The iPhone SE is designed to give you the essential iPhone features at an affordable cost. It’s Apple’s midrange smartphone, and it’s 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 be quick to recommend the SE in the past, this week changed that recommendation, when Google unveiled its latest midrange smartphone: the Pixel 6a.
The 6a won’t be available until late July: Preorders start on the 21st, while availability begins on the 28th. That’s why I’m cautioning against buying an iPhone SE right now. If you need a new phone this second, this article isn’t for you. But, if you have the luxury of time on your side, take a look at these comparisons to see which midrange phone is more worth your money.
What the Pixel 6a and the iPhone SE have in common
Let’s start with the device’s similarities. The Pixel 6a and iPhone SE are both 5G-enabled smartphones, which means you can enjoy the high speeds of the latest generation of cellular connectivity (when available, of course).
The two phones also start at similar price points: the 6a is A$749, while the SE starts at a slightly lower A$719 — these are Google’s and Apple’s midrange smartphones, so it’s helpful to see what you get by spending roughly the same amount with both companies.
From a megapixel standpoint, the main cameras are very similar. Google’s main shooter is 12.2 MP, while the SE’s is 12 MP, both of which shoot 4K video at 60 fps. The front-facing cameras are also alike: The 6a has an 8 MP front camera, while the SE’s is 7 MP. Both shoot 1080p video at 30 fps.
We’ll need to wait until 6a units are in the hands of reviewers (especially photographers and videographers) before we know how the images themselves compare to the SE. But we don’t need reviews to know the camera similarities end here (more on that below).
Why the Pixel 6a is better than the iPhone SE
But it’s where the phones are different that the 6a’s advantages quickly add up. It starts as soon as you take a look at both devices: Apple decided to recycle the same iPhone 8 design it used for the previous iPhone SE, which sports two large bezels sandwiching a 4.7-inch 750p IPS display. Not only is this design five years old, it isn’t far off from the design of the iPhone 6 (especially from the front), which means 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 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 doesn’t scream “midrange” by any means.
Let’s talk cameras again. It’s true the main shooters on both smartphones are roughly the same on paper, but that’s only the beginning of the story. Google put a 12 MP 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, unlike Apple, decided midrange customers deserve night sight on their smartphones, allowing you to take high-quality photos in the dark. The lack of night sight 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 will also allow you to change the colour of an edit, to better blend it into the background of your image.
While both phones are 5G-ready, they aren’t ready in the same way. The SE is only compatible with sub-6 GHz 5G, which provides a modest speed boost from 4G LTE. The Pixel 6a, however, is compatible with mmWave 5G, which is the type of 5G you likely hear about, with super-fast wifi-like speeds and reliability. MmWave is still in its infancy, since most 5G out there is sub-6, so I wouldn’t call this one a deal-breaker. Still, it’s worth pointing out the difference, since Apple isn’t eager to.
The SE is $30 cheaper than the 6a, but it’s not exactly apples to apples. The base model 6a comes with 128GB of storage, while the SE only has 64GB. If you want 128GB of storage on your SE, it’s going to cost you an extra $80, which means a 128GB SE is $50 more than the 6a after all.
The major advantages of the iPhone SE over the Pixel 6a
At this point, there are two features of the iPhone SE that stand out to me over the 6a. The first is the processor: Both phones feature their respective companies’ in-house SoCs. 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, which is the SoC the company used for the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. However, the A15 tends to outperform the Tensor by quite a bit.
There’s currently 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-gen iPhone SE tests on Geekbench, but looking at the iPhone 13 shows the A15’s power: 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 eke out the Tensor.
The other major advantage I think of is longevity. Google has never extended software updates for its Pixel phones longer than three years (the Pixel 3a is about to lose support for example). The company has committed to five years of security updates for the 6a, which helps ensure your phone is protected for quite some time, but it’s less clear as to whether the phone will receive new Android features after 2025.
Apple, on the other hand, has a great track record for software updates. The company supports the iPhone 6s with iOS 15, a phone which came out in 2015. If Apple, which makes its own hardware and software, can extend software and security support for seven years, so can Google.
Still, the 6a is the better value over the SE
In this tech writer’s opinion, the 6a is the better phone overall. I love the iPhone SE, and I have a soft spot for the “classic” iPhone design, but it’s impossible to ignore that the 6a brings a lot more to the table for the money. That is unless you need iOS. If you’re someone who couldn’t imagine turning your Apple friends’ texts green, or not having ready access to FaceTime, or leaving behind all of the money you’ve spent on Apple-specific apps, the 6a might not be for you. Switching mobile platforms is still more difficult than it should be, especially since Apple refuses to adopt RCS messaging.
If you’re a flexible user, however, the 6a is the way to go (on paper). Of course, we should wait to see how the phone performs in person. Come July, you should know exactly which of these two phones you want to buy, unless something else comes along to steal the show.