Not everyone wants to spend $900+ on a new smartphone, but if you’re looking in the flagship market that’s the price point you almost exclusively see. However, that doesn’t mean you have to leave the bigger brands in the dust searching for cheaper options. Most manufacturers produce budget-friendly options, and this even applies to the big names like Apple, Google, and Samsung. But with that in mind, it can be difficult to choose between them.
Apple just released its second-gen iPhone SE ($399.99) after 4 years of having no modern budget-friendly smartphone. But Apple isn’t entering an uncontested market here—both Google and Samsung have phones in this price bracket. The Google Pixel 3a ($399.99) and Samsung Galaxy A51($399.99) have both been praised since their release for packing in a surprising amount of features for their low price tags.
But now comes the hard part. All three of these phones offer great value for the price point, but which one is right for you?
And, while we’re focusing on the iPhone SE, Galaxy A51, and Pixel 3a in this article, it’s worth noting that the Pixel 4a (while not officially unveiled by Google yet) is probably coming soon. We’ve seen plenty of leaks already, and it’s safe to assume that the 4a will deliver a better camera than the 3a along with superior hardware. So, that’s worth keeping in mind if the 3a is already calling your name.
Performance-wise, the Pixel 3a and Galaxy A51 are about what you would expect out of good mid-range Android phones. The Snapdragon 670 processor in the 3a keeps things running smoothly in everyday use, but you can definitely start hitting some issues as you come into more intense workloads. The A51 uses Samsung’s Exynos 9611 processor, which is more than adequate but does lose out slightly to the Snapdragon 670 in both single and multi-core performance, according to Geekbench.
But Apple really trounces the performance category. The iPhone SE is rocking the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11, so performance here is about as good as it gets. This advanced processor also helps future proof the phone (but we’ll talk more about that later).
While the internals are ahead of the competition, the externals on the SE are not. It looks nearly identical to the iPhone 8 released in 2017, and phones have changed a lot in those 3 years. The wide bezels are the largest culprit, and while some may be fine with them, they make the SE feel dated—a problem that will only get more apparent with time. Even with the wide bezels though, the SE still manages to the smallest phone out of the three at 2.31 x 4.87 inches.
The 3a and A51 on the other hand, look like modern smartphones—in fact, they could easily be mistaken for flagships thanks to the 3as very similar aesthetic to the standard Pixel 3 and the A51s edge-to-edge screen. The 3a measures at 2.8 x 6.0 inches, while the A51 is a bit thinner and taller at 2.90 x 6.24 inches.
Storage is an area where the A51 excels—not only does it have 128 GB out of the box, but it also has a microSD slot. This means you can add up to 512 GB of additional storage. The SE comes in three models with 64 GB in the base model, 128 GB for an additional $50, or 256 GB for an additional $150. Finally, the 3a only has 64 GB with no expansion options.
Winner: iPhone SE—The A13 Bionic is a beastly processor that will keep the SE running like a top for at least a few years. It’s hard for any midrange Android processor to compete with that.
While you already know your preferences when it comes to the OS on your phone, there’s still more concrete info you should be aware of—namely updates. Having the latest version of your OS ensures more features and better security. But you also have to worry about the future as well, because these companies don’t update phones forever.
The iPhone SE is currently running the latest version of iOS. Apple has guaranteed 5 years of updates for the SE, which means you’ll be getting all of Apple’s latest features until 2025. This is easily one of the SE’s greatest strengths—it absolutely trounces any Android phone (even flagships) when it comes to getting updates.
Before we discuss the specifics of the 3a and A51, let’s talk about how Android updates are released in the first place. There are two release cycles that Android follows: full OS updates and monthly security patches. OS updates come out at least once a year for every new version of Android, but there are also subversions released throughout the year. Security patches improve, you guessed it, security, and are released monthly.
The 3a doesn’t promise half a decade of support like the SE, but Google has guaranteed updates until May 2022—about 3 years from its original release. Of course, being a Pixel, the 3a also receives updates pretty quickly. It’s currently running the Android 10 version of “Pixel Android” (the version of Android for Pixel phones that’s slightly different from stock Android).
The A51 falls down a bit in this regard in a couple of ways. First off, Samsung hasn’t confirmed how long it’ll support the A51, but going off of its track record you can assume about 2 years, or till late 2021. Secondly, Samsung is notoriously slow to update its phones, you can expect a decent wait time for new Android versions (if they even show up at all).
