The iPhone SE Still Can’t be Beat

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.

BUT…

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.

Thoughts on the New Pixel 4a

Thoughts on the New Pixel 4a

Google unveiled the Pixel 4a yesterday, their successor to last year's budget-phone champ, the Pixel 3a. I happened to like that phone very much, and had this to say about it at the time:

I think that the Pixel 3a has immediately made it hard for me to recommend anyone looking for a midrange phone look at anything else right now. If your budget is $400 then this is a no-brainer, and even if you’re willing to spend a little more and you bring the OnePlus 7 Pro into play, I think this phone will hold its own very well for a lot of people.

Just like last year, Google is back at it with the 4a, which feels very much like the successor you expected it to be. Google made the same choices they made last year, leaning into making the camera experience amazing, and compromising in materials and performance.

While the 3a had the exact same camera hardware and software as the flagship 3 and 3 XL, the 4a is actually a bit of a downgrade this year. It shares the same main sensor as the Pixel 4/4 XL, but it lacks the 2x telephoto lens. This is a sad omission, but it's not the end of the world. You still get the same great processing that you get from the flagship line, and I'm sure photos will just look great from this phone.

I'm actually impressed with the build quality this year, too. Last year's phone was definitely not "premium" but it felt good in the hand and certainly did not feel "cheap". I don't have it in hand to tell for sure, but the materials look at least as good as last year, and the screen got a solid upgrade. There's far less bezel than even on the Pixel 4, and the hole punch camera is something I disliked initially when I had it on the Galaxy S10e, but I've come to like it more over time.

There's a bigger battery than than the Pixel 4, which I very much appreciate. Coupled with a lower energy processor and this thing should get solid battery life, just like last year's model (again, can't say for sure, but the math works and early reviews seem to indicate this is indeed the case).

And then there's performance, which is the thread they had to leave a little short to hit the price point. It's a little slower than the OnePlus Nord which is not shipping in the US, but that's pretty encouraging. This ain't going to be a top-tier phone for benchmarks, but for lighter users it's going to be perfectly capable, at least for a year or two.

That's all I can really say for now. I'd love to get my hands on one of these, but since I've already got a Pixel 4, I don't have a good reason to buy one for myself. Instead, I'd recommend Michael Fisher's impressions as a solid overview.

The Pixel 4 Still Beats the iPhone 11 Pro for Zoom Photography

Sometimes people suggest you can just pinch-to-zoom and get basically the same result with smartphone cameras. I very much disagree, and used this shot to see the difference.

I'm standing a ways away from the mailbox and tapped to focus on it in all of these shots. Here's the iPhone's difference between 1x and 2x zoom when you look at the details:

It's not even close! It may still not be that big of a deal for you, but it is for me, and the difference is massive.

But how well does this stack up to the Pixel 4, which also has a zoom lens? Well first, let's compare the details at 1x.

In terms of detail, I think these are identical. I prefer the colors a little on the iPhone one, but that's another conversation. In terms of capturing details, there's no real difference.

Now let's look at 2x zoom:

These are also pretty similar, and while the Pixel shot looks a little better, it's because the image processing is doing some more agressive noise reduction, not that it's actually capturing more data. One could certainly argue that for most people this is preferred though, and I tend to agree.

Which brings us to the 8x SUPER ZOOM SHOWDOWN…ahem, the 8x zoom test:

Amazingly, even though it's entirely digital, the Pixel takes a massive lead here, which an image that is cleaner, yes, but also has more detail. This is a pretty remarkable difference, and it shows Google's big talk around enhanced digital zoom is no joke.

And in case you're thinking "it's just the same as the 2x shot, here's those two side-by-side.

The image quality is genuinely better, and while it's a little soft, it's still very, very good for a phone.

Google gets top marks from me in their ability to do zoom better than the iPhone, especially at anything past 2x.

Portrait Mode Confusion

Portrait Mode Confusion

This photo comparison was really interesting to me. I shared a portrait taken from the iPhone 11 Pro and Pixel 4 and asked people which they preferred. Opinions were split, to say the least. Here are the photos for your viewing pleasure:

Pixel 4 Portrait Mode
iPhone 11 Pro Portrait Mode

I personally think the iPhone shot is way better than the Pixel one. The colors are far more accurate to reality, and also looks better in my opinion. When I zoom in on the images, the statue itself is sharp on the iPhone photo, but looks way over-sharpened on the Pixel one. The fake bokeh is similar on each photo, but I think the iPhone's is a little more pleasant and has a better roll-off on the statue.

