September 22, 2021

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Beauty Made Perfect

Google Pixel 5a vs. Apple iPhone SE: Which Should You Buy?

Looking for a cheap phone with strong battery life and an even stronger camera? Then Google’s recently revealed Pixel 5a is probably the phone for you. While it’s far from the most stylish phone around, the day-and-a-half battery life and extremely good camera make this $449 device a great choice for anyone who wants a good, strong phone for less than $500.

But it’s far from the only choice, and another great choice is Apple’s iPhone SE. Like the Pixel 5a, it’s not the most stylish phone around, but it excels in other areas to make up for it — specifically, flagship-level power and camera abilities for just $399. So which phone should you buy? We took a look at the two to help you decide.

Specs

Google Pixel 5a iPhone SE (2020)
Size 154.9 x 73.7 x 7.6mm (6.10 x 2.90 x 0.30 inches) 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm (5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches)
Weight 183 grams (6.46 ounces) 148 grams (5.22 ounces)
Screen size 6.34-inch OLED 4.7-inch Retina IPS LCD
Screen resolution 2400 x 1080 pixels (415 pixels per inch) 1334 x 750 pixels (326 ppi)
Operating system Android 11 iOS 14
Storage space 128GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Tap-to-pay services Google Pay Apple Pay
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G Apple A13 Bionic
RAM 6GB 3GB
Camera 12.2-megapixel wide, 16MP ultrawide, 8MP front Single 12MP rear, 7MP front
Video 4K at 60 frames per second, 1080p at 240 fps 4K at 60 fps, 1080p at 240 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports USB-C, headphone jack Lightning
Fingerprint sensor Yes, rear-mounted Yes, front-mounted
Water resistance IP67 IP67
Battery 4,680mAh

18W fast-charging

1,821mAh

18W fast-charging

Qi wireless charging

App marketplace Google Play Store Apple App Store
Network support All major carriers All major carriers
Colors Mostly Black Black, white, red
Price $449 $399
Buy from Google Apple, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Amazon, Best Buy
Review score 4 out of 5 stars 4 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

Neither of these phones particularly shine where the design is concerned. The Pixel 5a’s design is largely unchanged from the Pixel 4a 5G, which wasn’t the most exciting phone. It’s somewhat modern, with slim bezels and a punch-hole display, but the plastic build and boring style mean you come away rather underwhelmed. It’s functional, but not much else.

The iPhone SE is, oddly, a similar story, but for different reasons. The SE uses the same body and build as the iPhone 8. That’s right, the iPhone from 2017. The SE’s design is even more tired than the Pixel 5a’s, with chunky bezels and a small 4.7-inch display. But on the flip side, the SE uses much more premium materials, so at the very least, you feel as if you’re holding a much more expensive phone. The iPhone SE’s glass and aluminum build beat out the Pixel 5a’s cheap plastic.

The Pixel 5a’s 6.34-inch OLED display is sharper than the SE’s LCD display, and the OLED tech also allows for deeper colors. Durability-wise, both phones have an IP67-rating for water resistance, putting them on a similar pegging again. Despite the Pixel’s stronger display, we’re giving this to the iPhone’s more premium design (even if it is older).

Winner: Apple iPhone SE

Performance, battery life, and charging

The bottom of a red iPhone SE.
Matthew Smith / Digital Trends

The Pixel 5a uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G, a 5G-enabled mid-range processor that’s speedy and powerful enough to get by playing the latest 3D games without much in the way of lag. But it’s also the same processor we saw on the Pixel 4a 5G, which is an odd choice. Regardless, it’s not a match for the iPhone SE’s A13 Bionic. This chip isn’t the latest that Apple’s put out, but it is a flagship-level chip and the same processor we saw in the iPhone 11 Pro Max. As such, it’s leagues beyond the Pixel 5a’s Snapdragon 765G.

The iPhone SE also has more storage options to choose from, including 64GB, 128GB, and 256GB. The Pixel 5a only has the 128GB variant, and it’s without a microSD slot, so it means 128GB is all you’re gonna get. The Pixel 5a does have more RAM, but since iOS and Android handle RAM differently, it’s probably not going to mean a big difference in performance.

