The attention of the geekerati may be on the flagship iPhone and Pixel handsets, but there’s a more ferocious pairing further down the portfolio. Sitting in the mid-range are the iPhone SE and the Pixel 6a, representing their larger brethren at a more affordable price.
Of course, they can’t have everything the flagships have, but they do share the same vision of the connected smartphone. And they are both trying to tempt you to buy them while ignoring the other. So, let’s take a closer look at the two handsets and what factors you should consider.
Has The Choice Already Been Made For You?
The biggest consideration is, of course, the operating system, be it iOS or Android. If you are already deeply embedded in Apple’s cloud-based service, then it is going to be very hard to leave. The switching cost can be high, and there’s a certain amount of momentum for those already on iOS that is very difficult to overcome.
The same is true of those using Android, although with multiple manufacturers, you have a wider range of form and functions available to buy at various price points. Android allows you to move between these handsets with ease. Yet you have a similar hurdle in moving away from Google’s Android to Apple’s iOS (even though many of Google’s cloud-based services run on iOS).
Let’s take it as read that for many people, they’re going to stay on their current platform. That makes the choice easy. If you are locked into iOS, go with the iPhone SE. If you are inside the Android garden, go with the Pixel 6a.
Is The Biggest Number The Best?
Both the iPhone SE and the Pixel 6a were launched in the middle of the respective phone cycles of their larger brethren. Both were launched with the current chipset in that cycle. So you have the iPhone SE with Apple’s A15 and the Pixel 6a with the Google Tensor Mobile chip. The A15 has just been superseded by the A16 inside the iPhone 14 family, and Google is set to debut the next Tensor Mobile chip in the upcoming Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro.
Which, for a mid-range smartphone, is still a lot of processing power even when the handsets fall behind a generation. Google hands the Pixel 6a more RAM (6 GB vs 4 GB), but Apple’s tight integration of software to the hardware means the SE can offer performance on fewer resources.
Benchmarking hands this head-to-head to the iPhone SE, but the real strength of these chips is not in creating the biggest number on a measuring tool, but having a real-world impact for owners. And that’s clearest in the camera.
The Big Numbers May Not Show The Full Picture
Both phones come with a 12-megapixel main camera at the rear. Only the Pixel 6a augments this with a second lens, in this case another 12 megapixel ultrawide camera. And both phones rely on computational photography to enhance and edit the incoming image data for a better output.
This is where the Pixel 6a has the edge. The Tensor Mobile chip may not take the crown of the benchmark king, but Google focused the design on creating a chip that is geared toward machine learning and enabling AI features… just the sort of hardware that you need to make the best images possible, In good light the photos are comparable, but once the light levels drop the Pixel 6a’s night mode comes into its own… and the iPhone SE’s lack of a night mode is an Achilles heel.
Imagery is one of the areas where subjectivity can come into play, but the Pixel 6a packs in more features with more physical capabilities.
How Small Is Small Enough?
The Pixel 6a feels like a well-designed small smartphone for 2022. It’s not an edge to edge screen, but there are minimal bezels all round the 6.1 inch display. That OLED screen offers 2400×1080 pixels, so you are all set for HD video viewing that doesn’t clash with the selfie camera punch-out. It does feel that the screen takes up a lot of space.
Design-wise, the Pixel 6a is clearly a Pixel phone, with the Camera Bar carried over from the larger Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. This is a phone that is recognizable, something that can be difficult in the Android space. But the 6a – which packs in a lot of technology – feels bulky. Small, but bulky. This is a substantive feeling phone.
The iPhone SE is much smaller, thinner, and lighter. If your primary consideration is physical size, then the SE is on to a winner. But you should consider that this handset uses Apple’s cutting-edge design… from 2014 and the launch of the iPhone 6. It has a physical home button with Touch ID that occupies an expansive space on the lower bezel, and the top bezel is of similar bulk. All that brings the screen size down to a paltry 4.7 inches and a resolution of 1334×750 pixels using LCD technology.
With more expansive apps, and greater reliance on social media ribbons, space is a premium that serves information. The iPhone SE is a much smaller window on the world. What you gain in a small form factor is limited by, oh the irony, the small form factor.
The Pixel 6a, with its ability to show full HD (and a bit left over for a control strip) easily wins out with the screen. A touch larger, but still in the realms of what is considered small in the 2022 market.
Keeping Up To Date With The World
Google has confirmed the update timescale for the Pixel 6a – three years of updates to the operating system and a further two years of security updates. Apple has not been as clear; although you can see that the iPhone SE second generation from 2020 is still being updated with the latest iOS version, while the original SE launched in 2016 was supported by iOS up until iOS 15, which was released in 2021… So there’s five years of support demonstrated right there. Past performance is not a guide to future intentions, so you have to take the solid details from Google compared to the promise of Apple support from Cupertino.
Your feelings on the latter may edge this as a win for the SE, but that argument would only hand it a narrow win.
The Power Of Endurance
The iPhone SE is rated at 15 hours of video playback or 50 hours of audio but does not provide a guide to ‘usage’. The ‘it’s going to last through the working day and into the evening’ rule of thumb is passed here, but the SE is light in terms of battery capacity due to its smaller size. The Pixel 6a has a much larger battery and Google rates it for ‘over 24 hours of battery life’, so with careful use you can probably get two fulfilling days out of the handset.
Charging is a different matter. Both handsets support faster charging, with the iPhone accepting power up to 20W compared to just 18W on the Pixel 6a. The 6a is also restricted to wired charging, yet Apple also includes wireless charging in the iPhone SE.
I’ve been a champion of wireless charging for decades, so I’m more drawn to the iPhone SE here, but then I am at a desk for most of the day so it’s easy to keep the phone topped out. Spending a busy day out and about recording audio for podcasts and radio… then the SE struggles.
There’s a clear point of difference here…. more convenience or more endurance.
Flagships can have pretty much everything, they are the ultimate expression of a manufacturer’s vision.
The mid-range is not so easy. There are price points to consider, and that means decisions and choices have to be made on what is important and what can be left behind. Arguably these compromises are a better illustration of a manufacturer’s direction and values than the flagships.
Apple is pushing the iPhone SE on its physically smaller dimensions and weight and putting a lot of emphasis on this being an iPhone and relies on the implied safety of Apple’s cloud services. Google has taken the Pixel 6a towards a more modern design, a higher quality screen, and tailored processing power for machine-learning-based tasks.
Is it possible to declare which is best out of the Pixel 6a and the iPhone SE? I can certainly decide which is best for me personally – it’s the Pixel 6a, the higher resolution and bigger screen coupled with my older eyesight is a great combination. If you’re looking for a definitive answer, then it lies in the philosophy of the phone manufacturer, the needs you have as an end user, and your current situation.
What I can say is this. From the measurable numbers and specifications, both can get the job done and are fit for purpose. Declaring a single winning phone? That’s a bit more philosophical.
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