Google Pixel 6a Review

Posted on August 15, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Google, Hardware, Mobile, Android with 25 Comments

With the Pixel 6a, Google has redefined its A-series lineup to address the longevity problems of previous generation handsets. Thanks to its Tensor processor—the same Tensor processor found in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro—and Google’s liberal support policies, the Pixel 6a should remain viable for several years. And that means it’s an even better value than its otherwise terrific A-series predecessors.

Of course, when you shop in this price range—the Pixel 6a costs just $449—you should expect some compromises. And while performance is no longer a concern, Google’s new A-series smartphone can’t deliver on all the high-end features provided by its more expensive stablemates. Its 6.1-inch OLED display runs at just 60 Hz with no high refresh rate option. There’s no wireless charging, and wired charging is on the slow side. And it has a smaller battery with less endurance, an older camera system (which still takes amazing photos and videos), less RAM, and only a single storage option.

And … whatever. To me, these are the right compromises. But if you feel differently, you can move up the price sheet and consider the $600 Pixel 6 or, given the timeframe, maybe wait for the Pixel 7, which I assume will arrive in October. But the Pixel 6a speaks to those who purchased a Pixel 3a or 4a, especially, and are now looking to upgrade. Those customers will revel in the Pixel 6a’s performance, display, and camera improvements, and they will appreciate how much longer this new handset will last.

Let’s dive in.

Design

The new Pixel hardware design language debuted with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro in late 2021, and I was surprised to discover it was considered controversial by some: I love the look now as much as I did then, I find its segregated rear design, with two different but related back colors separated by a black camera bar to be iconic, attractive, and functional: because the camera bar extends across the entire back, these handsets can lay on a flat surface and not wobble when touched, as is the case with modern Apple and Samsung flagships, thanks to their bulging, corner-mounted camera modules.

The Pixel 6a improves on this design and, go figure, seems to almost perfect it. For starters, the camera bar extends barely over 1 mm past the rest of the Pixel’s rear, no doubt because its older sensors are smaller. And the camera model itself is subtly confined in a nice rounded rectangle within the bar, which looks better than the separated sensors on my Pixel 6 Pro. It’s such a good look, especially in the wonderful Sage color scheme of the review unit I was loaned, that I’ve tried using it without a case. It just begs to be seen.

Seen and felt: its 3D thermoformed composite body—read: plastic—is wonderful to touch and it reminds me very much of the Pixel 3a’s polycarbonate body, which I also loved. That, combined with its smaller size, makes it much more comfortable and even desirable to hold than the Pixel 6 Pro, which features a glass back so slippery that using it without a case would be just about impossible. It’s also much less of a fingerprint magnet, thanks in part to a fingerprint-resistant coating.

The edges of the Pixel 6a are made of a tactile alloy frame, which I assume is some non-aluminum metal mix, whereas the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro use aluminum except for the top plastic edge. But again, it feels great in the hand.

Whether this body is less durable than other Pixels is debatable. Sure, the Pixel 6 Pro uses Gorilla Glass on its rear. But plastic is durable and won’t reveal an underlying metal color if scratched. Less debatable is that the older Gorilla Glass 3 used on the Pixel 6a’s display is less durable than the Gorilla Glass Victus used by the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, but this is an understandable cost saving at this price point.

Display

The Pixel 6a provides a 6.1-inch Full HD+ (1080 x 2400) flat OLED display with a 20:9 aspect ratio and a 60 Hz refresh rate. That’s the same size as the display on my iPhone 13 Pro, though the display on that much more expensive device offers a slightly higher resolution (1170 x 2532) and a faster 120 Hz refresh rate. The iPhone display is also superior and brighter, of course, with whiter whites and punchier colors, but the Pixel offers a bit more usable onscreen real estate when viewing videos thanks to its lack of a notch. And the bezels are smaller, too, though not as tiny as those on the Pixel 6 Pro.

Given the relative costs of these handsets, I’m not complaining. And while I know this is an issue for some, I’m likewise not complaining about the Pixel 6a’s lack of high refresh rate support. This is one of those things you either experience or don’t, and I don’t. And so I turn it off on handsets that do support it to save battery life anyway.

Like the Pixel 6 Pro, the Pixel 6a supports an “Extra dim” feature that lets you use the phone in darkness without burning your eyeballs (and you can enable a Quick setting toggle for easy access). But unlike the Pixel 6 Pro, the Pixel 6a’s display is flat, it and doesn’t have curved edges. I very much prefer this design and wish that Google would stop using this inferior design in its most expensive Pixels. Flat displays don’t distort the picture at the edges and don’t suffer from as many inadvertent taps and swipes.

