Google Pixel 3a vs. iPhone SE (2020): Which should you buy?

Google Pixel 3a XL
Google Pixel 3a XL (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

Google Pixel 3a

Google Pixel 3a

The Pixel 3a wowed us back in May 2019 when it was released, and all this time later, it continues to be one of the best Android deals around. Just about everything about the Pixel 3a is as strong as ever, including its excellent camera, colorful display, and smooth performance. Oh, and it's also the only phone here with a headphone jack.

Google Pixel 3a

Android's best deal

Fantastic camera
OLED display looks great
Performance is fast and fluid
Clean, up-to-date software
Has a 3.5mm headphone jack
64GB is the only storage option
Guaranteed updates stop in May 2022

iPhone SE (2020)

iPhone SE (2020)

Believe it or not, we live in a world where Apple has created a phone that's a better value that almost all of the competition. The iPhone SE may have an outdated design, but if you can overlook that, there's a lot to like — crazy-fast A13 Bionic processor, a reliable camera, wireless charging, and Apple's promise for years and years of updates.

iPhone SE (2020)

The phone for everyone

Insanely fast performance
Reliable camera
Wireless charging
Multiple storage options
Backed by years of software updates
Screen may be too small for some people
Camera lacks a night mode

If you're torn between the Pixel 3a and iPhone SE, rest assured that both phones represent two of the best values available in 2020. The big draw to the Pixel 3a is its camera, which is every bit as good as what you'll find on some flagship devices (even when shooting at night). The rest of the phone is also really strong, including the OLED display, performance, and software.

Then there's the iPhone SE, which touts an incredibly fast A13 Bionic chip that can handle virtually any app and game with flying colors. It also benefits from Qi wireless charging, numerous storage options, and years of software updates. As with many comparisons like this, the deciding factor will likely come down to which operating system you prefer.

Why the iPhone SE is getting so much buzz

iPhone SE 2020

Source: Apple (Image credit: Source: Apple)

When Apple unveiled the iPhone SE on April 15, 2020, it kind of took the world by storm. Apple basically took the body of the iPhone 8, combined it with the latest processor from the iPhone 11/11 Pro, and slapped on a price tag that competes head-to-head with just about every mid-range Android phone on the market.

Design-wise, the iPhone SE is a bit polarizing. On one hand, you could look at it as outdated and uninspired. Those are perfectly justifiable thoughts to have, but there's another group of people that would argue it's a design they've been longing and waiting for. The iPhone SE is one of the few smartphones in existence that's legitimately small and easy to use with one hand. In a world where devices like the Galaxy S20 Ultra are pushing close to a 7-inch display, going back to a 4.7-inch panel with the iPhone SE could be just what you've been waiting for.

You won't find a phone as cheap and powerful as the iPhone SE, and you have the A13 Bionic to thank.

Then there's the A13 Bionic processor. This is the same chip you'll find in the iPhone 11 and 11 Pro, and when you pair it with the power-efficient HD display of the iPhone SE, you end up with hilariously fast performance. The Pixel 3a isn't a slouch by any stretch of the imagination, but the iPhone SE rips through apps and games like no other phone in this price range. Hell, even stacked up against a $1,000+ Android device, the iPhone SE would still come out on top.

In addition to the excellent performance, that A13 chip comes with another valuable perk — software support. While you could argue that the A13 Bionic is overkill for any smartphone right now, it gives Apple the headroom it needs to keep supporting devices like the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and SE for years to come.

The original iPhone SE from 2016 launched with iOS 9.3, and four years later, it's rocking iOS 13.3. That level of software support is something we simply don't see in the Android space, and especially if you're someone that plans on holding onto your phone for years to come, it's an important thing to consider.

Those are the biggest selling points of the iPhone SE, but everything else about it is pretty great, too. Its 12MP rear camera takes really good photos, there's Qi wireless charging, an IP67 dust/water resistance rating, you get day-long battery life, and the phone comes with 64, 128, or 256GB of storage.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Header Cell - Column 0 Google Pixel 3aiPhone SE (2020)
Operating SystemAndroid 10iOS 13.3
1080 x 2220
18.5:9 ratio
441 pixels-per-inch
750 x 1334
16:9 ratio
326 pixels-per-inch
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 670Apple A13 Bionic
Rear Camera12.2MP
f/1.8 aperture
f/1.8 aperture
Front Camera8MP
f/2.0 aperture
f/2.2 aperture
Battery3,000 mAh1,821 mAh
Charging18W wired charging18W wired charging
Qi wireless charging
Water ResistanceIP67
3.5mm headphone jack
SecurityRear fingerprint sensorTouch ID

Don't sleep on the Pixel 3a

There's no doubt that the iPhone SE is a compelling purchase, but that doesn't mean you should overlook what Google's offering with the Pixel 3a. Depending on where your needs lie, it just may be the better device for you.

Starting with the camera, this is easily the best part about the 3a. Both the iPhone SE and Pixel 3a take gorgeous photos in situations with ample light, but the 3a is noticeably better in low-light settings. Google actually offers a legit night mode on the Pixel 3a, something you won't find on the SE. Whether you're taking pictures of the night sky or your sleepy cat in a dim apartment, the Pixel 3a is a lot more reliable in these scenarios.

The Pixel 3a's display and camera quality shine compared to the iPhone SE.

We also have to give props to the Pixel 3a's display. Not only is the resolution Full HD instead of HD, but the panel itself is OLED. Compared to the LED screen of the iPhone SE, the Pixel 3a looks more colorful and vibrant.

Performance on the Pixel 3a is plenty fast thanks to the Snapdragon 670 and Google's software optimizations, USB-C charging is a lot more convenient than the SE's Lightning port, and you get a 3.5mm headphone jack on the Pixel 3a.

The iPhone SE certainly takes the overall crown on the update side of things, but with guaranteed updates through May 2022 for the Pixel 3a, it's one of the better low-cost options in the Android space in this regard.

The importance of operating systems

Android head logo

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Shot-for-shot, the Pixel 3a and iPhone SE both have a lot to like. We could keep comparing displays, cameras, batteries, etc., but the ultimate deciding factor will likely come down to one thing — the operating system.

The iPhone SE runs iOS, whereas the Pixel 3a runs Android. By now, you probably know which platform you prefer over the other. If you love your iPhones and all of the goodies that come with them (like iMessage, FaceTime, and Apple Pay), the iPhone SE gives you that authentic Apple experience without cutting any major corners. Similarly, the Pixel 3a's clean build of Android 10 is buttery smooth, has special Google features like Now Playing that automatically detect songs playing in the background, and comes with all of the usual customization possibilities Android is iconic for.

If you're someone that genuinely doesn't care about which operating system you use, things become a bit trickier. The iPhone SE has unmatched performance and update support, but the Pixel 3a takes the lead when it comes to the display and camera. And it has a headphone jack.

You honestly can't go wrong with either phone, so pick up the one that has the features and specs that better-align with your wants/needs. Good luck!

Joe Maring

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.