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The iPhone SE and other midrange phones worth your money

It’s high time midrange phones took the spotlight.
Cherlynn Low, @cherlynnlow
April 24, 2020
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I’m all about the midrange phones. I’m sick of seeing flagship prices climb to exorbitant levels year after year. While I’m not sure if anything that costs less than $200 will be powerful enough for my needs, the sub-$500 midrange presents a sweet spot. So when Apple launched the new iPhone SE for $400 last week, my inner miser was pleased. 

The SE’s 4.7-inch screen and retro iPhone 8-like body also brought on a wave of nostalgia for smaller devices. Plus, its A13 Bionic processor might make it the most powerful $400 handset. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have other options: There are a handful of pretty good phones for less than $500 that you could consider.

The first alternative that springs to mind is Google’s Pixel 3a. It costs the same as the SE, though you might find it on sale now, since rumors are that a Pixel 4a is coming soon. Though the Pixel 3a packs a midrange Snapdragon 670 processor, Google’s tuned its software to make the $400 phone run basically as fast as a flagship. Of course, if you’re a processor snob, you might still prefer the iPhone’s A13 Bionic, which is the same high-end chip found in the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. But most people won’t notice a difference in performance. 

Pixel 3a
Chris Velazco / Engadget

The Pixel 3a’s screen is noticeably bigger than the iPhone SE’s though. Google’s affordable phone has a 5.6-inch OLED display, which is positively enormous compared to the SE’s 4.7-inch LCD screen. The Pixel also has a higher resolution at 1080p, whereas the iPhone runs at a mere 750p. Both phones start with 64GB of storage and offer single rear 12-megapixel cameras with the same f/1.8 aperture, though Google arguably has better image-processing software. The pair also have similarly sharp selfie cameras, and since the iPhone SE is newer, it supports the latest WiFi 6 standard while the Pixel 3a still uses 802.11ac. However, almost no one uses WiFi 6 yet, so this isn’t the most meaningful feature for now.

If you’re picking between Google and Apple, your decision ultimately boils down to your software preference. These two handsets are quite similar where it counts, though the iPhone SE is a little more future proof, thanks to its superior processor. The Pixel has a slightly better screen and more modern appearance though. 

But these two aren’t the only companies making decent phones for less than $500. Samsung, Motorola and OnePlus all have offerings in that range that you could consider. The Galaxy A51, for example, costs $400 and is currently even cheaper at several stores while the Moto G Stylus goes for $300 at Best Buy. Both of these guys are larger devices, with the Galaxy’s screen measuring 6.5 inches and the Moto’s stretching 6.4 inches. Though they both run at full HD, Samsung as usual delivers a superior AMOLED screen while Motorola uses an LCD panel. The Galaxy A51 and the Moto G Stylus also look more modern than the iPhone SE, featuring the all-screen faces and hole-punch front cameras that we’ve come to expect on flagships. 

Moto G Stylus rear
Chris Velazco / Engadget

Samsung also offers the sharpest selfie camera of the four, with a 32-megapixel sensor. Meanwhile, Moto beats the Pixel and iPhone SE with its 16-megapixel front cam. On the rear, the G Stylus has a 48-megapixel triple-camera system while the Galaxy adds a depth-sensing option. Both of these phones include macro and ultra-wide lenses in their arrays, making for more-versatile shooting. 

Samsung uses its own Exynos 9611 chipset in the Galaxy A51, which performs similarly to the Moto G Stylus’ Snapdragon 665. These still pale in comparison to the A13 Bionic though, which runs much faster. 

Of the four phones I’ve mentioned, those who prioritize powerful cameras and displays might prefer the Galaxy A51. If you like clean Android software, the Pixel 3a is for you -- that is, if you can’t wait till fall, by which point we expect the Pixel 4a will have arrived. The Moto G Stylus has the added benefit of having a built-in passive stylus, plus it is the only option to still have a microSD card slot. 

Those with a bit more money to spare should consider the OnePlus 7T. The last-gen phone features a beautiful build and a 6.5-inch full HD screen that runs at a smooth 90Hz. It even supports HDR for richer image quality. Like the Moto G Stylus, the OnePlus 7T offers a 48-megapixel triple-camera system on its rear and a 16-megapixel sensor up front. It costs a bit more than the others at $500, but it uses a powerful Snapdragon 855 processor.

OnePlus 7T
Cherlynn Low / Engadget

There are, of course, several more options for less than $500 from the likes of TCL, LG, Nokia and ASUS, but honestly they don’t quite hold up to our favorites here. Those looking for an alternative to the new iPhone SE will appreciate that there are plenty of respectable options in this price range. But bear in mind that they’re all Android devices. If you’re stuck on iOS, then you’re stuck with the iPhone SE. It’s great and all, offering flagship performance at a nice price. But you’ll have to live with the outdated design and single-camera setup. The next cheapest iPhone is the XR, which starts at $600 and doesn’t get you more cameras or a better processor. It seems Apple fans who want to save money don’t have that many options after all.

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