The new Apple iPhone SE is here, which means you can buy a powered-up version of Apple’s cheapest iPhone. The iPhone SE has always been an impressive performer, but this new iteration armed with Apple’s A15 Bionic processor should push that to the next level. But Apple’s iPhone SE isn’t the only midrange phone game in town — Google’s Pixel 5a 5G is an extremely strong contender for the title of “best phone under $500.” While its processing power isn’t flagship-level, its camera capabilities certainly are, and it’s entirely possible it’s even better than the iPhone SE.
So which of these phones is better, and which should you spend your hard-earned cash on? Well, that’s not a simple question to answer. Thankfully, we’re here to break it down, awarding a winner one way or the other across a number of different (but important) categories. Here’s whether you should buy the Apple iPhone SE (2022) or the Google Pixel 5a 5G.
|Apple iPhone SE (2022)||Google Pixel 5a|
|Size||138.4mm by 67.3mm by 7.3mm (5.45 inches by 2.65 inches by 0.29 inches)||154.9mm by 73.7mm by 7.6mm (6.10 inches by 2.90 inches by 0.30 inches)|
|Weight||144 grams (5.08 ounces)||183 grams (6.46 ounces)|
|Screen size||4.7-inch LCD||6.34-inch OLED|
|Screen resolution||1334 x 750 pixels (326 pixels per inch density)||2400 x 1080 pixels (415 ppi)|
|Operating system||iOS 15||Android 12|
|Storage space||64GB, 128GB, 256GB||128GB|
|MicroSD card slot||No||No|
|Tap-to-pay services||Apple Pay||Google Pay|
|Processor||Apple A15 Bionic||Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G|
|Camera||12-megapixel wide rear, 7MP front||12.2MP wide, 16MP ultrawide, 8MP 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||Lightning||USB-C, headphone jack|
|Fingerprint sensor||Yes, in Home button||Yes, rear-mounted|
18W fast charging
Qi wireless charging
|App marketplace||Apple App Store||Google Play Store|
|Network support||All major carriers||All major carriers|
|Colors||Black, white, red||Mostly Black|
|Review score||3.5 out of 5 stars||4 out of 5 stars|
Design, display, and durability
Most phone launches happen once a year — not so for the Apple iPhone SE. First released in 2016, Apple’s cheapest iPhone didn’t see a refresh until 2020, and it’s taken another two years for Apple to update it once again. So, you might expect Apple to have really taken the opportunity to make some big changes. Well, you’d be wrong. The iPhone SE (2022) is identical in design to the iPhone SE (2020), which was a carbon copy of the iPhone 8. That’s a modern phone using a five-year-old design when even the cheapest Android phones are now rocking bezel-less styles. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but it’s possible iPhone fans won’t mind.
We described the Pixel 5a 5G as “boring” in our review, but the bezel-less design with a punch-hole camera is definitely more modern than the iPhone SE. The build is plastic, though, which isn’t as nice as the glass-and-metal build of the iPhone SE. Still, it’s not terrible, and both phones have the same IP67 water resistance as well, putting them on a roughly even keel as far as durability goes.
These two phones are very different in style and build, and a lot will come down to personal choice. But for us, the more modern look of the Pixel 5a 5G takes the day.
Winner: Google Pixel 5a 5G
Performance, battery life, and charging
The Google Pixel 5a 5G comes with the Snapdragon 765G, 6GB of RAM, and starts at 128GB of storage. Performance is strong, and the phone is capable of running demanding 3D games like Asphalt 9 and Genshin Impact without issues. But is it as powerful as the iPhone SE? In short, no. Apple’s A15 Bionic processor powers the cheapest iPhone — yes, the same processor you’ll find in the iPhone 13 Pro — and as a result, it’s leagues ahead of the Pixel. Will that extra power show in daily use? Maybe not, but over time, the iPhone’s larger reserve of power may start to show. On the negative side, though, the iPhone starts at just 64GB of internal storage. It would have been nice to see it start at 128GB, like the Pixel.
