iPhone SE vs OnePlus Nord vs Pixel 4a: battle of the heavy lite-weights

The iPhone SE (2020), the OnePlus Nord and the Google Pixel 4a. Three amazing phones. All released during the pandemic in a world that was largely shut down. Each of them is considered to be a scaled-down, more affordable version of a more powerful original. Each of them represents a mid-segment or middle ground for those who find the originals a little too expensive. I mean: If you want a good iPhone but are on a tight budget, the iPhone SE is a great option. If you love OnePlus, but find its more recent offerings out of your budget ever since they went totally north of Rs 30,000, go for the OnePlus Nord. If you have a thing for Google’s Pixel range but have always found it crazy expensive, rejoice, the most affordable Pixel ever (in India) is here, the Pixel 4a.

Their prices might differ – the OnePlus Nord starts at Rs 24,999, the Pixel 4a at Rs 29,999 and the iPhone SE at Rs 39,999, but if you want a slightly more affordable avatar of a premium device, these are perhaps the best options you have out there. The lite versions of heavyweights, so to speak. And each of them is a super performer in its own right. And represents a different school of mobile phone thought. So which one should you be going for? Let’s try and figure out.

Design and appearance: Compact, retro and futuristic

When it comes to design, all three phones follow different philosophies. The iPhone SE (2020) is basically the iPhone 8 with a slightly differently placed logo on the back, and is remarkably compact with glass on the front and back and comes in black, white and product red. The OnePlus Nord, on the other hand, is perhaps the most flashily designed of the three phones and comes with a glass front and pack with a very interesting blue marble that can make it stand out, apart from grey onyx and grey ash shades.

It is also at 158.3mm, the largest of the three phones, and at 184 grams, the heaviest. The Pixel 4a is the most modest in terms of design, with a simple plastic back and a single colour, literally Just Black. It is very compact, although not as small as the iPhone SE. In terms of being compact, the iPhone SE has the edge, but if you are looking for something that looks stylish, the OnePlus Nord takes the cake- it looks the modern of the three phones.

My ranking: 1. OnePlus Nord 2. iPhone SE 3. Pixel 4a

Hardware 1: Displays that refresh and go from HD to full HD

When it comes to displays, one gets to see three totally different displays. The OnePlus Nord sports a very contemporary 6.44-inch full HD+ fluid AMOLED display with a 90Hz refresh rate, while the Pixel 4a comes with a smaller 5.8-inches full HD+ OLED one. The iPhone, however, steps right back to another era with a 4.7-inch HD LCD display.

In terms of brightness and colours, I thought the Pixel 4a had the edge on the others, but those who want a bigger display and higher refresh rate would prefer the Nord – scrolling is indeed a whole lot smoother on the Nord, and well, the big display can make a difference when you are watching videos. And it is that which makes me give the edge to the Nord on this one. What of the iPhone SE? Well, it is actually a rather decent display even now, but it simply seems a little too small for any serious content consumption, although I am sure folks would get used to it.

My ranking: 1. OnePlus Nord 2. Pixel 4a 3. iPhone SE

Hardware 2: A matter of getting those chips in place

If the display is the most visibly important part of a phone’s hardware, the processor is perhaps the most important one under the hood. And here we see the iPhone SE totally take the lead. Yes, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765G chip in the OnePlus Nord is perhaps one of the best in the mid-segment, but the A13 Bionic in the iPhone SE is a proper flagship chip and one that many consider superior to the Snapdragon 855 and even on par with the newer Snapdragon 865. In comparison, the Snapdragon 730G on the Pixel 4a is a very distant third. It is a very able chip, and allied with the software (more of which later) turns in a very capable performance, but it is not in the same class as its competitors here. If you are looking at a flagship chip, the iPhone SE has it!

My ranking: 1. iPhone SE 2. OnePlus Nord 3. Pixel 4a

Hardware 3: Memories to store stuff on and run apps

If you are one of those who like their smartphones stacked up with lots of RAM and storage, then the Nord is your best choice – it comes with 6GB / 64GB, 8 GB / 128GB and 12GB / 256GB RAM and storage variants, making it the most well-equipped on paper of the three phones here. The Pixel 4a has a single 6GB / 128GB variant. No one officially knows what the RAM is on an iPhone, but you do get 64GB and 128GB storage options on the iPhone SE. All three are rather smooth performing devices, but if you like lots of storage and RAM options, the Nord is the one(plus) for you. No expandable memory options on any of them, though.

