Google Pixel 6a sums up the Pixel 6 series experience perfectly

Hardware seems ho-hum on paper? Doesn't matter if the phone works great.

by Justin Choo
sage green google pixel 6a phone leaning on a wall mounted shelf

Google’s Pixel 6a represents the budget option in their 6-series of Pixel phones.  But given that the Pixel 6 is practically just $100 more than the 6a, is Google’s newest phone dead out of the water? I won’t tease you with that one – the answer is no, but only just.

What is certain though, is that the Pixel 6a represents what a great, no-frills phone looks like. Kind of like the iPhone Mini, but with the price tag of the SE. While it wins that battle on paper, it’s also firmly in the crosshairs of pretty decent Chinese phones like Xiaomi’s 11T Pro, which offers hardware that the Pixel 6a simply can’t compete against.

Hardware isn’t everything

Much like the lie that size isn’t everything, the Pixel 6a presents the rare exception of a specimen that performs so well despite its perceived limitations. The result? I’m more than happy to pick up a Pixel 6a placed next to its more well-endowed competition, for the one simple reason being that I never feel that I’m really losing out. In fact, there are many little things that the Pixel 6a does better than the competition and I’m not in a hurry to switch and be disappointed.

However, there is one caveat – that kind of have to be an average user – no offence intended if you happen to be interested in this phone – in the sense that you don’t have highly specific needs or that require an exacting degree of performance that only better hardware can deliver.

3/4 view of display on google pixel 6a phone

The core Google Android experience is pretty good even on modest phone.

In many ways, it kind of describes most iPhone users as well and Google can pat itself on the back for finally offering a phone that is essentially the same, but different, at a relatively modest price point; well different in the sense that you’re not married to iOS. For all intents and purposes, this is effectively an iPhone to me from Earth-1610 or whatever.

Having spent time with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro during its teething phase, the bugs at the time reminded me why I naturally gravitate towards iPhones – ain’t no time to be trying to fix stuff when you have some downtime away from work. The current iteration of stock Android on an official Android phone has been rather well-behaved – so far – and from my perspective at least, I don’t foresee any major issues with the Pixel 6a cropping up – touchwood.

Elegantly cutting corners

The Pixel 6a is the cheapest of the three 6 series phones and to some extent, it’s a fairly austere look and construction. Colour-wise, pastels on black are probably as safe and modern as you get, though I must say that for whatever reason, you have the two glass components on the rear have different shades, which is quite noticeable.

The Pixel 6a displays the same design language as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, and as such, it also has the same island-style camera module.  In other words, you have to be careful where you place your left-hand fingers in order to avoid leaving fingerprints on the camera lens but to be fair, the smaller dimensions of the Pixel 6a make it a little more comfortable. I advocate the use of the Pixel phones with the case anyway, so it’s not something that bugs me a lot here. But it’s there; just so you know.

The 6.1″ display phone is generally pretty comfortable though not as small as an iPhone Mini, which we think is one of the most underrated form factors if all you want is a phone that is more a communication device as opposed to a soul-sucking time suck machine. The display uses an OLED panel but the refresh rate is capped at 60Hz and it isn’t particularly bright. You’ll really feel it when you’re outdoors in the glaring sunlight, which I doubt most people will do these days unless by the beach. Thankfully, they didn’t skimp on the speakers, which are adequately loud and the clarity is decent.

The same goes for the System-on-chip (SoC) on the Pixel 6a, which is essentially the same 5nm Google Tensor processor found on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. The Pixel 6a pairs the Tensor with 6GB of RAM, which isn’t great but it’s not the end of the world. You can get Snapdragon 888 processors in the sub-$800 category, so Google can’t really afford to gimp the hardware further if they want to stay competitive. Having only 128GB of storage space is kind of pushing it.

google pixel 6a phone against a turquoise and red backdrop

Not a colourful phone, but it looks good on anything.

Though the Pixel 6a might be the same processor, you can feel the price reflected in the overall performance when you push the phone. Push Diablo Immortal’s graphics settings to maximum on all possible settings and you can start to see the animation start to jerk. But it’s close; close enough to be adequate that I don’t actually mind, but I cannot speak for others on what’s tolerable.

And the reason that I’m not keen on crapping on the Pixel for its comparatively underwhelming hardware feature set is that what makes the Pixel 6a so enjoyable to use, lies solely in the everyday experience. The phone zips along pretty smoothly and does everything fairly competently. The software is what makes the Pixel 6a – and for that matter, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro – purr. Voice recognition is one of the standout features and one of the reasons why the push for machine learning hardware was important. Live translation is pretty good for a baked-in feature that you do not have to pay a monthly subscription fee for. It’s not perfect, but neither are the services that you pay money for anyway.

The camera’s not flagship great, but it’s great to use

Admittedly, not everybody may find the idea of improved voice recognition a rather attractive USP but there are other ways where the combined might of the software and the SoC yield tangible results that everyone can get behind. And that lies in the camera.

Truth be told, the camera system is pretty basic – a 12.2MP wide-angle main camera and a 12MP ultra-wide angle secondary aren’t much to shout about by today’s standards, but it’s the engine under the hood that lifts an otherwise average camera into the realms of decent, provided you don’t squint too hard looking at the pictures. There’s a considerable difference in terms of image detail if you compare this to the regular Pixel 6 – the jump from 50MP to 12MP is very evident when you are looking at fine details. But for the most part, the quality is sufficient for regular use on social media. The software does a lot of heavy lifting and looks really clean and vibrant even if it does have that signature ‘Google photoshop’ look to it. Photographers will not be impressed but for regular users like me, it’s enough for the task.

