Google Pixel 6a review: The tiny Pixel phone I was hoping for

Image Credit: Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Cameras

Google has long excelled in photography, and the Pixel 6a continues that tradition. Its pair of 12-megapixel rear cameras and 8-megapixel front sensor took bright, colorful photos that rivaled those of more expensive phones.

Details such as window panes and individual blades of grass were crisp, and Google continues to deliver superior low-light images. Frankly, at this price, there is no better camera for night photography. Thanks in large part to Night Sight, the Pixel 6a generally captured brighter images in extremely dark environments, retaining more detail even in shadows. Stationary bikes in an exercise room at night were clearer in the Pixel 6a shots than the iPhone SE, and I could even read the words on a sign in Google’s version. Apple’s decision to turn off night mode on its budget phone puts it at a disadvantage here.

Compared to the iPhone SE, images from the Pixel 6a tended to have lower contrast and less saturated colors. Apple also produces better dynamic range, and it was hard to choose my favorite images between the two.

Google has the edge when it comes to versatility, however. Since it has an additional ultra-wide lens (compared to the iPhone’s solo rear camera), the Pixel 6a made it possible to zoom out to capture vast landscapes. And while it doesn’t have a telephoto lens, Google’s viewfinder interface makes it easy to zoom in on distant subjects. Instead of having to pinch the iPhone, you can switch between preset distances like 0.6x, 1x, and 2x just by tapping on-screen buttons.

Gallery: Pixel 6a camera samples | 27 Pictures


Gallery: Pixel 6a camera samples | 27 Pictures

I also preferred Google’s Portrait mode, which allowed me to get closer to subjects and apply a shallower depth of field. The iPhone and Pixel took similar quality selfies, and the differences between them came down to very slight variations in color temperature. Given that Google and Apple use 8 MP and 7 MP sensors respectively, the similarity in sharpness is not surprising.

Despite having the sharper cameras, the Galaxy A53 delivered near-quality photos to the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE. Its 32 MP front camera and 64 MP main sensor on the back didn’t result in sharper images. Compared to the Pixel and iPhone, however, the Galaxy A53’s camera was noticeably slower and struggled to capture multiple photos in quick succession.

Although Google has equipped the Pixel 6a with some of the tools found on its flagships, like Magic Eraser to edit photobombers, for example, features like Action Pan and Long Exposure are missing. That’s fine with me, since Magic Eraser is the most useful of the bunch, and works on the 6a as well as the Pro. You also have the option to shoot in RAW, which you can’t do on the iPhone SE.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Performance, fingerprint sensor and in use

As the first A-series phone to use Google’s own Tensor chip, the performance of the Pixel 6a should be quite similar to its flagship siblings. In general, that was true – the 6a barely stuttered when jumping between games, editing photos, browsing Instagram and shooting videos. Much like my Pixel 6 Pro, however, the 6a tended to heat up when playing casual games such as HK Mahjong or the New York Times Crossword for more than 15 minutes. It never got alarmingly hot, but I wanted to put it down after a while.

Sometimes the Pixel 6a took a few seconds to display information in an app, but this mostly happened within the first few hours of setting up the phone. So I’m going to attribute this to early loading issues. I’m more concerned about the long-term software stability of the Pixel 6a, especially given all the issues that have plagued the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro since launch. I didn’t encounter anything major during my testing, but most bugs on the other two didn’t start showing up until weeks after our review period.

For now, I can only say that the software behaves as expected and that Google supports up to five years of Pixel updates. Changing wallpapers and applying new Android-generated system-wide color schemes happened without significant delay, and everything I love about Pixel UI is here. I love that I can just tell my phone “Stop” to silence it when an alarm goes off. (However, on my Pixel 6 Pro, it usually takes about three increasingly frustrated attempts until I’m screaming at the phone.) much less painful.

Top down view of sage green and white Pixel 6a next to each other above a book on a wooden surface.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Maybe I got used to the Pixel 6 Pro’s sluggish in-screen fingerprint sensor, but the Pixel 6a’s scanner didn’t feel quite as tricky. It’s still slower than Samsung’s, but it’s fixable.

Battery life

The A-series has long stood out with excellent battery life, and again the 6a is a winner. It clocked 19 hours and 10 minutes on our video test, which is shorter than the Pixel 5a, Pixel 6, and Galaxy A53, but still hours longer than the iPhone SE.

While the iPhone SE offers wireless charging, unfortunately the Pixel 6a does not. It also only supports fast charging with 18W wired chargers. The good news though is that the 6a is also compatible with the M3/T4 hearing aid standard, as well as sub-6 and mmWave 5G.

A woman holding the Pixel 6a sage to her ear.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Wrap

I think it’s time we stopped seeing the Pixel A series as a “budget” line. With its sleek design, powerful processor and satisfying cameras, there are more similarities than differences between the 6a and its flagship siblings. It’s easily one of the best phones for the money. Yes, it would be nice to have a faster, brighter screen and wireless charging, but that’s not a given on a midranger. If you can’t live without a higher refresh rate and can’t spend more than $500, the Galaxy A53 is an alternative, but be aware that its performance is questionable. In the US, there’s no better Android phone under $500 than the Pixel 6a.

Key specs

Specification

Pixel 6a

Display

6.1-inch 2400 x 1080 (20:9) OLED, 429ppi, 60Hz

Dimensions

6.0 x 2.8 x 0.35 inch / 152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9mm; 6.3 ounces / 178 grams

CPU and Storage

Google Tensor; 6GB LPDDR5 RAM, 128GB (UFS 3.1) storage

Rear cameras

12.2MP dual pixel main camera, f/1.7 aperture with 77 degree field of view, 12MP ultra wide camera, f/2.2 aperture with 114 degree field of view.

Front camera

8MP, f/2.0, 84 degree field of view

Battery

4,400mAh battery, 18W (0.8c) wired charging

Sensors and Connectivity

Fingerprint unlock with in-display fingerprint sensor, NFC, WiFi 6 and 6E, Bluetooth 5.2

Water resistance

IP67

Classification of hearing aids

M3, T4

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About Laura J. Bell

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