The iPhone SE, now in 2020, has opened quite a few users’ eyes to the possible world of affordable yet high performing smartphones, but in reality it is just the latest in a trend of affordable phones in the US that might have started with this 2019 phone from Google. So, with lower price points as the focal point, let’s take a look at the two. This is the iPhone SE up against the Pixel 3a.
Mini, but no biggie
Yes, we’re looking at the Pixel 3a which is technically a bit dated by now but it was a precursor to what we might see in the next couple months. In 2019, Google I/O introduced an affordable version of the controversial but generally memorable Pixel 3. It was almost a surprise because it was basically leaked all to hell before the actual event. Still, that didn’t stop curious users from checking it out.
Now, you’ll notice that I went for the smaller edition of the phone, which is probably a bit better for this comparison because of the size of the iPhone SE. There is an XL edition of the Pixel 3a but I always opt for better quality of life and a smaller phone meant better handling on the daily. So, sure, this Pixel has a 5.6 inch Full HD display, plenty of bezel, has a now somewhat antiquated rear mounted fingerprint reader, and is of a rather cheap feeling plastic build all around. However, the Pixel 3a still became my go-to device for many an occasion, even for trips around the world — Google Fi e-SIM support made it a reliable phone abroad, while the camera proved to be a worthwhile companion.
But I mentioned the size of the iPhone SE, which takes a different approach to bringing an affordable version of a flagship phone. See, the iPhone SE isn’t a smaller and cheaper version of the current iPhone, no no — this is the resurrection of the iPhone 7 and 8 of yester-yester-yester-yesteryear. So, you get a throwback phone here all the way down to the diminutive size. The screen is even smaller at 4.7 inches and it has even more bezel around it to accommodate the returning home button and TouchID. But the phone feels pretty sturdy because it also retains the all-metal design of the iPhone 8 — in fact, this phone is only a gram short of being the same weight as the Pixel 3a. Coupled with the small size, this is one of the easiest to handle smartphones in recent memory. But that doesn’t mean you should disregard its safety, especially in these current times when repairs and shipping might not be as fast or as reliable as you need it to be. So, you might consider some extra protection.
So, especially compared to the highest profile phones we’ve seen so far in 2020, these two phones are somehow as important despite dialing things back in many different areas. The Pixel 3a was Google saying that they could bring a great everyday camera phone to just about everyone, while Apple brought back their old flex to make it clear to their users that they’re not just all about the Pros and the Max’s — they’re also able to bring the power in a mini.
But that’s where Apple might have thrown down the gauntlet, because the iPhone SE brings their latest chipset. There might be some evidence to suggest that the Bionic A13 in this phone is underpowered, but that doesn’t mean the performance is as dialed back as this phone’s size. You’ll still be able to run pretty much everything in the App Store with very few issues, even high performing games. Despite the loss of FaceID, pretty much everything else that makes up the iOS experience is intact — and for some, it might even be better than ever now that there’s a tactile home button again. It’s everything around that A13 that scales down, like the 3GB of RAM that might not accommodate as many apps in the background and the smaller screen that will make media consumption and gaming a little tougher on the eyes. But iOS is as smooth as ever, which is expected from Apple and their walled garden. One place that might raise an eyebrow is in power — a 1821mAh battery is admittedly small and might not get through every power user’s full day of use, but 18W fast charging and wireless charging are both there to make sure it’s topped up. You just have to make sure that you either plan ahead or have a power bank on hand, just in case.
The Pixel 3a, on the other hand, had impressive battery life due to a larger 3000mAh battery and a scaled back processor — 18W fast charging is also available here, but wireless charging didn’t make it to the a-line. The rest of the phone follows a spec sheet that seemed to match its price point. See, in the Android space, there are a lot of different processors and spec combinations that can be used to achieve all manner of user experiences, and the Pixel 3a was a perfect example with the Snapdragon 670, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of onboard storage. Since Google is all about them services, Pixels of this particular generation did come with free Google Photos storage to make up for the minimal storage, but power users that do 4K video recording or play a ton of games definitely had to keep it in mind. So performance on the daily isn’t at the highest level, especially since there are so many other phones that are references points to how well Android can run. The Pixel 3a wasn’t a phone you got because you wanted to multi-window all day or get high kill counts in PUBG; it’s the phone regular users got to get the everyday tasks done, until it was time to capture some memories — and then the story changes.
