Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades
Not everyone can or wants to spend the extra cash for a thousand-dollar phone — frankly, the difference might not be worth it unless you need specific features you need. The Google Pixel 5a has been the Android Police choice for best sub-$500 smartphone, but if you're considering a switch to iOS (or simply don't care what software your phone runs), there's Apple's new 5G-equipped, mid-range iPhone SE to consider as well.
They're both fine phones, but apart from a longer update commitment and better performance in the iPhone SE, the Pixel beats Apple's model in other important ways.
Google Pixel 5a.
The Pixel 5a and iPhone SE 2022 may share materials, as they're both made of aluminum and glass, but they're quite different otherwise. The Pixel 5a has Google's "bioresin" coating (which feels a little like plastic) on top of an aluminum body, while the iPhone SE is a more typical aluminum-on-glass sandwich and an anodized finish. Both have rounded edges, though the Pixel 5's bioresin-and-metal back might be a little more durable, and less prone to crack, than the iPhone's glass back.
As you can tell from the spec table above, the Pixel 5a is a much larger phone, on the edge of what some would consider one-handed. The iPhone is easily palmed and weighs much less, making it more attractive for those who prefer smaller phones.
Both phones have capacitive fingerprint sensors — increasingly rare as in-display sensors trickle down to cheaper price points — but they're located in different spots. The Pixel 5a puts it on the back of the phone in the top center, where it's easy to hit with a pointer finger, while the iPhone SE has it on the front, serving double-duty as the home button.
That Touch ID button itself, which doesn't actually move but feels as if it does when you use it, is a great example of Apple's haptics, which are still the best out there and beat what you get with the Pixel 5a. Apple also has a hardware ringer/silent switch that lets you change between alert modes with the flick of a fingernail — the Pixel 5a doesn't have that either.
The Pixel 5a has a big 6.34" OLED display with a tall 20:9 aspect ratio and a "hole-punch" camera cutout in the top left corner. As an OLED display, you get great contrast with deep, dark blacks. Google claims it hits up to 800 nits of brightness, but that's likely only when a small part of the screen is illuminated. With normal use, expect that number not to apply. It's also only 60Hz, making it not as smooth as some other Android phones, but that matches the iPhone SE's refresh rate. Compared with other OLED panels it's "just okay," but up against the iPhone SE's dated IPS screen, it's a decent upgrade.
The 2022 iPhone SE has a tiny 4.7" IPS screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio — a standard size for phones in the middle of the last decade but unusual for 2022. You don't have to deal with a cutout for the camera, but the screen feels cramped compared to the Pixel 5a, and not just because of the size. That antique aspect ratio also means apps designed for more recent devices might look or behave a little oddly, squeezing content into a smaller space than they expect to have. It's already a minor frustration now, and a problem that will only worsen with time.
Apple rates the iPhone SE's screen for a dimmer 625 nits of brightness, but that measurement is likely more reliable. Side-by-side with the Pixel 5a, relative brightness varies depending on the content shown, but the Pixel 5a typically appears just slightly brighter most of the time at maximum brightness. Both phones are rated for HDR playback in apps like Netflix, and both support wide color gamut modes. To my eye, color calibration between the two appears comparable. The Pixel 5a also appears to be a tiny bit dimmer at its lowest brightness setting, though as an OLED screen, this results in more strongly crushed blacks and throws off display contrast and gamma compared to Apple's IPS display in the SE.
The subpixel configuration on the Pixel 5a's screen does mean you can end up with color "fringing" sometimes in areas of high contrast, but side-by-side with the iPhone SE, the Pixel appears sharper.
When it comes to sheer speed, the Pixel 5a loses to the iPhone SE 2022 soundly. Ignoring benchmarks for a second, even just in anecdotal use, the iPhone SE is a much faster phone, with Apple's A15 Bionic delivering a snappiness and fluidity that the Pixel simply can't. In games, it hits higher frame rates at graphics settings (though the lower resolution screen is an impediment). In normal day-to-day use with less demanding apps, the iPhone SE 2022 is free of the sort of jank and occasionally dropped frames that the Pixel 5a just can't escape.
