iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 3a: Could Apple's small-sized iPhone be the biggest phone launch of the year?

Credit: Google

The Google Pixel 3a changed the mid-tier market for the better. Could the new iPhone SE do the same? How do two compare?

History repeats itself

It's easy to forget that there was a time where buying a flagship phone in Australia cost closer to $1000 than $2000. In those days, three generalized categories of handset existed. You had your budget phones, which ran from $99 to around $399. You had your premium phones, which started at around $900 and upwards. 

Finally, you had the mid-tier. Floating between $400 and $800 or so, these 

If budget buyers are happy to make compromises on their phone and premium purchasers want it all, the mid-tier represents exactly what it sounds like: a middle ground between these two extremes. You get a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B. You get decent battery life but a sub-optimal camera. You miss out on water resistance and wireless charging but you do get a headphone jack. 

Credit: Google

Last year's Google Pixel 3a was a dynamite addition that challenged that status quo. 

"Want a premium software experience and near-flagship level camera optics? That'll be $599 please." 

In our review at the time, we said that "If you can live without things like wireless charging, water resistance and the ability to take photos of the moon, there are almost zero reasons to look and buying anything other than the Pixel 3a."

The Google Pixel 3a absolutely slaughtered the competition when it came to the areas where mid-tier phones usually fall short. The competitive price and proposition here seemingly forced brands like Samsung and Oppo to rush out new mid-tier models overnight to try up their game in a post-Pixel 3a world. 

Credit: Apple

Now, history looks set to repeat itself with the new iPhone SE. Apple's latest squishes the new A13 processor found in last year's iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Plus and iPhone 11 Pro into the tried-and-tested shell of the older iPhone 8.

The result? A classic-looking iPhone with modern performance and a budget-friendly phone with premium perks. In many ways, the new iPhone SE feels like Apple’s take on last year’s Google Pixel 3a. Let's see how the two compare on specs:

Display

When it comes to display, your mileage with the new iPhone SE is probably going to come down to your feelings on screen size. Are you dismayed by the rise of larger and larger screens? If so, the new iPhone SE's old-school form is probably going to thrill you. The device has a 4.7-inch Retina HD display with a pixel density of 326.

Credit: Apple

By comparison, the Google Pixel 3a features a 5.6-inch OLED display with 441 pixels-per-inch. By most metrics, the screen on Google's mid-tier masterpiece is both bigger and better than that on the new iPhone SE. It's also more modern-looking, since it adopts a taller 18:9 aspect ratio. 

At the time, we praised the Pixel 3a for being one of the best small phones out there. However, compared to the new SE, it's a fair bit larger. Ultimately, the question here is one of quality versus quantity. Consider whether you'd prefer a smaller screen to a better one and choose accordingly. 

Processor

As mentioned, the new iPhone SE is powered by the same A13 Fusion processor found in last year's iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max. That puts it well ahead the Google Pixel 3a's Snapdragon 670 processor. 

We haven't had the chance to formally test the new iPhone SE for ourselves just yet but if we compares some of our benchmark results from the Pixel 3a against the results scored by last year's iPhone 11 Pro - the difference in performance is made apparent. 

Credit: Fergus Halliday

Hands down, the winner here is probably going to be the iPhone SE. It's a mid-tier phone with a flagship processor and last year's Pixel 3a simply can't keep up.

Features

In terms of features, the new iPhone SE raises the stakes for what a $700 phone can look like. It's got IP67 water resistance. It's got wireless charging. Up until now, these things are usually reserved for flagship and premium devices - so the new SE is especially compelling for that reason. 

The other big thing that the iPhone SE gets mid-tier buyers is an all-access pass to the iOS ecosystem. As with Apple's more expensive iPhones, the new SE can be used to set up and use an Apple Watch. You can sign up stuff like Apple TV+ and Apple News. On their own merits, those things aren't game-changers. However, taken together, they add up. The new iPhone SE is the first mid-tier phone to bring those options to the table.  

Credit: Apple

Of course, the key feature that the Pixel 3a offers and the iPhone SE lacks here is the headphone jack. If you're unwilling to embrace the era of AirPods, that detail might matter more for you than most. Additionally, the Pixel 3a also comes with a handful of software advantages. Google's Pixel devices tend to get Android software updates ahead of time and the specific version of Android that the Pixel 3a runs is both snappy to use and packed with bonus features.

Still, we're inclined to give the edge here to the newcomer. You can't download and use most of Google's services on an iPhone but you can't do the same with the Pixel 3a. Features are fundamentally about a sense of possibilities. You might not use every feature your current phone is capable of every day but, in my opinion, having a canvas of potential at your disposal is better than having a narrow one. 

Camera

This is where things get interesting and the caveats have to be deployed. Until we get our hands on the new iPhone SE, we won't know for sure just how capable or limited the single-lens camera on the device is. However, at this stage, we're feeling optimistic.

The biggest reason for this? The Pixel 3a.

As noted in our review, "In terms of the hardware involved, the camera on the Pixel 3a is exactly the same as last year’s Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL. There’s a 12.2-megapixel dual pixel camera on the back, with an f/1.8 aperture plus both electronic and optical image stabilization. On the front, the Google Pixel 3a wears its 8-megapixel selfie camera with pride (with an f/2.0 aperture). Both cameras also feature all the usual thrills you’d find in any Pixel phone, from Portrait mode to Night Sight and, presumably, whatever comes next."

"The key difference here between the Pixel 3a and the Pixel 3 is the absence of Google’s custom-built Pixel Visual Core processor. Since it can’t offload image processing duties to this dedicated processor like the Pixel 3 can, the Pixel 3a uses its own CPU and GPU instead."

Credit: Apple

The new iPhone SE carries a very similar claim to fame.  It also features a 12-megapixel (f/1.8) camera on the back and promises to augment those single-lens results using Pixel-like software algorithms. 

Apple say the new iPhone SE “uses the image signal processor and Neural Engine of A13 Bionic to unlock even more benefits of computational photography, including Portrait mode, all six Portrait Lighting effects and Depth Control.”

Last year's Pixel 3a set new standards for mid-tier smartphone photography. The new iPhone SE looks primed to do the same for 2020. We'll have to wait and see if the final results live up to the hype.

What does this mean for the Pixel 4a?

Barring a world where the battery life and camera performance offered by the iPhone SE are utterly underwhelming, Apple's affordable iPhone looks set to raise the bar for mid-tier smartphones. In comparison to year's past, the notion of a world where wireless charging and IP67 water resistance are things you'd expect to see from a decent mid-tier smartphone feels tantalizingly close.

In a very real way, the iPhone SE raises the stakes for Google's yet-to-be-revealed Pixel 4a

Google Pixel 3aCredit: Google
Google Pixel 3a

Reports from XDA Developers suggest that the device will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 processor, a 5.8-inch AMOLED display, 64GB of storage and between 4GB and 6GB of RAM, depending on the model. And while the Pixel 4a’s camera is certainly going to benefit from the software advances made by its flagship counterpart, it looks like the new device won’t incorporate the Motion Sense gesture controls, 3D Face Unlock, water resistance and multi-lens rear camera found in the Pixel 4

Assessed on it's own merit, that sounds like a recipe for a fine mid-tier phone. However, unless Google have some new tricks up their sleeves, it seems difficult to imagine a world where a Pixel 4a that simply settles for a better processor and a little bit of extra RAM is enough to keep up with what the iPhone SE is bringing to the table. 

We'll have to wait and see.

Credit: Apple

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Fergus Halliday
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