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Google Pixel 6a revisited: The good and bad, six months later
The compact smartphone form factor is a rare breed nowadays, even more so in the midrange segment where large displays seem to reign supreme. Would-be buyers looking for a great but small Android phone are often left with no option but to go for the higher end with the likes of ASUS, Samsung, or Sony, unless they’re lucky to live in a market where the Pixel A series is available.
Google’s cheaper Pixels have managed to toe the line between features, size, and price for several generations now. The Pixel 6a is no exception. Despite a few drawbacks, we generally liked the phone in our initial Pixel 6a review, but have things changed since then? What does it feel like to use the Pixel 6a, six months after its release? Let’s find out.
Moving from the Pixel 5a, Google shrunk the display and overall Pixel 6a into a slightly smaller body. The 6.1-inch OLED is still more than serviceable for everyday browsing, messaging, and media consumption, while the phone gains in overall maneuverability. Single-handed use is easy, pocketability is a given, and every corner of the display is within a thumb’s reach. Sure, the Pixel 6a isn’t as compact as the underrated Pixel 5, but it comes very close.
Six months later, the design may not be as eye-grabbing as it was in mid-2022 before the Pixel 7‘s release. It’s still sleek for a mid-range phone, however, with its flat display panel, metallic dual-tone back, black alloy frame, and signature Pixel horizontal camera bar. It also feels great in the hand, though a little slippery.
All those special Pixel features
Pixel UI has long ago moved on from stock Android. Every few months bring new Pixel-only features, which are a fantastic value-add for any of Google’s phones, especially for its midrange A series.
Just like the more expensive Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, the Pixel 6a offers Assistant-powered call management features like Call Screen and Hold For Me, can take astrophotography shots and use Magic Eraser, offers contextual information in the At A Glance widget, and selects text and images from the Overview app switcher. You also get the powerful Google Recorder app and plenty of Pixel-specific optimizations like Adaptive Battery, Charging, and Sound.
All of these add up to create a premium-feeling experience. And although some more powerful features didn’t make it here (Photo Unblur or Motion Mode in the camera), it doesn’t feel like the phone is missing out on much. Better yet, the Pixel 6a gets Feature Drops every three months, so there’s always something new to try. Six months after its launch, the phone feels as fresh as it did on launch. The more stable Android 13 certainly helps.
Although the Pixel 6a’s dual-camera setup feels a bit old at this point, it still produces some excellent shots in most situations. The main 12.2MP sensor is the same IMX363 we’ve seen on the Pixel 4, 4a 5G, 5, and 5a, and it’s virtually identical to the Pixel 2 and 3’s sensors too.
Google has spent years perfecting the output of this lens and eking out every possible drop of performance from it. The Pixel 6a inherits all of the post-processing and AI features, including software-based portrait mode, astrophotography, a powerful night mode, up to 7x Super Res Zoom, and motion unblur. The results are great and it has topped our best budget camera phone list since its launch for good reason.
Having spent years with this sensor, I know its strengths and weaknesses so well now. I can almost predict how a shot will look before snapping it. My favorite part, though, is how reliable it is in any situation. At worst, you’ll get a decent photo; at best, you’ll have a spectacular shot.
The Pixel 6a is the first A series phone from Google to skip the 3.5mm headphone jack. Without this budget-friendly feature, which nowadays feels like a remnant of times past, you have to buy some Bluetooth headphones or true wireless buds — or at least invest in a DAC or a USB-C to 3.5mm dongle.
The Pixel 6a also skips a few hardware upgrades that are becoming more prevalent in its price range. The display sticks to a 60Hz refresh rate, far from the 90Hz and 120Hz displays we’re seeing in other midrange phones. There’s no wireless charging either, not even at the slower 5-10W speeds.
Personally, this last part is the most jarring to me. Most of my phones in the past years have had wireless charging, so each time I use the Pixel 6a, I have to go through an adaptation phase. I keep plopping it on the wireless pad on my desk only to find the battery empty an hour later. “Dang, plug in the cable, Rita!” is probably the most frequent thought I’ve had about the Pixel 6a for the six months that I’ve had it.
Some Tensor woes
Like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, the Pixel 6a gets Google’s first-generation Tensor chip. That allows it to benefit from plenty of optimizations and newfangled AI features, but the chip is quite infamous for its weaknesses now.
Because of the more demanding chipset, the Pixel 6a struggles with battery life sometimes. I wouldn’t call it bad — as a matter of fact, it’s often good and gets me through the day just fine — but there are some days when it drops a little unpredictably. It’s this inconsistency that annoys me most. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Pixel 6a has a smaller 4,410mAh battery than the Pixel 5a due to its smaller physical size.
The phone also gets toasty under heavy load — another Tensor side effect. Google’s processors just seem to overheat a bit too fast compared to other phones. When I was in Beirut in July in 32°C (90F) weather, it was quasi-impossible to use my Pixel 6a or 6 Pro inside the car. One minute of screen-on time and the phones would get uncomfortably warm. I often had to remove the case to help them cool down faster.
Despite all the good things I said about the Pixel 6a’s camera, there’s no denying that the sensor setup is showing its age now. If you pixel-peep at photos, you can see Google resorting to over-sharpening to make up for the stale camera hardware. Yes, the results are good, but we know they can be better with a newer setup.
I find myself longing for a proper telephoto lens on the Pixel 6a quite often. Digital zoom, no matter how many AI enhancements you apply to it, is no match to optical, or better yet, hybrid zoom. But telephoto lenses are very expensive and even the higher-end Pixel 7 doesn’t have one, so I can’t complain that much about it. What I can point at is the main sensor. It should be bigger to allow for more light, thus reducing the need for all this post-processing magic. A higher resolution can also improve zoomed performance without sacrificing quality.
Google Pixel 6a review revisited: The verdict
Our general thoughts about the Pixel 6a remain unchanged since our initial review. This is a great, compact, midrange Android phone that benefits from a reliable camera, all of Google’s software expertise, and its first chipset experiment, with all the good and bad that entails.
Android 13 and various Feature Drops have made the Pixel 6a a better phone overall, but its value proposition is still relative. Depending on current deals, the Pixel 6a can be an excellent bargain or a questionable sell, specifically when you compare it to the base Pixel 7. By offering the latter at such an appealing price, Google has indeed put its A series in a corner.
Is the Google Pixel 6a a good buy, six months later?
At official prices, the Pixel 7 is only $150 more expensive than the 6a, but it comes with the newer, more powerful, and less problematic Tensor G2, as well as wireless charging and a 90Hz refresh-rate display. It also features a bigger and better 50MP main camera sensor, plus a better front-facing shooter with a wider angle for group selfies. It’s tough to debate all the extra value you get from paying a little more, and this is our biggest dilemma with recommending the Pixel 6a now. It gets worse if and when the Pixel 7 is discounted. The Pixel 6a becomes a tough sell then, no matter how compact and pocket-friendly it is.
However, Google has been offering some deals on the Pixel 6a too. The $299 price around Christmas was probably the best smartphone deal of the year. At that price, the Pixel 6a is an undebatable bargain. We’ll likely see this discount a few more times, and when we do, don’t think twice. You can’t go wrong with that.
Looking forward, the rumored upcoming Google Pixel 7a seems like an intriguing proposition. Leaks suggest it’ll be minimally larger than the Pixel 6a, but it should feature a better primary lens, a 90Hz refresh-rate display, and wireless charging (albeit slow). All of these are great upgrades that should improve the A series’ value proposition compared to the base Pixel 7.