Even after getting an overview of the Google Pixel 6a during this month's Google I/O event, we don't everything about the upcoming budget phone. And some of the biggest lingering questions — like battery life, camera performance and how the device benefits from its new Tensor processor — will remain unknown until the Pixel 6a ships in late July.
But what Google has told us about the Pixel 6a gives us a pretty definitive look at what the company thinks a budget phone should do. And it's a stark contrast from the approach Apple takes with its own budget device, the iPhone SE (2022).
It's only natural to compare Google's Pixel A series devices with the iPhone SE. Phones like the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE (2022) cost about the same and compete for the same audience, even with the Android-iOS divide. Traditionally, the phones not only jostle to be named the best cheap phone, they're usually among the best camera phones at their price as well. In the case of the current iPhone SE and the upcoming Pixel 6a, the phones are debuting within months of each other.
To put it another way, the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE have a lot in common — right up until you get to the point where they wildly diverge.
|Row 0 - Cell 0
|iPhone SE (2022)
|Google Pixel 6a (rumored)
|64GB, 128GB, 256GB
|12MP wide; 12MP ultrawide
|2,018 mAh (based on teardowns)
|Midnight, Starlight, Product Red
|Sage, Chalk, Charcoal
What the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE (2022) have in common
Our Google Pixel 6a vs. iPhone SE (2022) face-off goes over the biggest similarities and differences between the two phones, but it's worth summarizing the similarities before we dive into how Google and Apple go about things differently.
With Google switching to the same Tensor chip powering the Pixel 6 phones for the Pixel 6a, both budget phones can claim to use the same silicon as their pricier flagship siblings. That's been the calling card of the iPhone SE since the first version came out in 2016 — it sports the same chipset as the flagship iPhone that came out a few months earlier. In the case of the current SE, that's the A15 Bionic chipset found in all four iPhone 13 models.
You're also going to get the latest software with either phone — Android 12 in the case of the Pixel 6a, iOS 15 for the iPhone SE — with a reasonable expectation that your phone will stay up to date for the foreseeable future. Apple is much better in this regard, but it's likely that Pixel 6a owners will keep receiving Android updates through 2025.
The most visible similarity, of course, is the price. Google's new phone will cost $449 when Pixel 6a pre-orders start July 21. The iPhone SE (2022) is cheaper, but only $20 so.
Biggest Pixel 6a and iPhone SE (2022) differences
To get a price that low, you end up making trade-offs. And that's where the differing attitudes of Google and Apple toward budget phones becomes quite clear.
Apple includes wireless charging with the new iPhone SE (though MagSafe compatibility is reserved for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 lineups). You won't that capability on the Pixel 6a, which sticks to wired charging (and 18W charging at that). Whatever other sacrifices Apple thinks people are willing to make for a cheaper phone, battery and charging aren't on the list.
But make no mistake, there are sacrifices you do have to make to get that $429 iPhone SE price. And there are a lot more of those with the iPhone than with the Pixel 6a.
Start with storage. That $429 price for the iPhone only buys you 64GB of storage with no way of upgrading after the fact via an expansion card. The Pixel 6a has a single 128GB option — to get that amount of storage in the iPhone SE (2022), you'd need to pay $479, or $30 more than what Google charges.
The Pixel 6a adopts the look of the Pixel 6 as well, right down to the horizontal camera bar. The feel of the phones may be different — we'll need to go hands-on with the Pixel 6a to confirm — but there's a continuity between Google phones that's missing with Apple's lineup.
The iPhone SE (2022) is the only current iPhone to feature chunky bezels at the top and bottom of its screen — a look straight out of 2017. The rest of the iPhones in Apple's current lineup have notches of varying sizes and once the iPhone 14 Pro arrives this fall, we could be looking at our very first full-screen iPhone. Say what you will about Apple's approach to phone design, but there's no mistaking the iPhone SE for any other model.
It's cameras where you'll find the biggest disparity, and not just because Apple has stuck with a single rear lens on the iPhone SE even after Google has gone with wide and ultrawide cameras on its budget model. Apple's computational photography features powered by the A15 Bionic more than make up for the lack of an extra rear camera.
But there's one thing that the iPhone SE hasn't been able to match — the ability of Google's phones to take stellar pictures in low light. Like its predecessor, the iPhone SE (2022) doesn't support a Night mode, and that really made a difference when we put the phone up against the Pixel 5a in a photo shootout. (We'll have to wait to see how the Pixel 6a performs, but we have no reason to believe the night photo results are going to be any better for the iPhone.)
There's no technical reason why the iPhone SE shouldn't offer a Night mode, so we can assume that Apple left it out because the company's decided its a feature customers should pay up for. It's for that reason my colleague Mark Spoonauer thinks the Pixel 6a is going to blow away the iPhone SE once we get the chance to compare the two phones.
How Google and Apple view budget phones
I think the iPhone SE will sell just fine — people love their iPhones and if you want a bargain, the SE remains a good one. But it also seems clear that Apple wants to make a clear distinction between its budget phones and its flagships in a way that Google is less fussed about.
You can even see that happening with the iPhone 14, based on the rumors we've heard so far about the upcoming phones. The more expensive Pro models are expected to get the more noteworthy improvements, perhaps as a way of justifying their higher prices. The iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Max should see their share of enhancements, but only to a point.
If that's the philosophy guiding Apple, you can easily see that extending to the iPhone SE and which features the company decides to include. You can have a low-cost phone or Night mode, Apple seems to have decided, but you can't have both.
Google finds itself in a different position than Apple, which — along with Samsung — dominates the smartphone market. In contrast, Google finds itself with the Motorolas and OnePluses of the world, trying to make its phones stand out. If offering a budget phone like the Pixel 6a that has some overlap in features with its flagships, who cares as long as more people are tempted to buy your devices?
So both phone makers have their reasons for the features they decide to support or not with their budget phones. The key thing for shoppers like you and me to recognize is just what trade-offs we're being asked to make for that lower price tag, as that can help clarify whether the Pixel 6a or iPhone SE (2022) is the better phone for our particular needs.
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.