You weren't the only person following along with Apple's iPhone SE (2022) unveiling early this month, as Apple shared the ins and outs of its latest budget phone. Google was likely paying rapt attention as well to the iPhone SE.
After all, Google makes a budget phone of its own in the form of the Pixel A series. Rumors suggest that the latest version — the Pixel 6a — will make its debut at the Google I/O 2022 conference May 11. So why not check out the competition to see how your upcoming phone will measure up?
Any discussion of the best cheap phones usually starts with what Apple and Google have to offer, and the iPhone SE (2022) vs. Google Pixel 6a face-off figures to be a close contest once Google's device joins the new iPhone on retail shelves. The iPhone SE and Pixel A devices typically provide top-notch mobile photography and outstanding performance in a very affordable package. Any new feature one of the phones offers, its rival is sure to respond to.
In that sense, Google may have an advantage with the Pixel 6a. When we conducted our iPhone SE (2022) vs. Pixel 5a comparison, Google's current budget model just edged out the newer Apple handset. Assuming the Pixel 6a includes modest improvements over its predecessor, you'd figure that it would maintain that lead over the iPhone SE (2022).
Just doing enough, though, is rarely a recipe for success. If Google wants to establish itself as the no-doubt-about-it choice for a budget device, here's what the Pixel 6a needs to do to leave the iPhone SE in its wake.
Build on the Pixel's superior cameras
As good as the lone camera on the back of the iPhone SE 2022 is — and it works with Apple's A15 Bionic processor and AI-powered software to produce some pretty amazing shots — it just can't keep pace with the Pixel 5a. That's not just because Google's phone has a second ultrawide lens, though the added flexibility certainly helps the Pixel make its case. Rather, it's because Google includes a Night Sight feature on the Pixel A phones; there's no Night mode whatsoever on the iPhone SE.
Merely including Night Sight with the Pixel 6a would give the phone a leg up over Apple's device. But we'd like to see Google spike the football — enhance Night Sight so that it's better than ever, and remind bargain hunters what they're missing if they opt for the iPhone.
There are other obvious things Google can do to beef up the cameras on the Pixel 6a. We expect some of the photo features that debuted with last fall's Pixel 6 series to find their way to the budget phone. That can include the Magic Eraser feature for removing unwanted people and things from your photos and the Motion Mode for more vibrant action shots. The Pixel 6 has some video capture features too that would be more than welcome on the Pixel 6a.
The Pixel 5a is already the best camera phone for people on a budget, and you'd expect the Pixel 6a to inherit that crown once it arrives. But that shouldn't stop Google from doing all it can to extend the Pixel's lead over the iPhone SE.
Unleash Tensor on the Pixel 6a
Google's never going to win a benchmark battle with the Apple and its in-house silicon. The iPhone SE (2022) features the same A15 Bionic chipset that powers the iPhone 13 lineup, meaning premium performance in a budget device. The Pixel 6a isn't going to be able to go toe-to-toe with that.
However, Google could change things up by turning to the Tensor silicon it introduced to the Pixel 6 lineup and using it with the Pixel 6a. Tensor's calling card isn't performance, though it does perform rather well compared to other Android phones. Rather, the selling point for the Tensor chipset is its dedicated Tensor Processing Unit that handles machine learning-powered tasks. That enables features like some of the photo enhancement capabilities outlined above as well as improved call screen and real-time transcription and translation.
Tensor delivered plenty of new capabilities to the Pixel 6 that would be even more amazing on a cheaper phone like the Pixel 6a. Let Apple enjoy its speed accolades if it means the Pixel 6a can deliver souped-up machine learning at a discount. And with rumors suggesting that Google will indeed use a Tensor chipset on the Pixel 6a, it sounds like we're going to get our wish.
Improve the battery life
The Pixel 5a just about hit the average for smartphone battery life when we ran it through our custom test in which a phone surfs the web over cellular until it runs out of juice. It held out a little bit longer than the iPhone SE (2022), though not by much. We'd like to see the Pixel 6a beat the average smartphone.
As Motorola has proven time and time again with its budget Moto G series of phones, a low price tag shouldn't keep you off the best phone battery life list. Get a decent-sized battery and a chipset that performs efficiently and you can squeeze out all-day battery life with ease.
It's been a while since a Google phone has landed among the longest-lasting phones we've tested. If the Pixel 6a could pull off that feat, it would be yet another edge over the iPhone SE.
Take on the iPhone SE's price
In the greater scheme of things, the $20 difference between the $429 iPhone SE (2022) and $449 Pixel 5a is not that huge. You've probably got $20 in loose bills in your wallet right now. Yet, there's a psychological edge that the iPhone SE enjoys — it's cheaper than the Pixel 5a and just by how much is a detail a lot of people will overlook when comparing phones.
Given all the other changes Google could make to the Pixel 6a, we're not sure how reasonable it is to hope that the phone maker will be able to meet — let alone beat — the iPhone SE's price. Yet, some recent Google history gives us hope.
The Pixel 5 cost $699 when it debuted in 2020, and that was Google's attempting at cutting costs to keep the price lower than rival flagships. The Pixel 6 released last year is a demonstrably better phone than its predecessor in multiple ways — and yet it starts at $100 less. Maybe using your own chipset is more cost effective than we realized.
We don't know if a Tensor-powered Pixel 6a could be that much cheaper than the Pixel 5a, but every little bit helps. And any price drop on this year's model would help erase one of the iPhone SE's biggest advantages over Google's budget phone.