My ranking: 1. OnePlus Nord 2 iPhone SE and Pixel 4a

Cameras: Let’s have those cheese moments

On paper, you would expect the Nord to win this hands down. It comes with four rear cameras and dual front cameras, and in comparison, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a come with (yes, this is true) just a single rear and front camera each (So 2016!). In terms of megapixel count too, the Nord seems streets ahead – 48-megapixel main sensor (with OIS), 8-megapixel ultrawide sensor, 5-megapixel depth and a 2-megapixel macro unit, as well as a 32-megapixel front-facing camera with an 8-megapixel ultra-wide. In comparison, the iPhone SE sports a 12-megapixel sensor (with OIS) at the back and a 7-megapixel front sensor; and the Pixel 4a comes with a 12.2 megapixel (with OIS) rear sensor and an 8-megapixel sensor for selfies. Here are some images captured by the iPhone SE, followed by some shots from the Nord, and at the end, some from the Pixel 4a.

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But if there ever was a case of specs and performance being two different things, this is it. In stills, the Pixel 4a is by far the best, with lots of details and decent colour, and very good low light performance. The iPhone SE is relatively consistent with realistic colours but is a poor low light performer. However, it compensates by being the best in terms of delivering a very stable and consistent video. The Nord on the other hand has the best selfies and is decent enough in terms of stills and videos without being exceptional. In fact, in terms of potential, the Nord perhaps has the most variety, but its image quality is not quite there with the Pixel, although it is better than the iPhone SE.

My ranking:

Rear camera stills: 1. Pixel 4a 2.OnePlus Nord 3. iPhone SE

Selfies: 1. OnePlus Nord 2. Pixel 4a 3. iPhone SE

Videos: 1. iPhone SE 2. OnePlus Nord 3. Pixel 4a

Software: Which one ensures an appy, updated life?

When it comes to software, this is a fascinating battle. On the two extremes, you have pure Android on the Pixel 4a and iOS 14 on the iPhone SE, and in between these is OxygenOS on the OnePlus Nord, which tries to stick to a minimalist Android interface, while adding some features for consumers. Which one works best for you is really a subjective choice. Speaking for myself, I tend to favour iOS because of its stability, smoothness, terrific app library and overall security, topped off by a great update record. The choice between stock Android and OxygenOS is a tough one, though. Google has an awesome record in updating its Pixel range, but OnePlus is very good in that department too. And while stock Android’s clean UI is an attraction to many, there are many more who like relatively uncluttered Android with some consumer-friendly features, which is what OxygenOS brings to the table. Which one you should go for is your call, but I would incline slightly towards OxygenOS, for its more “mainstream” appeal.

My ranking: 1. iPhone SE 2. OnePlus Nord 3. Pixel 4a

Gaming and multimedia: Bring on the entertainment

How does all that software and hardware come together to deliver performance? Well, it gets very tricky here. The iPhone SE is by far the best when it comes to handling multiple tasks, and high-end games (Call of Duty and Asphalt play brilliantly), but its much smaller display means that the experience is not quite as immersive as on the Nord, although the SE’s stereo speakers are magnificent as compared to the single one on the OnePlus.

The Nord is very good at multi-tasking and also a very decent gaming device but the odd lag does show up from time to time in HD gaming mode. The Pixel is good enough for most routine tasks but is not in the class of the other two when you are looking at heavy-duty gaming and multi-tasking. If you can adjust to a smaller display, the iPhone SE wins this one.

My ranking: 1. iPhone SE 2.OnePlus Nord 3. Pixel 4a

Audio: The sound of music…and others

Of the three phones, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a come with stereo speakers, while the Nord has a single one. In terms of quality and volume, however, I think the SE is a clear step ahead of the Pixel, while the Nord’s single speaker has volume going for it, but not much else. The Pixel 4a does have an edge over the other two phones by packing in a 3.5 mm audio jack, though and the sound over it is rather good as well. Which really makes this a toss-up between the iPhone and the Pixel. I would go with the iPhone on this one for sheer quality but I can see folks picking the Pixel for the sheer convenience of using the good old wired headphones.

