Not everyone wants to spend $ 900 + on a new smartphone, but if you look at the flagship market, it's the price you see almost exclusively. But that doesn't mean you have to leave the bigger brands in the dust and look for cheaper alternatives. Most manufacturers produce budget-friendly options, and so do the big names like Apple, Google and Samsung. But with that in mind, choosing between them can be difficult.
Apple just released its second-gen iPhone SE ($ 399.99) after four years of having no modern budget-friendly smartphone. But Apple doesn't enter an unchallenged market here ̵1; both Google and Samsung have phones at this price. Google Pixel 3a ($ 399.99) and Samsung Galaxy A51 ($ 399.99) have both been lauded since being released for packing in a surprising amount of features for their low price tags.
But now comes the difficult part. All of these three phones offer great value for the price point, but which one is right for you?
And while we focus on the iPhone SE, Galaxy A51 and Pixel 3a in this article, it's worth noting that Pixel 4a (although not officially presented by Google yet) is coming soon. We have seen many leaks already, and it is safe to assume that 4a will deliver a better camera than 3a along with superior hardware. So it's worth remembering if 3a is already calling your name.
Performance wise Pixel 3a and Galaxy A51 are about what you would expect from good mid-range Android phones. The Snapdragon 670 processor in 3a keeps things running smoothly in everyday use, but you can definitely start hitting some problems when you get to more intense workloads. The A51 uses Samsung's Exynos 9611 processor, which is more than adequate but loses something to the Snapdragon 670 in both single and multi-core performance, according to Geekbench.
But Apple really seems to be the performance category. The iPhone SE swings the same A13 Bionic processor as the iPhone 11, so the performance here is about as good as it gets. This advanced processor also helps to prove the phone in the future (but we will talk more about that later).
While the internals are ahead of the competition, the external in SE are not. It looks almost identical to the iPhone 8 released in 2017, and the phones have changed a lot over the three years. The wide frame is the biggest culprit, and while some may be good with them, they make the SE feel dated – a problem that only becomes clearer over time. Even with the broad stripes, the SE still manages to make the smallest phone of the three at 2.31 x 4.87 inches.
3a and A51, on the other hand, look like modern smartphones – they can actually easily be mistaken for flagships thanks to 3a's very similar aesthetic to standard Pixel 3 and A51's edge-to-edge screen. 3a measures at 2.8 x 6.0 inches, while A51 is slightly thinner and taller at 2.90 x 6.24 inches.
Storage is an area where the A51 stands out – not only does it have 128 GB out of the box, but it also has a microSD card slot. This means that you can add up to 512 GB of extra storage space. The SE is available in three models with 64 GB in the base model, 128 GB for an additional $ 50 or 256 GB for an additional $ 150. Finally, the 3a only has 64 GB with no expansion options.
Winner: iPhone SE— A13 Bionic is a malicious processor that will keep SE functioning as a peak for at least a few years. It is difficult for any mid-sized Android processor to compete with it.
Even though you already know your preferences regarding the operating system of your phone, there are still more specific information you should be aware of – namely updates. Having the latest version of your operating system guarantees more features and better security. But you also have to worry about the future, as these companies do not update phones forever.
iPhone SE is currently running the latest version of iOS. Apple has guaranteed 5 years of updates for SE, which means you'll get all of Apple's latest features by 2025. This is easily one of SE's biggest strengths – it suits all Android phones (including flagships) in terms of few updates.
Before we discuss the details of 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 updates. OS updates are released at least once a year for each new version of Android, but there are also sub-releases released throughout the year. Security fixes improve, you guessed it, security and released every month.
3a does not promise half a decade of support as SE, but Google has guaranteed updates until May 2022 – about three years from its original release. Being a Pixel, of course, 3a also gets updates fairly quickly. It currently runs the Android 10 version of "Pixel Android" (the version of Android for Pixel phones which is slightly different from stock Android).
A51 falls a bit in this regard in a couple of ways. First of all, Samsung has not confirmed how long it will support the A51, but if you step out of its track record you can assume about 2 years, or until late 2021. Secondly, Samsung is notoriously slow to update its phones, you can expect you have a decent wait for new Android versions (if they even show up at all).
