than a third of the presentation on developments in the company's health and medical research apps and its environmental initiatives.

Presentations of the iPhone SE and new iPad Pro included breakdowns of their environmental credentials, from non-toxic materials to their recyclable nature.

Apple environment chief Lisa Jackson introduced the company's recycling robot, Liam, and showed a video of the machine disassembling an iPhone and separating out the gold, silver, cobalt and lithium in its parts.

Apple brass also presented tweaks to the iOS9 operating system, including a night-time reduction in blue light emissions from screens, thought to interfere with healthy sleep.

The company said 80 per cent of the world's Apple mobile devices now run iOS9 - the operating system the US government wants them to hack.

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