My ranking: 1. iPhone SE 2. Pixel 4a 3. OnePlus Nord

Battery: Chaaaargeeee for the Juice!

This comparison has seen performance often turn specs on their head. But one department in which this does not happen at all is the battery. The OnePlus Nord comes with a 4,115mAh battery with support for 30T Warp Charge and a 30W charger in the box, which is well ahead of the 3,140mAh battery in the Pixel 4a with an 18W charger in the box, and the unspecified (but by far the smallest of the three) one on the iPhone SE with a 5W charger (YES) in the box (although that too will be removed in forthcoming days, to not much despair, we suspect). And those numbers translate it into real-life performance too. Yes, the Pixel 4a surprised us by comfortably lasting an entire day on that relatively modest battery size, but the Nord matched that with its 90Hz refresh rate turned on and comfortably lasted a day and a half with a 60Hz refresh rate. It also charged the fastest of the three devices. Yes, I have not mentioned the iPhone SE because frankly, it is not really in the same category as the others – it will struggle to see through a day, and that 5W charger seems to take forever to charge it!

My ranking: 1. OnePlus Nord 2. Pixel 4a 3. iPhone SE

Regular usage: Just the daily driver stuff

In handling routine tasks, there is not too much to separate the three phones. The Pixel and iPhone have an edge over the Nord in terms of being easier to operate because of their smaller size but the difference is not a killer one. We found the iPhone and Nord handling calls a little better than the Pixel, which sounded a little low in terms of volume. In terms of fingerprint sensors, we found the physical ones on the iPhone and Pixel 4a performing more briskly than the in-display one on the Nord. In terms of general smoothness, the SE and Nord seemed slightly ahead of the Pixel, which sometimes did stutter a little. However, the bigger screens of the Nord and Pixel did make for better browsing and reading/video experiences than the smaller ones on the iPhone SE. I am scoring this one for the iPhone SE, followed by the Pixel 4a, but I can see people thinking differently or refusing to settle. It really is going to boil down to how comfortable you are with compact phones. (Note: Yes, I know that the OnePlus comes with 5G but I do not see it being a factor for most consumers at this stage, although spec lovers will swoon over it)

My ranking: 1. iPhone SE 2.Pixel 4a 3. OnePlus Nord

Price: Value for them bucks

If we are looking in terms of pure price, the rankings are dead clear. The OnePlus Nord is a runaway winner here with its base 6GB / 64GB variant starting at Rs 24,999, which is well below the Rs 29,999 for the sole 6GB / 128GB variant of the Pixel 4a and even further below the Rs 39,900 for the starting variant of the iPhone SE (64 GB). In fact, the 12GB / 256GB variant of the Nord (its top variant) is priced at Rs 29,999. Yes, the iPhone SE and Pixel 4a do bring their own specialities for the premium they charge, but if you are on a tight budget, there’s just one winner and runner-up here.

My ranking: 1. OnePlus Nord 2. Pixel 4a 3. iPhone SE

Final decision: Go North, see the SE or get an a-rated Pixel?

It is never easy breaking this down into a simple choice, is it? Different people need different things. The perfect phone perhaps would be one with the size of the Pixel 4a, the refresh rate of the Nord, the chip of the iPhone, the main sensor and image processing software of the Pixel with the video excellence of the iPhone, the battery size of the Nord and the battery management of the Pixel….you get the idea. It can be very very confusing. Yes, one could simply do a numerical breakdown of the above parameters and get a rough ranking but that would not be fair to any of these devices. So, if the above does not help you make up your mind, here is a simple summary:

Want a great all-round performer that is compact and secure?

The iPhone SE

On a slightly tight-ish budget, but want a stylish, futuristic device with high-end features?

The OnePlus Nord.

Want pure Android with assured updates and a terrific point and shoot camera?

The Pixel 4a.

There you go then.