Not everyone wants to spend $ 900 + on a new smartphone, but if you're looking for the flagship market, that's the price level you'll see almost exclusively. However, that doesn't mean you should let the bigger brands in the dust look for cheaper options. Most manufacturers produce budget-friendly options and this even applies to the big names such as Apple, Google and Samsung. But with that in mind, choosing between the two can be difficult.
Apple has just released its second-generation iPhone SE ($ 399.99) after 4 years without a modern budget-friendly smartphone. But Apple is not entering an undisputed market here ̵
But now the difficult part. All three of these phones offer great value for money, but which one is right for you?
And while we're focusing on the iPhone SE, Galaxy A51, and Pixel 3a in this article, it's worth noting that the Pixel 4a (although not yet officially unveiled by Google) is likely coming soon. We've seen a lot of leaks already and it's safe to assume that the 4a will deliver a better camera than the 3a, along with superior hardware. So it's worth keeping in mind if the 3a is already calling your name.
In terms of performance, the Pixel 3a and Galaxy A51 are about what you'd expect from good mid-range Android phones. The Snapdragon 670 processor in the 3a keeps everything running smoothly in everyday use, but you can definitely start hitting some issues if you get into more intensive workloads. The A51 uses Samsung's Exynos 9611 processor, which is more than adequate but, according to Geekbench, loses something compared to the Snapdragon 670 in both single and multi-core performance.
But Apple really beats the performance category. The iPhone SE shakes the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11, so performance is about as good as it gets here. This advanced processor also helps future-proof the phone (but more on that later).
While the internals are ahead of the competition, the externals on the SE are not. It looks almost identical to the iPhone 8 released in 2017 and phones have changed a lot in those 3 years. The wide bezels are the main culprit, and while some may find it okay, they feel the SE is dated – an issue that will only become more apparent over time. Even with the wide bezels, the SE still manages to use the smallest of the three 2.31 x 4.87-inch phones.
The 3a and A51, on the other hand, look like modern smartphones – in fact, they can easily be mistaken for flagships thanks to the 3 as very similar aesthetics of the standard Pixel 3 and the A51s edge-to-edge screen. The 3a measures 2.8 x 6.0 inches, while the A51 is a bit thinner and larger at 2.90 x 6.24 inches.
Storage is an area where the A51 excels – not only does it have 128 GB out of the box, but it also has a microSD slot. This means you can add up to 512 GB of additional storage space. The SE comes in three models with 64 GB in the base model, 128 GB for $ 50 extra or 256 GB for $ 150 extra. Finally, the 3a only has 64 GB with no expansion options.
Winner: iPhone SE— The A13 Bionic is a beastly processor that has been running the SE as a top for at least a few years. It's difficult for any mid-range Android processor to compete with that.
Although you know all your preferences when it comes to the operating system on your phone, there is even more concrete information that you should be aware of, namely updates. With the latest version of your operating system, you are guaranteed more features and better security. But you should also worry about the future as these companies don't update phones forever.
The iPhone SE currently uses the latest version of iOS. Apple is guaranteed to have 5 years of updates to the SE, which means you will get all the latest features from Apple until 2025. This is easily one of the SE's greatest strengths – it's definitely a challenge for any Android phone (even flagships) when it comes to getting updates.
Before discussing the details of the 3a and A51, let's talk about how Android updates are released in the first place. There are two release cycles that Android follows: full OS updates and monthly security patches. OS updates are released at least once a year for each new version of Android, but subversions are also released year-round. Security patches improve, you guessed it, security and are released monthly.
The 3a doesn't promise half a decade of support like the SE, but Google has guaranteed updates until May 2022 – about three years after its original release. Since it is a Pixel, the 3a naturally also receives updates quite quickly. It currently uses the Android 10 version of "Pixel Android" (the Android version for Pixel phones which is slightly different from standard Android).
The A51 falls a little down in this respect in a number of ways. First, Samsung has not confirmed how long it will support the A51, but if you go off the track record, you can expect to run for about 2 years, or until the end of 2021. Second, Samsung is notoriously slow to update its phones, you can expect a decent wait for new Android versions (if they appear at all).
The A51 uses OneUI 2.0 – Samsung's own taste of Android. OneUI 2.0 is quite different from standard Android (visually speaking) and definitely requires some customization time if you come from a more standard experience. That said, OneUI 2.0 is still a good operating system with some unique features and is currently being updated to Android 10.
