Pixel 4a on the left, iPhone SE on the right. (Photo credit: Saurabh Singh/Financial Express)
A good smartphone is more than the sum of its parts. Yes, specifications are key, but they are not as marquee as much as brands would have you believe. More often than not, specs and the accompanying benchmark scores are used to divert your attention from the real picture, which is how all of it adds up to enhance — because, that’s the whole point of all those specs now, isn’t it — user experience.
The issue is particularly pronounced in Android phones simply because there are so many Android phones in the wild and with each new phone comes a brand-new vision. Contrary to popular belief, user experience isn’t just about the software. If it were, all stock Android phones would be created equal. Similarly, not all third-party skins, irrespective of how good-looking and useful they are, entail complete satisfaction.
So, what exactly is user experience? Well, you can’t put a rope around it because it varies depending on specific use cases, but it all narrows down to one thing which again is a culmination of many small things — the basics. At this point, it is important for me to bring out the big guns, to back whatever it is that I am going to say in the next few paragraphs. The iPhone SE 2020 and Google Pixel 4a are my favourite smartphones of the year. But more importantly, they are excellent examples to give you some insight into why good hardware is nothing without good software.
Things are pretty straight-forward in the case of the iPhone SE. It’s hands-down the most powerful smartphone that you can get at its price. Being a budget iPhone means, more people can also buy it. The iPhone SE is currently selling on Apple Online Store for as low as Rs 39,900 (it was launched at a starting price of Rs 42,500). You can get it for Rs 32,999 on Flipkart (that’s excluding the offers and exchange bonuses). That’s a sweet deal for a 2020 iPhone though there are a few obvious downsides to buying one (more on that later).
It has Apple’s A13 Bionic, the same system on chip that’s inside the iPhone 11. On paper, it’s one-year old hardware and off it, it can still wipe the floor with any new Android phone in the market today, and I mean, flagship Android phones. Despite having only 3GB RAM, the iPhone SE handles multi-tasking and switching between apps including demanding games, like it is some walk in the park. Pocket rocket is one way to describe it.
But that’s all textbook Apple stuff. The real kicker is that despite having what may seem like “older” hardware and “measly” RAM — aside from the fact, that it’s a “budget” iPhone — it got an update to iOS 14 at the same time as the iPhone 11. Just to give you some context, Vivo launched the V20 in India recently with Android 11 and soon followed it up with a more affordable Vivo V20 SE — yes, that’s what the phone is called — with Android 10. The real concern is, we have absolutely no idea when Vivo’s “SE” will get the Android 11 update. Go figure.
It is not just about getting an update. It is also about the peace of mind. Apple guarantees four years of major updates at least, and that is what adds value to an iPhone. Despite Apple’s tumultuous past where it was alleged that it slowed down older iPhones so people would buy new ones, there’s no denying that you can still hold on to an iPhone for longer than any other competing phone. It is not for select iPhones either but most of them which makes an even bigger case for the iPhone SE because its newer hardware means Apple is going to support it for as long as it supports the iPhone 11.
And it is the fast hardware inside the iPhone SE that is going to ensure it keeps ticking as gracefully a couple of years from now — as it does today.
The A13 Bionic also brings high-end photography elements to the iPhone SE even though it has the same 12MP f/18 main camera with OIS as the iPhone 8. Like the iPhone 11, the iPhone SE also has access to Apple’s Smart HDR. Aside from a few limitations, like there’s no dedicated night mode in the iPhone SE, it is a very competent camera phone. In fact, in good lighting, the quality of photos shot with it are at par with much more expensive phones including the iPhone 11. Plus, it can record best-in-class 4K videos @60fps with stereo sound.
Enough about the iPhone SE. It’s Pixel 4a time now. It’s such a contrasting phone, it feels like, it was built specifically for this write-up. Also, because it is The Google Phone and at Rs 31,999 (Rs 29,999 for a limited period), it is also priced right. That heritage means you expect great things from it including a great camera. So, let’s just start with that.