The A51 is running OneUI 2.0—Samsung’s own flavor of Android. OneUI 2.0 is pretty different from stock Android (visually speaking), and will definitely require some adjustment time if you’re coming from a more stock experience. That said, OneUI 2.0 is still a good OS with some unique features and is currently updated to Android 10.
Winner: Pixel 3a and iPhone SE (Tie)—The iPhone SE is guaranteed to get updates for the next 5 years, which is a huge selling point. But not everyone likes iOS. In that case, we recommend going with the Pixel 3a, as it is regularly updated by Google and offers a generally clean Android experience.
We’ll start with the smallest phone here: the SE. The SE has a 4.7 inch LCD screen at a resolution of 1334p x 750p. While 720p is a pretty low resolution for a modern-day smartphone, even compared to other budget phones, the small size of the screen helps make sure the display still looks sharp.
Next up is the 3a, which has a 5.6 inch OLED screen at 2220p x 1080p. The OLED screen means blacks look richer on the 3a compared to an LCD screen (like the SE), and helps colors pop out against each other more. The 3a can’t compete with high-end flagships, but the display looks nice, and most people won’t find any issue with it. If you prefer it a little bigger, the Pixel 3a XL is a nearly identical phone with a 6-inch panel.
However, the A51 steals the show here: the 6.5 inch AMOLED display at 2400p x 1080p looks fantastic. The blacks are deep and the colors are vivid, and overall its probably the best screen you’ll find at the price point. OneUI 2.0 even has some options to adjust the color levels of the screen if you really want to customize the user experience.
Winner: Galaxy A51—It’s hard to deny a big, beautiful, AMOLED display.
Flagship phone cameras have evolved wildly over the past few years to get to the point where they are today, but that’s not because the actual hardware behind cameras got wildly better—a lot of that improvement came from the software side of things. Computational photography, using a combination of algorithms and digital processing, can achieve things like depth of field and HDR images without the need for larger lenses like standard cameras.
This is why just looking at the megapixel counts for phone cameras is a bad way of figuring out which is best. And, that’s actually perfectly displayed by the three phones we have here. Because on paper, you would expect the A51 to be the victor here with its quad-lens camera including a 48-megapixel main sensor alongside additional ultra-wide, macro, and depth sensors.
While those additional sensors add in some nice functionality, overall the camera feels middle of the road. As GSMArena noted, “The Galaxy A51’s [camera] takes decent pictures but doesn’t really make us go ‘wow’.” Considering the specs, this is disappointing, especially compared to the other two phones here.
Because the SE’s singular 12-megapixel camera achieves very impressive image quality with reviewers at both Tom’s Guide and CNET reporting the image quality to rival modern flagships in well-lit areas (although, the lack of any form of night mode limits its capabilities in dimmer light). The SE’s video capabilities are also pretty impressive achieving 4k 60 FPS footage—for those looking to take a lot of videos, Apple, as usual, is the best choice.
The Pixel 3a is a real showboat in this category, though. Not only does it have the same 12.2-megapixel camera as the normal Pixel 3, but it also has the same post-processing features, which mean pictures come out looking fantastic. You can see that for yourself in these shots from our original review of 3a.
The Pixel 3a also has Google’s fantastic “Night Sight” mode which, as you can see below, picks out impressive color and detail from dark photos.
Left: without Night Sight; Right: with Night Sight
As far as the front cameras go, all three phones fare … alright. None of them are great, but none of them are bad. The A51’s 32-megapixel camera only manages to be decent, with GSMArena saying how images only turn out “okay.” Much like the rear camera, the front camera is unexpectedly middling despite its relatively high spec.
The SE varies a lot per situation, YouTuber Marques Brownlee remarked how the seven-megapixel front camera manages “pretty good” photos most of the time, while other reviewers like Digital Trends’ Matthew Smith saying that photos were mostly “disappointing” and “flat.”
Finally, the 3a does manage another win in the camera category with some good results from its eight-megapixel front camera. Photos come out “generally impressive” according to Tom Bedford at Tech Radar, not quite the fantastic quality of the rear though.
Winner: Pixel 3a—Google’s post-processing algorithms are essentially unbeatable across the board, but it’s more apparent than ever at this price point.
Even in the midrange price bracket, there’s still a lot to consider when choosing phones—even if it’s not $1000, $400 is still a lot of money.
A lot of what we’ve shown you will entirely depend on what you prefer: the Pixel 3a’s fantastic camera and all-around good specs, the iPhone SE’s longevity and excellent performance, or the Galaxy A51’s great display and modern design. All three of these phones are great values for their price tag.