Second Impressions: Google Pixel 6a

Posted on August 1, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Google, Hardware, Mobile with 22 Comments

Moving past the first impressions, what strikes me most about the Pixel 6a is how well it captures the Pixel 6 experience, but at a much lower price. This $449 handset lacks features like a high-refresh display and wireless charging, but that’s expected. What it delivers on is flagship-class performance, the biggest pain point with previous A-series Pixels. So it’s possible that Google has found the magic formula for competing at this price point.

We’ll see. And, for sure, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But my first 24 hours with the Pixel 6a have been notably positive. My biggest concern—and it’s not really that major—is battery life. I pretty much fully charged the Pixel 6a before heading out to see some trains yesterday, and while that event took longer than expected—about three hours out in the world vs. two—the battery drain was curious: the phone was down to just under 50 percent when we wrapped things up. I did pictures, but not that many/

So I’ll keep an eye on that one, for sure. But other than that, the Pixel 6a has met or exceeded my expectations. The experience is pure Pixel and basically identical to that on my Pixel 6 Pro, just with a smaller (and blessedly flat) display. It’s a bit easier to use one-handed, of course, and experimenting with the case on and off, I would absolutely get a thinner third-party case because this device’s thin and light form factor would really shine through. The Google case is probably protective enough, but it’s bulky and takes away the phone’s svelte lines.

The photo experience, as noted yesterday, is excellent, and this sort of begs the question about what it is, exactly, that Google is doing with its higher-end handsets. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, for example, have a 50 MP Octa PD Quad Bayer wide lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) capabilities, and that lens should be superior in every way to the old-school 12 MP lens in the Pixel 6a. But I feel like Google worked for so long to optimize its camera software for the older part that the differences aren’t all that noticeable in most conditions. And the ultra-wide lens, which isn’t all that ultra-wide, is the same across the Pixel 6, 6 Pro, and 6a, minimizing the overall difference further. That’s in need of an upgrade on the higher-end Pixels, for sure.

I will of course be testing that more, but some low light shots last night and this morning’s dog walk, under overcast skies with tiny not-quite-rain drops of water in the air, were both good tests of how this camera system reacts in less-than-ideal conditions. And was a nice reminder of how good the Pixel camera experience can be. What I’d really missed, as I’d been using an iPhone for several months, was a feature the Pixels always excelled at, the ability to touch a piece of sky through the viewfinder and have the camera adapt to that and deliver a gorgeous shot. On an iPhone, those blue or gray sky areas are overexposed and washed out.

Performance, as expected, has been great, though I can’t claim to have pushed it much. The phone didn’t get hot while I installed and configured all my apps, something I’ve experienced with other handsets. And the A/V experience seems stellar, with surprising even and loud stereo sound in both music and videos.

Google, like its competitors, no longer provides a power brick in the box, but you’ll get the best results with an 18-watt (or higher) charger. That said, the Pixel 6a can only “fast” charge at up to 18 watts, which I’ve argued is not fast-charging. The iPhone 13 Pro charges at 23 watts, though the difference is greater because Google throttles charging on its Tensor-based phones for some reason. Other phones can now charge at 65 watts or more, and quite quickly.

The Pixel 6a’s software prowess is, of course, of interest. This handset supplies the same clean but Pixelized Android 12 software image as its stablemates, though you can’t yet upgrade it to the Android 13 Beta. (I heard there was a so-called day-one update that, among other things, would help get Pixel 6a handsets on the beta, but I don’t believe I’ve received it yet.) It is perhaps saying something that the differences I detect between Android 12 and 13 are minuscule to non-existent. All I have to do, really, is turn off app notifications as they come up. That should take a few days.

In short, the Pixel 6a delivers on the things I loved about all the previous A-series Pixels but combines that with what I think is a better mix and performance and functionality than was the case in the past. The Pixel 5a and 4a with 5G were fantastic phones, but their mid-market processors gave them an artificially short shelf-life. But the Pixel 6a appears to be a keeper and should be viable for much, much longer.

We’ll see. But in using the Pixel 6a over the past day, I routinely found myself ruminating on what a pleasant experience it provides. This isn’t just a low-cost competitor to Apple’s tiny iPhone SE, it can take on the more expensive iPhone 13 too. In short, it’s the Pixel A-series that Google never made before. Whether the world wakes up to that is another matter, of course. But I feel like Google made the right compromises here.

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Comments (22)

22 responses to “Second Impressions: Google Pixel 6a”

  1. winner

    Thanks for the update, Paul.

    As a clarification, in the section where you talk about tapping on the phone screen to adjust color and exposure, I believe you mean that this feature exists on the Pixel but is missing on the iPhone. I read it quickly and you could take it the opposite way as it is worded, if you read it quickly.

  2. wright_is

    It looks like the 6a hits the sweet spot, if you are looking for an Android phone and are into the Google ecosystem.

  3. Michael_Charlton

    Never got the new update with mine, but they've flipped the switch on it getting the 13 beta which is running nicely now

  4. spacecamel

    Paul, When you do your review, you might want to mention that the 6a will get four years of support. It will get two years of Android updates and two additional years of security updates. I think this is a huge improvement over what was previously only two years.