A51 runs OneUI 2.0 – Samsung's own taste of Android. OneUI 2.0 is quite different from stock Android (visually) and will definitely require some adjusting time if you come from a more stock experience. That said, OneUI 2.0 is still a good operating system with some unique features and is currently updated to Android 10.
Winner: Pixel 3a and iPhone SE (Tie) – iPhone SE is guaranteed to get updates over the next 5 years, which is a huge sales pitch. But not everyone likes iOS. In that case, we recommend that you join Pixel 3a, as it is regularly updated by Google and offers a generally pure Android experience.
Let's start with the smallest phone here: SE. The SE has a 5.6 inch LCD screen with a resolution of 1334p x 750p. While the 720p is a fairly low resolution for a modern smartphone, even when compared to other budget phones, the small size of the screen helps to make the screen still look sharp.
Next is 3a, which has a 5.6 inch OLED display at 2220p x 1080p. The OLED screen means that blacks look richer on 3a compared to an LCD screen (like SE) and helps colors blend in towards each other more. 3a can't compete with advanced flagships, but the display looks great and most people will find no problems with it. If you prefer it a little larger, the Pixel 3a XL is an almost identical phone with a 6-inch panel.
However, the A51 steals the show here: 6.5 inch AMOLED screen at 2400p x 1080p looks fantastic. The blacks are deep and the colors are vibrant, and overall it is probably the best screen you will find at the price. OneUI 2.0 even has some options for adjusting the color level of the screen if you really want to customize the user experience.
Winner: Galaxy A51 —It is difficult to deny a large, beautiful, AMOLED display.
Flagship cameras have evolved wildly in recent years to get to the point where they are today, but that's not because the actual hardware behind the cameras got much better – a lot of this improvement came from software side of things. Computational photography, with a combination of algorithms and digital processing, can achieve things like field depth and HDR images without the need for larger lenses like standard cameras.
That is why it is only difficult to look at the megapixel count for phone cameras ways to figure out what is best. And it is actually shown perfectly by the three phones we have here. Because on paper, you can expect the A51 to be the victory here with its four-wheeler camera including a 48-megapixel main sensor along with additional ultra-wide sensors, macro and depth sensors.
While these additional sensors add some nice sensors functionality, overall, the camera feels in the middle of the road. As the GSMAs noted, "The Galaxy A51's [camera] takes decent pictures but doesn't really make us" wow "." Considering the specifications, this is disappointing, especially compared to the other two phones here.
Because SE's single 12-megapixel camera achieves very impressive image quality with reviewers on both Tom & # 39; s Guide and CNET reporting the image quality to competing modern flagships in well-lit areas (although the lack of any kind of night mode limits its capacity in brighter light). SE's video features are also quite impressive to achieve 4k 60 FPS images – for those who want to take a lot of videos, Apple is, as usual, the best choice.
Pixel 3a is a real show boat in this category, however . Not only does it have the same 12.2-megapixel camera as the regular Pixel 3, but it also has the same finishing features, which means images look amazing. You can see it for yourself in these photos from our original review of 3a.
Pixel 3a also features Google's fantastic "Night Sight" mode, which, as you can see below, pulls out impressive color and detail from dark photos.
Left: without Night Sight; Right: with Night Sight
As for the front cameras, all three phones go … okay. None of them are good, but none of them are bad. The A51's 32-megapixel camera just manages to be decent, with the GSMAs saying how pictures just turn out "okay." Like the rear camera, the front camera is unexpectedly intermediate despite its relatively high specification.
SE varies greatly by situation, YouTuber Marques Brownlee commented on how the seven-megapixel front camera handles "pretty good" photos for the most part, while other reviewers like Digital Trends & # 39; Matthew Smith who said the photos were most "disappointing" and "flat."
Finally, 3a manages another victory in the camera category with some good results from its eight megapixel front camera. Photos come out "generally impressive" according to Tom Bedford on Tech Radar, not really the back fantastic quality.
Winner: Pixel 3a – Google's post-processing algorithms are essentially unbeatable across the board, but it's clearer than ever at this price point.
Even in the mid-range price level, there is still a lot to keep in mind when choosing phones – even if it's not $ 1,000, $ 400 is still a lot of money.
A lot of what we've shown you will totally depend on what you prefer: Pixel 3's amazing camera and all the good specs, iPhone SE's longevity and excellent performance, or the Galaxy A51's fantastic display and modern design. All these three phones are good for their price tag.