Just because you’re looking to spend less on your next phone doesn’t mean you have to go with a small brand you’ve never heard of. There are some great budget options released by big-name companies, and that’s clearer than ever before this year with the release of the Pixel 4a ($349.99) and iPhone SE ($399.99).
Both of these phones are Google’s and Apple’s respective takes on midrange smartphones. Google already saw a lot of success with this formula in the Pixel 3a from last year, while the new iPhone SE is a refresh of the original SE from 2016. Both of these phones build off of previous foundations, so the question is, which one does it better?
The Pixel 4a and iPhone SE both made sacrifices to achieve their low prices, but they also have incredible strengths that make them stand out compared to other similarly priced phones. Because of this, we decided to put them head-to-head to see how they stack up against each other and to see which one you should pick up next upgrade season.
Looking under the hood, the Pixel 4a uses the modest Snapdragon 730 processor, which is a significant step up from the 3a’s Snapdragon 670 processor according to Geekbench. When it comes to performance, the 730 manages to keep up fairly well and delivers on a pleasant if not impressive experience according to reviewers at both The Verge and Tom’s Guide.
However, while the Pixel 4a’s performance manages to be acceptable and not much else, the iPhone SE is a much more powerful phone. In fact, the SE can go toe-to-toe with many flagships as well. That’s because this little phone is packing the A13 Bionic processor—the same processor found in the iPhone 11. That’s a level of performance the 4a just can’t compete with and makes the SE an incredible powerhouse in this price range.
The 4a does manage to snag a win when it comes to storage though. The base model SE comes with 64 GB of storage, while the Pixel 4a has128 GB. You can get the SE with 128 or 256 GB as well, but those significantly increase the price ($449.99 and $549.99 respectively).
Switching over to the externals, the Pixel 4a measures at 5.7 x 2.7 inches and has a matte plastic body, and notably, it features a 3.5mm headphone jack (in case you’re still into that in modern phones). The SE is a little bit smaller than the 4a at 5.45 x 2.65 inches, and it has a more premium-feeling construction thanks to the glass back and aluminum frame (compared to the Pixel 4a’s plastic shell).
Lastly, It’s also worth noting that the SE features wireless charging, bringing this now-flagship feature back to its humble budget-friendly origins. You won’t get this on the Pixel 4a.
Winner: iPhone SE: While the 4a’s hardware is by no means bad, the SE just can’t be beaten when it comes to raw power and build quality for the price.
You already know your preference between Android or iOS when it comes to operating systems, and that preference will be the major factor when it comes to deciding which phone is best for you. However, there are still a few things of note you should be aware of, namely what versions of the OS each phone is running and how long they’ll be supported with updates.
The Pixel 4a comes with Android 10 with a sprinkle of changes and features unique to the Pixel line, such as call screening and live captions. Google has guaranteed three years’ worth of updates for the Pixel 4a, which includes the major yearly releases of Android along with monthly security updates.
Ongoing performance is always a concern for Android phones, and that’s no different here. While the 4a runs fine now with Android 10, newer versions of Android could be more intensive on the hardware. You’ll definitely start to feel the age of your phone in just one or two year’s time.
That’s not a concern Apple phones typically have, and the SE is consistent with that. It’s currently running the normal version of iOS 13.6—the same OS as the iPhone 11. Apple has guaranteed that the SE will receive updates for five years, and that’s a claim the A13 Bionic processor can safely back up. That’s an incredible lifespan for a phone this cheap, and is something even high-end Android phones can’t achieve.
Winner: iPhone SE: Preferences aside, the SE’s lifespan is one of its greatest strengths, and it means that SE users will have access to all the latest features from Apple for years to come.
When it comes to displays, the 4a is a pretty clear winner here. It features a 5.8-inch 1080p OLED screen. It may not look as great as a flagship, but having an OLED display at such a low price is a real selling point. The Pixel 4a is also an all-screen phone, with Google opting for the “Hole Punch” design for the front camera to maximize screen space. Unless you notice the small details when it comes to displays, you’ll have zero issues here.
The SE’s display also looks good, but it’s not as impressive as the 4a. It’s significantly smaller at 4.7 inches and outputs at 720p. That resolution will seem low compared to most phones, but it’s not much to worry about—the small screen keeps the image looking sharp. The SE’s screen is also an LCD display, which doesn’t bring out as much color as OLED displays do. This isn’t a bad display by any means, and for most people it’s more than fine, but it is a noticeable downgrade from the 4a.
Winner: Pixel 4a: An OLED screen at this price is great to see, and the fact that it’s bigger than the SE’s screen only sweetens the deal.
Thanks to computational photography (which uses a combination of algorithms and digital processing to enhance photos), even phones this cheap can take some great pictures. So, even though specs-wise the SEs and 4as cameras look nearly identical (12 and 12.2 megapixel rear cameras respectively), the 4a secures another comfortable win here.
Google’s post-processing algorithms for photos are nearly unbeatable at any price point, and the 4a uses the same hardware and software for its camera as the mainline Pixel 4. The 4a makes mobile photography simple with Lynn La at CNET stating that “it takes very little effort to get the Pixel 4a to spit out a good photo.”
The 4a also sees the return of Google’s fantastic “Night Sight” mode, which John McCann at TechRadar calls “one of the best night modes we’ve used on a smartphone.” The Pixel 4’s astrophotography mode is also present, and it takes some fantastic images of the night sky. Despite only having one lens, the 4a has one of the best cameras on the market regardless of price.
But that doesn’t mean the iPhone SE should be disregarded. It’s also capable of taking some great pictures—even if it can’t compete with the 4a in more difficult situations. Mark Spoonauer at Tom’s Guide notes how in many situations, the SE’s camera could be mistaken for a flagship, but in dark lighting especially the quality falls quite a bit.
Video recording is a more complicated matter. The SE can record in 4K at 60 FPS, while the Pixel 4a can only record at 30 FPS in 4K. The 4a is capable of recording at 120 FPS in 1080p, while the SE is still limited to 60 FPS in 1080p as well. The SE isn’t a clear-cut winner for video recording because of that limitation, but the ability to record 60 FPS 4K footage does give it an edge over the 4a if higher-quality video is a requisite for you.
Finally, let’s talk a bit about the front cameras. The 4a’s eight-megapixel camera fairs well according to Samuel Gibbs at The Guardian, but it doesn’t capture detail as well as the rear one. The SE’s seven-megapixel front camera is a similar story to its rear, as Sascha Segan at PCMag notes that, despite being fine most of the time, it has trouble in dimmer light.
Winner: Pixel 4a: The 4a’s camera is one of its biggest draws—Google’s post-processing algorithms just can’t be beaten for the price. It takes pictures you would happy with at any price point, let alone at under $400.
So, Which Should You Buy?
The Pixel 4a and iPhone SE both have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. If you have a strong preference for either Android or iOS, the decision is pretty simple. If you don’t mind switching operating systems though, the SE’s superior lifespan and performance give it an edge over the 4a in terms of value—even though it’s the more expensive option. But the Pixel 4a is still a remarkable phone for the price. The camera beats anything you’ll find in this price range, and the display is impressive as well.
Both of these phones are great, but when we’re talking bang for your buck value, the SE does come out on top in the end—unless, of course, camera quality is your main focus, and you don’t mind replacing your phone a year or two from now. In that case, go with the Pixel.