The Google Pixel 6a is the latest in the A-series line from Google, an affordable phone series that typically takes most of the goods of whatever top-tier phone Google has available at the moment, then cuts a few things and sells at a lower price. This new Pixel 6a is the first to adopt Google’s new Pixel 6 design language and also Google’s Tensor processor, so like the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro were over the Pixel 5, this is a big refresh over the Pixel 5a.
Google sent me a Pixel 6a in Sage for review purposes and I’ve been testing it for a couple of weeks now. During that time, I’ve used it daily, tried to find its weaknesses and bugs, and snapped some pictures, all to try and give you the thoughts you are about to read. After all, pre-orders are open and you might be considering one, so let’s talk about whether or not this is your next phone.
This is our Pixel 6a review.
What do I like about the Pixel 6a?
Design/size. The Pixel 6 redesign for the Pixel line certainly gave Google’s phones a much-needed fresh look. The multi-colored backsides and the massive camera bar are now the look of Google Pixels, which has continued through onto the Pixel 6a, whether you like it or not.
For me, the design might not be my favorite, but I do like it for being both different and interesting. For years, we’ve had slab phones with camera boxes (that keep getting bigger) tucked into upper corners of backsides and few differentiating design ideas. At least with Google’s Pixel 6, 6 Pro, and Pixel 6a, you most definitely know that these are Pixel phones.
With the Pixel 6a, you get a phone that’s the smallest of the Pixel 6 line and it fits about as good in my hand as any phone. The 6.1″ display allows for a frame and body that is close to being in the one-handed category. This 6a is light and easy to use, it has a flat display and coated black frame, clicky buttons in easily accessible places, and a composite rear piece that hasn’t picked up a ton of fingerprints. The whole body is slightly smaller than the Pixel 6, for reference.
Speaking of smaller, the camera bar is a lot smaller on this phone vs. the Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro. That actually adds to my design likes, since it makes the phone easier to get in and out of a pocket, sit less awkwardly on a desk, that sort of thing.
My only real complaint about this design is that the phone can be quite slippery at times. It’s slippery in the same way that the regular Pixel 6 is, because of the semi-flat black coated sides not being as grippy as you might have hoped. Thankfully, this phone is small enough that getting a good grip on it isn’t an issue.
Software. Since this is a Google Pixel phone, you get Google’s Pixel experience on top of Android. I’m a big fan of this software, like I was on previous Pixels and the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. For the Pixel 6a, Google isn’t necessarily doing anything new and is instead continuing on what you’d see from other Pixel 6 devices.
You get Android 12 out of the box, although my review unit needs an update and is months behind. I expect that’ll change the minute Google makes the phone available. Because this is a new Pixel phone running Google Tensor, you’ll get 5 years of security updates and 3 years of OS updates. Outside of Samsung, that’s the best level of support on Android.
As for the software itself, you get to use the custom color and wallpaper styling from Android 12, an always-on display, Now Playing to catch those songs you don’t know the name of, the Pixel Launcher and its simplistic brilliance, and all of the gestures (like double taps, flips, and lifts). Google’s approach to software is to push a pretty exterior with useful add-ons that don’t get in your way or overwhelm. They nail that again with the Pixel 6a.
Performance. With Google Tensor powering its every move, I’ve had good experiences with the Pixel 6a. While I don’t like the low refresh rate display choice, moving from task to task, opening the camera to snap pictures in a hurry, playing some non-intense games, or using my daily combo of Chrome/Twitter/Instagram/Telegram never slowed it.
Google Tensor may not be the most powerful chip in the smartphone business, but Google has it pretty dialed in to handle Google Assistant like no other, process images quickly after you take them, that sort of thing. We don’t do benchmarks for our reviews and instead try to get a feel for our usual tasks and how they differ from one phone to the next. With the Pixel 6a, I never felt like it wasn’t going to handle what I needed it to.
What’s bugging me about it?
Display refresh rate. The Pixel 6a sports the 6.1″ 1080p AMOLED display that I mentioned above, but it really does lack a high refresh rate. You’ll only see content on your screen at 60Hz and this seems like a pretty big omission from Google. I know there are folks who will claim that their eye can’t see a difference between 60Hz and 90Hz, and well, those people are fools. As someone who hasn’t used a 60Hz phone much in the past 3 or 4 years, I can absolutely see one. The jump to 120Hz is even more noticeable, but 90Hz is still a major improvement in overall smoothness you experience on a phone.
