Which is the best phone for those on a budget? Apple’s iPhone SE 2020, the OnePlus Nord, or Google’s newly released Pixel 4a? Let’s investigate…
When it comes to buying a cheap smartphone, you have a lot of options – too many, actually. Until about 2018, “cheap” meant crap when you were talking about phones.
But this has now all changed. And it is great news for consumers that want value for money, killer performance, and great cameras. You no longer have to pay almost $1000/£1000 to access these things.
But you have to know where to look.
As long as you’re looking at the right phone maker, you can pick up a cheap phone that is more or less as good as a $1000 phone where it counts. And in this comparison post, we’re going to look at three best options when it comes to cheap smartphones in late-2020.
The OnePlus Nord (view latest offers here). The iPhone SE 2020. And the newly launched Google Pixel 4a. By the end, you’ll have a clear idea about all of these phones, how they’re different, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and which is most likely the right option for you.
We’ll look at each phone in detail, covering off things like design, specs, performance, battery life, and camera tech. OK, that’s enough for the introduction, let’s get on with this comparison!
iPhone SE 2020 vs Pixel 4a vs OnePlus Nord: A Full Comparison
The OnePlus Nord is the second most expensive phone of the three handsets in the guide. It is also the best-looking to my eyes too. You get much the same design and finish as the more expensive OnePlus 8 which is to say everything looks seamless and premium, belying its meager price tag.
The OnePlus Nord’s dimensions are as follows: 158.3 x 73.3 x 8.2mm. It has a 6.4in OLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate and an FHD+ resolution. The OnePlus Nord can be used in one hand too, though those with smaller hands may still find it quite a stretch.
Of all the phones in this guide, the Nord is the more modern looking with its soft edges, advanced camera unit on the rear, and beautiful, high-resolution OLED panel which takes up 99% of the frontage. I also really dig the color options (Gray Onyx and Blue Marble). The latter option looks amazing, as you can see in the images.
The Pixel 4a has had a bit of a facelift. The ugly bezels are gone, there’s no notch on the front, and it retains its fingerprint scanner and headphone jack. And the handset looks better from all angles as a result. The Pixel 4a is a smart-looking phone that does away with quirky design in favor of simplicity – and that’s totally fine.
Available in just one color (black), the Pixel 4a is all about software and camera performance. That is Google’s MO with these phones. With respect to layout, the button placement and overall physical controls remain the same. If you’ve used the Pixel 3a or the Pixel 2, you’ll feel right at home.
The Pixel 4a’s dimensions are as follows: 144 x 69.4 x 8.2mm. This makes the Pixel 4a smaller than the Pixel 3a. You also get a 5.8in OLED display with a 60Hz refresh rate. Overall, it’s not the best display of the phones in this post, the Nord is leagues ahead of both the iPhone SE 2020 and the Pixel 4a, but it is respectable nonetheless.
iPhone SE 2020
The iPhone SE 2020 is basically an iPhone 8 redux. It looks exactly the same, has exactly the same button arrangement, and the exact same dimensions. For all intents and purposes, the iPhone SE 2020 is an iPhone 8, just with some updated internal specs. Most notably Apple’s A13 CPU.
Apple needed a cheap iPhone to fend off competition from brands like OPPO, RealMe, Google, and Xiaomi. The iPhone SE 2020 is that phone and, while it is fairly dull from a design point of view, the phone delivers a metric ton of performance; it is more powerful than both the Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord.
But there are downsides. The iPhone SE 2020’s display is fairly mediocre; it’s a 720p LCD panel that was starting to look dated back in 2016. In 2020’s market, where phones like the Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord are using OLED, the SE 2020’s low-resolution LCD panel is now really starting to show its age.