  5. harmjr

    So I got a Pixel 6a and it seems a nice upgrade from my Pixel 4a 5g. Yep in trading it my old one.

    My biggest issue has been the setup all the apps. It reset the notifications. Trying to remember where all that is hidden in each app is so annoying. I swear if they could fix that part of the move my life would be better.

    • harmjr

      Also I use Microsoft Launcher and it's backup and restore was super easy. But it didn't backup browser hone screen shortcuts.

  6. max daru

    I won't yet give up correcting the "begs the question" error (ducks as a plate is thrown). At some point it will mean the same as "raises the question", but not yet.

  7. jberls

    I think the 6a is okay. Good value certainly. I find it surprisingly slippery compared to the 5a. I'm about as bored with current Android as I've been with a smartphone OS in years. I just don't think there's anything going on. I've also seen battery drain problems, so I'm hoping it will get better as dftf suggested. Camera is really good, better than iPhone Pro 13. Also surprised that it came with Android 12, April security patch, and after a week it hasn't updated at all. What happened to May, June, July updates, let alone the new one just announced?

  8. simard57

    does the "Day 1 Updates" account for some of the battery drain you experienced? Seems most phones go through a lot of updating in the background before better battery life is experienced...

    • Paul Thurrott

      Oh, maybe. It could literally just be that it wasn't as fully charged as I had thought. (But come on.)

      Then again, yesterday was a normal day, never left the house except for a walk, and it was under 50 percent when I went to bed. I feel like the iPhone is normally 65-70 percent at the end of a normal day with a trip to the gym, etc.

      But this is just two days of usage. I will keep watching it.

    • rmlounsbury

      Alas, Day 1 updates didn't happen. Google is pushing everything to the August update.

      • yoshi

        Mine had the April update out of the box but I received the June update a day later. Seems to be mixed which units received the update. I had hoped the update would resolve the fingerprint issue but it didn't.

  9. dftf

    "This $449 handset lacks features like a high-refresh display and wireless charging [...]"

    ...which are sadly the two most-common things I see people complaining about in comment-sections (particularly on YouTube reviews), which makes me wonder if the focus for the future "A" series phones should be SoC-parity with the "non-A" siblings. Maybe the 7a would be better to keep the Tensor model used in the 6a, and deliver a 90Hz screen instead?

    "[...] battery life. [...] the phone was down to just under 50 percent [after three hours of using the camera on-and-off]"

    I've seen many people say battery-life was very-bad within the first week, then suddenly improves. So I'd say give this a week or two and see if things have improved.

    "[...] the Pixel 6a can only "fast" charge at up to 18 watts [...] the iPhone 13 Pro charges at 23 watts"

    Price-wise, the iPhone SE (2022) would be the fair-comparison: the SE says it supports 20W charging max. (On the Android-side, at the Galaxy A53 does 25W; the Nothing Phone (1) does 33W).

    "The Pixel 5a and 4a [... SoCs ...] gave them an artificially short shelf-life. But the Pixel 6a [...] should be viable for much, much longer."

    The five-year updates should help with that, yes! My Pixel 3a is still going-strong... but sadly, no-more Android OS updates now. I'd love to still have another two years to go: it has no hardware issues.

    "This isn’t just a low-cost competitor to Apple’s tiny iPhone SE, it can take on the more expensive iPhone 13 too."

    Well, let's be honest, it's not hard to beat the iPhone SE (2022), is it! Poor battery-life; dated, non-OLED screen, with a low PPI; starts at just 64GB of storage and 4GB of RAM; USB 2.0 speeds via a cable-connection; no camera "night-mode", which I'd guess is likely just a software-level restriction! (If you still love smaller-phones, and have the money, the iPhone 13 mini is clearly a much-better buy.)

    • wright_is

      Point 4 is why Point 1 shouldn't be changed.

      They might get longer update periods than other Android brands, but the problem isn't just the software updates, but also the slow down over time, as the OS and apps get heavier and require more processing power. To have a mid-range phone with a decent processor is worth a lot more than a variable-rate screen; the former is a must-have, the latter a nice to have luxury.

  10. rmlounsbury

    I would say that Google really nailed the Pixel 6a landing it at the price with the Tensor chip in it. Most the reviews I've seen complain about lack of 90hz refresh or wireless charging. I think they lose sight of the fact that the 6a has a flagship chip and unlike the iPhone SE has a more modern 6.1" screen v.s the SE's postage stamp.

    I would say that in a lot of departments the 6a is OK. But where it really counts the 6a really nits it out of the park (fit & finish, balance of the device in hand, screen, performance). Then there is the magic Google keeps squeezing out of the rather old sensors that go for one more outing with the 6a.

    As for the newer 6 and 6 Pro sensors... I'm wondering if the Google photography team is iterating and figuring out the the newer sensors. I'd imagine they'll improve over time. It is the first new camera hardware on Pixel in ages.

  11. Michael

    I'm loving my 6a as my first Pixel (coming from Motorola, who's phones are good, but update policy and schedule not so much).

    Regarding battery drain, as others have said, wait a few days at least before passing judgement. Not so much for the alleged "settling down" of the phone/os/apps, but for the battery to come up to full capacity. I'd think by now this should be common knowledge, but brand new lithium ion batteries take a few discharge/recharge cycles to realize their full capacity.

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