iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A: Which small phone is the best buy for you?

Apple’s iPhone SE vs Google’s Pixel 4A: it’s the clash of the lite ones!

iPhone SE 2020 vs Google Pixel 4A
(Image credit: Future)

The best small phones are wonderful things: despite their diminutive dimensions many of them are packed with power that enables them to punch above their weight. If you’re looking for a small phone for children, because you have small hands or because you’d rather not have a phone that won’t fit in your pocket or purse, small phones can be just as mighty as their bigger siblings.

Some of the very best small phones you can buy right now come from the biggest names in tech, and the Apple iPhone SE and Google Pixel 4A are great examples of that. They have all the features and build quality you’d expect from tech’s biggest names, but they’re a lot cheaper than the same firms’ flagships.

There are some crucial differences, though. The iPhone SE doesn't support 5G, but you can buy the Pixel 4A with a 5G radio. Their cameras are different, and their performance is quite different too. And of course they run different operating systems and have different app stores. Let's discover their strengths and weaknesses to find the best small phone for you.

iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A: design and screen

Google Pixel 4a vs iPhone SE

(Image credit: Future)

The iPhone SE doesn’t look as modern as the Touch ID-free iPhone 12 mini, but it’s a lot cheaper and the iPhone 4-esque design has a retro charm. The Touch ID sensor at the bottom means the bezels are much bigger than the ones in Google’s Pixel, but the upside is that unlike Apple’s Face ID phones you can unlock your iPhone SE normally when you’re wearing a mask. 

The screen here is a 4.7-inch LCD with True Tone, Dolby Vision and HDR delivering 750 x 1,334 pixels at 326ppi, and it sits in an aluminium frame. It has a glass back, and we think it looks particularly good in the Product RED edition. 

There’s no doubt that the Google Pixel 4A is the more modern-looking device, although design-wise it’s hardly pushing any envelopes here: its black polycarbonate case looks like A N Other Android phone. But you don’t buy a phone to look at its case, and the screen here is much better than the one in the Apple device. Its 5.81-inch OLED HDR display is more vivid and stretches from edge to edge: there’s no big chin like the one in the iPhone SE. The screen is both higher resolution and higher density than the iPhone, delivering 1,080 x 2,340 pixels at 443ppi, and it’s an always on display so you can see the time and notifications without waking the phone.

iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A: specs and performance

iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A

(Image credit: Apple)

The Pixel 4A has an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage and was launched with Android 10. The iPhone SE ran iOS 13 (automatically upgradeable to 14) on Apple’s A13 Bionic, the same processor as the iPhone 11/11 Pro, which consistently outperforms the Snapdragon across a wide range of benchmarks. RAM is 3GB and storage options are 64, 128 or 256GB.

The battery in the Google phone is 3,140mAh and Google promises “all day” battery life. It supports fast charging but not wireless charging. The iPhone SE battery is smaller at 1,821mAh but Apple promises 13 hours of video playback. The iPhone battery supports fast charging with an optional 20W adapter and wireless charging with Qi adapters. 

The iPhone supports Wi-Fi 6 and has Bluetooth 5.0. Its sole connector is a Lightning/USB 2.0 port. The Pixel 4A has the headphone jack the iPhone lacks but its Wi-Fi is 802.11ac, not ax. Its Bluetooth is also 5.0.

iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A: cameras

Google Pixel 4a vs iPhone SE

(Image credit: Future)

Apple says the camera in the iPhone SE is the best single-camera setup in any iPhone, which is true, but it’s effectively the same camera as the iPhone XR with the addition of some new portrait modes and Quick Take video recording. The main camera is 12MP with an f/1.8 aperture, 5x zoom and optical image stabilisation, smart HDR for photos and the ability to shoot 4K video at up to 60fps. The front camera is 7MP, f/2.2 and offers portrait mode and lighting.

The Pixel 4A’s main camera is a 12.2MP dual pixel camera with f/1.7, optical and electronic stabilisation, portrait mode and live HDR+. It can record 4K video at 30fps. The front camera is 8MP with f/2.0 and fixed focus.

iPhone SE vs Google Pixel 4A: price and verdict

iPhone SE 2020

(Image credit: Apple)

The Pixel 4A is £349 for the 4G model and £399 for 5G thanks to recent price cuts. The iPhone SE is £399 and there’s no 5G version. If you’re looking for a small 5G phone, the iPhone SE is not the phone for you.

If you’re okay with 4G – and for many of us 5G coverage is hardly widespread – then the big question is about bigness: how big do you want your small phone to be? The iPhone SE is positively titchy, but because of its Touch ID sensor the screen is very significantly smaller than the one in the Pixel 4A even though the actual phones are very similar in size: the Pixel is 144mm tall and 69.4mm wide, while the iPhone is 138.4mm by 67.3mm. The Pixel’s screen is nearly 25% larger, and that makes a big difference to readability and usability.

On paper, then, the Google has a much bigger and better display and it’s much cheaper. But the iPhone is faster, has better video recording and supports wireless charging. And of course, there’s the issue of the wider ecosystem. If you have other Apple devices the iPhone works brilliantly with them – enabling you to text from your Mac, answer calls from your iPad, copy things instantly between devices and so on. And as we said in our Pixel 4A review, “the Pixel 4A really is one for the Google fans.”

Carrie Marshall

Writer, musician and broadcaster Carrie Marshall has been covering technology since 1998 and is particularly interested in how tech can help us live our best lives. Her CV is a who’s who of magazines, newspapers, websites and radio programmes ranging from T3, Techradar and MacFormat to the BBC, Sunday Post and People’s Friend. Carrie has written more than a dozen books, ghost-wrote two more and co-wrote seven more books and a Radio 2 documentary series. When she’s not scribbling, she’s the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR (havrmusic.com).