The Google Pixel 6a, available for pre-order starting today, July 21, 2022, is the latest addition to the search giant’s lineup of in-house Android smartphones. Positioned as the budget model, though, you’ll find some missing features that make it a difficult phone to recommend to all.
I tested the Google Pixel 6a for the better part of two weeks. Most of that time has been spent indoors on Wi-Fi, but when out and about, the phone stayed on Google Fi’s 5G network. Unfortunately, my experience changed vastly when I left my home and relied on a cellular connection.
Hardware: It Looks Like Other Pixel 6s
Fingerprint Sensor: Not Slow, Not Horrible
Software: The Pixel’s Android Experience Is Still the Best
Battery Life: Could Be Better
Phone Calls: Come Through Clear
Cameras: They Live Up to the Pixel Name
Should You Buy the Google Pixel 6a?
- Display: 6.1in (156mm), FHD+ (1080 x 2400) OLED, 60Hz refresh rate, 429 PPI
- Build materials: Corning Gorilla Glass 3 front glass, metal alloy frame, 3D thermoformed composite back
- Security: Under-display optical fingerprint sensor
- Ports: USB-C 3.1 Gen 1
- Water/dust resistance: IP67
- Dimensions: 6 x 2.8 x 0.35in (152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9mm)
- Weight: 178g (5.3oz)
Google drastically shook up the look of the Pixel lineup with the launch of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro in October 2021. Instead of a bland design that blended into the crowd of Android smartphones, Google’s new handsets stood out with a camera bar that spanned the width of the device.
Although the Pixel 6a’s rear cameras don’t require all of that space, Google kept the overall appearance to ensure a uniform design. Doing so guarantees that you won’t mistake the handset for anything other than a Pixel. I personally really like the look of this phone, especially paired with the Sage colorway that I’ve been testing.
The most significant difference between the Pixel 6a and its premium siblings is the build materials. Instead of a glass back, you’re met with a plastic material that Google refers to as a 3D thermoformed composite. I can say it looks premium (and I initially thought it was glass at first glance), but it definitely feels like plastic in your hand—but not in a bad way.
Everything else is pretty standard. You have a metal alloy frame coated with matte plastic, a USB-C port on the bottom between the handset’s primary speaker and microphone, and power/sleep and volume buttons on the right side of the phone. The good news is that, with all of that plastic, the Pixel 6a is pretty lightweight at just 178g (5.3oz).
Additionally, the Pixel 6a supports Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, and NFC. Basically, you’ll be able to connect to the latest and best routers, pair to any modern Bluetooth headphones, earbuds, or speakers, and make contactless payments with your phone.
You won’t find anything revolutionary looking at the phone’s screen. It’s a pretty standard 6.1in (156mm) FHD+ display. Unfortunately, the refresh rate is locked at 60Hz, which is slower than the Pixel 6’s 90Hz and the Samsung Galaxy A53 5G’s 120Hz. It’s not horrible, but once you use a device with a faster refresh rate, the Pixel 6a can look a bit choppy.
As with the flagship models, the Pixel 6a comes equipped with an optical under-display fingerprint sensor. Basically, there is a scanner under the glass that illuminates a section of your screen, captures an image of your finger, and tries to match the biometric data to what’s stored on your phone.
The optical sensor on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro wasn’t all that great, which made me concerned that it would continue disappointing in Google’s budget handset. Thankfully, in almost all cases, the Pixel 6a’s fingerprint sensor worked flawlessly, though it is a little slow.
Placing your thumb on the Pixel 6a’s fingerprint icon, you’ll find that it takes a solid second for the device to light up, scan your digit, and unlock the phone. The only time it didn’t work is if I had moisture or dirt on my finger. Unfortunately, anything physically blocking the ridges on your fingerprint will cause issues with the optical sensor.
While I would have preferred an ultrasonic sensor like that found on Samsung’s Galaxy S22 lineup, that type of scanner is typically reserved for premium smartphones. If Google decides to include an ultrasonic fingerprint sensor in this fall’s Pixel 7, there’s a chance we’ll see it passed down to next year’s Pixel 7a.
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- Operating system (when reviewed): Android 12 (April 5, 2022 security update)
- RAM: 6GB LPDDR5
- Storage: 128GB UFS 3.1, no microSD expansion
- CPU: Google Tensor, Titan M2 security coprocessor
- Software updates: 5 years of Pixel updates
There are two major benefits of buying a Pixel: Google’s Android skin (called the Pixel Launcher) and access to the latest version of Android before almost anyone else. The Pixel Launcher is Google’s take on what it thinks Android should look like. The user interface is full of Material You elements and is overall more simple than other Android Skins (like Samsung’s OneUI).
Being one of the first to get every Android update, though, is why I recommend Pixels to most people. Since Google builds the operating system, the moment a security patch or new firmware update is available, you’re almost guaranteed to receive it.
For example, the last Android 13 beta build was just released, which means it’s almost ready for primetime. The moment Google makes it available in a month or so, I’ll be downloading the update to this Pixel 6a. This experience is vastly better than that found on most third-party phones that can sometimes take up to a year to receive the latest version of Android.
Under the hood, powering everything, you’ll find 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, Google’s Tensor CPU, and the Titan M2 security coprocessor. Unfortunately, there are no other storage options and you can’t expand it using a microSD card.
The Tensor chip is honestly a bit overkill for this budget phone, but the flagship-tier CPU means you shouldn’t ever run out of processing power. I did find that it got hot while playing games or running media-heavy apps like TikTok, YouTube, and Reddit, which resulted in some thermal throttling. Other than that, I had no issues quickly moving around the Pixel 6a’s interface.
