If you're in the market for a new smartphone, there are some pretty fantastic options for $400 or less. Both Apple and Google have unveiled budget smartphones with high-end specs in 2020, so you no longer have to suffer from subpar quality to save a few bucks. Low prices no longer mean cheap phones.
Apple's second-generation iPhone SE, released April 24, doesn't have many contenders in its price range when it comes to raw power. It has the same system on a chip (SoC) as the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, which already has the best chipset available on a smartphone, so there was no compromise at all.
However, processors aren't everything one should focus on when it comes to picking out a new mobile device. The iPhone SE doesn't have a bezel-less display, but Google's new Pixel 4a opted for a more modern design, giving it a larger screen that fills out the whole display while remaining compact.
Overall, the Google Pixel 4a and iPhone SE (2nd generation) are both perfect when it comes to photography. They might have slightly different specs, but they shouldn't be too big of a determiner for which to purchase. Both come with their latest operating system, fingerprint scanners, stereo speakers, dual SIMs, wide-angle lenses, optical and electronic image stabilization, digital zoom, etc. But each does one-up each other in other areas, which you can see after the chart.
While only 0.22 inches longer and 0.08 inches wider, the Google Pixel 4a has a much larger display than the iPhone SE. Its 5.81-inch screen is accomplished thanks to minimal bezels and the use of a transmissive circular cutout to house the front-facing camera. It also uses an always-on OLED panel, so the image quality is better with deeper blacks and better contrast. The display is also 1080p, giving it a pixel density that is over 100 ppi larger than the iPhone SE.
The Pixel 4a has a much bigger battery than the iPhone SE at 3,140 mAh, so if you don't have access to a charger very often, that may be reason enough for you to go the Google route. Both phones do support fast charging via USB Power Delivery, but only the Pixel 4a includes the power brick and cable in the box that lets you fast charge (Apple's costs $48 for its fast charger).
If you long for the days of 3.5-millimeter audio jacks, the Pixel 4a is one of the few phones sold in 2020 that still comes with one. So you can use your old-style headphones without a hitch. But if you have USB Type-C headphones as well as wireless Bluetooth ones, you can use those too.
With its 6 GB RAM, the Pixel 4a has double the random-access memory that the iPhone SE has, so your experience should remain smooth overall.
Both phones include a security chip to protect sensitive transactions, but only the Pixel 4a's Titan M chip is physically separated from the rest of the SoC. That isolation helps better protect your phone in case the rest of the chipset is compromised. As for the SoC, the Pixel 4a doesn't have the same advanced Snapdragon processor that the Pixel 4 has, but its 730G is one of the best in the budget line right now.
With the included fast charger, the Google Pixel is the "best bang for your buck" smartphone, costing just $349 before tax for an unlocked model. At this price, you get similar camera performance to the Pixel 4 (an industry-leading mobile camera) and all its features (including HDR+, Top Shot, and more) for less than half of the Pixel 4's original price tag.
Apple's decision to include the A13 Bionic chip was a game changer. The SoC, which is already the best available in the smartphone market, is now available on a product that costs just $399. That crushes the competition overall and makes the Pixel 4a's Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G look like something from ten years ago.
Besides better benchmark scores, the iPhone SE also has better connectivity. Download speeds cap out at 1.2 Gbps compared to the Pixel 4a's 800 Mbps. Wi-Fi offers a similar picture with the iPhone SE supporting Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), the newest standard. While not many Wi-Fi routers use Wi-Fi 6 right now, it's growing every day and will be the new norm soon.
For videographers, the iPhone SE lets you record up to 4K at 60 frames per second (fps) while the Pixel 4a tops out at 30 fps on the same resolution. The True Tone flash is also one of the best LEDs available on any smartphone, giving you impressively exposed images when external lighting isn't enough. And if you need more storage, only the iPhone SE comes in a 256 GB variant (the Pixel 4a tops out at 128 GB).
While the Pixel 4a comes with a fast charger, the iPhone SE has wireless charging capabilities. So if you prefer cable-free charging, the iPhone SE is probably looking pretty good to you. But if you're jealous over the Pixel 4a's 6 GB RAM, don't be. Apple is well known for its RAM management abilities, so while it's half as much as the Pixel 4a, it doesn't feel like it at all.
Google seems to offer a light version of its main flagship every year now, but Apple took four years to update its SE line. That's not necessarily a bad thing if you like to make your smartphone last. Unlike Google, Apple supports its devices for much longer — for at least five years — so while you wait for the iPhone SE (3rd generation) to arrive in the future, it's almost certain that the iPhone SE (2nd generation) would still be supported until you want to upgrade.
If you don't like having to be extra cautious around liquids, the iPhone SE comes with an IP67 rating, meaning it can be submerged in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes. The Pixel 4a isn't even IP rated.
The iPhone SE is $50 more than the Pixel 4a, but Apple does provide better device protection at a cheaper rate. It costs $20 less, and AppleCare+ is better than Google's Preferred Care overall since Apple oversees it, while Google relies on Assurant. Screen repair costs are $40 cheaper with AppleCare+, so if you tend to crack your display, that's reason enough to go with the iPhone SE. While neither Apple's nor Google's base plan offers replacements for lost or stolen devices, Apple does let you spend an extra $70 for its Theft and Loss protection package. With it, a new iPhone SE replacement would be just $149.
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