The Pixel 6a might be Google’s budget line, but there are plenty of budget phones on the market these days with higher-than-60Hz refresh rates. Motorola, as a quick example, recently release the Moto G 5G with 90Hz and it costs $399 at full price or $299 on many days because of discounts. The Moto G Stylus 5G has a 120Hz display and costs between $499 and $349, depending on the day.
A refresh rate above 60Hz is no longer a premium tier feature and Google cut a corner here that I wish they wouldn’t have. A 90Hz refresh rate in this phone, with this same price, would have made it a killer value. Instead, if your eyes have already been trained to more smoothness, you’ll feel it on the 6a.
Battery life. The Pixel 6a has a 4410mAh battery and supports wired “fast” charging up to 18W. With a 60Hz display and Google Tensor onboard, I was sort of hoping for a battery champion. Instead, I was getting to bed most nights with 15-30% battery remaining. I did have a few where I looked for a charger in the early evening to make sure I’d get to bed without worry. That’s not bad and is the situation with most phones I test, it’s just not excellent or anything to write home about.
The other thing to note here is that the system only recognized my use as hitting 1.5-3 hours of screen on time each day, which is on the low-end for me. It’s either weirdly keeping track of my usage or my light usage led to this average battery life. Whatever the case, the Pixel 6a was reliable enough to get me through most days, but there were certainly some where I was looking for a charger to make it through the evening.
Camera. I wouldn’t say the camera is “bugging” me so much as I’m just not in love. Typically with Google Pixel phones, I find their cameras to be those that I trust the most and look forward to using. With the Pixel 6a, I’ve found myself hesitating more often and wondering if I should grab another phone when out and about. That’s an odd feeling.
The dual 12MP setup on the Pixel 6a features wide angle and ultra-wide angle lenses. So we’re clear, these are not the cameras you get on the Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro. If anything, this is closer to the setup you’d find on the Pixel 5a. My understanding is that Google is using the same main 12.2MP sensor that they’ve used in countless phones, so it should be as tuned as any. Surprisingly for me, I actually found the ultra-wide angle to take better pictures at times.
In the series of shots below, I don’t know what it is, but there’s a drabness to the colors, there’s a struggle to perform when lighting conditions aren’t optimal, and there aren’t many I truly like. The shot at the concert with the sun setting and also indoors at the Edgefield Hotel, are not great. If the Pixel 6a camera does excel in an area, it’s probably in portrait mode – look at the bokeh around that basketball. Not bad, right?
I’m wondering if this Pixel 6a could use an update in a hurry. It’s running the April patch, so all of the bug fixes and changes Google made in the big June quarterly update aren’t here. I can’t help but wonder if they’ll push an update at launch with major camera improvements.
Fingerprint reader is bad. It really is bad. I’ve got to assume that it’s the same bad fingerprint reader they put in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro because it often fails to read with multiple presses, is slow to correctly read, or just freaks out and asks for your secure pattern instead of letting you attempt any longer. I know there was an early Pixel 6a hands-on video that tried to sell a greatly improved fingerprint experience and I’m here to tell you that that is not the case.
Maybe we’ll get a new fingerprint reader in the Pixel 7 line. I sure hope so, because using the fingerprint reader on any of the Pixel 6 phones, including this Pixel 6a, is quite frustrating. Fingerprint readers were supposed to make for convenient security, yet there is nothing convenient about these readers.
No headphone jack and no wireless charging. OK, that first one, about not having a headphone jack, isn’t bothering me personally. I haven’t tried to plug headphones into a phone in close to a decade, but I know that some would like the feature still. Google managed to keep the 3.5mm port in the A-series up until this point, so to see it go is noteworthy.
As for wireless charging, this phone doesn’t have it. No A-series phone has to date, so this isn’t surprising. I just want you to know that it doesn’t have it and that while testing I had to unplug all of my wireless chargers to free up a direct-plug experience. It was weird.
Unboxing and tour
Should you buy a Pixel 6a?
For those on a budget and who love the Google Pixel experience, the Pixel 6a is probably going to be a good buy. The $449 price isn’t that competitive in the space, but it is the most affordable Google phone. That price gets you the Pixel 6 design in a smaller, more manageable package, software updates for 5 years, access to Pixel Feature Drops, and a decent set of specs.
The Pixel 6a did disappoint somewhat in battery life and the camera, two areas I hoped it would excel. I also can’t get over the choice from Google to go with a 60Hz display, when others in this category are hitting that 120Hz mark. The fingerprint reader is also…ugh.
Overall, the Pixel 6a is a phone that fits nicely into Google’s line of phones, at least on paper, but it still fails to check all the boxes we wanted.
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