Mid-range phone comparison: Pixel 4a vs iPhone SE (2020) vs Galaxy A51
As phones get fancier, they inevitably get pricier. Thankfully the major companies are increasingly addressing this with mid-range phones that have more modest price tags while still packing many high-end features. But how do they stack up against each other? New Atlas compares the specs and features of the iPhone SE (2020), the Google Pixel 4a and the Samsung Galaxy A51.
This year has been a good one for mid-range phones. Generally speaking, these three devices have similar specs to their respective flagships, with minor cuts usually made to the cameras, displays and build materials. And considering the price cuts that are also made, these devices can be a perfect middle-ground for many people.
These three devices run the full gamut of sizes. The iPhone SE comes in as the smallest in all dimensions, with a form factor matching the two-generations-old iPhone 8. The Pixel 4a sits in the middle, being a bit taller and wider and much thicker – it’s the thickest of the three, in fact. And finally, the Galaxy A51 is the biggest by quite a margin, firmly ranking it amongst the sizes of most flagships.
The iPhone SE may be the smallest, but it’s not the lightest – that honor goes to the Pixel 4a, which is five grams lighter. For reference, that’s how much a single US nickel coin weighs, so the difference isn’t much.
The Galaxy A51 is the heavyweight champion, coming in at 24 grams more than the iPhone, and 29 grams more than the Pixel. That’s equivalent to a pocketful of coins.
Black remains a standard color choice, with all three phones offering it. White is also available on the iPhone SE and Galaxy A51, which also each offer a third choice – red and blue, respectively. Samsung has also finished its phone in a reflective coating that it calls Prism Crush.
The iPhone SE maintains some of the premium feel of Apple devices, being made with glass front and back ringed in aluminum. Google and Samsung, meanwhile, have opted for the apparent cost-cutting measure of using a polycarbonate backing for their phones.
The iPhone SE has a water-resistance rating of IP67, meaning it can be dunked to a depth of 1 m (3.3 ft) for up to 30 minutes. The two Android phones, however, haven’t been rated, so you might want to empty your pockets before swimming (which is generally good advice anyway).
The displays on offer here also run the gamut of sizes. At a diminutive 4.7 in, the iPhone SE has the smallest we’ve seen on almost any phone for years. The Pixel 4a has a respectable 5.8-in screen, on par with many flagships. And finally, the Galaxy A51 bumps up against the biggest on the market, at 6.5 in.
The iPhone SE still subscribes to the old school design of the iPhone 8, sporting chunky bars across the top and bottom. That gives it a somewhat outdated look and a relatively low screen-to-body ratio of 65.4 percent.
The two Android phones squeeze more screen onto the front, both managing a ratio in the 80+ percent range. That’s helped along by thin bezels around the edges and a “hole punch” camera design.
The iPhone SE again brings up the rear with the lowest resolution display – it’s not “Full” HD, and just barely “HD-ready.”
The Pixel 4a and Galaxy A51 have much more detailed screens, beyond what’s sometimes called 2K resolution. Despite having slightly fewer pixels, the Pixel 4a has a higher density thanks to its smaller screen size.
The iPhone SE is built with an In-Plane Switching Liquid Crystal Display (IPS LCD), while the Pixel 4a and Galaxy A51 have variations of Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) displays. Only the truly keen-eyed can really tell the difference without having one of each side-by-side, but in general, OLED is said to have more vibrant colors and deeper blacks, while LCD looks sharper and has more natural colors.
The cameras are where the Galaxy A51 really breaks away from the pack. The front cams on the iPhone and the Pixel have similar sharpness, of seven and eight megapixels respectively. But the A51 leaps straight to a crazy 32 MP. Dos anybody really want selfies that clear?
Around the back, the difference is even more stark. All three phones have cameras with around 12 MP – and for the iPhone SE and the Pixel 4a, the story basically ends there.
But the Galaxy A51 also sports a 48-MP wide-angle lens, and a 5-MP macro camera for taking detailed close-ups of bugs and flowers and the like. Technically there’s even a fourth camera, but this last one doesn’t take photos – it’s there as a depth sensor to improve augmented reality (AR) and background blurring effects.
These three mid-range phones have most of the same camera capabilities as their respective flagships.
They can all shoot photos with high dynamic range (HDR), allowing bright and dark sections to be captured in detail in the same shot. All three can manage panoramas too.