But these feelings are not universal!

Devon thinks the PIxel one looks way better.

I prefer the look and feel of the second photo, for sure. Quality is all together higher, but could be lighting factors.

Kareem agrees.

  1. Not too bright. Not too dark, perfectly balanced.

Fouzan triples down.

IMO 1 is too vibrant for the overcast day it was shot in.

You could increase contrast with 2 and fix it. The DOF effect is very unrealistic with 1, and really bothers me. It wouldn’t be easy to fix.

What I find most interesting about these is that numerous people who thought the Pixel was better cited the "accuracy" as a reason for this. The reason this is interesting is that, as the person there, I can tell you the Pixel shot looks much different from the reality of the scene. For example, the fox statue is straight up not the color shown in the Pixel photo, while the iPhone one is pretty spot on.

Dynamic Range, Telephoto, and the iPhone 11 Pro & Pixel 4

Dynamic Range, Telephoto, and the iPhone 11 Pro & Pixel 4

One thing I've noticed in the last few months using the Pixel 4 and iPhone 11 Pro day-to-day is that photos off the iPhone's telephoto lens tend to be better quality. The Pixel 4 is no slouch, but side by side, the iPhone tends to do better for me.

As an example, below is a shot I took this morning directly into the sun. The sun is obviously super bright, but the ground is all backlit and darker. The photos have very similar colors, which is not always the case between these cameras, but you can see there is much less clipping on the highlights in the iPhone shot (look at the cloud above the sun), it avoids the lens flare that the Pixel has front and center, and the little details like the tree branches are more sharp.

iPhone 11 Pro
Pixel 4

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Deep Fusion and Indoor Dog Photos

Psst, the above photo has nothing to do with the comparison, but I had to share a picture of Sherman shortly before the comparison photos were taken.

My dog Sherman was chilling on the couch last night and I wanted to take a picture of him just lying there, loving life. The type of shot made the telephoto lens make more sense, which is all well and good, but results in worse shots in low light.

But that presented an opportunity for me: a test! Let’s see how much of a difference Deep Fusion makes when using the telephoto lens. Here’s the iPhone 11 Pro:

And here is the Pixel 4:

Pardon the yawn, but for the sake of this test it’s worth noting that he was paused in that pose for about a second, so it’s not the action shot it may look like. You can probably already tell which one looks better, but here’s a crop in on each one:

It’s really night and day, with the iPhone producing a much cleaner image. Both cameras still have that watercolor-esque look on the body fur, but the iPhone has crisper lines on his longer ear hairs and the green blanket has more texture.

I previously did a similar comparison using the main wide lens, but the difference using the telelphoto lenses is even more pronounced.

The Pixel 4’s Face Unlock is Hampered by Android

I hate my pixel 4 for one reason and one reason only : reddit

BANKING APPS FACIAL RECOGNITION DOESN'T WORK. My most important apps are now a pain in the ass to use because I have to physically log in.

I can attest to this too. We’re over 2 months into the Pixel 4’s existence and almost no apps use the face unlock feature. Most notably, Chase does not support it, which means I have to either enter my password every time I launch the app, or I need to enable 1Password’s “full system access” feature to let it basically see everything I do on my phone so it can fill out fields for me.

Face unlock is a great feature, I love it on the iPhone, and I love it in the apps that support it on my Pixel, but it still feels like a half-measure, which is a shame.

Low Light Christmas Trees on 2019’s Best Phones (and an iPhone SE)

We have a little tree my wife and I put up every year and it’s a thing that is kinda hard to take good pictures of. There is quite a bit of dynamic range which typically means photos look overly darkened to compensate for the bright lights.

2019 has been a very good year for smartphone cameras, so I gave a few of them a shot last night to see how they’d do.

Samsung Galaxy S10e

Pixel 4

iPhone 11 Pro

And for fun context, the 2016 iPhone SE (with the 2015 iPhone camera)


Overall, I’m pretty impressed! Especially when you look at what we were using just 3-4 years ago, the differences in color and clarity are striking. Outside of the SE clearly being worse than the newer phones, the Pixel 4 is the outlier here in terms of color; it’s much cooler than the other images and is not an accurate representation of what the tree actually looked like. I think this has to do with Google’s new smart white balancing feature, which usually makes great choices, but sometimes results in crazy decisions1.


  1. Supposedly this was fixed in a previous update, so maybe this is a choice and not a bug, but either way I’d say this is not right.