Google Pixel 6a Review: Changing the mid-range Pixel philosophy

Google Pixel 6a Review: Changing the mid-range Pixel philosophy

Despite Google’s hit-or-miss flagship lineup, its mid-range smartphones have generally been much better received. Their value proposition was always pretty simple to sum up: flagship camera, mid-range specifications. Now the Google Pixel 6a is upping the ante a bit, throwing not just a Google-tier camera into the mix, but the company’s own flagship Google Tensor SoC as well, the same that you see on the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.

Does that make the Google Pixel 6a worth it? It depends. It takes a lot of the good from the Pixel 6, though downgrades the camera a bit and shrinks the screen. You still get a 1080p AMOLED panel (though at 60Hz instead of 90Hz), you get basically the same design, and the speakers sound about on par. As already mentioned too, you get Google Tensor, which is the brain of the operation and is the other stand-out feature.

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For a phone that’s $149 less than the Google Pixel 6, it doesn’t seem you downgrade on a whole lot. You get the same chipset as in the flagship Google Pixel 6 series, and you get the same software with all of those features, too. If you want the Google experience for less without compromising on performance too much, then the Google Pixel 6a might be up your alley. The only shame is the camera, as it’s the last generation’s camera rather than the new camera introduced in the Google Pixel 6. It’s more than good enough though, so if you want a Google phone for just a little bit less, then this is the phone for you.

    The Google Pixel 6a is a mid-range smartphone with Google Tensor and a high-end camera, though its execution feels a bit confused.

      Features:

      Pros:

      Cons:

Camera module of the Google Pixel 6a

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Google Pixel 6a: Specifications

Specification Google Pixel 6a
Dimensions and Weight
  • NA
Display
  • 6.1-inch AMOLED
  • FHD+
  • 60Hz
  • 20:9 aspect ratio
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Always on Display
SoC Google Tensor SoC
RAM and Storage
  • 6GB RAM
  • 128GB flash storage
Battery & Charging 4,306mAh
Rear Camera
  • Primary: 12.2MP main
  • Secondary: 12MP ultra-wide
Front Camera 8MP
Ports USB Type-C port
Connectivity
  • Wi-Fi 6/6E
  • Bluetooth 5.2
Other features
  • Stereo speakers
  • Titan M2 security chip
  • 2 microphones
  • In-display fingerprint scanner
Software
  • Android 12
  • 3 generations of Android updates
  • 5 years of minimum security updates

About this review: I received the Google Pixel 6a for review for IrishTech from Google Ireland on the 8th of July, 2022. Google did not have any input into the contents of this article.


Google Pixel 6a: Pricing and Availability

The Google Pixel 6a is available for pre-order from July 21, 2022, with devices shipping on July 28. It costs $449 in the US, €459 in Europe, £399 in the U.K., and ₹43,999 in India.


Google Pixel 6a: Design

  • Great dual-tone design
  • Camera visor makes a return
  • Bit thick in the hand

Google Pixel 6a in hand

The Google Pixel 6a reuses the same iconic design of the Pixel 6 series, packing a camera visor on the back which hosts both camera sensors. I actually prefer the Pixel 6a camera bump to most other camera bumps, as it both looks cool, and means that the phone doesn’t rock on a table. It does catch a fair bit of dust right under the wide bump, so be aware if that would bother you.

The display is flat, with a little bit of a bezel on each edge though nothing out of the ordinary. The back has a slight curve, remaining both slippery and a bit of a fingerprint magnet. We have the “Charcoal Gray” variant, and the back is dual-tone, with the top part of the device above the camera visor being a lighter gray than the part below it. It’s a plastic back, though it has an aluminum frame, too.