The auto-brightness issues I continue to experience on the Pixel 6 Pro are present on the Pixel 6a, too—the display will sometimes just get really dim for no reason, and sometimes it won’t be bright enough for the current conditions—but they happen a lot less often. I assume Google has done some software tweaking since late 2021.

And the Pixel 6 suffers from the same weird flashing effect that dogs the Pixel 6 Pro, where the display will dim when not in use and then transition to the always-on display with two jarring flashes. This happens a lot when we watch TV, and it can be distracting in a dark room.

Finally, Google places the in-display front camera in a center hole-punch, and while I would prefer a corner position for that—mostly for video-watching purposes—I’ve gotten used to it since I reviewed the Pixel 6 Pro, and it no longer bothers me. It’s a huge improvement over the large notch on my iPhone.

Hardware and specs

The Pixel 6a is powered by the same 5-nm Google Tensor GS 101 system on a chip (SoC)—with two X1 big cores, two A76 medium cores, four A55 small cores, and ARM Mali G78 graphics—as the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Where it varies from its stablemates is in RAM and storage: the Pixel 6a offers less RAM—6 GB of fast LPDDR5 RAM vs. 8 GB for the Pixel 6 and 12 GB for the 6 Pro—and no storage options: where the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro both offer configurations with 128 GB or more of UFS 3.1 storage, the Pixel 6a offers a single configuration with 128.

What this means in real-world terms is that the Pixel 6a—today, at least—performs as well as its more expensive siblings. I never noticed any weird slowdowns or glitches that aren’t also present on the more expensive Pixels, too—software makers are perhaps still adapting to the unique Tensor design—and that makes a world of difference. I am, of course, curious about what this will mean in the long term, and whether its smaller memory allotment, especially, could cause slowdowns in the years ahead.

Overall, the Pixel 6a performed very well, as expected. But there were curious app-related slowdowns from time to time that I blame on third-party developers. The most noticeable was with Instagram, where tagging my wife in photos (by typing “st” in search for “Steph”) happened instantly while tagging my son, whose screenname starts with “mt” always triggers a pause and then a note that there are no usernames like that before finally showing his name. On the iPhone, finding my son is instantaneous. (But when I tested this on the Pixel 6 Pro, I saw exactly the same slowness as on the Pixel 6a, go figure.)

Where the Tensor really makes a difference is with photo processing: previous A-series Pixels could take great photos, but their slow processors caused a lot of waiting if you wanted to see the results right away. With the Pixel 6a, photo processing is as fast as it is on the Pixel 6 Pro, with almost no processing lag when you take a shot and immediately view it.

I’m OK with the 128 GB of storage, as it’s what I configure on phones that offer more choice. And while I would like to see storage expansion capabilities, it’s a reasonable omission at this price point. (More expensive handsets like the Pixel 6 Pro and all iPhones don’t offer this either.)

Connectivity

Connectivity is modern: the Pixel 6a supports 5G (Sub-6GHz globally and mmWave only on Verizon), Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.2, and NFC. It also supports dual SIMs, with one physical nano-SIM and an arbitrary number of eSIMs, with only one eSIM in use at a time. I’ve only tested it with a single (Google Fi) eSIM.

Audio-video

As one should expect of any smartphone in 2022, the Pixel 6a offers stereo speakers that deliver a good audio-visual experience for music, audiobooks, podcasts, and videos. Music and video alike offer a terrific stereo experience, with none of the left or right bias that dogs so many smartphones. And the video experience is likewise nice, with a nice screen-filling presentation in most apps. I watched videos on the Pixel 6a at the gym while using an elliptical machine several times and would rate the experience as being about identical to that on the iPhone, albeit without the notch occluding some of the view.

But we should also observe a moment of silence, as the Pixel 6a is the first A-series smartphone to not provide a headphone jack. This is, of course, not uncommon or unexpected, and not something that I would ding Google for in 2022. But it’s worth pointing out.

