I couldn't help but notice during the Google I/O 2022 keynote when Google was announcing the Pixel 6a that they took pains to show off Night Sight for the camera. I mean, the Pixel 5a had that too...and the Pixel 4a...so why spend any time on it?
I'll tell you why. Google was trying to drive the point not so subtly that they have a feature Apple's budget phone lacks. The new iPhone SE 2022 doesn't offer any sort of night mode, which is a pretty major oversight for a modern phone — yes, even for one of the best cheap phones.
The Pixel 6a, which launches in July for $449/AU$749, has other major advantages over the iPhone SE. So much so that the Pixel 6a vs iPhone SE battle might not even be fair once we put the phones head to head. Here's all the ways the Pixel 6a beats the iPhone SE and where Google falls behind.
The Pixel 6a's superior screen
Let's start with the display and design. The Pixel 6a's display is actually smaller than the Pixel 5a at 6.1 inches vs 6.3 inches for last year's model. But that size panel is still ginormous compared to the puny 4.7-inch panel on the iPhone SE. Sure, there's some people who prefer to own one of the best small phones, but at this point most people prefer a larger display.
In addition, the Pixel 6a's panel uses OLED, which is superior to the LCD screen on the iPhone SE. So you should expect deeper blacks, wider viewing angles and richer colors. Though we're going to have to wait and see on the brightness.
That brings us to another key advantage for the Pixel 6a: what's around the screen. In the case of Google's phone, the answer is not much. The bezels are noticeable but you get close to a full-screen experience. Meanwhile, the iPhone SE has thick bezels and a chunky chin that only Jay Leno could love. To be fair, this area houses the Touch ID button, but I'd rather had that sensor embedded in the screen.
And this is exactly what Google does with the Pixel 6a. The fingerprint reader is under the display, which should hopefully result in fast unlocking. However, I'm a bit skeptical being how sluggish the reader has been on the regular Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
May the best camera phone win
Another area where Google already beats Apple is the cameras. Note that I said cameras plural. The Pixel 6a packs a 12.2MP main camera and a 12MP ultra-wide lens, while the iPhone SE makes do with a single rear 12MP shooter. So Google wins on versatility when shooting.
This extends to shooting at night or in the dark as we already mentioned. And Google has some other photo features in the Pixel 6a the iPhone SE lacks, including Magic Eraser for removing unwanted objects or subjects from your photos.
Magic Eraser is just one feature enabled by the Tensor chip that powers the Pixel 6a, which is the same processor that drives the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. This is taking a page right out of Apple's playbook, as the iPhone SE uses the A15 Bionic chip inside the iPhone 13. Other capabilities Tensor enables include much faster speech recognition and Live Translate.
However, I do not expect the Tensor chip to outperform the iPhone SE on benchmarks or in intensive games. And that's because we already know the A15 Bionic is a more powerful chip based on our iPhone 13 vs Google Pixel 6 face-off. But I think shoppers who are at least open to Android will be willing to live with this trade-off.
Pixel 6a vs. iPhone SE: A question of value
The iPhone SE is technically cheaper, as it starts at $429/AU$719. But look closer, because you get just 64GB of storage to start. The 128GB version costs $479/AU$799, or $30/AU$80 more than the Pixel 6a, which comes with 128GB standard.
If there's one area where the Pixel 6a could fall flat versus the iPhone SE, it's battery life. The Pixel 5a didn't offer the longest endurance, and the Pixel 6a has a smaller battery (4,410 mAh vs 4,680 mAh). But the software and chip also play a big role in runtime.
Of course, we're going to test both phones side by side when the Pixel 6a comes out in July to determine which phone truly wins. But right now Google's Pixel 6a looks like the superior budget phones in (many) more ways than one. If you're already swayed, here's how to preorder the Google Pixel 6a ahead of launch.
Also check out my interview on Cheddar about the Pixel 6a and all the products announced at Google I/O 2022.
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Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.