The premium mid-range smartphone head-to-head: Google Pixel 4a vs. iPhone SE

Google Pixel 4a and Apple iPhone SE. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Google Pixel 4a and Apple iPhone SE. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

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By: Paolo Lacuna

Google caused quite a stir with its recent launch of the Google Pixel 5 and the surprising Google Pixel 4a 5G. We’ll do a review of these new phones from Google when they become available in Singapore soon.

It may be confusing, but the Google Pixel 4a 5G packed more functions than the 4a other than the 5G connectivity - a more powerful processor, bigger screen, different camera setup and is more expensive. In this article, we’ll cover the Pixel 4a and its direct competitor, the Apple iPhone SE.

The mid-range phone category has a wide selection of affordable phones from many brands, and the Google Pixel 4a and the iPhone SE stand tall among the heap. The Google Pixel 4a is priced at S$499 and the iPhone SE is starting at S$649 – both phones are on the high-end range of budget phones. If you’re looking for a phone refresh but don’t want to spend on a premium flagship, these two phones won’t disappoint.

The TLDR - The Google Pixel 4a comes equipped with a fantastic camera and sharp, colourful display but with a mid-range processor. The iPhone SE is beautifully built, albeit a dated design, and delivers amazing performance with a flagship-grade processor.

We’re here to help you decide what phone fits your lifestyle.

Apple iPhone SE vs. Google Pixel 4a. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Apple iPhone SE vs. Google Pixel 4a. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

The Google Pixel 4a

The Pixel 4a is the follow-up to the well-received Pixel 3a last year. The expected improvements include a newer chipset, more RAM and storage, packed in a modern notch-less design. With the recent update to Android 11, the Pixel 4a flies with a clean Android build. And with a fully capable 12-megapixel camera, this will satisfy most users. But you’ll have to settle with a mid-range Snapdragon 730 processor, that while it is capable, it isn’t the most powerful chipset this year.

The Apple SE

The Apple SE comes with the A13 Bionic, the same chipset found in the current Apple iPhones, giving it a flagship-level performance. The reliable 12-megapixel camera also takes great photos and videos. There is wireless charging, and the glass back feels as premium as any modern iPhone, but you’ll have to settle for a design that’s so 2017.

Elegant vs Pragmatic Design Choices

Much like the story of both brands, Apple’s penchant for quality and elegance can be seen in the premium finish of the iPhone SE’s glass body. At the same time, Google’s pragmatism is emphasised by a no-nonsense matte polycarbonate body. The iPhone SE also has more colour options for you - Black, White and (Product) Red, and the Pixel 4a only comes in Just Black, with a powder blue power button as a single colour accent.

The Pixel 4a’s 5.81-inch, 1080p OLED screen has better resolution and pixel density than that of the iPhone SE’s 4.7-inch, 750p LCD screen. Also looking great on the Pixel 4a is a tiny punch-hole for the selfie cam. The Apple iPhone SE looks exactly like the iPhone 8 of 2017.

Both phones can be unlocked with a fingerprint, with the iPhone SE’s fingerprint scanner located at the front home button, and the Pixel 4a’s scanner at the rear.

Overall, the Pixel 4a is a modern-looking smartphone, with a great screen and front-facing camera implementation, but made with practical materials. The iPhone SE may look dated, but it’s still a familiar design with an elegant, premium feel.

The Internal

No doubt that the iPhone SE has the superior chipset with the flagship-grade A13 Bionic. The iPhone SE glides through every app. Even gaming performance runs great with the iPhone SE, although the smaller screen does make it challenging. And with the new iOS 14, widgets perform well and look great on screen.

The Pixel 4a, even with the mid-range Snapdragon 730 Chipset, performs great on most apps. It does show a performance dip when gaming, but nothing game-breaking. And being a Pixel phone, the 4a receives the newest Android 11 software ahead of other Android phones. With virtually no bloatware in the Pixel 4a, the experience is clean and speedy.

The battery on the Pixel 4a at 3140 mAh nearly doubles that of the iPhone SE’s 1,821 mAh, although both phones barely last a full day of use. The iPhone SE has wireless charging, but the Pixel 4a comes with a fast charger at 18W.

Selfie comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Selfie comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Camera

Both phones only have a single camera, with the Pixel 4a using a 12.2 Megapixel camera with a 1.7 aperture, and the iPhone with a 12 Megapixel camera with a slightly larger aperture at 1.8. The Selfie camera on the Pixel 4a A has 8 megapixels with 2.0 aperture, and the iPhone SE has 7 megapixels with 2.2 aperture. Both are very capable, using software to enhance the photos. Most buyers will stick to the standard camera setup, and so did we, when we tested these phones.

With portrait shots, the Pixel 4a does a good job focusing on the subject, and with a stronger bokeh effect. The iPhone SE produces shots that are brighter and have a more saturated colour. However, the iPhone SE has some trouble locking into a non-human subject for portrait shots.

Both phones only support digital zoom. The Pixel 4a supports up to 7x and can capture far more details than the iPhone SE’s 5x zoom.

Selfies on the Pixel 4a has a slightly wider angle, capturing more. The iPhone SE has a tighter shot and deeper colours. Both can isolate the subject well enough to produce great bokeh effects.

Night shots comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Night shots comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

On night shots, this is where the Pixel 4a pushes ahead of the iPhone SE. The Pixel 4a, with its night sight feature, can simulate more light, giving a brighter, clearer and more detailed photo than the iPhone SE.

Videos and video stabilisation are interesting though, with the iPhone SE able to capture more colours and details, but the stabilisation looks slightly wobbly. The Pixel 4a though, while there’s a bit of noise on in the video, has better stabilisation. In both test videos, we used 1080p with 60 frames per second. Testing the same for Selfie videos, the Pixel 4a does better with stabilisation and with capturing details.

Overall, both phones have great cameras for their price, and any user will be happy with the results. The Pixel 4a has a bit of an edge, with excellent night sight performance. If vlogging videos are your style, then the Pixel 4a is your phone. But if you do take more videos with the main cameras, the iPhone SE may be a better choice.

Digital zoom comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)
Digital zoom comparison. (PHOTO: Paolo Lacuna/Yahoo Lifestyle SEA)

Final Thoughts

Both the Google Pixel 4a and the Apple iPhone SE are great mid-range phones. Both have high marks for performance, camera and even quality and build. But for most customers who seek mid-range, affordable phones, value for every dollar spent is key.

The Apple iPhone SE starts at S$649 for the 64GB variant, S$719 for the 128GB variant. The Google Pixel 4a only has 128GB and is priced at S$499. So comparing pricing at the same storage capacity, the iPhone SE is S$220 more expensive than the Google Pixel 4a.

And then there’s the ecosystem and operating system. The new iOS 14 finally catches up to Android by allowing the use of widgets and deeper customisations to the home screen. And since most apps or app alternatives are found in both Google Playstore and the Apple Appstore, picking either phone gives you the freedom to personalise your experience. This changes, though, if your peripheral devices are dependent on one ecosystem or platform, like the Apple Watch.

While both phones are easy recommendations, the Google Pixel 4a is a more compelling choice - a great camera, sharp, high-resolution screen and wallet-friendly price.

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