Google’s Pixel 6a offers plenty of value and in a small enough body to suit those that find the standard Pixel 6 and 6 Pro to be too large.
The Google Pixel 6a is an interesting phone and certainly one worth considering if shopping for a new smartphone priced under $500. While it is not perfect, it borrows enough from the rest of the Pixel 6 series to offer great value overall. However, the Pixel 6a is a small phone, at least by 2022 standards, so it is not going to suit everyone in spite of the low asking price. For those that had thought the standard Pixel 6 and 6 Pro were too large, the Pixel 6a may very well fit the Goldilocks mold.
With each year that passes, the Pixel lineup gains in significance. Even though that significance might not be as visible in sales figures when compared to the Samsungs and Apples of this world, it is another year of experience, research, development, and refinement under Google’s belt. Unlike the Pixel 6, which is a sixth-generation device, the Pixel 6a is a fourth-generation model that follows in the footsteps of the Pixel 3a, 4a, and 5a, albeit with a couple of ‘XL’ and ‘with 5G’ variants along the way.
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The Pixel 6a starts from $449 in the United States and comes with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. It is officially available to order now from the Google Store and other retailers. Shoppers can choose between Sage (Green), Chalk (While) and Charcoal (Black) color options, and Google was kind enough to provide Screen Rant with a Sage Pixel 6a for the purpose of this review.
Pixel 6a Design – The Biggest Upgrade
The Pixel 6a is a good-looking smartphone. It is obviously not as premium as the other members of the Pixel 6 family, but when keeping the price in mind, it really is an attractive phone and one that’s clearly identifiable as a Pixel 6 phone. In a bid to cut the cost, the materials used have been downgraded but you wouldn’t really know it to look and hold the phone. It feels as sleek—more sleek if anything, due to the thinner profile—than the other Pixel 6 phones, and feels like a premium phone. Google has got the design of the Pixel 6a just right.
Personally, the Pixel 6a is just too small of a phone. If a compact smartphone is at the top of the shopping list, then the Pixel 6a will certainly be worth checking out. However, for anyone that has gotten used to the larger screen size trend, it is going to feel noticeably small. Measuring in at 6.1 inches, the display itself is not technically that small. The problem is, this is an all-screen phone and even though it has plenty of screen real estate, it is just too small overall. To put the size into perspective, it is not only smaller than the standard Pixel 6, but also the Pixel 5a with 5G. While it would be expected that a next-generation phone would be thinner and lighter, the Pixel 6a’s screen is also smaller than the Pixel 5a’s as well. Miles will vary with size and some will prefer the more compact design of the Pixel 6a, but for the needs of many people in 2022, it’s likely to be just a tad too compact.
Size preferences aside, the Pixel 6a really does look the business. If comparing to the “boring” look of the Pixel 5a, the improvements in design are even more clear to see and this is in spite of the Pixel 6a arguably being a less premium phone. While the Pixel 5a came with a “premium metal unibody” design, the Pixel 6a is made of a 3D thermoformed composite back with a tactile alloy frame. In other words, it’s a plastic. Regardless of this, the Pixel 6a simply looks and feels just like one of the more expensive Pixel 6 phones, even if it doesn’t perform quite to the same level.
Pixel 6a Display – Nothing To See Here
Depending on the phone switching from, the quality of the display might be a concern. Again, on paper, there’s nothing technically wrong here with the Pixel 6a equipped with an FHD+ display. After switching from using a Pixel 6 Pro on a daily basis, however, the screen is a notable downgrade. Of course, the same could be said about the standard Pixel 6 considering it comes with the same quality and resolution display as the Pixel 6a.
If anything, the Pixel 6a is arguably slightly sharper than the standard model thanks to the smaller display resulting in a slightly higher PPI. The Pixel 6a also comes with the same flat design as the standard Pixel 6, unlike the Pro which features curved glass. That said, even when comparing to the standard Pixel 6, there are some notable downgrades. For example, the Pixel 6a is limited to 60Hz while the standard model tops out at 90Hz. The end result being a fairly noticeable scroll speed and animation when switching from a higher refresh rate phone.
