Budget Pixel 6 experience
For the 4th year in a row, Google has established a recurring pattern with its Pixel line of phones. Typically, that means a fall flagship duo of devices followed by a summer A-series release. tick tock, and With this year’s Pixel 6a, I think Google has put together its best mid-range Pixel yet.
Google has publicly stated this year that the Pixel 6 line has topped all other Pixel sales, even sharing that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro sold more units than the Pixel 4 and 5 combined. While there have been a few lingering bugs here and there, the general consensus among Pixel 6 owners is that they really love their phones, and there’s a lot about that overall Pixel 6 experience that comes with the ride on the cheaper $449 Pixel 6a.
The Pixel experience is all about the software
There are tradeoffs, of course, but a lot of the fun of owning a Pixel phone comes from the software experience. Google has always tried to make Pixel software unique among the larger Android ecosystem, and even though I wander off to try a few other non-Pixel phones every year, I always come back to Pixel. It’s not because of any hardware gimmick or some super unique feature: rather it’s the whole user experience that brings me back, and it’s a pretty good draw to have in your back pocket as a company that makes mid-range phones.
And here’s the reason that matters for the Pixel 6a: to get a phone at this kind of price, companies like Google have to make hardware cuts. Things have to be downgraded, materials don’t always look so good, and sacrifices are just expected. This is certainly the case on the Pixel 6a, but as you’ll soon see, it doesn’t really degrade the Pixel software experience. There’s no denying the Google DNA in this phone, and with that DNA being the biggest strength of any Pixel phone, the Pixel 6 did well to lean into that fact.
Cut some corners
So, let’s start by talking about those cut corners. At a glance, the Pixel 6a definitely gives off the latest Pixel vibe; So where did Google save money? With a smaller 6.1-inch 60Hz OLED display, the first place you see cost savings is on the screen. That’s not to say it’s a bad panel – not by a long shot – but it’s not the same quality you’ll see on the Pixel 6 Pro. It gets very bright, has great viewing angles and the colors are fantastic. But if you’re coming from a high-refresh rate phone like the Pixel 6 with its 90Hz display or the Pixel 6 Pro with its 120Hz display, you’ll immediately see and feel the difference.
On the outside, the other noticeable difference comes in the form of what Google calls a 3D thermoformed composite back, but if I didn’t tell you about it, I doubt you’d even notice the fact that the entire back of this phone is plastic. Yes I said it: it’s plastic. You can call it whatever you want, but whether it’s thermoformed composite or polycarbonate, it’s all just plastic. But it is a pleasant plastic to the touch! When I first unboxed it I forgot the fact that the back plate wasn’t glass and when I remembered that I really had to tap on it a bit to convince myself. In one case, you’ll never know otherwise, anyway, so if it saves money and keeps the price down, I think this plastic back is a brilliant choice.
While we’re talking about the back, let’s quickly touch on these color options. Google has always been good at delivering great color options for Pixel phones and the Pixel 6a is no exception. There’s a white/grey combo simply called ‘Chalk’, a black/dark gray combo called ‘Charcoal’ and the best of the bunch is ‘Sage’ and its subtle, earthy greens. It looks good in the photos. He looks better in person. I’ve already found myself wishing this colorway was on my Pixel 6 Pro.
This plastic is only found on the back plate, however, as the side rails are still made of the same metal that adorns the Pixel 6. The matte finish looks great, and just like on the Pixel 6, this material around the edges with the playful colors around the back scream Google and Pixel. That metal frame also extends around the camera bump, which is much less pronounced than what we see on the more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Although it’s not flush, it’s pretty close and I love how it looks. Sure, the bigger Pixel 6 and 6 Pro need that bigger bump for bigger camera hardware, but I like the sleek look of the Pixel 6a’s camera module, even if that means it comes with the old Pixel camera setup.
And, what is this configuration? If you’ve come across a Pixel in the past few years, you know what we work with. A 12.2MP main shooter and a 12MP ultrawide are on the rear, with an 8MP selfie camera on the front: and that’s pretty similar to what we had in the excellent setup of the Pixel 5 camera. In the real world, this means that it’s quite difficult to distinguish photos from the Pixel 6a from those taken with the Pixel 6 Pro. The focal lengths are a bit different, so close objects will give different end results with the Pixel 6 Pro showing a bit shallower depth of field, but generally speaking I’m having trouble distinguishing shots between three Pixel 6 phones. Again, it comes down to software for most things, and the Pixel 6a has the same stuff as the Pixel 6 and 6 pro.