While there is a 2x option on the UI, the camera is actually relying on digital zoom. For the most part, it stands up to scrutiny so long as you remember that it’s a 12MP mobile phone sensor. You certainly can zoom up to 7x digitally but don’t more often than not small and delicate details turn into mush even in daylight.

One noticeable omission from the Pixel 6a is Motion Mode, which offers pretty decent Action Pan and Long Exposure effects. As good as those effects are, these are purely stylistic touches that we don’t always use in everyday photography. It’s a shame, but I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. The Pixel 6a has enough tricks of its own that are pretty decent and enhance the usability of the camera.

Night Sight is probably the most useful bit of processing as it really props up the lower-resolving sensor of the 6a in less-than-stellar lighting conditions. Night Sight was really good on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, but you certainly can spot the limitations of the smaller camera sensor here. So while it still works, you can’t expect the pictures to capture fine details in a nearly-complete absence of light (why would you).

Panorama and Photo Spheres are two modes that will amaze those who are new to Google’s software trickery. While it can’t totally fix issues when the exposure of the shots is wildly different (for example when cloud cover drastically changes the lighting mid-shot), it does a decent enough job with what it has.

Price $749, from Google Store

OS Android 12
Google Tensor, Titan M2 security coprocessor
Memory 6 GB LPDDR5 RAM, 128 GB storage UFS 3.1 storage

Display 6.1″ FHD+ OLED with up 60Hz refresh rate
Audio Stereo speakers, 2 microphones with noise suppression

Rear Camera 12.2MP dual pixel (1.4 μm) wide-angle camera (ƒ/1.7) with1/2.55″ image sensor, 12 MP (1.25 μm) ultra-wide-angle camera (ƒ/2.2)
Front Camera 8 MP (1.12 μm) with ƒ/2.0 aperture and fixed focus

Connectivity 5G, Wi-Fi 6 (also Wi-Fi 6E capable), Bluetooth v5.2, NFC

Updates Five years of Pixel updates
Battery 4410mAh
Dimensions 152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9 mm
Weight 178g

The video features are quite useful as well. You have 4k60p recording capabilities, 1/4 and 1/8 slow motion mode, as well as up to 120x time lapse. If you don’t mind a slightly cropped view, the video stabilisation feature is also quite useful have on in order to record less jerky footage. I find Standard stabilisation is good enough for most cases provided you’re actually making an effort to not shake your camera like a maraca. Heavy stabilisation takes care of more jerky movements but I find the effective range a little narrow for my level of unsteadiness. The most useful one of the lot is the Locked stabilisation, which keeps the camera really steady while on 2x zoom – almost to a fault, on more than one occasion, I tried to pan and the camera thought I was trying to be an arse about it and stuck its ground; that’s a compliment, by the way – you’re not supposed to move like the idiot I was. Lastly, the Cinematic Pan is more of a visual effect in the sense that it lets you get a very smooth pan at half speed (no sound as well).

As to be expected, the exposure and colour treatment of Google’s pictures and videos lean towards a more processed look, which may or may not be desirable. But this kind of goes back to the original premise – this isn’t for people with very specific needs. If your priority is a good camera that you can do all sorts of tweaks on your own, you wouldn’t be looking here. To use an analogy, if you google for the most authentic local cuisine in a foreign country, chances are, you wouldn’t find the absolute best ones at the top of the page; you’d find a local resident for such information. If you are that particular about your food, then you’d already know that. Same thing here. This camera system specialises in the tourist trap photo, the best Denki experience, you get the idea.

I appreciate a proper camera too but I like what the Pixel 6a camera is capable of. Taking photos is a fairly enjoyable experience if you aren’t picky. I’m not damning it with faint praise; it’s the nature of this beast. You get your shots quickly enough and they are good enough. It also has the Magic Eraser tool built-in, which easily saves you time in removing unwanted elements in a photo.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s really good. And with time you’ll realise what you can get away with and what you can’t.

Great phone for ‘normies’

What’s also pretty good is the battery life. Getting through a single day is easy, and it even seems possible to try for two if you really want it hard enough. That said, the phone does drain its battery far quicker when you push the processor with computational tasks or some good ol’ Genshin Impact. In this day and age I wouldn’t consider 18W fast charging to be fast, but seeing how the phone handles battery life, I’m less inclined to be worried about charging speeds.

google pixel 6a on a wooden park bench

… it really does look good anywhere.

There’s also this bit about people wanting the pure Android experience because it eschews a lot of unwanted apps and integrations that the various manufacturers see fit to include – and you can’t completely remove. My hot take is that it’s less of an issue these days and if just sheer numbers and consistency are anything to go by I’d argue that Samsung has a legitimate claim to be the definitive Android experience, warts and all. But it is indeed nice to have an uncluttered Google phone experience because it reminds me of an iPhone it perfectly embodies this particular phone experience – options are simple and intuitive, and the phone takes care of most of the hard work.

Would I recommend the Pixel 6a? Even with how competitive that price segment is, I still think there’s a good case to be made for the Pixel 6a as an everyday phone. It’s the software – complemented by the hardware – that enables the 6a to shine as a purpose-driven device. In fact, the discounted price of the Pixel 6 is probably the biggest obstacle to anyone looking to buy a Pixel 6a, more so than any other phone. But chances are, prices for the Pixel 6a will be lowered anyway, so you can probably wait until then – in which case the Pixel 6a would be an absolute bargain.

  • 7.3/10
    Google Pixel 6a - 7.3/10

Google Pixel 6a

Features ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐☐
Value Proposition  ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐☐
Performance  ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐
Design & Build Quality  ✅✅✅✅✅✅✅☐☐☐

The pixel-perfect iPhone Mini alternative with the price tag of the iPhone SE. But the Pixel 6 is more or less just a hundred dollars more, which makes it a tad harder to choose between the two. Hint hint, Google.

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