Google Pixel 6a in hand

The phone feels thick in the hand, and it’s a little bit thicker than the Google Pixel 6 Pro in its body. However, when including the camera module, the Google Pixel 6a is thinner. There’s a speaker grille at the top which serves as both an earpiece and a stereo speaker. It’s markedly weaker than the bottom-firing speaker, though both speakers in tandem get pretty loud. They’re not the loudest phone speakers I’ve used by any stretch, but they are louder than most mid-range phones that I’ve used in the past.

Overall, the Pixel 6a is a winner when it comes to design

Just like usual, the buttons are tactile and clicky, though the weird button placement also makes a return. Google’s place of the volume rocker below the power button makes taking a screenshot tricky when using the phone one-handed. What’s more, there’s still no fun or unique color for the power button again — Google killed it with the Pixel 6 series, and it doesn’t seem like it’s making a return. Lovers of the headphone jack will be disappointed too, that’s disappeared too and probably isn’t coming back.

Punch hole camera of the Google Pixel 6a

The display is a 60Hz full HD AMOLED panel, completely flat on all sides. The camera hole isn’t big, and the display brightness is adequate. It’s a bit difficult to see under direct sunlight, but again, it’s a mid-range phone. I was more surprised when the Google Pixel 6 Pro packed a dim panel, but here, it makes sense. From looking at the drivers on my device, it seems that the panel is a Samsung one, the S6E3FC3, which was also found in the Pixel 6 and is rumored to power the Pixel 7. It supports HDR10 and HDR10+, which is also a leg-up over other mid-range competitors.

The fingerprint sensor has also been moved to the inside of the display, and while it’s supposed to be faster than the Google Pixel 6 series, I don’t really notice the difference. It’s a bit slow, though I was never bothered all that much by it anyway. If you think you would be, then it’s something else to consider, too.

Overall, the Google Pixel 6a is a winner when it comes to design. It takes all of the good of the Pixel 6 series and crams it into a smaller package while being fully usable with one hand, including the excellent haptics as well. It’s a mid-range device, but that’s not inherently bad. It nails the basics, which I’m sure most people will be more than happy about.


Google Pixel 6a: Camera

  • Great camera quality
  • Mediocre video quality
  • Last generation camera, not the same as the Pixel 6 series

The Google Pixel series has primarily been renowned for its camera. Consistently, the company manages to pump out one of the best smartphone cameras on the market with every release, even in its mid-range “a” series phones. Typically, the value proposition of the “a” series is that it would pack the same camera hardware as the flagship phone, and then downgrade other aspects to lower the price.

This time around, though, things are different. Rather than packing the Samsung GN1 that’s in the Google Pixel 6 series, the company went back to old reliables. This is the same 12.2MP camera that the company used for years in previous smartphones like the Pixel 5, and while it’s a capable sensor, it was already beginning to show its age last year. It still gets the job done though, and I was able to take some pretty impressive shots. Because of the smaller sensor though, it can really struggle with dark spots in photos turning out noisy, as you’ll see.

Google Pixel 6a

However, if what you want is a phone that generally does a good job with the camera, then the Google Pixel 6a is definitely worth considering. It’s still a mid-range phone with an exceptional camera, it’s just no longer in contention for being one of the best. Let’s take a look at a couple of photos that I took in particularly challenging scenarios. Note that these photos are heavily compressed, and you can find the uncompressed photos in the above Flickr album.

Photo taken with Google Pixel 6a of a cat

This first shot is one that impressed me. This cat was running down the street pretty fast, and I’ve often found phone cameras to struggle with moving objects. Even in daylight, I’ve had OnePlus and Samsung phones turn photos of fast-moving animals into a blur, meaning that they just aren’t really feasible for taking pet or kid photos with. The Pixel 6a captured this cat pretty much perfectly, and you can even see the cat’s mouth open a small bit.

Google Pixel 6a photo of a lightbulb

This next photo is of a lightbulb, and it’s one of my favorite photos that I’ve taken with this phone. The Google Pixel 6a beautifully represents not just the LED strips inside of the bulb, but the darkness around it, too. I worried that with a shot like this, the surrounding area would look noisy or unnatural, but this phone does a great job at capturing detail and darkening the areas that need to be darkened.

