Let’s not kid ourselves. Apple likely doesn’t devote that much brain power worrying about what its competition is up to on the smartphone front. Oh, it certainly takes notice of what’s going on over at Samsung and Google and the rest, perhaps even marking down eye-catching features they may want to… let’s say, pay homage to in their own products. But the idea that Apple should worry about what other phone makers are doing simply doesn’t reflect reality.
For instance, Apple probably isn’t terribly worried about the Google Pixel 5a that debuted last week and that goes on sale August 26. But Apple should certainly notice the changes Google introduced in this more affordable Pixel. Because in several key areas, the Pixel 5a puts Apple’s lower-priced models to shame.
There’s a reason the Pixel 5a immediately landed on our list of the best phones overall, and why it’s the phone to get if you’re looking for a budget model. While this year’s Pixel A Series phone costs $100 more than the Pixel 4a, it’s a better bargain than both the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5.
Even if the Pixel 4a doesn’t have Apple shaking in its boots, here are the advantages Google’s new phone enjoys over the iPhone SE and other low-cost options from Apple.
The Pixel 5a offers a low-cost 5G option
Because of the Snapdragon 765 system-on-chip powering the Pixel 5a, Google’s new phone offers 5G connectivity with both sub-6GHz and mmWave-based networks. You’ll find cheaper 5G phones out there — the Samsung Galaxy A32 and OnePlus Nord N200 come to mind — but you certainly won’t find a 5G phone for less than $500 that boasts the Pixel 5a’s photographic prowess (as we’ll discuss in a moment).
You certainly won’t find such a device at Apple, where the company only started releasing 5G phones last fall. The cheapest model there is the iPhone 12 mini, which starts at $200 more than the Pixel 5a. Apple’s fall lineup of iPhone 13 models is unlikely to introduce a low-cost 5G option.
In fact, we may not see such a phone from Apple until next year, when the iPhone SE 3 is rumored to be coming out. For now the cheapest iPhone — the $399 iPhone SE — only works with LTE.
The Pixel 5a offers a second rear camera lens
Speaking of the iPhone SE, it’s ranked among the best camera phones even though it has just a single rear camera lens. That speaks to the power of Apple’s computational photography and how adeptly your iPhone processes photos after you press the shutter button.
Pixel A Series phones were in a similar boat — just one rear camera but some of the best photo-processing software you can find in a mobile device — until the Pixel 5a came along. The new model adds a 16MP ultrawide camera to the 12.2MP main shooter, and in our testing, it makes a world of difference.
For our Pixel 5a review, we took some head-to-head shots between Google’s new phone and the iPhone SE. More often than not, the Pixel 5a took the better photos and the flexibility of an additional lens is one of the reasons why.
Dual camera arrays are now a common sight on lower cost phones. It’s a trend Apple had better adopt if it wants to stay competitive.
The Pixel 5a offers Night Sight
While we’re talking cameras, as good as the iPhone SE’s is, it lacks a key feature — there’s no Night Mode like you’ll find on other Apple phones. In the meantime, Google has come out with two Pixel A Series phones since the iPhone SE’s spring 2020 release — first the Pixel 4a and now the Pixel 5a — and both offer Night Sight, Google’s equivalent for taking photos in low light.
You can see the impact that has in this head-to-head comparison between the Pixel 5a and iPhone SE cameras. The Pixel 5a manages to produce a clear image of a smoker shot at night — you can even make out details like the brickwork and the fence behind the smoker. The iPhone SE shot is just a big black blob.
The Pixel 5a offers an OLED panel
With the iPhone 12, Apple switched to OLED panels for all its phones, including the lower-cost models. But that move came too late for the iPhone SE, released a few months before the OLED switch. It’s still got an LCD screen.
In contrast, Google equips the Pixel 5a with an OLED panel, even though it’s trying to keep costs down on this particular phone. While the Pixel 5a’s display isn’t the best panel we’ve seen, it still outshines LCD with deeper blacks and better contrast. There’s a growing gap between the LCD-based iPhone SE and OLED phones like the Pixel 5a, and it’s one Apple can’t ignore anymore.
The Pixel 5a has a bigger battery
Neither the Pixel 4a nor the iPhone SE set the world on fire when it comes to battery life, with both devices producing below-average results in our battery test. (We have phones surf the web continuously over cellular until they run out of power.) Google decided to do something about it with the Pixel 5a.
The new phone features a 4,680 mAh battery, bigger than the meager 3,140 mAh power pack in the Pixel 4a and the largest battery ever included in any Pixel phone. The Pixel 5a’s time of 9 hour and 45 minutes on our battery test is about average for a smartphone, but ahead of the 9:18 time we recorded when we tested the iPhone SE.
What this means for Apple
The iPhone SE still has plenty going for it. Though it’s not as fast as the more recent iPhone 12 models, the iPhone SE still performs a lot of Android devices with its A13 Bionic chip. It can charge wirelessly, something Google left out of the Pixel 5a. And fans of compact phones will appreciate the iPhone SE’s design more than the Pixel and its large 6.43-inch display.
But the iPhone SE’s advantages over other low-cost phones are rapidly eroding, meaning Apple’s got its work cut out fo it with the successor to the iPhone SE. That phone — tentatively called the iPhone SE 3 — is rumored to be adding 5G as well as a faster chipset. But if Apple hopes to steal some of the low-cost phone thunder back from Google, it would do well to take a look at the Pixel 5a and work some of those features into its next budget device.