For both Google and Apple, the camera is a big consideration, especially because these are midrange offerings. To keep the price affordable, both phones have one camera on the rear and one on the front — everything else was up to some creative tuning and software. And to that end, both phones do a fantastic job of overachieving for the general user.
Google went the software route, putting the powerful Pixel algorithmic processing to work on the single 12MP camera. And to this day, the Pixel line stands alone in making decent photos out of bad scenes and great photos out of good scenes. The same goes for the front facing camera, as the detailed selfies and software backed portrait modes tend to yield favorable results. One interesting quirk on this shoot — since I was out and about with a mask on, the iPhone SE had more trouble recognizing my face, while the Google software would take the picture and find the shape of my head after the fact. These comparison shots show that while the Pixel 3a might run a bit cooler in the color temperature, detail is still high and post-processed HDR fills in for the dynamic range the hardware might lack. 4K video recording is here as well, with some good quality and stabilization thanks again to Google’s software magic.
But people generally look to Apple for the high quality video capture, and the iPhone SE delivers with capabilities that include 4K at 60 frames. Its HDR enhanced video allows for videos to reach a bit more in the dynamic range. The Pixel 3a also tends to render a bit more noise. Also, the iPhone does a better job at front facing video, which tops off at 1080p for both selfie cams. But for getting good photos in the moment, both phones do a fantastic job and thus we’re looking at a pretty dead heat as far as affordable midrange camera phones are concerned — you even get some good slow motion capture but the iPhone is able to do 1080p at 240fps while the same can only be done at up to 720p on the Pixel.
There’s just one big hole in the iPhone SE — night mode. The Pixel line champions its Night Sight capabilities and luckily the affordable 3a has it, while the iPhone’s photos simply fall apart in these lower light situations. If you’re about that night or dark shooting, this is one of the only places where you should definitely consider something other than the iPhone.
Just you wait…
I understand that this is supposed to be a VS video but in the age-old debate Android vs iPhone, one thing has become certain — if you’re already in one ecosystem, you’re likely to stay there. What matters is whether or not you’re going to upgrade to one of these phones in question, rather than jumping from one to the other. And what’s so interesting about this comparison is the implied history of these two affordable smartphones.
While there are definitely some compromises for the sake of making that $400 price point, Apple has done a good job of solidifying the SE as one of the easiest products to recommend from their catalog. It’s simultaneously for the iPhone 8 user who never got the iPhone 9 they were waiting for, as well as the Apple user who might have accidentally broken their iPhone X or 11 and can’t spare the money for a fresh flagship. If you are looking to dip a toe into the Apple ecosystem for the first time, admittedly this is one of the best ways to do it.
And the Pixel 3a was the gateway for users to see what the Pixel was all about — and right now, it’s an even better deal because after about a year in existence, it’s still available and for even better prices that rival even current 2020 midrange offerings. Google made one of the lowest barrier of entries into one of the most reliable camera systems in Android today. To achieve that, Google had to skimp on some of the performance — this is not to say the phone is slow, but the difference is that there are so many Android phones out there — the Pixel is technically competing with all of its brethren as well as the iPhone. On the other hand, with the walled garden that is Apple, the iPhone SE has one key benchmark — other iPhones. And to that end, stripping many of the bells and whistles still resulted in a phone most Apple fans will be happy to have.
So, it’s really up to your priorities — if you really do want a capable camera at this price, Google’s prowess is something to keep in mind, especially with the Pixel 4a on the horizon. Otherwise, if you need an almost always smooth, easy to use, and Apple-powered everyday smartphone experience, the iPhone SE is here to shake up the competition. And if anything, it’s worth seeing what comes next after Apple’s almost surprising affordable contender.