For the 4th year in a row, Google has established a bit of a recurring pattern with its Pixel phone lineup. Generally, that means a fall flagship duo of devices followed by a summertime A-series release. What started with the Pixel 3a has turned into an expected and successful yearly update to this tick-tock sort of pattern, and with this year’s Pixel 6a, I think Google has put together their best mid-range Pixel to date.
Google has gone on record this year stating that the Pixel 6 lineup has surpassed all other Pixel sales, even sharing the fact that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have sold more units than the Pixel 4 and 5 combined. While there have been some nagging bugs here and there, the general consensus from Pixel 6 owners is that they really love their phones, and there’s a lot about that overall Pixel 6 experience that comes along for the ride on the cheaper $449 Pixel 6a.
The Pixel Experience comes down to software
There are trade-offs, sure, but the fun of owning a Pixel phone comes largely from the software experience. Google has always tried to make the Pixel software unique among the larger Android ecosystem, and though I stray off to try out a couple other non-Pixel phones each year, I always come back to Pixel. It’s not because of some hardware gimmick or some super-unique feature: instead, it’s the entire user experience that brings me back, and that is a very good draw to have in your back pocket as a company that makes mid-range phones.
And here’s the reason that’s important for the Pixel 6a: to get a phone down to this sort of price, companies like Google have to make cuts with the hardware. Things have to be downgraded, materials aren’t always as nice, and sacrifices are simply expected. That’s definitely the case on the Pixel 6a, but as you’ll see quite quickly, it doesn’t really degrade the Pixel software experience. There’s no denying the Google DNA in this phone, and with that DNA being any Pixel phone’s greatest strength, the Pixel 6a does well to lean all the way into that fact.
Cutting some corners
So, let’s start out by talking about those cut corners. At a glance, the Pixel 6a definitely oozes the latest Pixel vibe; so where did Google save some money? With a smaller, 6.1-inch 60hz OLED display, the first place you see some cost savings is in the screen. That doesn’t mean it is a bad panel – not by a long shot – but it isn’t the same quality you’ll see on the Pixel 6 Pro. It gets plenty bright, has great viewing angles, and the colors look fantastic. But if you’re coming from a high-refresh-rate phone like the Pixel 6 with its 90hz or the Pixel 6 Pro with its 120hz display, you’ll immediately see and feel the difference.
On the outside, the other notable difference comes in the form of what Google is calling a 3D thermoformed composite back, but if I didn’t tell you about that, I doubt you’d even pick up on the fact that the entire backside of this phone is plastic. Yeah I said it: it’s plastic. You can call it what you want, but whether we’re talking about thermoformed composite or polycarbonate, it’s all jus plastic. But it’s a great-feeling plastic! When I unboxed it at first, I forgot about the fact that the back plate wasn’t glass and when I remembered, I really had to tap around on it a bit to convince myself. In a case, you’ll never know otherwise, anyway, so if this saves some money and keeps the price down, I think this plastic back is a brilliant choice.
While we’re talking about the back side, let’s quickly touch on those color options. Google’s always been good about putting together great color options for Pixel phones and the Pixel 6a is no exception. There’s a white/gray combo simply called ‘Chalk’, a black/dark gray combo called ‘Charcoal’ and the best of the bunch is ‘Sage’ and it’s subtle, earthy greens. It looks good in photos. It looks better in person. I’ve already found myself wishing this colorway was on my Pixel 6 Pro.
That plastic only finds itself on the back plate, though, as the side rails are still made of the same metal that graces the Pixel 6. The matte finish looks great and just like on the Pixel 6, this material on the edges along with the playful colors around back just scream Google and Pixel. That metal frame also extends around the camera hump which is far less pronounced than what we see on the higher-priced Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. While not flush, it is pretty close, and I absolutely love the way it looks. Sure, the bigger Pixel 6 and 6 Pro need that larger hump for bigger camera hardware, but I love the clean look of the Pixel 6a’s camera module, even if it means it comes with the older Pixel camera setup.
And, what is that setup? If you’ve encountered a Pixel from the last few years, you know what we’re working with. A 12.2MP main shooter and 12MP ultrawide are around the back, with an 8MP selfie cam on the front: and that is pretty similar to what we had in the excellent Pixel 5 camera setup. In real world use, that means it’s pretty tough to distinguish Pixel 6a photos from those taken with the Pixel 6 Pro. Focal lengths are a bit different, so up close objects will make for different end results with the Pixel 6 Pro showing a bit shallower depth of field, but generally speaking, I have a tough time telling photos apart between the three Pixel 6 phones. Again, it comes down to software for most things, and the Pixel 6a has the same stuff running on it as the Pixel 6 and 6 pro do.