Winner: Pixel 3a and iPhone SE (Tie) – The iPhone SE is guaranteed to get updates for the next 5 years, which is a huge selling point. But not everyone likes iOS. In that case, we recommend going for the Pixel 3a as it is regularly updated by Google and offers a generally clean Android experience.
We start with the smallest phone here: the SE. The SE has a 5.6 inch LCD screen with a resolution of 1334p x 750p. While 720p is a fairly low resolution for a modern smartphone, even compared to other budget phones, the small size of the screen ensures that the screen still looks sharp.
Next up is the 3a, which has a 5.6 inch OLED screen of 2220p x 1080p. The OLED screen means that blacks look richer on the 3a compared to an LCD screen (like the SE), helping to bring out colors more closely. The 3a can't compete with high-end flagships, but the screen looks good and most people won't find a problem with it. If you'd rather be a bit taller, the Pixel 3a XL is an almost identical phone with a 6-inch panel.
However, the A51 steals the show here: the 6.5 inch AMOLED screen with 2400p x 1080p looks fantastic. The black is deep and the colors are vibrant, and overall, this is probably the best screen you can find at the price. OneUI 2.0 even has some options to adjust the screen's color levels if you really want to customize the user experience.
Winner: Galaxy A51 – It's hard to deny a big, beautiful, AMOLED screen.
Flagship phone cameras have evolved tremendously in recent years to get to where they are today, but that's not because the hardware behind cameras got vastly better – much of that improvement came from the software side of things. Computational photography, using a combination of algorithms and digital processing, can achieve things like depth of field and HDR images without the need for larger lenses like standard cameras.
Therefore, just looking at the megapixel counts for phone cameras is a bad way of figuring out what's best. And that is actually perfectly reflected by the three phones we have here. Because on paper you'd expect the A51 to be the winner here with its four-lens camera, 48-megapixel main sensor and extra ultra-wide, macro and depth sensors.
While those extra sensors add some nice functionality, generally the camera feels right in the middle of the road. As GSMArena noted, "The Galaxy A51 & # 39; s [camera] takes decent photos, but doesn't really make us go" wow. " Given the specs, this is disappointing, especially compared to the other two phones here.
As the SE's unique 12-megapixel camera achieves very impressive image quality, reviewers in both Tom & # 39; s Guide and CNET have reported image quality to competing flagships in well-lit areas (although the lack of any kind of night mode has limited possibilities in dim light). The SE's video capabilities are also quite impressive with 4k 60 FPS images – for those who want to shoot a lot of videos, Apple is the best choice, as usual.
The Pixel 3a is a true show boat in this category though . Not only does it have the same 12.2-megapixel camera as the regular Pixel 3, but it also has the same post-processing features that make photos look fantastic. You can see for yourself in these photos from our original review of 3a.
The Pixel 3a also has Google's fantastic 'Night Sight' mode which, as you can see below, pulls out impressive colors and details dark photos.
Left: without Night Sight; Right: with Night Sight
As for the front cameras, all three phones are doing fine … okay. None of them are great, but none of them are bad. The A51's 32-megapixel camera only manages to be decent, with GSMArena saying that images are only & # 39; okay & # 39; appear to be. Like the rear camera, the front camera is unexpectedly mediocre, despite its relatively high specifications.
The SE varies widely by situation, YouTuber Marques Brownlee commented how the seven megapixel front camera does "Fairly good" pictures most of the time, while other reviewers like Matthew Smith of Digital Trends said photos were usually "disappointing" and "flat".
Finally, the 3a again wins in the camera category with some good results from its eight megapixel front camera. Photos come & # 39; generally impressive & # 39; according to Tech Radar's Tom Bedford, but not quite the fantastic quality of the rear.
Winner: Pixel 3a – Google & # 39; s post-processing algorithms are essentially unbeatable across the board. but it is clearer than ever in this price range.
Even in the mid-range price range, there's still a lot to consider when choosing phones – even if it's not $ 1000, $ 400 is still a lot of money.
A lot of what we showed depends entirely on what you prefer: the Pixel 3a's fantastic camera and overall good specs, the iPhone SE's longevity and performance, or its awesome screen and modern design of the Galaxy A51. All three of these phones are great value for their price tag.