The iPhone SE is designed to give you the essential iPhone features at an affordable price. It’s Apple’s mid-range smartphone a good option for many users who don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on features they don’t need. While I’d been quick to recommend the SE in the past, that recommendation changed this week when Google unveiled its latest mid-range smartphone: the Pixel 6a.
The 6a won’t be available until the end of July: preorders start on the 21st, while availability begins on the 28th. That is why I now warn against buying an iPhone SE. If you need a new phone this second, this article is not for you. But if you’ve got the luxury of time, check out these comparisons to see which midrange phone is worth your money.
What the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE have in common
Let’s start with the device similarities. The Pixel 6a and iPhone SE are both 5G-enabled smartphones, meaning you can enjoy the fast speeds of the latest generation of cellular connectivity (when available).
The two phones also start at similar price points: the 6a begins at $749, while the SE starts at a slightly lower $719 – these are mid-range smartphones from Google and Apple, so it’s useful to see what you’re getting by roughly the same—Amount to spend with both companies.
From the point of view of megapixels, the main cameras are very similar. Google’s main shooter is 12.2MP while the SE’s is 12MP, both of which shoot 4K video at 60fps. The front cameras are also similar: the 6a has an 8 MP front camera, while the SE has 7 MP. Both shoot 1080p video at 30 fps.
We’ll have to wait until 6a units are in the hands of reviewers (especially photographers and videographers) before we know how the images compare to the SE. But we don’t need reviews to know that the camera similarities end here (more on that below).
Why the Pixel 6a is better than the iPhone SE
But where the phones are different, the benefits of the 6a add up quickly. It starts as soon as you look at both devices: Apple decided to recycle the iPhone 8 design it used for the previous iPhone SE, which has two large bezels with a 4.7-inch 750p IPS display. Not only is this design five years old, it’s not too far from the iPhone 6’s design (especially from the front), meaning the phone looks like it’s from 2014.
The Pixel 6a, on the other hand, looks perfectly modern, with a 6.1-inch 1080p OLED display that runs from edge to edge. Google opted for a camera cutout at the top of the screen, as you find on many smartphones these days: this phone by no means screams “mid-range”.
Let’s talk about cameras again. The main shooters on both smartphones are about the same on paper, but that’s just the story’s beginning. Google put a 12MP ultra-wide camera on the 6a, which Apple notably omitted on the SE. Even if you’re not an ultra-wide fan, the 6a’s camera features blow the SE out of the water.
Google decided, unlike Apple, that mid-market customers deserve night vision on their smartphones to take high-quality photos in the dark. The lack of night vision on the SE, with its A15 Bionic chip, is unacceptable. Google’s phone also comes with Magic Eraser, which automatically removes unwanted people and objects from your photos. A new Android feature also lets you change the color of an edit to better blend in with the background of your image.
While both phones are 5G ready, they are not prepared similarly. The SE is only compatible with sub-6GHz 5G, which offers a modest speed boost from 4G LTE. However, the Pixel 6a is compatible with mmWave 5G, the type of 5G you probably hear about, with super-fast Wi-Fi-like speeds and reliability. MmWave is still in its infancy as most of the 5G out there is sub-6, so I wouldn’t call this a deal breaker. Still, it’s worth pointing out the difference, as Apple doesn’t like to do that.
The SE is $30 cheaper than the 6a, but it’s not exactly apples for apples. The base model 6a has 128 GB of storage, while the SE has only 64 GB. If you want 128GB of storage on your SE, it will cost you an extra $80, meaning a 128GB SE is still $50 more than the 6a.
The major advantages of the iPhone SE over the Pixel 6a
Right now, two features of the iPhone SE stand out to me above the 6a. The first is the processor: both phones feature the internal SoCs of their respective companies. The iPhone SE has the A15 Bionic, the same chip found in the iPhone 13 line and iPad mini. The 6a has Google’s Tensor chip, the SoC the company used for the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. However, the A15 tends to outperform the Tensor quite a bit.
There is one reported test for the 6a on Geekbench, where the device scored 1050 in single-score and 2833 in multi-core. For some reason, there are no third-generation iPhone SE tests on Geekbench, but if you look at the iPhone 13, you can see the power of the A15: it scored 1685 in single-core and 4498 in multi-core. Numbers aren’t everything, but in terms of raw power, the A15 seems to take the Tensor out.
The other big advantage, I think, is longevity. Google has never extended software updates for its Pixel phones for more than three years (the Pixel 3a, for example, is about to lose support). The company has committed to five years of security updates for the 6a, which will keep your phone protected for quite some time, but it’s less clear if the phone will get new Android features after 2025.
On the other hand, Apple has a great track record of software updates. The company supports the iPhone 6s with iOS 15, which came out in 2015. If Apple makes its hardware and software, can extend software and security support for seven years, so can Google.
Still, the 6a is a better value than the SE.
In the opinion of this tech writer, the 6a is the better phone overall. I love the iPhone SE and have a soft spot for the “classic” iPhone design, but it’s impossible to ignore that the 6a brings much more for the money. Unless you need iOS. If you couldn’t imagine your Apple friends’ texts going green, didn’t have direct access to FaceTime, or left behind all the money you spent on Apple-specific apps, then the 6a might not be for you. Switching mobile platforms is still harder than it should be, especially since Apple refuses to take over RCS messages.
However, the 6a (on paper) is the way to go if you are a flexible user. Of course, we’ll have to wait to see how the phone performs in person. By July, you’ll need to know exactly which of these two phones to buy unless something else comes along to steal the show.