The Pixel 4a is coming out soon and it looks like a great phone. Much like last year's 3a, this is a lower powered phone, but with Google's clean version of Android and a killer camera. If you want a sub-$500 Android phone, I find it hard to think you should be looking at anything else. And at $349, this thing comes in way under that budget.
But I think the iPhone SE is still a better deal, especially for people who want to buy a cheapphone and have it last for years. Let me explain.
At its core, my position comes down to one thing: the A13 Bionic. Yes, the iPhone SE runs the same SoC as the flagship iPhone 11 Pro, and while it may a sliver slower than the Pro phone, it's basically within the margin of error. Per synthetic benchmarks, the A13 is much faster than the Snapdragon 865+,the fastest processor on Android devices in 2020. It's also projected to be faster than the 875 coming out in early 2021.
Broken down, the $399 iPhone SE is going to be faster (or at least as fast) than every Android phone released in 2020 and 2021. Depending on how generous you are with predicting the Snapdragon roadmap, we're basiclaly saying the iPhone SE is going to be faster than every Android phone until the Galaxy S40 hits in March 2022.
I'm not saying synthetic benchmarks are perfect, and I'm not saying that performance is all that matters in a phone, but if we're talking about value, then how fast your phone is has a big impact on how long it can stay useful.
On a very related note, software updates are a big deal, and users want to get them for as long as possible. Google promises 3 years of updates from the time the device ships. That's pretty good for the Android world, so it will ship with Android 10 and get upgraded to 11 this fall, 12 next year, 13 the following year, and then hopefully Android 14 in 2023 (that will technically be slightly over 3 years, so it's not technically promised). Considering how slow you phone is likely to feel by then, that's probably the time you're really going to want a new phone.
Apple doesn't make promises around updates, in part because at this point they're just expected. My iPhone SE from 2016 is currently running the iOS 14 beta, and will get all software updates Apple pushes out until this time next year. If this holds true for the new SE, then we can expect the $399 phone you buy today to get updates through iOS 18.x in 2024.
There are of course some things the Pixel 4a does better. The screen is higher resolution, the cameras are a little better, and the bezels are much smaller, but I'd argue that the bezels and more-retina screen aren't huge value points, they're status points. The camera is a real win, although the iPhone SE takes very good photos as well, and far better video, so depending on your use, that could be a wash. The Pixel 4a also comes in one storage size: 128GB. That's awesome, and the iPhone SE's 64GB is a little tight, but an upgrade to match the Pixel is $50 more, bumping it to $449, or $100 more than the Pixel 4a.
My ultimate point here is that even if you match the storage and pay $100 more for the iPhone SE, I think it's still a better deal than the Pixel 4a in the long run.
I'm also splitting hairs here, because what else is a tech blog for but to split hairs? While I think the performance edge the iPhone has make it a better deal long into the future (aka that price savings doesn't mean much if you need to buy another phone in 2-3 years vs 4-5 years), the Pixel 4a looks like it's no slouch and $349 is an incredibly agressive price. I don't think anyone is going to be upset whether they get the iPhone SE or the Pixel 4a.