Benchmarks don't reflect reality, but these numbers are striking. (I accidentally ran these tests first in power saving mode on the iPhone SE, and it still beat the Pixel 5a by a whole lot.)
The Snapdragon 765G in the Pixel 5a was a fine mid-range chipset when it was released in 2019, but in 2022 it's a bit behind the curve. Given that Apple's A15 bionic dates from the most recent and most expensive flagship iPhone models — this is the same chip that's in the $1,100 iPhone 13 Pro Max — it's unsurprising that the iPhone SE beats the Pixel 5a by a huge margin in artificial benchmarks.
While the iPhone SE has "just" 4GB of RAM compared to 6GB on the iPhone SE, the way that Android and iOS use RAM isn't really comparable. Neither phone seemed to have issues with killing apps faster than expected or any unexpected behaviors like that in normal use. The base model iPhone SE only has 64GB of storage space, though, compared to 128GB on the Pixel 5a. In my experience, iPhones also tend to chew through storage faster compared with Android phones. Apple does offer larger storage options if you're willing to spend more, and I'd recommend at least 128GB for long-term use.
The iPhone SE beats the Pixel 5a when it comes to potential Wi-Fi speeds and connectivity, supporting more recent standards (Wi-Fi 6 vs Wi-Fi 5). The iPhone SE also supports a few more bands than the Pixel 5, including all three blocks of the new C-Band spectrum carriers like AT&T and Verizon have started rolling out, which the Pixel 5a lacks. (The iPhone also doesn't support AT&T's upcoming "Andromeda" frequencies, but neither does the Pixel 5a.)
The Pixel 5a has two rear cameras: A standard wide-angle and an ultra-wide for things like landscapes. The iPhone SE makes do with a single rear camera. In terms of flexibility and potential use cases, the Pixel 5a wins at two good cameras to one. But there's more to a camera than "more is better."
Above: Pixel 5a gallery. Below: iPhone SE gallery.
When it comes to processing, results between the two phones might vary, but they're generally comparable. I find the Pixel 5a's photo processing is often closer to what the eye actually sees, while the iPhone tends to exaggerate the contrast in certain scenes, but the iPhone sometimes has a small edge in dynamic range. However, mix in other Pixel camera features like Night Sight and Astrophotography, and I strongly prefer the camera in the Pixel 5a.
Astrophotography and the ultra-wide camera are both fun on the Pixel 5a.
The front-facing cameras on both phones are acceptable. The Pixel 5a offers a noticeably wider field of view (handy for selfies with multiple people) and slightly less mushy-looking textures in low light (likely due to a slightly larger aperture), but the iPhone's selfie cam pulls better colors in marginal lighting.
Selfies. Left: Pixel 5a. Right: iPhone SE. Both from the same distance.
The 2022 iPhone SE also has an annoying problem where the app indicates it's finished taking a photo in marginal lighting conditions before it actually is. More than once, I've ruined a photo taken on the SE by moving too soon, assuming the animations in the camera app were an actual indicator of capture time. They are not.
Easily the biggest difference between the two phones is the software: The Pixel 5a uses Android, and the iPhone SE runs iOS. Depending on which platform you're coming from, there's an inherent advantage to staying put. If you've already been using an Android phone, switching to iOS means buying all your apps again. The debate as to which is better or worse is something only you can answer for yourself, given your priorities.
One major point against Apple is the restrictions when it comes to apps. Not only are you limited to only installing apps from the App Store (meaning Apple has to give its okay for every single app you install), many apps the phone comes with can't be replaced at all. If you want to replace the browser, all you're doing is putting a different skin on top of Safari; Apple doesn't actually allow developers to distribute their own browser engines (even though they otherwise could). You're also forbidden from replacing apps like the built-in dialer, launcher, or SMS messaging app — a freedom we take for granted on Android, letting us pick and replace apps based on other features we might want or supported messaging standards like RCS. The iPhone is a locked-down experience you can't even play Fortnite on, but it is a little simpler to navigate, and there are fewer settings options — an advantage, if you prefer that things "just work" and don't care that they be changeable to work a specific way.
