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Apple iPhone SE (2020) vs. Google Pixel 3a: $400 phone showdown

Apple has re-entered the midrange market with a bang, launching a sequel to 2016’s iPhone SE. The iPhone SE (2020) is a midrange powerhouse, packing Apple’s powerful A13 Bionic processor into the iPhone 8’s svelte design, and bringing back some fan-favorite features, like Touch ID. It’s a retro callback in a lot of ways, and it’s very welcome. It’s not alone in this space, though, and if you’re looking to buy a midrange phone, the Google Pixel 3a is hard to turn down.

Google’s midrange Pixel line might be seeing an update soon, but for now, the Pixel 3a is a direct competitor to the iPhone SE, and it’s a tough call to make between the two. Which one is better for you? We took a look at the two phones to find out.

Specs

iPhone SE (2020)
Google Pixel 3a
Size 138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3 mm (5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches) 151.3 x 70.1 x 8.2 mm (6.0 x 2.8 x 0.3 inches)
Weight 148 grams (5.22 ounces) 147 grams (5.19 ounces)
Screen size 4.7-inch Retina IPS LCD 5.6-inch OLED
Screen resolution 1,334 x 750 pixels (326 pixels per inch) 2,220 x 1,080 pixels (441 pixels per inch)
Operating system iOS 13 Android 10
Storage space 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB
MicroSD card slot No No
Tap-to-pay services Apple Pay Google Pay
Processor Apple A13 Bionic Qualcomm Snapdragon 670
RAM 3GB 4GB
Camera Single 12MP rear, 7MP front Single 12.2MP rear, 8MP front
Video 4K at 60 frames per second, 1080p at 240 fps 4K at 30 frames per second, 1080p at 120 fps, 720p at 240 fps
Bluetooth version Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Ports Lightning USB-C, headphone jack
Fingerprint sensor Yes, front-mounted Yes, rear-mounted
Water resistance IP67 Splash-resistant
Battery 1,821mAh, 18W fast-charging, Qi wireless charging 3,000mAh, 18W fast-charging
App marketplace Google Play Store Google Play Store
Network support AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon
Colors Black, white, red Just Black, Clearly White, Purple-ish
Price $400 $400
Buy from Apple Google
Review score News 4.5 out of 5 stars

Design, display, and durability

Alright, neither of these are the most modern-looking phones. Both have hefty bezels to the top and bottom of the screen, and neither is particularly sleek when compared to the latest Galaxy or iPhone. Still, if you can look past that, they aren’t unattractive phones. The iPhone SE has a full glass build, and that gives it a more premium feel than the Pixel 3a’s polycarbonate back. The display sees the quality swing the other way, though, and the iPhone SE’s aging 4.7-inch LCD display is no match for the Pixel 3a’s 5.6-inch OLED display. The Pixel’s 2,220 x 1,080 pixel resolution is a lot sharper than the iPhone SE’s 1,334 x 750 pixel resolution, and the OLED technology means blacks are deeper and colors are much more vibrant.

As mentioned, the iPhone has a glass body, which means it’s going to be more susceptible to shattering than the Pixel 3a’s polycarbonate body — but the iPhone also includes an IP67 rating for water-resistance. That means it should survive an accidental slip into the pool, which can’t be said for the Pixel 3a’s splash-resistant coating.

It’s a tough category to call, with both phones scoring some hefty points. For us, the iPhone’s water-resistance and premium-feeling body give it an edge over the Pixel 3a’s display.

Winner: iPhone SE (2020)

Performance, battery life, and charging

Apple iPhone 8 review flowers
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 670 processor means the Pixel 3a is a strong performer, and this midrange chip means the Pixel should be able to handle most tasks you throw at it. While it may struggle with the most graphically-intense games out there, it ran PUBG: Mobile extremely well. It’s not going to be able to compare to the iPhone SE’s A13 Bionic processor, though. This is the same processor you’ll find on the latest flagship iPhones, and the Pixel 3a’s midrange chip simply can’t compete.

