iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Which cheap phone will win?

Apple is back in running for the title of best cheap phone, now that the company has released the iPhone SE 2020. Our iPhone SE 2020 review shows that this $399 device is a compact beast, delivering A13 Bionic power and very good cameras in a compact design.

Google, too, is reportedly prepping a cheap Pixel for later in the year, called the Pixel 4a. That phone will have the arduous task of following up last year’s Pixel 3a, which was a smash hit for Google chiefly because it brought the phone maker’s camera prowess down to an affordable price.

While we don’t officially know everything about the Pixel 4a — remember, Google hasn’t released it yet or even confirmed its existence — we know enough from rumors to size up that device against Apple’s new proposition for budget buyers. Read on for our iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a comparison for a closer look at where each handset is stronger, with an eye toward helping you make an informed purchasing decision on your next reasonably-priced smartphone.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Pricing and carriers

The new iPhone SE starts at $399, but for that you get only 64GB of storage. You can upgrade to 128GB or 256GB for another $50 or $150, respectively. Like all of the best iPhones, the new iPhone SE is available through every major carrier; check our always up-to-date hub of the best iPhone SE 2020 deals for the biggest opportunities to save.

We don’t know exactly how much the Pixel 4a will cost or what carriers it will be available through, as it hasn’t been announced yet. However, we expect Google to keep the price consistent with the Pixel 3a, which starts at $399. The Pixel 3a is available Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and Google Fi, as well as unlocked, so it’s very likely the Pixel 4a will be sold through the same channels, too. It could be out as soon as the end of May, which is when the Pixel 3a debuted in 2019.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Specs

ModeliPhone SEPixel 4a (rumored)
Starting Price$399$399
Screen4.7-inch LCD (1334×750)5.81-inch OLED (2340×1080)
CPUA13 BionicSnapdragon 730
Rear Camera12MP (ƒ/1.8)12.2MP (ƒ/1.8)
Front Camera7MP (ƒ/2.2)8MP (ƒ/2.0)
ColorsBlack, White, Product RedUnknown
Weight5.2 ouncesUnknown
Dimensions5.5 x 2.7 x 0.3 inchesUnknown

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Design

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Apple)

Apple’s philosophy with the original iPhone SE was to stuff the technology inside the iPhone 6S — Apple’s premier phone at the time — into the body of a 4-inch iPhone 5. History has more or less repeated itself with the new iPhone SE.

Apple’s latest entry-level iPhone repeats the design of the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 — chunky bezels, Touch ID home button and LCD screen intact. The back of the device is all glass, to allow for wireless charging, while the sides are finished in anodized aluminum, similar to the iPhone 11 and iPhone XR. The new SE comes in black, white and red.

A render of the Pixel 4a, based on leaked information (Image credit: 91Mobiles/OnLeaks)

The Pixel 4a, on the other hand, will likely adopt a more modern aesthetic, with a full-screen design that pushes the display to the edges of the body, and places the phone’s front-facing camera inside the panel in the same hole-punch fashion as the new OnePlus 8. The Pixel 4a’s fingerprint sensor is expected to be on the back of the phone, just like its predecessor’s, while the body is composed of one consistent sheet of polycarbonate all around.

The iPhone SE is rated IP67 water resistant, meaning it can be submerged in up to 1 meter of water for 30 minutes without incident. The Pixel 4a hasn’t been tipped to include water resistance, though it likely will have something iPhone buyers are sure to miss — a 3.5-millimeter headphone jack.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Display

iPhone SE 2020 (Image credit: Apple)

While Apple’s punched up many aspects of the iPhone 8’s design in the new iPhone SE, the screen evidently isn’t one of them. The iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch LCD panel is HDR10-rated and supports True Tone to match ambient lighting conditions — but it’s not OLED, like flagship phone displays tend to be these days.

Google should have a leg up on Apple in this regard, as the Pixel 3a had an OLED screen last year, and there’s no reason to expect the Pixel 4a won’t repeat that. In fact, the Pixel 3a was the cheapest phone on sale in North America with an OLED screen at the time of its release.

Rumors point to a 5.8-inch size for Google’s new budget handset, with a taller aspect ratio than the 16:9 proportions of the iPhone SE’s significantly smaller panel. Because the panel is OLED, the Pixel 4a should deliver deeper blacks and bolder colors than the iPhone SE will be able to with its LCD screen.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Camera

A render of the Pixel 4a, based on leaks (Image credit: Concept Creator/LetsGoDigital)

This will be interesting. Google was renowned for bringing the best-in-class Pixel 3 camera down to the Pixel 3a for a very affordable price last year, and the Pixel 3a remains the best camera phone among budget and midrange options to this day. We expect to see the Pixel 4a improve upon it, offering some of the Pixel 4’s algorithmic magic for half the cost.