The rest of the Pixel 6a’s Android experience is pretty standard; Google isn’t launching any new features with this device. You still have access to the Magic Eraser camera tool, Google Assistant’s Call Screen, Hold For Me, Now Playing song recognition, and more. Most of these features are exclusive to Pixel, and it’s nice to see them available on all of Google’s new smartphones, no matter the price point.
- Battery size: 4,410 mAh
- Max charging speed: 20W
Battery life is by far the worst aspect of the Pixel 6a. Google advertises that the phone should last for over 24 hours, even on 5G. I found that statement to be true, if you didn’t use the phone.
In my testing, you get very different results if you spend all day on Wi-Fi compared to spending the entire day on 5G. On Wi-Fi, I averaged between six and seven hours of screen-on time with heavy use. This included sending messages in Slack, checking Twitter, scrolling through TikTok, and checking notifications throughout the day.
Spend the day away from home and your battery life basically gets cut in half. Instead of being able to make it a full 24 hours, I was averaging anywhere between 3 to 4 hours of screen-on time. Again, resource-heavy apps like Google Maps and the Camera tend to quickly drain the Pixel 6a’s battery.
I also noticed that the phone heated up faster while on 5G. I’m not sure if this is a problem or bug with the Tensor CPU, but heat and batteries don’t mix well. Google should be able to address this issue with firmware updates (battery life on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro have improved since launch), but we’ll have to wait and see.
When it comes to charging, you’re limited to plugging in a USB-C cable. There is no wireless Qi charging like that found on almost every other Android phone, including many budget models. And when you do plug in, the rapid charging is capped at 20W. Of course, with no power adapter in the box, you’ll have to provide your own.
Making phone calls on smartphones might be foreign to some, but it’s a core feature. During my testing, I made several calls to others while on and off Wi-Fi. Everyone I talked to said that I came through clearly without much distortion.
I recorded two audio clips, found below, to demonstrate the Pixel 6a’s microphone performance with and without background. Of course, these weren’t recorded during an actual phone call, so your experience might vary based on your cellular connection.
Mic Test Without Background Noise
Mic Test With Background Noise
Since the launch of the original Pixel in 2016, Google has been king when it comes to snapping pics with your smartphone—mostly thanks to its use of computational photography. I’m happy to report that, despite the Pixel 6a using the sensors from older handsets, photos from this phone look great, but don’t match the quality of Google’s flagships.
- Primary camera: 12.2MP dual pixel wide, ƒ/1.7 aperture, 77-degree field of view
- Secondary camera: 12MP ultrawide, ƒ/2.2 aperture, 114-degree field of view
- Video recording: 4K30, 4K60, 1080p30, 1080p60 FPS
- Optical and electronic image stabilization
The Pixel 6a’s primary rear camera is the older 12MP Sony IMX363 sensor used on the Pixel 3 through the Pixel 5. It’s not bad, but it is a step down from the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s 50MP sensor. The 12MP ultrawide sensor, though, is the same one found on Google’s more expensive models.
My favorite part about using the Pixel 6a’s cameras is their consistency. They might not be flagship-level anymore, but they almost always produce a solid photo. Especially in good lighting, you can expect a clear shot of your subject.
This is a personal preference of mine, but I would have preferred a telephoto lens over the ultrawide. Google’s computational photography tools that process the image in the background do a great job of filling in the gaps when using digital zoom, but there’s a clear loss of detail and sharpness.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a good camera, you won’t be disappointed. There is a bit of “you get what you pay for” as the sensors fall behind those found in phones that cost hundreds of dollars more, but compared to other budget phone cameras, the Pixel 6a is hard to beat.
- ƒ/2.0 aperture
- 84-degree wide field of view
- Video recording: 1080p30 FPS
The 8MP front-facing selfie camera on the Pixel 6a is the same one found on the smaller Pixel 6. As with the rear cameras, expect consistent and solid photo quality, especially in good lighting.
I was also happy with the Portrait mode experience. Unlike other budget phones that leave a weird halo around the subject’s head, Google has nailed the object detection, allowing for a more natural-looking bokeh effect. It isn’t perfect, but if you’re looking to blur out the background, the Pixel 6a gets the job done.
Google’s inclusion of the flagship Tensor processor made the Pixel 6a feel premium from a speed and performance standpoint, but other aspects of the phone degraded the experience. For example, the poor battery life on 5G and lack of wireless charging constantly remind you that you are using the company’s budget handset.
Now, if you don’t use your smartphone heavily while out and avoid resource-heavy media apps (such as social media, TikTok, and YouTube), you’ll avoid many of the battery issues I experienced. But if you want a more polished device and have a little more money in your budget, I recommend making the jump up to the Pixel 6.
Google’s smaller flagship phone is a bit bigger, but it includes many of the features that were noticeably missing from the Pixel 6a. Not even considering that the Pixel 6 frequently goes on sale, for $150 more, you get wireless charging, a 90Hz refresh rate display, a bigger battery, an upgraded rear camera, additional RAM, and much more.
Google Pixel 6
The Pixel 6 is the smaller version of Google’s flagship line and is often on sale for a price similar to the Pixel 6a.
But if you’re not too worried about battery life, the Google Pixel 6a is a solid mid-range Android smartphone. The handset is available in Sage (green), Chalk (white), and Charcoal (black) for $449 directly from Amazon, Best Buy, the Google Store, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.
Note: The Pixel 6a sold through Verizon costs $499 due to the extra radios required to support the carrier’s 5G mmWave network. An unlocked Pixel 6a should work on Verizon, it just won’t have access to every 5G signal.
Be sure to give Review Geek’s Pixel 6a review a read for additional insight on Google’s latest budget-friendly smartphone.
Here’s What We Like
- Fantastic camera quality
- Great performance on Wi-Fi
- Best-in-class Android user interface
And What We Don’t
- No wireless charging
- Unfavorable battery life
- Poor performance on 5G
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