Google Pixel 6a from behind

Steady as she goes.

That may as well be the mantra for Google’s Pixel A-series line of smartphones, as each year the story seems to be the same: “It’s basically as good as the flagship Pixel from last year, but way cheaper!” Heck, I even crowned last year’s Pixel 5a the best Pixel period at the time, though the later Pixel 6 outclassed it.

You shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the $450 Pixel 6a is probably the easiest new Android phone to recommend to anyone in the market for one right now. It’s more comfortable to hold than its older sibling thanks to some mild shrinkage, and while the camera may be worse according to the spec sheet, the results are still as gorgeous as anything you’ll find in this price range. There are mild compromises here in terms of memory and display specs, but pound for pound, the Pixel 6a is the Pixel to get right now. 

Until the Pixel 7 launches later this year, anyway.

Smaller is better

Google Pixel 6a from the front

Yep, that’s a Pixel.
Credit: Molly Flores / Mashable

Right away, anyone who has touched a Pixel 6 will notice the slight downsizing in the Pixel 6a. The base (not Pro) model of last year’s flagship came in at a sizable 6.4-inches, while Google cut the 6a down to a 6.1-inch display. I’m a strict adherent to the “smaller is better” mindset in smartphone design, as a person who enjoys using things with one hand. 

I’m glad to report you can mostly do that with the Pixel 6a, though any app like Twitter or Instagram with prominent UI features in the upper left corner of the screen were usually unreachable without assistance from my left hand. Such is life. Oh, and the three colors this time around are Sage, Chalk, and Charcoal.

Screen size aside, the Pixel 6a’s specs compare pretty favorably to its $600 predecessor:

  • 6.1-inch display (6.4-inch on Pixel 6)

  • 60Hz refresh rate (up to 90Hz on Pixel 6)

  • 6GB RAM (up to 8GB on Pixel 6)

  • 128GB storage (up to 256GB on Pixel 6)

  • 4,410mAh battery (4,614mAh on Pixel 6)

If your eyes glaze over looking at tech specs (understandable), the only downgrade here that I would call seriously disappointing is the maximum 60Hz refresh rate. That figure is acceptable given that almost every iPhone ever made has gone with the same refresh rate, but we’re supposed to live in a better world now. Even other mid-range Android phones like the Nothing Phone (1) (priced at around $475 USD) can go up to 120Hz now. It makes simple acts like scrolling through Twitter feel smooth as silk, so it’s a little disappointing that Google still isn’t keeping up with the Joneses in this regard.

Pixel 6a charging port

Would have loved a headphone jack here.
Credit: Molly Flores / Mashable

Otherwise, it’s hard to tell a Pixel 6 and a Pixel 6a apart physically. They both share identical exterior architecture, with a big horizontal camera bar acting as a barrier between two different shades of the primary color of the phone on the back. A hole-punch selfie cam sits in the top middle portion of the screen, while an in-display fingerprint sensor (but no face unlock) acts as a shortcut to putting in your PIN code every time you want to post one of your hilarious thoughts on Twitter. Sadly, Google continues its streak as an enemy of the wired headphone movement by excluding a 3.5mm headphone jack once again. Tech companies want us to get used to this, but we have to refuse and demand better.

The only port, period, is a USB-C charging port on the bottom, as usual. There is one more minor physical change when it comes to charging: The Pixel 6a lacks wireless charging capabilities. Last year’s Pixel 6 could link up with charging pads, but Google felt the need to cut that out, likely as a cost-saving measure. It’s a small bummer, but the good news is you won’t need to charge the Pixel 6a that much anyway.

Tensor out of 10

For the Pixel 6 line in 2021, Google for the first time built its own custom chipset called Tensor to power the phones. This led to seriously awesome performance and battery life from those handsets. Surely, it would be hugely depressing if Google walked that back for the cheaper Pixel 6a. Guess what? It didn’t!

Google Pixel 6a

No performance problems here.
Credit: Molly Flores / Mashable

To be honest, that’s really all that needs to be said about Pixel 6a’s performance profile, but I’ll keep going in the spirit of detail and specificity. This is about as fluid an Android phone as you’ll find. Every UI element pops up, loads, and goes away exactly as quickly as you want. Scrolling back and forth between home screens, loading apps, and multitasking are all impressively quick and fun actions to perform. 

