The Google Pixel 5a arrives with a massive battery and improvements to one of the best cameras on an affordable phone, and it's one of our favorite budget models. However, there is one outstanding competitor out there: the iPhone SE, which Apple launched in 2020. A best seller in the segment and equipped with the fastest processor in this class, the iPhone is not to be overlooked.
But can the much older iPhone SE actually hold its own in a direct clash against the newer Pixel 5a?
We take a deeper dive comparing the differences in design and quality of materials, but also the performance, the all-important camera quality and the expected battery life of these two budget heavy hitters.
While the iPhone SE is a truly compact phones that is easy to handle with one hand and carry in a pocket, the Pixel 5a has grown in size and comes with a 6.34" screen and a much thicker body that make it harder to use with one hand, and noticeably heavier than the iPhone too.
In terms of build quality, the iPhone really stands out with its elegant thin body made out of glass that feels premium. The Pixel 5a looks like plastic, but it's not. It uses a metal frame covered in bioresin, short story told, it's a metal phone that feels super sturdy. At the same time, though, we can hardly think of a more uninspiring design than what you get on a Pixel: a simple black slab! You could have done a bit better here, Google!
Both phones are also water resistant with an official IP67 rating, meaning that you can drop them in water and they would survive being submerged for as long as half an hour. That's super cool and still a rarity on budget phones, but these two have it.
The Pixel also has a headphone jack (at the top), a feature missing on the iPhone SE.
As for the screens, the Pixel 5a will come with a 6.2" OLED display with FHD+ resolution, while the iPhone SE sports a 4.7" LCD display with a 750p resolution. That is a big win for the Pixel: the older LCD technology used on the iPhone translates into less vibrant and contrasty colors, plus LCD screens are known for a slight but noticeable ghosting effect that is not present on newer OLED screens. Not only that, the lower resolution of the iPhone will also be noticeable as text appears slightly pixelized and not as sharp as on the Pixel.
Neither screen supports a high refresh rate, so both are running at the typical 60Hz. That's one modern feature that really makes a difference for a smooth scrolling experience... and it's missing on both.
Camera & Audio
While Pixel 5a comes with two rear cameras: a wide and an ultra-wide one, you only get a single camera on the iPhone SE.
Still, the tiny little SE has remained surprisingly competitive on the camera front as even with just one camera, it supports HDR and advanced features like proper 4K video stabilization that are still commonly missing on budget devices.
The Pixel 5a, however, is a different kind of a budget phone, one that can match the iPhone SE and win with not only more versatility thanks to the ultra-wide camera, but also with quality as it supports HDR bracketing and Google's well-known computation photography algorithms.
Google Pixel 5a
Apple iPhone SE (2020)
12MP wide, f/1.7 lens with OIS
12MP wide, f/1.8 lens with OIS
16MP ultra-wide, f/2.2
Specs are one thing, but the actual performance of the cameras is another, so let's take a look at some photos, shall we?
< Pixel 5aiPhone SE >
In bright light, both phones perform well, but that's hardly a surprise. The differences are mostly about the colors with the Pixel having that more contrasty look with deeper blacks, while the iPhone captures a bit of a softer picture with less harsh shadows.
< Pixel 5aiPhone SE >
On this next shot you can see that the differences can be really tiny and barely noticeable in perfect conditions.
< Pixel 5aiPhone SE >
In low light, however, you can clearly see the advantage the Pixel has: it just captures a lot more light, and beautiful color, resulting in the whole image looking noticeably better.
< Pixel 5aiPhone SE >
One more shot of the sun almost set once again confirms that the Pixel is the phone to go to if you want good low-light photos. Keep in mind that the iPhone SE does not support the Night Mode that newer iPhones have, while this budget Pixel has the same Night Sight as the most expensive models.
