Coming a few months after the Google I/O preview, the Google Pixel 6a faces quite the task of re-establishing Google’s position as the best budget phone to buy, especially for those who value high-end cameras above all else.
I don’t think it will be an easy fight. Since the Google Pixel 5a arrived at the end of last summer, both Apple and Samsung have come out with their Pixel rivals – the iPhone SE (2022) in a case from Apple and the Samsung Galaxy A53. At the lower end of the spectrum, OnePlus’ Nord phones are hot on Google’s heels with extremely low prices and feature sets that aren’t bad for the price.
The Pixel 6a comes into this battle armed with the same Tensor chipset that powers Google’s flagship phones, giving it a potential edge over potential Android rivals for its budget phone crown. And there’s always Google’s undeniable strength with mobile photography, which helped the earlier Pixel A series stand out as the best camera phones for bargain hunters.
The Pixel 6a more than continues that legacy as a top camera phone. And its Tensor system-on-chip adds more tricks to the phone’s toolbox, as we’ll find out in this Google Pixel 6a review. Also check out our roundup of reasons to buy and skip the Google Pixel 6a.
Google Pixel 6a Price and availability
Google Pixel 6a pre-orders have begun, with the phone available for $449. That’s the same price Samsung charges for its mid-range Galaxy A53 and $20 more than the iPhone SE (2020). The Google phone will go on sale on July 28.
The Pixel 6a will be available through Google Fi, Google’s internal wireless carrier. That was the only wireless carrier that offered last year’s Pixel 5a, but the new phone should be available in more US locations. Carrier availability will include AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, as well as other services like Visible and cellular offerings from Comcast and Charter.
At least the Pixel 6a will have wider availability than its predecessor, which was only released in the US and Japan. The Pixel 6a is returning to these countries, but now you’ll also be able to get it in the UK, Canada, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Singapore and Taiwan. The phone will arrive in India later this year.
Google Pixel 6a Review
If you’re familiar with the new look Google introduced with its Pixel 6 phones, then the Pixel 6a comes as no surprise. The back has the same two-tone design with a horizontal camera bar separating the brighter top from the more muted color. In the case of the Pixel 6a, you can choose between Chalk, Charcoal and Sage. (The latter color was our control unit.)
Turn the Pixel 6a around and it’s a slightly smaller version of the regular Pixel 6, right down to the thin bezel surrounding its display and the notch for the selfie camera at the top center of the screen. At 6 x 2.8 x 0.35 inches, the Pixel 6a is slightly more compact than its 6.2 x 2.9 x 0.4-inch larger sibling, though it’s nowhere near as small as the iPhone SE (2022) with 5, 5 x 2.7 x 0.29 inches.
The design of the Pixel 6 isn’t universally loved, although I happen to think it’s a signature look in a world of near-identical smartphones. So I’m glad the Pixel 6a offers some visual continuity. As with the regular Pixel 6, I find the sleep and volume buttons too close together, so when I want to use the other, I end up pressing one. However, I miss the colored power button from last years Pixel models.
I still have the Pixel 6 I reviewed last fall, and I’m also holding the Pixel 6a, so you can really see how Google has cut costs on its budget phone. While the Pixel 6 boasts a glass back and an alloy frame, the Pixel 6a features what Google calls a “thermoformed composite back” – that’s fancy talk for plastic.
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The front of the Pixel 6a uses Corning Gorilla Glass 3 versus the more durable Gorilla Glass Victus on Google’s flagship. At least the Pixel 6a has IP67 water and dust resistance, which is a nice feature to find in a sub-$500 phone.
The Pixel 6a retains the dual-camera setup used by the Pixel 5a, but there’s a step back in megapixel count on the ultra-wide lens. The 6a uses a 12MP sensor compared to 16MP on the Pixel 5a. However, the sensor itself is larger this time around, so the Pixel 6a will likely let in more light when you flip to the ultra-wide lens. The main shooter still uses a 12.2MP sensor.
Some may be disappointed with the camera specs on the Pixel 6a, given how Google has beefed up the hardware in the Pixel 6 line. That phone uses a 50MP sensor for its main camera, and the similarly priced Galaxy A53 switches to a 64MP shooter.
However, the story of the Pixel A series has always been more about photo processing software and computational photography, and it’s these areas that continue to drive the Pixel 6a’s camera capabilities. As a result, even with modest camera specs, the Pixel 6a not only holds its own against competing camera phones, but produces images that could challenge those of much more expensive devices.
For now, let’s compare the Pixel 6a to its main rival for the title of best camera phone under $500 – the iPhone SE. Apple’s budget phone only has one rear camera, but like Google, it can produce some pretty stellar shots thanks to clever software and image processing. (For a closer look at the overall comparison of these phones, check out our Google Pixel 6a vs. iPhone SE 2022 battle, updated to reflect our testing of the Pixels.)
Both phones did a very capable job of capturing the sunflowers growing in my backyard, with the flower standing in stark contrast to the Japanese maple tree behind it. I was particularly impressed that both phones kept the sunflower in focus as there was a stiff wind during camera testing and I wondered if this would cause blur in both images. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried.
The images here are pretty evenly matched, with both the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE recreating the patterns on the sunflower petals and keeping the disk florets in the center nicely distinct. The iPhone SE photo is a bit more vibrant, but I give the Pixel 6a points for more accurate colors.
The colors are more evenly matched in these photos of squash at the local green market. The tones of the wood stands in the background of the Pixel 6a photo look slightly richer than what the iPhone SE produced, but again, the only separation between the two images comes down to personal preference. I would note that the Pixel 6a’s full frame has a wider viewing area, so you get more detail at the edges than the iPhone.
Moving inside, I think the iPhone SE does a better job with this photo of a meatball sandwich, with a warmer tone than what the Pixel 6a produces. This note makes the sandwich look tastier, the melted cheese looks pleasantly caramelized, and the Italian seasoning with the speckled cheese stands out a little more. The iPhone SE also did better with light streaming in from a nearby window, which adds overexposure to the upper-right corner of the Pixel 6a’s photo.
The iPhone SE (2022) lacks an ultra-wide lens, so to test that part of the Pixel 6a’s camera array, I grabbed the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Yes, it’s an older phone, but it was a flagship not too long ago, and I thought it would give us a good idea of how the Pixel 6a can compete with phones that are more powerful on paper.
Battery life turns out to be quite the mystery on the Pixel 6a. Google promises up to 24 hours of normal phone use, with Extreme Battery Saver Mode extending that to 72 hours by turning off features and pausing many apps. That’s despite the fact that the Pixel 6a’s battery is actually smaller than the Pixel 5a’s — 4,410mAh versus the Pixel 5a’s 4,680mAh.
Whether it’s the smaller battery, the demands of the Tensor chip, or some other factor, the Pixel 6a flunked our battery test, in which the phones continuously surf the web until they run out of power. The Pixel 6a lasted an average of 6 hours and 29 minutes, more than 3 hours behind the Pixel 5a’s result in the same test. Even worse, the Pixel 6a lagged behind the iPhone SE (2022), and the 9 hours and 5 minutes that Apple’s phone produced is considered subpar for a smartphone.
We’ve tried to explain the discrepancy between our test results and Google’s claims, and so far we’ve been unsuccessful. Anecdotally, the Pixel 6a certainly doesn’t seem like a likely candidate for our best phone battery life list – after four hours of photo and gaming testing, a fully charged Pixel 6a dropped to 70%. Still, with daily use, you should be able to make it from sunup to sundown without needing to charge your phone. If you want your Pixel 6a to last another day, don’t forget to charge your phone overnight.