The Pixel 5a 5G also has a strong battery life, lasting well over a day on a single charge. Unfortunately, the iPhone SE doesn’t fare as well as we’d hoped it would, dropping to 10% by evening time. The Pixel 5a definitely outpaces it here, even if the iPhone SE does have wireless charging, which is a convenience the Pixel doesn’t include.
It’s a tough one to call, since the iPhone brings the power, while the Pixel has the staying power. For us, the longer battery power is the one people are more likely to care about, since real-world performance between the two phones is similar anyway.
Winner: Google Pixel 5a 5G
The new iPhone SE uses largely the same camera system as its predecessor, which was the same lens used by the iPhone 8. It has a single 12MP lens, and while the inclusion of the A15 Bionic processor does mean we see some new software tricks we didn’t see on the older SE, it’s not really able to match the Pixel 5a 5G. It takes great pictures, and is way above most other contenders in the same price bracket, but that doesn’t include the Pixel 5a 5G.
The Pixel 5a 5G has a dual-lens system comprised of a main 12.2MP lens and a 16MP ultrawide lens. The boost in versatility the Pixel gets is one big point in its favor, but it’s the software that really shines here. The Pixel 5a is an extremely solid performer with image quality that rivals the top flagship phones you can buy. The new iPhone SE is a strong contender, but it doesn’t rival the Pixel 5a 5G’s great camera.
Winner: Google Pixel 5a 5G
Software and updates
Google and Apple rule the roosts where Android and iOS are concerned, so it’s no surprise that things are quite similar here. No, we don’t mean they’re the same experience now. Android and iOS are still different, despite the two operating systems getting closer than ever with recent updates. Rather, we mean both the Pixel and iPhone are going to get updates pretty much the day they release. Unlike other Android manufacturers, there isn’t a lag getting new Android updates on Pixels because, well, Google makes those same Android updates.
So it’s pretty even-stevens there, and you might expect this is a tie. Not so fast. While they’re both pretty close in update speeds, expect the Apple phone to still have an advantage in update amounts. Apple has built a solid reputation for updating phones way after any other manufacturer would have stopped. It’s so good, in fact, it still updated the iPhone 6S (first released in 2015) to iOS 15, giving it almost seven years of updates. That’s just not something the Pixel can compete with yet. Buy an iPhone, and it’s likely to still be getting updates long after the Pixel has been put out to pasture.
Winner: Apple iPhone SE (2022)
Both of these phones have some pretty great special features, and most of them are tied to digital assistants. For the iPhone, you’re looking at a close-knit relationship with Siri and using Siri Shortcuts to do things like turn on your favorite playlist when you get in the car or other automated fun. Other than that, you get Animoji/Memoji and some augmented reality (AR) fun built-in. Unfortunately, there’s no Face ID, but you do get a Touch ID scanner built into the Home button, which may be preferable to some.
The Google Pixel 5a 5G really takes it with the special features, though. You get a similar experience with the Google Assistant but with so much more to do with it. Call Screen is probably the most impressive, though. Instead of taking potential nuisance calls, you can ask the Google Assistant to take a call for you and find out if the person on the other end is legitimate or not. It can even sit on hold for you. It’s an impressive piece of tech, and honestly, it wins this round hands-down.
Winner: Google Pixel 5a 5G
Price and availability
The Apple iPhone SE (2022) is currently available. The price has seen a small increase from the previous version, going up to $429 — but it’s still a bargain for an iPhone. It’s available from pretty much every carrier, as it’s an iPhone.
The Google Pixel 5a 5G is also currently available, and prices start at $449 or a $15-per-month subscription service. Google Fi is a great place to grab it, or you can pick one up unlocked for use on every major U.S. carrier.
Overall winner: Google Pixel 5a 5G
It was always going to be a tough fight, but with the more modern design, a stunning camera, and awesome battery life, the Google Pixel 5a 5G is our very worthy winner. In a straight fight, we’re backing the Pixel over the iPhone.
But the new iPhone SE has one thing the Pixel will never have — it’s an iPhone. If you’re really embedded into Apple’s ecosystem and can’t bear to be away from iOS, well, the iPhone SE is an excellent budget iPhone. But if you’re happy to experiment away from iOS, the Pixel 5a 5G is a great place to sample Android at its best.
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