Cameras

The Pixel 6a’s camera system is a blast from the past, but in this case, that’s not horrible. Thanks to years of optimizations and familiarity, Google’s camera software knows how to make these aging lenses shine, and the results are often about as good as what I get with the Pixel 6 Pro, at least with its main (wide) and ultrawide lenses. The only real difference is a bit of detail loss, especially in darker areas, which you really need to be looking for. And, of course, the Pixel 6a lacks the Pixel 6 Pro’s excellent telephoto lens, with its 4x optical zoom, 10x hybrid zoom, and 20x digital zoom.

The Pixel 6a provides the same basic rear camera system as the Pixel 5a, Pixel 4a 5G, and most of the previous several Pixels. The main wide lens utilizes a 12 MP Sony IMX363 with optical image stabilization (IOS), and the ultra-wide lens provides a 12 MP Sony IMX386 with a 114-degree field of view. The main lens is, as before, the most impressive, and it holds up surprisingly well against the 50 MP unit in my Pixel 6 Pro. But the ultra-wide lens remains a weak point: it’s among the least wide of ultra-wide lenses in modern smartphones and yet the images are distorted at the edges.

When I reviewed the Pixel 5a last year, I expressed the need for better lenses, in part because “the system’s slow performance can lead to noisy if not blurry shots in less than ideal light.” But this is not an issue with the Pixel 6a, thanks to the Tensor chipset, which has breathed new life into these lenses. If anything, this shows me that Google has a lot of work to do to get its ostensibly more powerful main lens on the Pixel 6/6 Pro better optimized.

Consider the following shots of the same scene, taken with the main lenses on the Pixel 6a and Pixel 6 Pro and blown up to 400 percent. Both have about the same level of detail, though there are minor coloring differences. If anything, the little cat in the 6a version of the picture is clearer. This, despite its ancient and less-powerful lens.

Pixel 6a (left), Pixel 6 Pro (right). Click for larger version.

Where the Pixel 6a falls apart, of course, is with zoom. It has to make do with digital zoom, and here its older lenses with no optical zoom betray it. We attended a soccer (futbol) match last night in Mexico City, and I brought both Pixels in anticipation of this issue. Predictably, the Pixel 6a struggled to capture any of the on-field play, with the players looking like watercolor renderings, a common digital zoom effect.

The Pixel 6 Pro delivered some terrific photos at 10x zoom, however:

But for the money, and given the age of its components, the Pixel 6a camera experience is top-notch. Daylight shots are excellent, it’s easy to capture nuances in the sky even under cloudy conditions, and Night Sight, while as slow as ever, is acceptable for the most part and can be configured to engage automatically or not.

Barring a few comparison shots, I’ve used the Pixel 6a exclusively for photos since I got it, including on our current trip to Mexico City, and I don’t regret it. My shots of this beautiful city are excellent. Less excellent is the video quality, an area Pixel fell behind in years ago, but made strides with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Those gains are not seen here at all: my one soccer video was so bad I deleted it.

With regards to the front-facing camera, I don’t take a lot of selfies, but the 8 MP fixed-focused lens is a step down from the 10 MP auto-focus lens on the Pixel 6, and a major step down from the two levels of zoom you get with the Pixel 6 Pro. It is, in short, about what to expect in this price range.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the Tensor chipset enables the Pixel 6a to take advantage of all of the cool photography tricks provided by its more expensive siblings, including Face Unblur, Night Sight, Real Tone, Top Shot, and so on. It also provides Magic Eraser and Camouflage capabilities in Google Photos. The former removes unwanted objects from photos (like the cat from the above comparison photos), and Camouflage, which can change the color of selected objects to better match the colors in other objects.

Security

Like other Pixels, the Pixel 6a provides Google’s multi-layer hardware security with security core, the Titan M2 security coprocessor, and Trusty, Google’s Trusted Execution Environment. And its Security hub provides automated security checks and privacy controls.

From a day-to-day perspective, the Pixel 6a’s in-display fingerprint reader is noticeably better than that of the Pixel 6 Pro (and Pixel 6), which has improved a bit after several months of software updates. But the Pixel 6a’s in-display fingerprint reader is still noticeably better, it’s just not as snappy and reliable as the best Samsung and OnePlus designs. I’m not forced to manually enter my PIN as much as I am on the Pixel 6 Pro, it’s not even close. But it still happens occasionally.

Battery

I used the Pixel 6a very heavily during over two weeks of evaluation and have spent the past several days in Mexico City, where I was out in the world taking lots of photos each day. Given this experience, I rate the battery life to be good, meaning that I can get through an entire day most of the time, with only the most aggressive days out causing any battery-related stress. That’s about the same as my Pixel 6 Pro, I guess, but it’s noticeably worse than the Pixel 4a 5G or Pixel 5a, both of which could last for nearly two days, or the iPhone 13 Pro.