Google’s Pixel cameras aren’t so much about the hardware per se, but software. Google is a software company after all. Phones like the Pixel 4a serve as a vessel to drive all that software forward in ways no other phone can imagine. There are a few limitations to this approach, but hey, the Pixel 4a isn’t a high-end phone anyway. It’s only fair to cut it some slack. For what it’s worth, the Pixel 4a can give any other high-end phone a run for its money with its single camera and aging sensor. Aside from the lack of versatility, and somewhat slow post-processing, the Pixel 4a with its 12MP dual-pixel camera (Sony IMX363 sensor with f/1.7 aperture) with optical image stabilization plus electronic image stabilization, can beat the pants off any other phone — including the iPhone SE — in the market, especially in low light. But this is only for still photography. The iPhone still takes better videos – so does every other Android phone.
The other obvious great thing is the software support — coming straight from Google. Google will also continue to support this phone for three years — at least.
But here’s why I am a little skeptical about the whole thing. While it’s good that it has 6GB RAM, the Pixel 4a is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 730G processor. It is good at everyday tasks, even some high-end gaming and multitasking today, but I am not too sure about long-term performance. The Pixel 4a certainly doesn’t feel as fast as other Android phones in and around its price point, and it most definitely can’t hold a candle to the iPhone SE. That’s out of the box. Whether or not it will be able to sustain for three years (or more) and pull all of the new features coming with future updates is something only time will tell. What matters for now is the assurance. The Pixel 4a is the only Android phone that can give that.
iPhone SE versus Pixel 4a
Now that we’ve touched upon the real differences, or differences that matter, let me take you through the rest of the package. The iPhone SE is clearly the more premium phone with a classic — but also dated — Apple design boasting of glass and metal. The phone is IP67-certified which makes it water resistant to a depth of 1 metre for up to 30 minutes. It has Touch ID that feels just as right today as it did on the iPhone 8 — the iPhone that the iPhone SE is based on. It has 4.7-inch IPS LCD display with 720p resolution and Apple’s True Tone technology. And, it has sizeable bezels.
The Pixel 4a is an all-plastic phone. Next to the iPhone SE it feels almost toy-like. But it has a modern screen with a punch hole cut-out, which is also bigger in size. This is 5.8-inch. The resolution is 1080p. The panel is OLED. It has a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner and USB Type-C charging (the iPhone SE charges over Lightning).
Solely basis on looks and feel, and all-round experience, I will pick the iPhone SE. It does not last as long as the Pixel 4a but it also supports wireless charging which is a rarity at its price. Both the phones support 18W fast charging but only the Pixel 4a gets you a compliant charger in the box.
Something to think about
This write-up serves double duty. One it explains how the iPhone SE is a stroke of sheer genius from Apple and also a better buy than the Pixel 4a. The other is more philosophical. I think there’s a need for brands to sit down and get their priorities straight. It’s high time they start to work on the basics. Phones like the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a prove how something beautiful can be accomplished through simplicity — in this case tight integration of hardware and software to make technology the enabler rather than something that limits you and makes you want to buy something new, but to what end is the question.
This year has shown that life is transient. Every other smartphone review today makes it a point to ask, do you really need a new smartphone today, and I think that in itself tells us a lot about the sort of things that really matter. Why would anybody want to buy a smartphone in the middle of a pandemic? Only and only if there’s a genuine necessity. This is especially true for budget-conscious buyers.
I am not saying that brands should stop launching phones. I am not saying fancy hardware isn’t nice either. But brands should not stop there. They have a bigger responsibility now. To ensure that buyers don’t feel cheated as and when a new product comes up — and that’s like every other week now — and that can happen only and only through strong back-end support.
Brands need to start talking about software as actively as they talk about hardware because most smartphones today are powerful enough by default, but are they as efficient, or as empowering, or as dependable? That’s something to think about.