This is the Google Pixel 6a, but it’s also NOT what I think many of us have come to expect.
See, we’ve known this Pixel “a” series as the company’s most successful lineup ever, but it’s also more of a nod to the past. Just like the early days of the Pixel, the Nexus also started as a premium offering, only for things to not pan out, and for the company to shift strategies with the Nexus 4 in creating the world’s first flagship killer.
In sort-of the same approach, the Pixel 3a was a genius move. Instead of only focusing on one phone, you could choose between flagship and mid-ranger, with the benefit that great photography became a Pixel trait across the board. It was pretty irresistible at just $399, but then Google kept experimenting. Over the next two years we saw all Pixels tip completely to become mid-rangers, but then this year, it seems the formula is now to go hard on defying the establishment.
So sure, even if the Pixel 6a is a successor to every “a” variant we’ve seen before, it’s different because it’s not really a mid-ranger, and sure, I wouldn’t call it a flagship either. At a time when most heroes have lived long enough to become the villain, this phone is something else.
Let’s try to remember the flagship killer formula one more time. These all had flagship processors, powerful specs, and probably skimped out on things like the camera, certifications and a few other things, but then were priced so aggressively you wouldn’t argue. Ok, that’s the Pixel 6 but with a great camera. I still think that is probably the best value for a phone right now, but then the Pixel 6a takes that approach even further.
It follows on the look and feel of its more-expensive brother in almost every way. It’s slightly smaller, but not necessarily a one-handed phone either. It shares the same flat aluminum rails but instead of a glass back, this is actually a thermoformed plastic composite that could’ve fooled me easily. Yet, the choice of materials and the footprint help it feel so good in the hand. After spending months complaining about the behemoth the Pixel 6 Pro was, this is like the answer to anyone left missing the Pixel 5.
Once you look into internals though, you’ll debate calling this a flagship killer, but mostly because of certain choices to keep the price down. Flagship processor, check. Decent amount of RAM, storage and battery, check. Latest 5G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, check. It’s not until you get to the IP rating that you won’t get the same as others, but it’s here, but where things fall apart is in its lack of wireless charging, though if we’re fair, has never been an A series Pixel trait. That said, if you came here looking for the headphone jack the A series was famous for, tough luck. It’s gone.
I also know it’s already become a common thing to get at least some boost in refresh rate on the screen at this price, but blame the iPhone SE for setting the bar pretty low. The Pixel 6A does beat the pants off of that with a more futuristic approach to the bezels, and a much better OLED panel. It might not bring anything over 60Hz, but at least its color reproduction is far better than most of the phones that go beyond at this price. If anything I wish the dual firing speakers depended less on just the bottom firing module, but you and I know even the Pixel 6 Pro has that problem.
And listen, I also heard there were some complaints about choppy performance from this phone, but it’s one of the reasons I like to take my time. It was kind of a thing for the first 3 days or so, but it’s as if the Tensor chip got to know me quick. Even putting it next to the 120Hz of the Nothing Phone (1) I see this Pixel 6A launching folders faster. Obviously, that is to be expected if Android belongs to Google, but I will tell you I prefer the implementation of Material You more here than in the more expensive Pro. The smaller screen allows for a denser feel and easier one-handed use, which is only augmented by its cohesive design aesthetic. Pixel perks like the at-a-glance widget, voice recorder transcriptions, that in-your-face always-on display, timely Android updates, and almost every other thing you get with the regular and Pro siblings are all here.
That said, this also means you also can’t spare yourself from the things that come with the territory, like not being able to remove some of these UI elements. It’s the same case with battery life where this phone is not bad, but it’s also not great. I do consider it sips on power better than even its larger brothers with their extra juice given its lack of high refresh rate, but all you need to do is leave this phone untouched for a couple of hours to notice how inefficient Tensor can be on idle. The good thing is that since Google already ironed out all the connectivity bugs we had last year, the experience with phone calls and data connectivity was pretty good while I tested it on AT&T’s 5G network, or as I traveled with Google Fi.
Maybe the most controversial move is with the cameras because I kid you not, these sensors are at least four years old. Yes, if you’re still rocking a Pixel 3, I won’t blame you for thinking this isn’t an upgrade, but it’s not that simple. Surely those specs must be dated, but Tensor brings a new ISP to power those cameras, and we all know that when it comes to computational photography, a Pixel is a Pixel.
I spent a good deal of time saying wow to some of the results, mainly given the amount of detail this phone can pull in tough scenarios, and that’s even some of these not being fully optical. It’s got some of the contrast of the Pixel 6 Pro, but not all of it, and yet it’s there when I want it, like when I take photos of landscapes, and that’s regardless of the focal length I pick. This phone can do a pretty amazing job in closeups, and since it does a great job at locking focus, this is also while the wind is giving flowers a hard time. Colors have this added sense of character that you’d need to pay for a Pro iPhone to get. And sure, there is no Telephoto on board, but even the crop is handled so well you might struggle to notice physics didn’t take part in it.
Same with night photography, where this phone pulls in a crazy amount of detail and handles colors and light pretty well. The Ultra-wide struggled a bit in some cases but not always, and where I seriously have no complaints about the primary. Sadly we don’t get a lot of the long exposure tricks the Pixel 6 Pro brings, but Astrophotography is here, and you’ll be shocked to know that at almost half the price, this Pixel 6a takes the same amount of time at taking the shot than the Pro.
Selfies are good, though not my favorite because I feel skin tones are overdone, and even if portraits were mostly the same, I do feel separation was mostly hit or miss, and this even applies from the primary cameras.
Where you will find differences with the Pro Pixel is in video capture. Even if voice enhancement features are here, I feel this phone pulls in a lot more grain than the Pro model, and where the codec struggles a lot, particularly with all the moiré you’ll see in certain scenarios. It’s not terrible but not close to being my favorite. Switch to selfie video and you’ll see how that gets even worse, and not just because you’re stuck at 1080p. Grain is pretty strong, dynamic range is almost not there at all, and stabilization can be kind of weird, even if the primary handled that mostly well. Overall, you’ll love the photos, but this is not the phone for TikToks, Instagram Reels or meaningful family videos.
To conclude, I think you now understand why it was so important for me to introduce this video with how this lineup came to be, and how this phone is not necessarily that. Yes, this is the Pixel 6a, but we saw Google switch the formula with the 4a by giving us a 5G variant. We then saw the company switch the cheap feel for metal and a more aggressive price with the 5a.
Point is, yes, this is Google’s most affordable Pixel, but it’s also another switch in strategy. Yes, it’s like an iPhone SE because it includes a flagship chip, but if we’re honest, it’s nothing like it because Apple sticks to a six-year-old design, and doesn’t take full advantage of the chip in photography. By contrast, the Pixel 6a is almost as good as the Pixel 6, which in our opinion is the flagship killer, all while giving you an option to pay less for most of those features
So, it’s not really a flagship. It’s not really a mid-ranger. The Google Pixel 6a is something else which I feel you should really consider. If you don’t care about high refresh rate, wireless charging, a glass back and a few other tidbits, this should be your phone. It’s a Pixel, but less expensive. Another bold move from the same company that already made all other phones look bad with the rest of the 6 series launched earlier.
Google Pixel 6a
Not a flagship, not a mid-ranger
If you don’t care about high refresh rate, wireless charging, a glass back and a few other tidbits, this should be your phone. It’s a Pixel, but less expensive.