Pixel 6a review: The tiny Pixel phone I’ve been hoping for

Image Credit: Sam Rutherford / Engadget

cameras

Google has long excelled in photography, and the Pixel 6a is a continuation of that tradition. Its dual 12MP rear cameras and 8MP front sensor took bright, colorful pictures that rivaled those of more expensive phones.

Details like window panes and individual blades of grass were sharp, and Google continues to deliver excellent low-light images. To be honest, there is no better camera for night photography at this price. Thanks in large part to Night Sight, the Pixel 6a generally captured brighter images in extremely dark environments, retaining more detail even in the shadows. The stationary bikes in a night-time workout room were clearer than the iPhone SE in footage from the Pixel 6a, and I was even able to read the words on a sign in the Google version. Apple’s decision to cut night mode on its budget phone puts it at a real disadvantage here.

Compared to the iPhone SE, the Pixel 6a’s images tend to have lower contrast and less saturated colors. Apple also produces better dynamic range, and it was difficult to choose my favorite images between the two.

However, Google has the upper hand when it comes to versatility. Because it has an extra ultrawide lens (compared to the iPhone’s solo rear camera), the Pixel 6a allowed zooming out to capture sweeping landscapes. And while it doesn’t have a telephoto lens, Google’s viewfinder interface makes it easy to zoom into distant subjects. Instead of squeezing the iPhone, you can switch between preset distances like 0.6x, 1x, and 2x by simply tapping the on-screen buttons.

Gallery: Pixel 6a camera samples | 27 photos


I also preferred Google’s Portrait mode, which allowed me to get closer to subjects and apply a shallower depth of field. Both the iPhone and the Pixel took similar-quality selfies, and the differences between them were down to very slight variations in color temperature. Given that Google and Apple use 8MP and 7MP sensors respectively, the similarity in sharpness is not surprising.

Despite having the sharpest cameras, the Galaxy A53 delivered photos that were close in quality to the Pixel 6a and iPhone SE. The 32 MP front camera and the primary 64 MP sensor on the back didn’t result in sharper images. However, compared to the Pixel and iPhone, the Galaxy A53’s camera was noticeably slower and struggled to capture multiple shots in quick succession.

Although Google has equipped the Pixel 6a with some of the tools found on its flagships, such as Magic Eraser for editing photo bombers, it lacks features like Action Pan and Long Exposure. That’s fine with me as Magic Eraser is the most useful of them all and works on both the 6a and the Pro. You also have the option to shoot in RAW, which you can’t do on the iPhone SE.

The Pixel 6a shows its lock screen with a fingerprint icon below the clock widget.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Performance, fingerprint sensor and in use

As the first A-series phone to feature Google’s own Tensor chip, the Pixel 6a’s performance should be fairly similar to its flagship siblings. Generally this was true – the 6a barely stuttered when switching between games, editing photos, browsing Instagram and recording videos. However, just like my Pixel 6 Pro, the 6a tended to lag when playing casual games such as HK Mahjong or the New York Times Crossword for more than 15 minutes. It never got frighteningly hot, but I wanted to put it down after a while.

On occasion, the Pixel 6a would take a few seconds to display information in an app, but that mostly happened within the first few hours after setting up the phone, so I’ll attribute that to early charging issues. I’m more concerned about the long-term stability of the Pixel 6a’s software, especially given all the issues that have plagued the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro since their inception. I didn’t encounter anything significant during my testing, but most bugs on the other two didn’t surface until weeks after our review period.

For now all I can say is that the software is behaving as expected and that it supports Google Pixel updates for up to five years. Switching wallpapers and applying new system-wide color schemes generated by Android happened without any significant lag, and everything I like about the Pixel UI is here. I love being able to just say “stop” to my phone to silence it when an alarm goes off. (On my Pixel 6 Pro, however, this usually takes about three increasingly frustrated attempts before I yell at the phone.) I also appreciate assistant features like Call Screening and Hold For Me, which make the excruciating experience of using the phone a lot less painful.

Top view of the sage and white Pixel 6a side by side on a book on a wooden surface.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Maybe I’ve gotten used to the sluggish fingerprint sensor in the Pixel 6 Pro’s display, but the Pixel 6a’s scanner didn’t feel as difficult. It’s still slower than Samsung’s, but it’s serviceable.

Battery life

The A series has long had a reputation for excellent battery life and once again the 6a is a winner. It lasted a whopping 19 hours and 10 minutes on our video rundown test, which is shorter than the Pixel 5a, Pixel 6, and Galaxy A53 but still hours longer than the iPhone SE.

Unfortunately, while the iPhone SE offers wireless charging, the Pixel 6a doesn’t. It also only supports fast charging with 18W wired chargers. However, the good news is that the 6a is also compatible with the M3/T4 hearing aid standard, as well as Sub-6 and mmWave 5G.

A woman holding the wise Pixel 6a to her ear.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Wrap up

I think it’s about time we stop seeing the Pixel A series as a “budget” line. With its refined design, powerful processor and satisfying cameras, there are more similarities than differences between the 6a and its flagship siblings. It’s easily one of the best phones for the money. Yes, it would be nice to get a faster, brighter screen and wireless charging, but that’s not a given on a midranger. If you can’t live without a higher refresh rate and can’t spend more than $500, the Galaxy A53 is an alternative, but be warned that its performance is questionable. In the US, there’s no better sub-$500 Android phone than the Pixel 6a.

key specifications

spec

Pixel 6a

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6.1-inch 2400 x 1080 (20:9) OLED, 429 ppi, 60 Hz

Dimensions

6.0 x 2.8 x 0.35 inch / 152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9mm; 6.3 ounces / 178 grams

processor and memory

Google tensor; 6GB LPDDR5 RAM, 128GB (UFS 3.1) storage

reversing cameras

12.2 MP dual pixel main camera, f/1.7 aperture with 77 degree FOV, 12 MP ultra wide camera, f/2.2 aperture with 114 degree FOV.

Front camera

8 MP, f/2.0, 84 degree field of view

battery

4,400mAh battery, 18W wired charging (0.8c)

sensors and connectivity

Fingerprint unlock with under-display fingerprint sensor, NFC, WiFi 6 and 6E, Bluetooth 5.2

water resistance

IP67

Rating for hearing aids

M3, T4

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Russell Falcon

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