- OnePlus Nord Display: 6.44-inch AMOLED (2400×1080; 90Hz)
- Pixel 4a Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340×1080; 60Hz)
- iPhone SE 2020 Display: 4.7in LCD Panel (1334 x 750; 60Hz)
- Starting price: £379, £469
- Display: 6.44-inch AMOLED (2400×1080; 90Hz)
- CPU: Snapdragon 765G
- RAM: 8GB, 12GB
- Storage: 128GB, 256GB
- SD Card slot: None
- Rear camera: 48MP wide (ƒ/1.75); 8MP ultrawide; 5MP depth (ƒ/2.4); 2MP macro (ƒ/2.4)
- Front camera: 32MP (ƒ/2.45) and 8MP ultrawide (ƒ/2.45)
- Battery: 4,115 mAh
- Charging: 30W wired
- Security: In-display fingerprint, 2D face unlock
- Operating system: Android 10 with OxygenOS 10.5
- Colors: Blue Marble, Gray Onyx
- Size: 6.23 x 2.88 x 0.32 inches (158.3 x 73.3 x 8.2 mm)
- Weight: 6.49 ounces (184 grams)
- Price: $349/£349
- OS: Android 10
- Display: 5.81-inch OLED (2340×1080)
- CPU: Snapdragon 730G
- RAM: 6GB
- Storage: 128GB
- Rear camera: 12.2MP (ƒ/1.7)
- Front camera: 8MP (ƒ/2.0)
- Battery: 3,140 mAh
- Battery life: 8:55
- Size: 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.3 inches
- Weight: 5.04 ounces
iPhone SE 2020
- Price: $399/£419
- CPU: A13 Bionic
- Storage: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB
- Display: 4.7 inches (1334 x 750)
- Rear camera: 12MP (f/1.8)
- Front camera: 7MP (f/2.2)
- Video recording: 4K video up to 60 fps
- Water resistance: IP67
- Battery life: Up to 13 hours video playback
- Wireless charging: Yes (Qi)
- Fast charging: Yes via optional 18W adapter
- Size: 5.45 x 2.65 x 0.29 inches
- Weight: 5.22 ounces
The OnePlus Nord has four cameras on the rear and two cameras on the front. That’s a lot of cameras. Even more so when you consider that this phone isn’t even OnePlus’ flagship. And the camera tech is very impressive too.
The Nord has a 48MP Sony IMX586 sensor (with EIS and OIS image stabilization) paired with an f/1.57 lens as its main shooter. This main lens is backed up by a 5MP depth sensor, 2MP macro camera, and an 8MP, 119-degree ultra-wide-angle sensor.
That is one hell of a setup and, in this context, it is more or less unbeatable from the context of a spec. The OnePlus Nord has the most advanced camera tech of all the phones featured in this comparison. You basically have a flagship camera array on this phone. And Apple and Google’s phones do not.
If you require things like an ultra-wide-angle lens, the most up to date Sony IMX sensor, and things like depth-sensing, the OnePlus Nord’s camera is more or less unbeatable at this price point. And it can shoot very impressive images. For the price of this phone, the Nord’s camera setup is about as good as it gets.
The Pixel 4a runs a dual-lens camera, the same setup from the Pixel 4. This camera, while nowhere near as impressive-sounding as the Nord’s, is still one of the best phone cameras on the market. And this is all down to Google’s masterful machine learning algorithms which ensure you always get the most natural-looking shots possible.
The Pixel 4a uses a 12.2MP camera with an f/1.7 aperture and an 84-degree field of view. Out of all the phones on this list, the Pixel 4a will capture the best looking, most natural shots. The Nord has more bells and whistles, sure, but the Pixel 4a is still the king when it comes to capturing beautifully balanced shots that look as close to professional as is possible on a phone.
The Pixel 4a, via Night Sight, also has the best low-light performance of any phone on this list. Add in things like Portrait Mode, Top Shot, Night Sight with astrophotography capabilities, and fused video stabilization and you’re still looking at one of the best overall camera units on the market right now.
iPhone SE 2020
The iPhone SE 2020’s camera is, well, pretty sub-standard when compared to the OnePlus Nord and Pixel 4a. The iPhone SE 2020 runs a single 12MP sensor on the rear and, while it does benefit from Apple’s advanced image processing, it is still a way behind what you can do with the Nord and Pixel 4a.