The latest hardware upgrades we see in the Pixel 6a come from within, but compared to the entry-level version of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, there’s only one real difference, and it’s the RAM. All three phones start at 128GB of storage, but the Pixel 6a doesn’t have an upgrade option. It also comes with 6GB of RAM compared to the Pixel 6’s 8GB and the Pixel 6 Pro’s 12GB. While on paper this should result in less efficient multitasking, I don’t think you’ll have too many problems unless you’re actively trying to limit memory.
Where the Pixel 6a shines
So much for the downgrades. What about all the things this Pixel does like the bigger, more expensive siblings? More importantly, it packs the exact same SoC Tensor, which means the same performance we get on flagship Pixels. Of all the things Google is doing with this year’s A-series phone, this might be the biggest change. The mid-range Pixel no longer comes with a slower processor. Instead, things are as fast as you’d expect from a high-end flagship, which makes using the Pixel 6a quite similar to other Pixel 6 options. same 5G connectivity options as the Pixel 6, so sub-6 5G is available if your carrier supports it.
The standard Pixel software experience is there too, with no caveats or considerations, which makes me feel right at home once I’ve been connected and set up. That means things like hardware you design, Google Assistant voice call features, live translation, recorder, magic eraser, camouflage, true tone, Live HDR+ video, adaptive loading battery life, car crash detection, quick phrases and countless other Pixel-exclusive features are all along for the ride. Nothing is left out as the processor that runs the show is the same one we see in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
Although there has been talk of the fingerprint scanner being at least different from the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, I don’t really see a difference. It works perfectly fine, but so does my Pixel 6 Pro’s sensor, so I’m not sure what the technical changes are. I remember my Pixel 6 was pretty bad at unlocking with my fingerprints, so it’s definitely better than this experience. But if you’re looking for a lightning-fast upgrade over the Pixel 6 Pro, you’ll likely be disappointed. Anyway, the biometrics works great and didn’t bother me at all.
The last thing I will say about this phone is that I am very impressed with the haptics and the onboard speakers. Google could have skimped on both, but instead opted to stick with what looks like the same setup we have on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. I don’t really know, but the speakers sound very similar to the Pixel 6 and the haptics are identical to the Pixel 6 Pro. It’s a pretty good combo on a phone in this price range, and while things like haptic motors don’t grab headlines, they do change the perception, feel and experience when using a phone. Pixel 6a nails both.
I haven’t used the device long enough for Google to really fine-tune my adaptive battery settings, so I’ll withhold judgment there. That being said, with a battery nearly the size of the Pixel 6 and a smaller, low refresh rate screen, this thing should be great on a single charge. As we put this video and post together, I have 58% on my battery and the Pixel 6a estimates that it still has 10 hours left on that charge. At 4410mAh, I’d buy this battery life rating and be confident it’ll get you through a busy day with ease.
Although wireless charging isn’t included, the Pixel 6a still accepts fast charging and charges just as fast as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro: that is, fast enough, but not as fast as a OnePlus phone by any stretch of the imagination. Going from 50% to 100%, the Pixel 6a tells me it will take about an hour on a fast charge. It’s not terribly slow, but it won’t win any awards for charging speed either.
Should you buy the Pixel 6a?
So, in the end, should you buy this phone? If you’re looking for the Pixel experience and don’t want to drop $600 or $900 on your phone, absolutely. If you want the Pixel experience on a smaller phone, this will get you there. But I’m not a phone reviewer, so I can’t say for sure that this $449 phone is better than all of the competing devices. I can’t say it’s faster on paper, has a better or worse screen, or is the superior camera compared to other phones in this price range.
But I don’t think I need it. Ultimately, those even considering this phone want the Pixel experience, and the Pixel 6a delivers. That I can assure you, and if a 60Hz display or the 6.1-inch dimensions don’t turn you off, I’d say you’ll love this phone if you’ve looked at a Pixel. While it’s not really my cup of tea – I like big phones with high refresh rates – I think this Pixel will sell like crazy and be a hit with many new Pixel users. It’s a fantastic Pixel to add to the lineup and hopefully the price and loaded software feature set will entice more people to try Google’s phone.