They all have some kind of bokeh effects, where backgrounds can be artfully blurred to make the subjects pop. On the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a, Portrait Mode expands on this, allowing users to snap selfies with various lighting and blurring effects.
The Pixel 4a and Galaxy A51 have night modes to get clearer shots in low light.
And finally, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a have extensive AR features, where animated objects and characters are overlaid on the real world through the camera.
All three of these phones can shoot video in Full HD at 30 frames per second, while the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a can also double that to 60 fps.
They can all also capture 4K video at 30 fps, while the iPhone can do so at lower and higher frame rates too – 24 and 60 fps.
Slow-motion video is available across the board, with all three able to capture in Full HD at 120 fps. The iPhone SE and Pixel 4a can also go slower, stretching time down thanks to a 240-fps capture rate, but while the iPhone can do so at FHD still, the Pixel drops to 720p resolution.
All three phones have some form of electronic image stabilization (EIS) to smooth out videos, while the iPhone and Pixel have the hardware option of optical image stabilization (OIS).
These three phones can all be unlocked with a touch of a user’s fingerprints. That said, the sensors are in different places: on the iPhone it’s built into the physical home button, on the Pixel it’s around the back, and on the Galaxy it’s embedded into the lower portion of the touchscreen.
Each of these phones is built with a different processor. For the iPhone SE, Apple has stuck with the same chipset that powers its flagships – the A13 Bionic.
The two Android phones, however, are running on scaled-down versions of their respective chips. The Pixel uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730, while the Galaxy runs on Samsung’s proprietary Exynos 9611.
In true Apple tradition, the iPhone SE has relatively little RAM, clocking in at 3 GB. The Galaxy A51 comes in next at 4 GB, while the Pixel 4a leads the pack with 6 GB.
A storage capacity of 128 GB is the baseline here, which is more than enough for most people’s needs. But while that’s the only option on the Pixel 4a and Galaxy A51, the iPhone SE offers the choice to either halve or double that.
Only the Galaxy A51 has a MicroSD card slot, allowing users to expand the storage by up to 512 GB.
On pure battery numbers, the iPhone looks pretty lacking with a capacity of just 1,821 mAh. The Pixel is square in the middle of the range – even when it comes to flagships – with 3,140 mAh. And the Galaxy A51 packs a generous 4,000 mAh.
But the numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. In practice, you should get at least a full day’s use out of each of these phones unless you're taking in a movie marathon.
All three of these mid-rangers can be fast-charged. The only caveat is on the iPhone, where Apple has the gall to ask users to fork out an extra US$30 for a special fast charger – every other device out there just bundles it in the box.
On the other hand, the iPhone SE is the only phone of this bunch to offer wireless charging. Again, you’ll need a separate wireless charger, but it’s less outrageous this time – that’s par for the course for everybody.
The two Android phones both charge via USB-C, which is essentially standard nowadays. What’s interesting though is that both also see the return of the 3.5-mm headphone jack, which has been absent on most flagship phones for a few years now. Lately it almost seems like this useful little plug is being used as a mark of “cheap” or low-end devices.
It hasn’t resurfaced on the iPhone SE, however, and that’s not too surprising, given Apple was the first to nix it. Instead, this phone only has a lone Lightning port on the bottom, which is used for charging or to plug in the included earbuds.
Of course, all three phones can use Bluetooth audio devices too.
The iPhone SE runs Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 13. The two Android phones are running, as you’d expect, Android 10. That said, the Pixel 4a will be first in line to upgrade to Android 11, which is due out later this year.
Voice commands can be used on all of these mid-rangers, of course. Each one uses its company’s proprietary assistant: the iPhone uses Siri, the Pixel uses the Google Assistant and the Galaxy uses Bixby. They’re all pretty similar, so the differences mainly come down to personal preference on this one.
The Galaxy A51 is the oldest of this lot, having released back in December 2019. The iPhone SE followed in April this year, while the Pixel 4a is due August 20, 2020.
The cheapest of this bunch is the Pixel 4a, which comes in at US$349. Next up it’s a tie between the first models of the Galaxy A51 and the iPhone SE, on $399, but for that price, the Galaxy offers twice as much storage.
If you want 128 GB on the iPhone, it’ll cost you an extra 50 bucks. The 256-GB model, meanwhile, runs you $549. All of these prices come in for way less than where the flagships begin.