The iPhone SE 2020 runs the same 12MP camera and f/1.8 aperture as the iPhone 8 and iPhone XR. I’d have preferred to see Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus camera mounted on the iPhone SE 2020. But that didn’t happen, so instead you’re stuck with a single-lens camera from 2016.
It’s not a terrible camera by any means, but compared to the Nord and Pixel 4a it leaves a lot to be desired. Had Apple done a little more with the camera tech, I think the iPhone SE 2020 would have been a lot more compelling. As it stands, the iPhone SE 2020’s camera is just OK; it’s not going to win any awards and low-light performance isn’t great.
For basic Instagram uploads and casual shooters, it will be fine. But if you need more than that, you’ll have to go with the Pixel 4a or OnePlus Nord.
- OnePlus Nord Battery Size: 4,115 mAh
- Pixel 4a Battery Size: 3,140 mAh
- iPhone SE 2020 Battery Size: 1821 mAh
- OnePlus Nord: $399/£379
- Pixel 4a: $359/£359
- iPhone SE 2020: $399/£419
As you can see, the Nord is the clear victor here. It has the largest battery by a huge margin. On top of this, the Nord has the fastest wired charging of all three phones too at 30W; the best you’ll get from Apple and Google is 18W – and even then you’ll have to buy an extra cable to do it.
The Pixel 4a battery size is very respectable, though, and should provide more than enough juice for all-day use. It is bigger than the Pixel 3a’s battery and that phone never struggled with battery life. For this reason, the Pixel 4a is also a solid option when it comes to battery life.
I know it feels like I’m picking on the iPhone SE 2020 in this post, but I swear I’m not – it’s just the way it is. The SE 2020’s battery is teeny tiny by modern standards at just 1821mAh. Apple’s A13 CPU is very good with efficiencies, but it cannot work miracles – a 1821mAh battery is always going to be beaten by a 4,115 mAh battery.
If battery life is important to you, then, you’re best off going with either the Pixel 4a or the OnePlus Nord. Both phones offer 2X the battery performance of Apple’s iPhone SE 2020.
Wrapping Up – The Phone I’d Probably Go For…
Out of the three phones in this guide, on paper, the OnePlus Nord is the clear victor. It has the best specs, the most impressive camera setup, the biggest battery, and the best display. For 99.9% of people, this will be enough to persuade them to go with the Nord over the Pixel 4a or iPhone SE 2020.
However, it’s not quite as simple as that. For instance, Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 will get far superior software support than both the Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord, so much so that you could technically still use the iPhone SE 2020 in six years’ time on the latest iOS build from Apple.
With the Pixel 4a and OnePlus Nord, you might get two Android updates if you’re lucky. Apple’s App Store, and applications in general, are better than what you get on Android. This is a controversial point but as someone that uses both iPhones and Android phones, I know for a fact that certain, big-name apps always look and run better on iPhone.
Still, Apple’s iPhone SE 2020 is the most expensive of the three phones. And it definitely does not deliver the same level of specs and/or performance. The Nord and Pixel 4a has it beat in the looks, camera, battery life, and value for money contexts. But the iPhone SE 2020, thanks to its A13 CPU, is the most powerful phone of the three – it uses the same CPU as Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro.
Me personally? I’d probably go with the OnePlus Nord. It has everything I want from a phone at a price I can get along with. I do prefer iOS as an operating system, but that’s a personal preference, though in this context I think OnePlus just offers more than Apple and Google.
The Pixel 4a is interesting, mostly because of its camera, but I feel like it lacks the WOW FACTOR of the OnePlus Nord, which, for me is the real winner in this three-way shoot out. The Nord has the best display, the biggest battery, the nicest design, and the best camera tech. And it’s cheaper than the iPhone SE 2020.
What more could you want from a phone?
Richard Goodwin has been working as a tech journalist for over 10 years. He is the editor and owner of KnowYourMobile.