Google Pixel 6a photo taken of sunset

This photo is one of the best photos I’ve taken with the Google Pixel 6a, and that’s again thanks to the incredible dynamic range. The phone allows the sun to be incredibly bright and overexposed while darkening the other portions of the image and keeping them true-to-life. Rays of sunshine can be seen parting the clouds too, with the phone’s camera respecting the natural beauty of the landscape without overprocessing it.

Cologne city landscape, photo taken on the Google Pixel 6a

This city landscape shot is a simple one, but one that the Google Pixel 6a did a good job with. There’s nothing crazy about it, it’s just a good photo. It’s somewhat of a testament to how it’s difficult to get an outright bad photo out of this phone.

As is typically the case, video is also in a similarly poor position. It’s fine, but there’s better for sure. The audio is good, though.

The best thing I can say about it is that it handles stabilization pretty well and does a good job in completely bright scenarios. It struggles in darker settings at times, again thanks to that older sensor.


Google Pixel 6a: Performance

  • Google Tensor has decent performance
  • Runs very hot
  • Poor RAM management

Here’s where things get interesting with the Google Pixel 6a. For context, Google Tensor is the company’s first custom mobile chipset, and it was made specifically for the Google Pixel 6 series. We’ve already affirmed that this chipset is essentially an Exynos chipset in its genetics, but there is undoubtedly a bit of Google influence. We’ve already spoken at length about the performance of Google Tensor in the Google Pixel 6 Pro, and the stats match up.

This is a flagship chipset in a mid-range smartphone

However, what is interesting is that a chipset of this caliber is being used in a mid-range phone. It’s not the most powerful phone and I’ve run into some weird performance hitches at times (switching apps, rotating my device both cause hang-ups at times), but to Google, this is a flagship chipset. You won’t be able to game at length on Tensor (especially not intensive games like Genshin Impact) but you will be able to use social media, watch videos, and use all of your favorite apps. In that sense, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. You’ll likely find those same issues in other devices at a similar price point.

Google Tensor has the following components:

  • 2x Cortex-X1 cores
  • 2x Cortex-A76 cores
  • 4x Cortex-A55 cores
  • 1x Tensor Processing Unit (TPU)
  • 1x Low-power “Context Hub”
  • 1x Titan security chip
  • 1x Image Signalling Processor (ISP)

In case you’re wondering as well, Google hasn’t upgraded the modem in Google Tensor. That means that if you’ve heard stories about poor signal performance on the Google Pixel 6 series, those issues are replicated here.

In general usage, the Google Pixel 6a still manages to perform worse than the Google Pixel 6 Pro, and I’m unsure why. The best explanation I have is that it’s because of the reduced RAM. I frequently see apps redrawn after switching from them and switching back and opening the camera will sometimes kill any music app that I have playing. The phone will then freeze up for a little bit and struggle, and I’ll need to open up my music app again manually.

I also found in the CPU Throttling Test that the Google Pixel 6a throttled heavily, dropping to 49% of its maximum performance. The phone ran extremely hot during this stress test, so I suspect that the cause is that it can’t dissipate heat as well as the Google Pixel 6 Pro.

Basically, this is the same chipset as you’ll find in the Google Pixel 6 series, and you’ll get a lot of the same experience. However, it’s not going to give you the exact same results as you’ve come to expect from the Pixel 6 series, and you’ll need to adjust your expectations. The second you load up a game or do any intensive tasks, performance will tank, and you’ll definitely feel it. Don’t expect to be multi-tasking and zipping between apps either, this phone just isn’t built for that.

Geekbench and Sustained Performance

CPU Throttling Test is a freely available app on the Google Play Store, and it repeats a simple multithreaded test in C for as short as 15 minutes. We increased the length of time to 30 minutes. The app charts the score over time so you can see when the phone starts throttling. The score is measured in GIPS — or billion operations per second. It’s essentially a test that can measure the sustained performance of a chipset.

