Google rocked the premium smartphone market earlier this year with the release of the $999 Pixel 6, which in many ways outperformed flagship smartphones twice the price. Now the tech giant is trying to shake up the midrange market with the $749 Pixel 6a, which offers the same Tensor chip and performance as its top-of-the-line phones but in a new, smaller body. So what’s next?
The Pixel 6a continues the two-tone visor design of the Pixel 6 phones, with a horizontal camera bar separating the lighter top portion from the more expansive muted color. The Pixel 6a is available in three different color variants: Chalk, Charcoal and Sage.
There’s a slight downgrade in materials, as the front of the phone uses Gorilla Glass 3, as opposed to the more durable Victus glass found on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. There’s also plastic on the back instead of glass and no wireless charging.
The under-display fingerprint sensor works more reliably on the 6a than on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, but you’ll need to press your finger longer on the screen for the phone to permanently unlock.
The OLED display is slightly smaller at 6.1 inches and hits a 60Hz refresh rate as opposed to the smoother 90Hz of the Pixel 6 and 120Hz of the Pixel 6 Pro. It’s also not the brightest panel out there, but it gets bright enough for outdoor use and supports HDR for added pop to the viewing experience.
The lack of wireless charging and the faster refresh rate display are notable omissions considering other mid-range devices like Samsung’s Galaxy A53 offer these features. Still, the Pixel 6a’s compact size feels good in the hand and the plastic on the back feels more like a soft-touch ceramic.
The Pixel 6a only has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. So if you need more storage, you’ll have to move to the Pixel 6 phones. Google omitted the headphone jack, which is disappointing considering last year’s Pixel 5a featured one.
The Pixel 6a ships with Android 12 and is guaranteed three years of software updates, meaning it will get Android 13 when it arrives later this year. However, in a world where Samsung now guarantees four Android OS upgrades for its phones, including the Galaxy A53, Google’s efforts here feel a bit overwhelming. The bottom line is that since it’s a Pixel phone, the 6a will be among the first to receive Android software updates, as well as beta previews of future Android builds.
The Pixel 6a packs a solid 4,410mAh battery and when combined with the Pixel’s ability to optimize the battery based on your usage habits, it offers great battery life. Most days I ended up with at least a 30-40 percent charge, with the screen sitting between 5-6 hours at a time. For most people, the Pixel 6a should sail through the first day and well into the next without having to charge the phone.
Charging ends at just 18W and it takes two hours to fully charge the handset from zero to 100 percent.
software and performance
What makes a Pixel phone is the software experience, and Google has carried over to the 6a all the unique features it introduced on the more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Notable features like the ability to translate languages on-the-fly in any app and during conversations with another person, and lightning-fast speech-to-text transcription all work equally well on the 6a.
Our favorite feature is how the Google Assistant handles calls. Calls from unknown numbers are checked with a real-time transcript so you can decide whether to take the call.
Google Assistant will even wait for you on the line and let you know when the person on the other line is ready to talk, tiring out those painfully long customer support calls.
Meanwhile, there’s a special shortcut on the Pixel home screen to view all the songs that Assistant has identified playing in the background over time, with the option to export the songs directly to a playlist in YouTube Music. Having returned from a holiday in Fiji where we heard some amazing music both live and on the local radio this feature came in really handy.
Despite the lack of a faster refresh rate display, the software experience feels very snappy and fluid thanks to Google’s Tensor chip. In terms of raw performance, the processor is comparable to a Snapdragon 888 and is significantly more powerful than what you’ll find in other mid-range phones.
We also found that the Pixel 6a doesn’t get as warm as the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro and doesn’t throttle as quickly under load, suggesting that Google has improved thermal performance.
While the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro offer an updated 50-megapixel main camera sensor, the Pixel 6a sticks with the same 12-megapixel Sony IMX363 sensor that the company used in previous-gen Pixel phones, leading up to the Pixel 2 dating back to 2017. Google has kept the aging sensor relevant by devoting significant effort to the software side of image processing, and it shows.
The Tensor chip means images are captured and processed significantly faster than the Pixel 5a and on par with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro.
Comparing shots taken side-by-side with the Pixel 6 Pro’s main camera, we found that the Pixel 6a produced shots with slightly more saturated colors in bright outdoor scenes that sometimes looked easier on the eye. While the Pixel 6 Pro’s larger 50-megapixel main camera has an advantage in detail resolution and dynamic range, I’ve found that footage from the Pixel 6a’s main shooter delivers surprisingly more consistent results in more demanding scenes.
For example, in the above shot – with the subject against neon blue lights in the background – you can see that the Pixel 6a’s main shooter does a much better job of preserving the subject’s natural skin tone compared to the Pixel 6 Pro, which doesn’t almost entirely separate the subject from the neon-lit one background can isolate.
The Pixel 6a clearly benefits from Google’s five years of image processing tuning with this particular image sensor. But there’s no denying that the larger and more powerful 50-megapixel main shooter on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro gives Google far more leeway to tweak image processing over time.
It’s parity on the ultrawide front, as the Pixel 6a uses the same 12-megapixel IMX386 Sony sensor as the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. There’s no dedicated telephoto lens, but there’s a 2x zoom preset that effectively crops the shot, and you can zoom up to 7x digitally.
Video recording up to 4K and 60 fps with the main camera and up to 30 fps with the ultrawide camera looks great, with minimal noise and even exposures. We like that the recorded video retains the same high-contrast look as the still images.
In short, the Pixel 6a’s camera blows away every other Android smartphone in its price range and rivals pricier flagships. The only notable omission is the lack of a dedicated telephoto lens, but that’s to be expected at this price point.
The closest Android rival would be Samsung’s Galaxy A53, which offers a larger and faster 120Hz display as well as wireless charging. Still, it can’t match the outstanding performance and overall user experience of the Pixel 6a.
We’d argue that the Pixel 6a’s biggest competition is Google’s own Pixel 6, which regularly retails for $899 and comes with a larger screen, more durable glass, and a slightly better camera. But for budget-conscious buyers who want to experience the best of Android, the Pixel 6a won’t disappoint.
Google’s Pixel 6a is an impressive successor to last year’s Pixel 5a. It captures the essence of what makes the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro such special smartphones and packs it into a more affordable package. The 60Hz display and lack of wireless charging speak against it, but for overall value the Pixel 6a just can’t be beat at this price point.
Large compact size while maintaining a substantial 6.1 inch display
controller battery life
Display limited to 60 Hz
No wireless charging
No headphone jack