Buyers also might want to consider picking up a screen protector as the Pixel 6a not only relies on the older Gorilla Glass 3 but also comes with a lesser IP67 dust and water resistance rating. In this sense, the Pixel 6a’s durability is no better than the Pixel 5a with 5G. While there were no real issues in terms of the durability during testing, this was only over a short period and didn’t involve any of those accidental drops that are typical of daily usage. A screen protector and a case are going to be highly recommended with the Pixel 6a.
Pixel 6a Performance – Powered By Tensor
The Pixel 6a performs well overall, although some very clear disclaimers do need to be made here. To start with a positive, Android 12 is a lot more stable now than it was when the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro came out and so the Android experience is about as reliable and useful as it is going to get. At the software level, the Pixel 6a is mostly no different to the other Pixel 6 series phones, save for any features that are only available with the hardware on the more expensive Pro model. The Pixel 6a will also be one of the first phones to get an upgrade to Android 13 when the stable version rolls out to the public later in the year.
Software aside, the Pixel 6a only comes with 6GB RAM. In comparison, the standard Pixel 6 packs 8GB and the Pixel 6 Pro crams in 12GB. Even though the chip inside is the same Tensor processor as the other Pixel 6 models, consumers won’t be getting a comparable performance experience. The Tensor chip itself is one that’s shown admirable, but not the best, performance when compared to other flagship chips. At the same time, the Pixel 5 and Pixel 5a with 5G both leaned on the Snapdragon 765G which wasn’t Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line SoC at the time. In this sense, the Pixel 6a is an upgrade in the performance department, it’s just not as capable of handing heavier loads and processing as the other Pixel 6 phones.
For general use, however, there were no immediate or worrying performance concerns. This is particularly true when considering this is a sub-$500 smartphone. The Pixel 6a was able to handle daily tasks fine. The same was also true of calls made from the phone or when using mobile data while out and about. Speaking of which, the Pixel 6a is a 5G smartphone so opting for the cheaper model won’t result in a lack of access to 5G networks. Although that’s providing the phone is connecting to Sub 6GHz 5G networks, as mmWave 5G is not supported on the Pixel 6a.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Pixel phone this year without also talking about the fingerprint sensor. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro were plagued by sensor issues at launch and although some of those have been ironed out via software updates, there is still the claim that the sensor is slow in comparison to smartphones from other brands. The Pixel 6a seems to use exactly the same fingerprint sensor, so consumers shouldn’t expect a better or worse experience. More specifically, a faster or slower unlocking experience.
Pixel 6a Cameras – Capturing Its True Colors
The Pixel 6a offers a modest camera experience by 2022 standards and the actual hardware is one of the most obvious cost-cutting differences. While the other Pixel 6 phones sport a new 50 MP Octa PD Quad Bayer wide camera, the Pixel 6a relies on a 12.2 MP dual pixel wide camera, resulting in a smaller aperture and field of view among other things. Similar to the standard Pixel 6, the Pixel 6a is also missing the Pro’s 3x telephoto camera. For reference, the Pixel 6a’s main camera is exactly the same one used on all previous Pixel phones, including the Pixel 5. Considering how long Google had previously used this sensor for, and even on previous a-series phones, it feels more noticeable this time around that the Pixel 6a is a lesser-capable device.
Of course, this is all relative, as the Pixel 5 camera wasn’t terrible to begin with. Not to mention, the Pixel 6a does come with the same Google photography smarts and that’s arguably where the real value in owning a Pixel phone comes into play. Not only does the Pixel 6a’s camera look to offer AI-based improvements to captured images, but the software includes many of the most popular features like Magic Eraser, Night Sight, Portrait Blur, Face Deblur and the improved version of Real Tone. Similarly, video capture also benefits from the improvements provided by the Tensor chip, including Live HDR+ Video when recording in 4K.
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In reality, the cameras work well enough and are capable of taking good-quality images, it is just not Pixel 6-level photography, let alone Pixel 6 Pro. Google’s photo-magic is able to be used to great effect, but the baseline quality feels noticeable less than the other Pixel 6 phones and many other 2022 models from other brands. At under $500, however, it might be hard to find a smartphone that captures as well as the Pixel 6a does, at least in the United States.
A criticism of the camera is that it does take rather narrow photos. Although this might not be an issue for everyone, the lack of width is evident to see when drawing direct comparisons to photos taken by the Pixel 6 Pro. The secondary 12 MP ultrawide camera is able to help out a little with this, but the secondary camera’s field of view is even narrower than the secondary camera on the Pixel 5a. Which was already quite narrow to begin with.