The final hardware downgrades we see in the Pixel 6a come from the inside, but compared to the entry-level version of both the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, there’s only one real difference, and that is RAM. All three phones start at 128GB of storage, but the Pixel 6a doesn’t have an upgrade option. It also ships with 6GB of RAM versus the 8GB of the Pixel 6 and 12GB in the Pixel 6 Pro. While on paper this should translate to less-capable multitasking, I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble unless you are actively trying to cap out the memory.
Where the Pixel 6a shines
So that’s it for the downgrades. What about all the things this Pixel does just like the bigger, more-expensive siblings? Most importantly, it has the exact same Tensor SoC inside and that means the same performance we enjoy on the flagship Pixels. Of all the things Google is doing with this year’s A-series phone, that might be the biggest change. No longer is the mid-range Pixel outfitted with a slower processor. Instead, things are just as snappy as you would expect from a high-end flagship, and that makes using the Pixel 6a feel quite similar to the other Pixel 6 options. It also carries the same 5G connectivity options as the Pixel 6, too, so sub-6 5G is available if your carrier supports it.
The standard Pixel software experience is here, too, with no caveats or considerations, making me feel right at home once I was all logged in and set up. That means things like Material You design, Google Assistant voice calling features, live translate, recorder, Magic Eraser, Camouflage, Real Tone, Live HDR+ video, adaptive battery charging, car crash detection, quick phrases, and countless other Pixel-exclusive features are all along for the ride. Nothing is left out because the processor running the show is the same as we see in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
While there was talk of the fingerprint scanner being at least different from the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, I don’t really see much difference. It works perfectly fine, but so does the sensor on my Pixel 6 Pro, so I’m not really sure what the technical changes are. I do remember my Pixel 6 being pretty bad at unlocking with my fingerprints, so it is definitely better than that experience. But if you are looking for some wildly-fast upgrade over the Pixel 6 Pro, you’ll likely be let down. Either way, the biometrics work really well and didn’t bother me at all.
The last thing I’ll say about this phone is I’m very impressed by the haptics and speakers on board. Google could’ve skimped on both, but instead chose to keep what feels like the same setup we have on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. I don’t know that for fact, but the speakers sound very similar to the Pixel 6 and the haptics feel identical to the Pixel 6 Pro. That’s a very good combo on a phone in this price range, and though things like haptic motors don’t make for flashy headlines, they do change the perception, feel and experience when using a phone. Pixel 6a nails both.
I haven’t used the device long enough for Google to really hone in my adaptive battery settings, so I’ll withhold judgment there. That being said, with a battery nearly the size of the Pixel 6 and a smaller, lower-refresh-rate screen, this thing should be great on a single charge. As we’re putting this video and post together, I have 58% on my battery and the Pixel 6a is estimating 10 hours still remain off that charge. At 4410mAh, I’d buy that battery life estimation and feel confident that it will get you easily through a full and busy day.
Though wireless charging isn’t included, the Pixel 6a still accepts rapid charge and tops off as fast as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro: which is to say decently fast, but not as fast as a OnePlus phone by any stretch of the imagination. Going from 50% to 100%, the Pixel 6a tells me it will take about an hour on a rapid charge. It’s not terribly slow, but it also won’t win any awards for charging speeds, either.
Should you buy the Pixel 6a?
So, in the end, should you buy this phone? If you are after the Pixel experience and don’t want to drop $600 or $900 on your phone, absolutely. If you want the Pixel experience on a smaller phone, this is going to get you there. But I’m not a phone reviewer, so I can’t definitively say that this $449 phone is better than all the competing devices out there. I can’t say it is faster on paper, has a better or worse screen, or is the superior camera when compared to other phones in this price range.
But I don’t think I need to. In the end, those even considering this phone are wanting the Pixel experience, and the Pixel 6a delivers it. That much I can assure you of, and if a 60hz screen or the 6.1-inch dimensions don’t turn you off, I’d say you will absolutely love this phone if you’ve been eyeing a Pixel. While it’s not really my cup of tea – I like big phones with high-refresh rates – I think this Pixel will sell like crazy and make a lot of new Pixel users very happy. It’s a fantastic Pixel to add to the lineup and my hope is the price point and loaded software feature set get more people to give Google’s phone a try.