The Pixel 5a does have an advantage where the battery is concerned, though. The iPhone SE’s smaller battery provides a solid day’s worth of battery life, but it pales in comparison to the day-and-a-half to two-day battery life showcased by the Pixel. Charging speed is the same, topping out at 18W, but only the iPhone has wireless charging as an option.

It all comes down to whether you value battery life over sheer power. This is a tie.

Winner: Tie

Camera

Pixel 5a camera app.
Ajay Kumar/Digital Trends

The iPhone SE only has a single 12-megapixel camera lens, but it was the very best Apple could achieve at the time. It takes some great shots, with balanced color profiles less plagued by the over-saturation common on a lot of Samsung’s phones. Shots look realistic, and the phone handles bright and low lighting well. There’s no Night Mode, though, and pictures can sometimes come out looking a little flat due to the more natural coloring.

The Pixel 5a has a 12.2MP main lens, along with a 16MP ultrawide lens, giving you a touch of extra versatility. While the ultrawide can sometimes lose finer details, the camera is generally a joy to use, providing balanced stills that still have vivid colors without being oversaturated. The Night Sight feature is still incredible, and the extra software smarts that Google is known for really elevate this camera to the next level.

Apple against Google is the new battleground for phone cameras, but this particular fight has a very clear winner. The Google Pixel 5a’s camera definitely beats out the iPhone SE’s.

Winner: Google Pixel 5a

Software and updates

Google Pixel 5a app screen.
Ajay Kumar/Digital Trends

You’re essentially picking between Android and iOS here, so your previous experience with both will probably weigh heavily on your choice between the two. On the plus side, both operating systems are quite similar these days, and so it’s relatively easy to swap between them if required. Android 11 on the Pixel 5a is as close to pure Android as you’re likely to get, minus a few Pixel-exclusive features. The iPhone SE is running iOS 14, and you’ll get mostly the same software experience as the newest flagship iPhones.

You’ll get a similar experience where software updates are concerned, with day-one updates for both. Both are also likely to get software updates into the future as well, putting both of these phones on a strong tie.

Winner: Tie

Special features

The back of a red iPhone SE 2020.

The Pixel 5a and iPhone SE have some similar special features, mostly because they’re both tied into their respective A.I. assistants — Google Assistant on the Pixel and Siri on the iPhone. But there’s a difference in quality, and Google pulls ahead again due to the sheer number and quality of uses. Siri is well represented, don’t get us wrong, and it’s easy to summon and use, plus it has features like Siri Shortcuts to expand its usefulness. But Google Assistant does all of that and more. If you’re in the U.S., then it can screen your calls with Call Screen, or it can wait on hold for you. There’s also a built-in recorder that automatically transcribes notes.

The iPhone SE’s other special features, like Animoji and Memoji, don’t come close to closing this gap. Heck, the Pixel 5a also has 5G, which really is a death blow to Apple’s iPhone.

Winner: Google Pixel 5a

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 5a is available for pre-order in the U.S. from the Google Store and Google Fi, and it costs $449. The iPhone SE is currently available from most places phones are sold, and prices start from $399.

Overall winner: Google Pixel 5a

The cut-price iPhone put up a valiant effort, but in the end, the newer phone was bound to triumph. While the iPhone SE is still the iPhone to grab for under $400, it loses out to the Pixel 5a’s strong battery life and incredible camera. So, while the iPhone SE should still be your choice if you’re an Apple die-hard, the Pixel 5a is the stronger choice if you’re not dedicated to Apple.

But what if you’re using an iPhone SE and are wondering if the Pixel 5a is worth upgrading for? That’s a tough one, and it comes down to how well your SE is still performing in the areas the Pixel 5a excels. Still happy enough with your battery life and camera performance and aren’t too fussed about 5G? Then skip the Pixel 5a. Otherwise, Google’s new mid-range phone is a worthy upgrade.

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