There’s no change on the front of the device with the Pixel 6a equipped with the same 8 MP (f/2.0 aperture and 84-degree wide field of view) front-facing camera as the standard Pixel 6. As a result, buyers can expect equally good or bad selfies, depending on how good they deem the standard Pixel 6 to be. For most cases, including video calls, it works fine.
Pixel 6a Battery – Enough To Keep You Going
Officially, the Pixel 6a comes with a 4410 mAh capacity battery and is rated to offer over 24 hours of battery per charge. It also features Adaptive Charging, much like the other Pixels, which looks to intelligently charge the device. For example, if charging overnight and a morning alarm is set on the phone, it won’t continually charge the phone at the same speed but look to ensure a 100 percent battery is reached before the alarm sounds. It also features Google’s Battery Saving Mode which makes it possible to extend the battery up to 72 hours by pausing all non-essential apps.
Google markets all of its Pixel 6 phones as being able to last “beyond 24 hours” and while a good soundbite that suggests all the Pixel 6 models are on an equal footing, even its own testing has revealed significant differences. According to Google, average testing resulted in 34 hours for the standard Pixel 6, while the Pixel 6a only manages 29 hours on average. While both of these are consistent with Google’s “beyond 24 hours” claims, it does still highlight that the lesser capacity does result in a drop in battery life. This is even when taking into consideration the smaller display and the use of the same Tensor chip.
In testing, 24 hours was a fairly reasonable maximum to expect, providing the phone is not heavily used during that period and mainly used for less intensive daily tasks. It is also worth keeping in mind that the testing involved very few apps installed on the device, so miles will vary with battery life depending on the user’s individual setup. In a more intentional (and blunt) battery-draining test, the Pixel 6a managed to stream Netflix in HD for around 10.5 hours before dipping below the 10 percent marker. This was with the brightness set to default (Adaptive). If set to maximum brightness, the Pixel 6a took approximately eight hours and 8 minutes to drop from 100-percent to below 5-pecent when streaming HD video over Wi-Fi.
For reference, the Pixel 6a battery is smaller than that of the Pixel 5a, likely due to the smaller size of the phone in general, so if upgrading from the 2021 a-series phone, it is possible that some consumers might actually see a slight decline in battery performance. At the same time, they may also see enough efficiency gains, thanks to the Tensor chip, to offset the difference in capacity. For example, while Google claims up to 72 hours with Extreme Battery Saver enabled on the Pixel 6a, Google only claims up to 48 hours of Extreme Battery Saver with the 4680 mAh battery of the Pixel 5a.
In terms of charging, the speed is a bit of an issue. There’s no wireless charging available and the phone routinely took a little under two hours to charge from completely dead (not enough power to turn on) to full. After about one hour, the phone managed to replenish about 62 percent. If in need of a quick top up, the phone tended to refill between 21 and 25 percent in 15 minutes. The rate of charging is often dependent on the charger used, but the Pixel 6a only supports up to 18W fast charging and was tested with an 18-watt charger, so buyers shouldn’t expect much improvement in charging speed over the Pixel 5a with 5G.
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Should You Buy The Pixel 6a?
It is clear that Google has cut a few corners with the Pixel 6a and while many of the specs are directly comparable to the standard Pixel 6, just as many are not. In spite of all this, it is a good little phone. To be clear, the little here holds as much weight as the good, and is something which will need to be taken into consideration. If anything, the Pixel 6a is probably one of those phones that you really should feel in the hand first. The Pixel 6a does a very good job of pretending to be a Pixel 6 phone, and certainly does look like one. However, the quality of the materials, the display, the cameras, and the durability in general, are all corners that have been cut.
If upgrading from the Pixel 5a or an older model, buyers will note the improvements and certainly feel like they have a Pixel 6 series phone. However, if switching from a premium 2021 or newer smartphone, the Pixel 6a may feel like a downgrade, albeit a very pretty one. Which is sort of the main takeaway here. For what the Google Pixel 6a sets to do, it does well, and it is worth buying in its own right. The problem buyers may face right now is the standard Pixel 6. With the 2022 Pixel 7 edging closer, it is likely that the standard Pixel 6 will see a few price drops in the months ahead. How low the price drops could impact on whether it is actually worth buying a Google Pixel 6a at full price.