Both phones do a decent job taking selfies, but in this particular example above you see a trend which is that the iPhone often captures these brighter shots and looks a bit sharper, while the Pixel has a bit of a darker mood to it. The roles however reverse in very dim environments where Night Sight on the Pixel is able to extract a ton of light while selfies on the iPhone remain practically unusable and too dark.
< Pixel 5aiPhone SE >
As you can see in the shot above, both phones also support a portrait mode, but we had to step in a lot closer with the iPhone in order for the effect to kick in. That meant getting a very skewed perspective that looks a bit funny, but not quite a flattering look for a portrait shot. What you see above on the Pixel 5a is a 1X shot, but you can also select a 1.3X mode to get a bit of a zoom, an option missing on the iPhone.
For all else, both phones did a good job isolating me from the background. The real difference is in the color science with much warmer colors on the iPhone compared to colder, more neutral tonality on the Pixel.
Interestingly, the iPhone SE holds its ground pretty well despite its age. Both capture a similar level of detail and dynamic range is great on both, but we would give the iPhone the slight edge as the Pixel tends to burn the highlights in videos a bit more and it didn't quite nail the color temperature in our sample video above.
Still, those differences are tiny and we are genuinely impressed with the quality of videos from both phones, which are among the very best in this price class. Not just that, stabilization also works brilliantly on both and you get that walking on air feel instead of the jittery mess that many other budget phones produce.
On the audio front, we've already mentioned that the Pixel 5a features the elusive headphone jack, while the iPhone does not.
We should also add that both phones come with dual speaker setups for more immersive audio. The sound from the Pixel, however, is far boomier and with a lot more punch, so it has the upper hand here as well.
Software & Performance
Despite being much older, the iPhone SE is still the fastest $400 budget phone around
While the iPhone SE may be older, it has a screaming fast processor on the inside that is still not only relevant — it's unmatched in the budget segment! That's the Apple A13 chip, the same one that we find on the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro series, and it's a monster of a chip that can still fight it out with the top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon chips used on Android devices. Problem is that most Android devices in the budget segment don't come with a top-tier chip, but instead they use mid-range processors, and so does the Google Pixel 5a.
The Pixel 5a features the very same Snapdragon 765G found in last year's Pixel 4a, and that chip offers about half the performance power of the Apple A13, so it's a noticeable difference.
So how does that affect real-world use of the devices? Well, apps and games load faster on the iPhone, nothing stutters, and multitasking is effortless, while on the Pixel you get the occasional stutter while scrolling around and gaming is nowhere nearly as good as on the iPhone.
We will update this article with performance benchmarks that show the precise power of these two phones soon.
5G on the Pixel, no 5G on the iPhone
The Pixel 5a also has 5G connectivity that is missing on the iPhone SE, which only supports 4G LTE. While this might not matter a great deal currently, 5G networks are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and faster, and the Pixel 5a is the more future-proof device of the two. And if you happen to live in an area with good coverage, you can get faster speeds right now.
Keep in mind that the Pixel 5a works with sub6 5G networks, but does not support mmWave 5G (that requires bulky antennas and is usually supported on flagship models).
A massive difference
Just looking at the battery specs, we can see a drastic difference in battery sizes between these two phones. The iPhone SE is equipped with an 1821mAh battery, while the Pixel 5a sports an absolutely massive 4,680mAh cell, more than twice the size of the iPhone.
Usually iPhones are pretty good with background app management and squeeze the most of even smaller batteries, but the iPhone SE definitely stood out as a phone with weak battery life in our testing. While the SE struggles to last through a day of slightly heavier use, the Pixel 5a can survive even two days with moderate use.
As for charging, the iPhone SE comes with a 5W charger in the box, which is very slow, but the phone does support up 18W charging speeds that you can benefit from if you buy a compatible charger separately. The Pixel 5a, on the other hand, ships with an 18W charger included in the box that takes around an hour and 40 minutes to fully top up the battery.
Interestingly, the iPhone SE also supports wireless charging, a feature rarely found on budget phones, and the Pixel 5a does not.