Face-off: Google Pixel 4a v Apple iPhone SE

Google's Pixel 4a (left) comes out tops in areas such as design and battery life, while Apple's iPhone SE (right) has features usually found in higher-end models.
Google's Pixel 4a (left) comes out tops in areas such as design and battery life, while Apple's iPhone SE (right) has features usually found in higher-end models.

Vincent Chang finds out how Google's mid-range Pixel 4a ($499) stacks up against the budget Apple iPhone SE (from $649)

Design

With a hole-punch selfie camera and thin bezels around its display, the Pixel 4a looks like most Android phones from the past year or two. In comparison, the iPhone SE resembles the iPhone 8 (2017) with its chunky screen bezels and relatively small screen. It looks like something you will find in a vintage shop.

Both phones are handy by today's standards and ideal for those who prefer smaller phones. The Pixel 4a (144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm) is slightly larger than the iPhone SE (138.4 x 67.3 x 7.3mm), though they weigh the same (around 140g). Winner: The Pixel 4a not only looks more modern, but also offers a higher screen-to-body ratio than the iPhone SE.

Screen Seeing as the Pixel 4a has a 5.8-inch Oled screen compared with the iPhone SE's 4.7-inch LCD, this should be a slam dunk for the Pixel 4a.

The truth is, the differences are less significant than you would think. Yes, the iPhone's LCD screen cannot produce perfect blacks like how the Pixel's Oled screen can, but this LCD screen is of the highest quality. It is well calibrated and can get very bright (up to 625 nits).

It also supports Apple's TrueTone feature that changes the colour temperature according to ambient lighting. While there is a similar feature in the flagship Pixel 4, it apparently did not make the cut in the cheaper Pixel 4a.

However, the biggest discrepancy is in the screen resolution. The 1,334 x 750-pixel resolution offered by the iPhone SE is simply inferior to the Pixel 4a's 2,340 x 1,080-pixel resolution.

Winner: The Pixel 4a offers more screen and pixels than the iPhone SE, despite being almost the same size.

Cameras

While the higher-end Pixels and iPhones sport multiple rear cameras, the watered-down Pixel 4a and iPhone SE come with only one 12-megapixel rear camera.

However, camera hardware is less critical for the Pixel 4a, as Google relies heavily on software algorithms (computational photography) for its camera. Plus, the Pixel 4a has the same camera sensor as the one on the flagship Pixel 4.

In my test, the photos taken by the Pixel 4a and the Pixel 4 are practically indistinguishable. The Pixel 4a takes slightly longer to process photos because it lacks the Pixel 4's dedicated image processor. It also lacks the Pixel 4's telephoto camera, which is a minor loss. But you still get Google's much vaunted Night Sight and astrophotography features on the Pixel 4a.

 
 

This is not the case for the iPhone SE's camera, which lacks the Night mode and Deep Fusion features found in more expensive iPhones. While its camera is still decent, it is not as capable as the Pixel 4a's, especially if you often take photos in low light.

Winner: The Pixel 4a has the same camera hardware and software as the flagship Pixel 4, unlike the iPhone SE.

Features

Face recognition is unavailable on these two mid-range models - replaced by fingerprint sensors - though given the current face mask-wearing situation, it is not a downside.

The iPhone's thick bottom bezel houses its Touch ID fingerprint sensor while the Pixel 4a puts its fingerprint reader at the back of its matt plastic body.

The iPhone SE, though, has flagship features in the form of wireless charging and water resistance. It also supports the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard.

All these features are missing in the Pixel 4a.

On the other hand, the Pixel 4a still has a 3.5mm headphone jack, which has been missing on iPhones since 2016.

Winner: The iPhone SE for having features typically found in higher-end models.

Performance

The iPhone SE uses the same A13 Bionic chip that is found in Apple's flagship model. It is, without a doubt, the fastest mobile processor now. Not only would it easily beat the Pixel 4a's mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G in benchmark tests, but the A13 will also run circles around flagship Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.

But in real-world usage, the performance difference is less pronounced. The Pixel 4a is no slouch and does not feel sluggish at all.

Users who require more internal storage can upgrade to a 256GB version of the iPhone SE, while the Pixel 4a is available only with 128GB non-expandable storage.

On the other hand, Google Photos offers free unlimited photo and video uploads to the cloud at high quality, while Pixel 4a owners can get a three-month free trial for the Google One cloud storage service.

Winner: The iPhone SE has the more capable processor, making it more future-proof.

Software

Both Apple's iOS and Google's Android mobile operating systems (OS) have been slowly converging over the years with each platform "borrowing" features from the other.

For instance, Google has added more privacy controls in Android to match the ones introduced by Apple in iOS. Meanwhile, Apple has taken baby steps towards relaxing its tight grip over iOS by allowing users to set their own default e-mail and browser apps instead of being forced to use Apple's versions.

One thing that may tip users towards the iPhone SE could be Apple's impressively long support for its devices (for five to six years).

Google promises three years of OS updates for its Pixel phones, which is a year longer than most Android smartphone makers.

Winner: It is a tie as this boils down to personal preference. Because both iOS and Android platforms try their best to lock users to their ecosystems, it is uncommon for users to switch between them.

Battery life

Reviewers criticised last year's 5.7-inch Pixel 4 for its poor battery life, but they should have no complaints about the Pixel 4a.

The latter has a larger 3,140mAh battery, up from 2,800mAh in the Pixel 4. And unlike the Pixel 4, which has a faster but power-hungry 90Hz refresh rate display, the 4a has a standard 60Hz screen.

As a result, the Pixel 4a comfortably lasted an entire day of usage without requiring a top-up mid-way.

In the Straits Times' video-loop test, the Pixel 4a lasted 111/2 hours with the screen brightness and volume set to maximum. In comparison, the Pixel 4 managed nine hours while the iPhone SE, which has a puny 1,821mAh battery, lasted 6½ hours.

Winner: While the Pixel 4a will not win any accolades for its battery stamina, it is clearly better than the iPhone SE.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2020, with the headline 'Face-off: Google Pixel 4a v Apple iPhone SE'. Print Edition | Subscribe