We can see in the above screenshot that the Google Pixel 6a performs horribly under load. I was able to replicate the same results in a low-temperature environment too, and I was surprised by how bad it was. Over time, performance using this phone will suffer, and it will be hard to play games and do other intensive tasks over any stretch of time. You’ll particularly feel this when using your phone to do a lot at once. I was texting on Facebook Messenger while navigating in Google Maps and listening to music, and the phone struggled to keep up. All the while, it kept heating up, too.

I’m confused as to what the cause is, as I can repeatedly and consistently replicate these results. The Geekbench score totally lines up with what we’ve already seen, but CPU Throttling Test is flat-out worrying. You can feel it when using the phone too.


Google Pixel 6a: Battery Life and Charging Speed

  • Surprisingly good battery life
  • Super slow charging
  • No wireless charging

One of the biggest complaints I had of the Google Pixel 6 Pro was the battery, and in my own experience, it hasn’t really improved. I also know multiple Google Pixel 6 owners, and all of them have told me that their biggest problem is in its battery life. To be honest, I couldn’t blame them. That’s why I assumed that the Google Pixel 6a would have the same problems, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The Google Pixel 6a actually does a decent job at supplying all-day battery life, and I have a few theories as to how. For starters, the display is both smaller and has a lower refresh rate. That goes a long way to help, but also, as the phone heats up, it throttles pretty heavily. That means the chipset consumes less power, and then battery life is improved as a result. It’s at a detriment to performance, but it gives better battery life regardless. This is a pretty good battery life for my usage.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Google Pixel 6a's battery

Google Pixel 6a Charging Speed Graph

In the charging department, though, keep in mind that Google doesn’t really do fast charging. The Google Pixel 6a doesn’t even come with a charger in the box (just a cable), and it’ll only “fast” charge at 18W. While I respect the dedication to a single standard in the support of USB Power Delivery, it is a bit of a hard pill to swallow when you switch to the Google Pixel 6a. It’s a frustrating experience if you’re in a rush, especially when other phones can do so much better, and the phone heats up a ton while it’s charging too. You can expect to get it from 0% to 100% in just under 2 hours, while an hour of charging will get you around 65% battery.

If you like wireless charging, then I’m sorry to say as well that this phone doesn’t support it. That’s not too surprising as it’s rare for mid-range phones to be able to wirelessly charge, but it’s still something that many people actually rely on.


Google Pixel 6a: Android 12-Specific features

  • Five years of timely updates
  • All of your favorite Google-exclusive features
  • Barebones

Just like in the case of the Google Pixel 6 series, the Google Pixel 6a packs all the Google-y features you’ve come to know and love. From Material You and its system-wide theming to Now Playing (one of my favorite features of all time), there’s something here for everyone. With the benefit of Tensor, you even get things like quick and accurate voice dictation.

Of course, there’s not a lot that’s really different or unique, and it’s all the same as you’ve come to expect with the Pixel 6 series. The only new feature that’s said to be Tensor-powered is Google’s new “camouflage” feature, though you’ll be able to use that on the Pixel 6 series, too. How it works is that it can tune an object’s color to better match the surrounding colors. This means that rather than eliminating an object, you can have it still be in the photo but blend in better and not divert attention from more important subjects in that image.

Basically, the Google Pixel 6a is a mid-range and cheaper way to get all of Google’s AI prowess, though it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. My favorite Google-only feature is Now Playing. If you’ve ever been in a shop and scrambled to grab your phone to Shazam the music playing in the background because you liked it, then you’ll understand the appeal. Now Playing uses the microphone to listen for music around you in an attempt to identify everything that it picks up. It works entirely on-device, so nothing is ever sent to Google’s servers. Nowadays, you can get Now Playing on most devices thanks to an unofficial port, but it’s still an amazing feature.