Tensor also has a hand in the Pixel 6a’s camera (more on that later), and I’m pleased to report software-based rendering tools like Night Sight and Portrait Mode do their thing so speedily that you’ll barely notice. It’s just really hard to imagine another Android phone, especially in this price range, being more pleasurable to use for everyday tasks than this one.

And the Pixel 6a barely breaks a sweat while facilitating your music streaming and social media sh*tposting habits. Just like the previous set of Tensor-powered phones, the Pixel 6a’s battery life has wildly impressive stamina. I was able to get more than 24 hours out of a full charge while using it as a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and YouTube machine. This is a marathon runner in a smartphone’s body.

Night Sight continues to impress

Google Pixel phones have staked their claim as some of the best smartphone cameras around for years, largely thanks to Google’s innovations in AI-based software rendering. There is a physical downgrade from Pixel 6 when it comes to Pixel 6a’s cameras, though. Instead of a 50MP main rear lens, you get a 12.2MP one instead. However, the 12MP ultra-wide lens and 8MP selfie cam are the same as on Pixel 6.

I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, but for what it’s worth, this downgrade wasn’t noticeable to my eyes. Google’s killer suite of software features more than made up for it. One of those features — one that Google helped pioneer — is Night Sight, the computational photo mode in Pixel phones that turns nighttime shots into something that’s not just visible, but attractive to look at. 

Remember that “steady as she goes” bit at the beginning of this review? That applies to the Pixel 6a’s cameras, too. Night Sight is as great as ever, turning muddy, dark shots into nice pieces of phone photography. For instance, here’s a planter in my backyard that doesn’t look so hot without Night Sight.

A planter on a picnic table at night

Pretty ugly, right?
Credit: Alex Perry / Mashable

But turn on Night Sight, and suddenly this photo retains its moody nighttime vibe without any changes to the lighting around it. It doesn’t look like someone shone studio lights on it, it just looks like its natural state was captured better than before.

Planter on picnic table with night sight turned on

Much, much better.
Credit: Alex Perry / Mashable

Portrait Mode also returns, doing the same thing it does on every other phone with a Portrait Mode. Here’s a beautiful can of what I call “the thinking man’s coffee,” glistening in the sunlight with the natural splendor of a Brooklyn backyard behind it.

Can of Monster energy on picnic table with bokeh background

Just gorgeous. Awe-inspiring, really.
Credit: Alex Perry / Mashable

Looks great, right? I agree! That said, you can still fool Portrait Mode into producing shots that don’t look nearly as nice. I tried taking a shot of this hanging planter on a cafe patio in my neighborhood and the thin rods affixing it to the roof became a problem that no amount of in-camera editing could fix.

Planter at cafe

This one didn’t come out as well.
Credit: Alex Perry / Mashable

Oh, and the default setting for taking conventional photos is nice, too. Colors pop, objects are sharp, and photos generally look social-media-ready without any editing whatsoever. The Magic Eraser tool that, well, magically erases objects you don’t like is back, and I used it to remove a car with an identifiable license plate from a photo in just a couple of seconds.

Leaking fire hydrant

You can see the shadow of an erased car in the upper left.
Credit: Alex Perry / Mashable

Speaking as merely a casual photographer who occasionally posts animal pictures to Twitter and Instagram, the Pixel 6a camera more than suits my needs. If you’ve liked previous Pixel cameras at all, I think it’ll suit your needs, too.

No contest

I can’t think of another sub-$600 Android phone I’d recommend over the Pixel 6a right now, straight up. Google has once again made a premium experience affordable. It may not be novel (and is in fact expected each year now), but that doesn’t make it any less praiseworthy. 

By slightly shrinking the form factor, Google has made the Pixel 6a more comfortable in the hand than the Pixel 6. Sure, the 60Hz refresh rate is a bummer, but it’s a bummer I can live with. Who needs artificial smoothness when every UI element and app performs so well thanks to the Tensor chip, anyway? And heck, the battery life is so extremely rad that maybe a higher refresh rate would’ve compromised that.

Keep it steady, Google. No need to rock this boat.

By sahil

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.