But the iPhone SE could throw a wrench into Google’s plans. Apple is proud of the 12-megapixel rear camera in its new cheap iPhone, calling it the greatest single-lens system the company has ever shipped. Unofficial reports suggest it’s similar or at least based upon the stack in 2018’s iPhone XR. For what it’s worth, the iPhone SE’s shooter incorporates the same ƒ/1.8 aperture that the iPhone XR did, so there might be some truth to that.

Still, the iPhone SE gains Apple’s latest computational photography developments, like Smart HDR, Semantic Rendering, Portrait Lighting and Depth Control. Notably absent from that bag of tricks, however, is Night Mode — that’s something you’ll need a more expensive iPhone for. The Pixel 3a does have Google’s Night Sight technology, and once again, we expect it’ll make an appearance on the Pixel 4a as well.

In fact, a collection of camera samples leaked from a pre-production Pixel 4a that look legitimate recently started making the rounds courtesy of Cuban tech blog TecnoLike Plus. They not only demonstrate that Night Sight is alive and well on Google’s next budget handset, but that the phone’s photography should rival that of the year’s best camera phones, for a cut-down price.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Performance

Here’s one area where the iPhone SE is almost certain to have a massive advantage over the Pixel 4a. Apple has gifted its $399 iPhone with the very same processor you’ll find in its $999 model: the A13 Bionic. This is the fastest CPU in any smartphone, and now you can have it for less than half the price of what a typical flagship costs.

Apple says the A13 Bionic will make the new iPhone SE up to 40% faster than the iPhone 8 it’s replacing. That’s a brilliant value, especially considering the Pixel 4a will make a massive performance concession to achieve its budget-minded price.

Everything we’ve heard to date suggests the Pixel 4a will utilize Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 system-on-chip. That’s not slow silicon, mind you, though it is outpaced by Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line Snapdragon 865, and Apple’s chip is sure to run circles around it. It also lacks the built-in 5G modem of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765 chipset.

While you could make the argument that a $400 smartphone doesn’t need the fastest processor on the market, the A13 Bionic’s artificial intelligence crunching capabilities will allow it to churn out better photos, and the A13 Bionic’s superior GPU will also allow it to play all the hottest mobile games, at the same fidelity as the iPhone 11 series allows.

In fact, performance could even be better than those pricier iPhones, because the CPU won’t have nearly as many pixels to fill. And with that kind of power, you can expect your iPhone SE to last you for many years to come. One of my Tom’s Guide colleagues is still using the iPhone SE that he bought four years ago without a noticeable performance hit. (The battery on a phone that old is another story.)

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Battery and charging

The iPhone SE should deliver battery life that’s no worse than theiPhone 8’s, by Apple’s estimation. That’s a good thing, because this is one seriously small phone — and small phones have appropriately small batteries.

The Pixel 4a’s battery is sure to be bigger than the iPhone SE’s, especially given that the Pixel 3a had a 3,000-mAh battery, which dwarfs the iPhone 8’s 1,821-mAh unit. The Pixel 3a also delivered solid battery life in our testing last year, landing among the devices with the best phone battery life. So here’s hoping Google continues moving in the right direction, and away from the poor longevity of those more expensive Pixels.

Pixel 3a buyers generously received a 18-watt USB-C PD fast-charging adapter in the box, which could deliver 7 hours of use after just 15 minutes of charging. The iPhone SE supports Apple’s latest 15-watt USB-C charging brick, though the iPhone SE only ships with the slow 5-watt adapters you’ll remember from iPhones of old — so you’ll have to shell out more cash to buy a faster-charging system separately.

When it comes to wireless charging, the iPhone SE supports Qi induction just like its bigger siblings, on the same range of third-party pads. The Pixel 3a doesn’t, and unfortunately rumors say that’s unlikely to change with the Pixel 4a.

iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a: Outlook

2020 is shaping up to be the year of compelling cheap phones, now that Apple has arrived to take the fight to Google and their Pixel 3a. However, what’s fascinating about this matchup is that while these two devices will probably cost the same, they prioritize different parts of the experience.

The iPhone SE is for buyers chiefly concerned with performance and long-term use, first and foremost. It looks to be made of premium materials, yet its design is extremely dated. Its 12-MP camera could be quite good for the money, though at this stage we don’t know if it’ll match the Pixel 4a’s, given that Google has made a flagship-caliber camera a big priority with that series of devices.

And then there’s the Pixel 4a, which will likely lack the iPhone SE’s oomph, but will have a more captivating display, and an arguably more fashionable design that won’t make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a portal back to the early part of last decade. It’ll probably pack faster charging out of the box, but no wireless solution. It will keep its headphone jack, but likely miss out on water resistance — the opposite of every iPhone.

Because Google hasn’t officially unveiled the Pixel 4a yet, it’s possible some of this could change between now and that phone’s release, which has been rumored to happen in the coming months. You can look forward to updates to this comparison as we learn more about Google’s plans, and a final verdict once the Pixel 4a is fully unveiled. 

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