It’s harder to declare a winner where battery life is concerned, as we’ve not had much time with the new iPhone SE yet. Based on Apple’s record, it’s safe to assume the new SE will have at least a day-long battery life, if not better. The Pixel 3a certainly manages this and should comfortably manage a day with change to spare. Both phones have 18W fast-charging, but the iPhone SE has a strong advantage with the inclusion of wireless charging.

While we’re yet to spend much time with the new SE’s battery, we’re confident its strong processor and wireless charging give it enough of an edge.

Winner: iPhone SE (2020)

Camera

google-pixel-3a-fingerprint-sensor
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Say goodbye to multiple lenses — both of these phones rock a single 12-megapixel lens in their rear camera modules. We haven’t had much time with the new SE’s camera, but it seems to physically be the same camera as the iPhone 8, which was an excellent camera phone in 2017. However, camera tech has moved on since then, and the Pixel camera software is somewhat legendary these days. The Pixel 3a has the same software as the flagship Pixel range, and that means it’s equipped with some of the strongest snappers around. While Apple’s software additions are likely to help, it seems the Pixel has an edge for now.

The iPhone does squeeze some points back with 4K video recording at 60 fps, but at the moment, it seems the Pixel 3a’s incredible camera software is going to carry the day. We’ll update this if our opinion changes after we spend more time with the iPhone SE. With Smart HDR and other software tricks included, we’re hoping the new iPhone SE will surprise us.

Winner: Google Pixel 3a

Software and updates

Apple iPhone 8 review quick settings
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

As is ever the case with Android vs. iOS, it comes primarily down to which operating system you prefer. Both have slick interfaces with lots of features and even more to love, and we wager most would be able to use and get used to either. Android 10 on the Pixel 3a is smooth, as is iOS 13 on the iPhone SE. Don’t let the specific OS influence your choice too much unless you’re sure you dislike one more than the other.

Apple would usually score a win at this stage, thanks to its extremely snappy update speed. However, Pixel phones also receive software updates extremely fast, since Google makes the phones and the OS — putting both phones at loggerheads. This is a dead tie.

Winner: Tie

Special features

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The loss of the TrueDepth selfie camera and Face ID means the iPhone SE (2020) can’t rely on the usual special features we’re used to. That means there’s no Animojis or Memojis here, and while you can create a static version of yourself, it won’t be animated or as versatile as what you’ll find on the latest iPhones.

By contrast, the Pixel 3a has a strong suite of special features, most of it powered by Google Assistant. There’s the Now Playing feature that identifies music playing near you, the spam call filtering Call Screen, and the useful AR mode for Google Maps. You can also summon the Assistant by squeezing the sides of your phone if you’re so inclined. The Pixel 3a gets everything the flagship Pixel phones get, and that’s a big point in the Pixel’s favor.

Winner: Google Pixel 3a

Price and availability

The Google Pixel 3a is currently available for $400. It’s available from T-Mobile, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon. AT&T isn’t selling the phone directly, but you can use the Pixel 3a on its network. You can also buy it unlocked from the Google Store.

The iPhone SE (2020) is currently available for pre-order, and prices for the phone start at $400, with the 256GB variant costing $550. The phone will be released on April 24.

Overall winner: iPhone SE

The Google Pixel 3a has sat atop the midrange phone pile for quite a while now, but it seems its time in the sun may be over. The new iPhone SE is an absolute triumph, and Apple’s second-ever midrange phone has everything you could possibly need from a phone, with an incredibly overpowered processor thrown in to boot. The iPhone SE is equipped with an excellent camera, powerful hardware, and a design that, while not modern, is certainly iconic enough you can forgive it the bezels.

Does that mean you should abandon the Pixel entirely? Not at all. If you prefer Android to iOS or desire the many camera tricks Google has loaded into the camera software, there are worse ways of spending $400 than on the Pixel 3a. You’re unlikely to regret your decision if you buy the iPhone SE or the Pixel 3a — but for our money, and for most people, the iPhone SE (2020) is the stronger of the two.

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