If, however, you don’t value Google’s changes or believe that they aren’t enough, then look elsewhere. I love Google’s Android 12, but it’s also very barebones in a lot of ways. As for updates, you’ll get Google’s three major platform updates and five years of security updates. That means you’ll get all the way up to Android 15 with this phone (and you’ll get updates pretty much before anyone else) and you’ll get security updates until 2027.


Google continues to nail the “a” series formula, though with some setbacks

The problem with the Pixel 6a is that Google continues to nail the “a” series formula of smartphones, though it has now suffered a series of setbacks that it didn’t previously. Google Tensor has a lot of throttling issues, and while it’s great that Google can now put its own flagship chipsets in its mid-range phones, it makes for a weird downgrade in some ways. That’s not to mention either that the camera has been downgraded and is a step below the flagship device in the series, something Google hasn’t been doing at all.

Is the Google Pixel 6 Pro worth your money, then? It’s hard to say. Personally, if you really wanted a Pixel phone, I’d just cough up the extra money and buy a Google Pixel 6. It has a bigger, 90Hz display and a better camera. While the Pixel 6a is $150 cheaper than the Pixel 6, the Pixel 6 frequently goes on sale and brings it much lower. For example, as part of Prime Day, you could have picked up a Pixel 6 for nearly the same price as what the Pixel 6a costs. Why not spend just a tiny bit more to get something significantly better, especially on its traditional highlight feature (i.e. the camera)?

If you really want a Pixel, pay more and get the Pixel 6

In other words, I’m just confused. It feels like Google is a little bit lost when it comes to the execution of the Google Pixel 6a. There are a lot of good ideas, and the idea of a mid-range phone with a good chipset and a great camera is an interesting value proposition, but the company missed the mark in both aspects. Yes, the phone takes amazing photos, but it’s not an “a” series device in the same way previous Pixel “a” devices have been. It’s an older camera and, if the company is trying to pull its flagship chips down to its mid-range phones now too, it’s significantly nerfed in comparison to the primary devices.

You should buy the Google Pixel 6a if:

  • You want a good camera for less
  • You love the Google software experience
  • You want a cheap device for Day 1 Android updates for the next three years

You shouldn’t buy the Google Pixel 6a if:

  • You want to game or use your phone intensely
  • You don’t want your phone to get hot
  • You are looking for a high value mid-range all-rounder
  • You want a future-proof Google Pixel camera
    The Google Pixel 6a is a mid-range smartphone with Google Tensor and a high-end camera, though its execution feels a bit confused.

Perhaps the only market where the Pixel 6a becomes a good recommendation is the US, and that’s because of the relatively poor state of competition. For $449, the Pixel 6a can be considered in the US market simply because the competition is fairly thin. The Samsung Galaxy A53 5G turns up as a much more complete all-rounder, even though it may not be touching the absolute top in any single section of the spec sheet. Perhaps the one other phone that you can consider is the Apple iPhone SE 3 (2022), and in a lot of ways, Google seems to be walking down the same road as Apple here. The focus on both the Apple and Google phones is the chip and the software experience harmonization, while camera hardware and a bunch of other key specifications continue to remain fairly dated. Google gets a one-up over Apple with a newer design, but that’s just about it.

In regions outside of the US, like India for example, there are far too many competitive options available, and Google’s pricing on the Pixel 6a does not remain aggressive. Unless you absolutely need a Google Tensor Pixel, the Pixel 6a is overshadowed by devices that can do more, better, and for less.

About author

Adam Conway
Adam Conway

I'm the senior technical editor at XDA-Developers. I have a BSc in Computer Science from University College Dublin, and I'm a lover of smartphones, cybersecurity, and Counter-Strike. You can contact me at [email protected] My Twitter is @AdamConwayIE and my Instagram is adamc.99.

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