The Pixel 5a also comes with plenty of Pixel-exclusive software features like Automatic Call Screen that almost fully eliminates spam calls by having an AI screen them for you. The Hold For Me feature also lets you skip interminable hold times that have been unavoidable in the last few years by having an AI sit on the line and notify you when someone answers. The Pixel 5a can even make reservations over the phone on your behalf — AI again.
On the other hand, the iPhone is likely to get updates much longer than the Pixel 5a. Google has only promised updates for the Pixel 5a until August of 2024, with a three-year total commitment since release. The 2022 iPhone SE doesn't have a concrete update commitment, but it could see 5-7 years of updates if history is any indicator. This means a more secure and safe experience for longer and less reason to upgrade a few years down the line.
You can call us Android shills, but the exclusive software features on the Pixel 5a are reason enough to consider it over the iPhone, and that's ignoring any advantages you might see from using a more open platform. With most customers upgrading every 2-3 years, update situation isn't critical (even though we'd rather see Google step up here, and it is a point against the phone).
Both phones have "good" battery life, but the Pixel 5a still lasts longer on a charge. While you can anticipate one-to-two day battery life very easily on either phone, the Pixel 5a can last even longer — probably because its battery is over twice as big as the iPhone SE's. In my testing, the iPhone SE is an all-day phone with 5-7 hours of screen-on time depending on use, and a 2+ day phone in "normal" use, the Pixel 5a can hit 10+ hours of screen-on time in typical use, breaking three days of battery life at times. With careful use, OLED-friendly dark themes, dim display brightness, and other power-saving tweaks, I'm confident the Pixel 5a could last an entire work week on a charge, if not longer.
Both phones charge at about the same maximum rate, with each advertising up to 18W of power input. This isn't that fast compared to other Android phones out there, but the iPhone SE's smaller battery does make it feel as if it charges faster, hitting 50% full from empty in around half an hour. The Pixel 5a takes longer to reach the same percentage, but the Pixel 5a at 50% has greater capacity than the iPhone SE offers at 100%.
The Pixel 5a also charges with a ubiquitous and universal USB Type-C cable, while the iPhone uses Apple's proprietary "Lightning" port, which means carrying an extra cable to charge your phone compared to all your other gadgets, and may potentially mean replacing some of your cables if you're considering a switch from Android to iOS. The 2022 iPhone SE has wireless charging, though — a feature that the Pixel 5a skips out on.
At first blush, the iPhone SE might seem $20 cheaper than the Pixel 5a at $429 vs. $449, but Apple's stingy when it comes to storage and Google isn't. For the same 128GB of storage that you get in the Pixel 5a, you'll have to spend $479 — $30 more than the Pixel 5a. You might not think that's a necessary upgrade, but in my experience, iPhones chew through storage much faster than Android phones do, and 128GB is the minimum that I'd recommend for long-term use. As apps continue to increase in size and things like videos and photos nibble away at it, that prevents you from having to micromanage things.
While the Pixel 5a is a better deal at the same storage size, Google has severely limited markets availability. The Pixel 5a can only be purchased in the US and Japan (excluding Puerto Rico). The iPhone SE, on the other hand, is available much more widely, in markets including much of Europe, Japan, Australia, India, and Canada, with more countries expected over time.
The 2022 iPhone SE isn't without its advantages, like faster performance, longer updates, and better carrier band support (depending on your carrier), but certain design decisions like the cramped antique display, limited camera configuration, extreme software limitations, and annoying proprietary charging are points against it. The Pixel 5a isn't the same sort of speed demon, but it has a better camera, better battery life, less restrictive software, perks like automatic call screening that eliminate spam calls, a bigger and better screen, and a more durable design.
If you ask us, the Pixel 5a beats the iPhone SE, and it's not a very close race, though certain priorities could swing the iPhone SE in your favor.
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Ostensibly a senior editor, in reality just some verbose dude who digs on tech, loves Android, and hates anticompetitive practices. His only regret is that he didn’t buy a Nokia N9 in 2012. Email tips or corrections to ryne at androidpolice dot com.

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