Wired charging is problematic, as it is with the Pixel 6 Pro: Google’s “fast” charging is not that fast, but it’s even slower than is the case with the Pixel 6 Pro, in part because it charges at just 18 watts, compared to 22 for the 6 Pro (and 20 watts for the iPhone, which charges much more quickly). In normal use, this isn’t a big issue, as the phone can last the day and then easily charge overnight. But we live in a world of incredible battery charging innovation, and Google is ignoring the latest technologies in its handsets.

The Pixel 6a—like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro (and iPhone) does not include a charger in the box, which is commonplace these days. But it doesn’t support wireless charging, which could be problematic for some. And it does not support reverse wireless charging, which is kind of an esoteric feature anyway, as expected in this price range.

Unique hardware features

Aside from the in-display fingerprint reader noted above, the Pixel 6a sports IP67 water and dust protection, which is good for temporary submersion in water at depths up to 3.3 feet for up to 30 minutes, but a downgrade from the Pixel 6/6 Pro’s IP68 rating.

Software

The Pixel 6a provides the same clean and Pixel-ized Android 12 software experience as its predecessors, and it’s a delight, with beautiful Material You theming, improved home screen widgets, and all of the other improvements that came with Android 12. It is also upgradable, starting today, to the even more impressive Android 13.

I don’t even know where to begin with all of the Pixel-specific improvements that Google adds to Android, but I will highlight a few that really stood out during my testing. The first is its incredible anti-spam capabilities for phone calls and text messages, which normally work automatically but shine when even Google isn’t sure what to do. For example, you can let Google screen an unknown call, which is incredible, and quickly dispenses with any nonsense.

The second one is voice typing. After months of using Apple’s terrible voice typing feature on iOS, returning to Pixel was like being on the receiving end of a miracle: Google’s voice typing is much more accurate and better handles pauses and edits. And unlike on previous A-series Pixels, it’s lightning-fast on the 6a with none of the startup lag from the past. It’s an incredible feature, especially for people like me who struggle typing on smartphone screens.

But the most notable new feature, to me, is Live Translate, as I’ve been using it for the first time in apps here in Mexico to communicate with people who only speak Spanish. For example, when our apartment building manager added me to a WhatsApp group, a pop-up asked me whether I’d like to use this feature while in the app. And when I said yes, I got an onscreen overlay so I can now go back and forth between English and Spanish in that app. My wife, who uses a Samsung, is very jealous of this feature.

The Pixel 6a’s support longevity is excellent. Google promises three years of Android version upgrades, so Pixel 6a owners can expect to get Android 13 (starting now), 14, and 15, and five years of security updates. This isn’t quite the best in the Android world—Samsung outdoes Google by offering four years of Android version upgrades—but it’s better than most of the market. (Apple, of course, supports iPhones for up to 7 years.)

Pricing and availability

The Pixel 6a costs just $449 and is available in three colors—Charcoal, Chalk, and Sage—but only one configuration, with 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of non-expandable storage. (Verizon customers will pay $499 because those versions add support for that carrier’s unique mmWave 5G connectivity.) Unlike A-series handsets of the previous two years—the Pixel 4a, 4a 5G, and 5a—the Pixel 6a is even broadly available: in the U.S., for example, you can purchase it at AT&T and Verizon, via Google Fi, and through the Google Store.

Recommendations and conclusions

Google has always done a terrific job of distilling its Pixel experience down to the most important experiences with its A-series handsets, but the Pixel 6a takes this to a new level, with no performance compromises that will impact this smartphone’s long-term viability. But the Pixel 6a still delivers on Google’s helpful Pixel-only features and a surprisingly good camera system. And it is, amazingly, the most refined of the 6-series handsets, with a barely perceptible camera bar bulge and more comfortable materials all around. Combine all that with its affordable pricing and fun color choices, and you have the best smartphone value of 2022.

The Pixel 6a is highly recommended: this is the midmarket smartphone done right, with the right mix of features and flagship-class performance at an affordable price.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Terrific value
  • Future-proof, flagship-class performance
  • Helpful Pixel experiences, clean software image
  • Beautiful, friendly, and unique design
  • Excellent camera system

Cons

  • Slow wired charging, no wireless charging

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