Following up on one good product is hard enough, but Google has put itself into a bit of a spot with the Pixel 6a as the fourth product in a line of back-to-back great phones. While Google did have to downgrade a few features from the Pixel 6 and even last year's excellent Pixel 5a to hit the mark, $450 is a small price to pay (in every sense) to get Google's best phone dressed up in a smaller package. If you aren’t made of money and can deal with an inevitable software snafu, this is the Android phone to get.
The Pixel 6a isn't just the best smartphone you can get for $450, it's probably the best value you can get in an Android phone, with a great camera, good performance, and fantastic software features. Just keep in mind, Google has a history of buggy updates and you may not get as good a signal compared to some other phones.
- SoC: Google Tensor
- Display: 6.1” 2400x1080 (20:9) 60Hz OLED
- RAM: 6GB
- Storage: 128GB
- Battery: 4,400mAh
- Ports: 1x USB Type-C
- Operating System: Android, five years of security updates
- Front camera: 8MP f/2.0 IMX355 84°FOV
- Rear cameras: 12MP f/1.73 IMX 363 w/OIS 77° FoV; Ultra-wide: 12MP f/2.2 IMX386 114° FoV
- Connectivity: 5G, Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, NFC
- Others: eSIM, M3/T4 Hearing Aid Compatibility
- Dimensions: 152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9mm, 178g
- Colors: Sage (green), Chalk (white), Charcoal (black)
- Charging: 18W USB PD
- IP Rating: IP67
- Price: Starting at $450
- Pixel software
- Almost all the features of the more expensive Pixel 6
- Great price
- Good (but not incredible) battery life
- Great camera, even with the older sensor
- Excellent haptics
- Smaller than last year’s (too-big) Pixel 5a
- Five years of security updates
- Great build quality — yes, the back is technically plastic, but it's really nice plastic
- Pixel software (it’s a drawback, too)
- Worse signal than other phones
- No wireless charging
- The headphone jack finally goes dodo
- FP sensor still not quite as good as competitors
Availability & network
Last year’s Pixel 5a was only available in the US and Japan, but Google has expanded where you can get the Pixel 6a. In addition to the US, the Pixel 6a will be available in Canada, Germany, the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Taiwan starting in July. It’s also coming to India later this year.
In the US, the Pixel 6a is available from all the big carriers and many of the smaller ones, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Comcast. The phone can be purchased directly from Google as well as through Best Buy, and Target unlocked.
Google tells us that it will be 5G certified on all US carriers and will support mmWave on Verizon through a carrier-specific SKU. The standard sub-6GHz phone costs $450, while the mmWave-compatible version sold by Verizon will cost $500.
From a distance, the Pixel 6a is easily confused for the Pixel 6, having adopted its design language through the camera visor/strip and two-tone back. Originally I thought the back was glass, but Google confirms to me that it's actually plastic, but it's pretty premium plastic, as my initial attempts to scratch it with a knife were unsuccessful. The camera strip is a little different, with a Pixel 7-style oval cutout surrounding the two lenses, but it essentially feels like a smaller Pixel 6 — and, frankly, that’s the four-word summary for this phone.
While we aren’t returning to Pixel 4a diminutiveness, the Pixel 6a is noticeably smaller than last year’s Pixel 5a and a little smaller than the Pixel 6. It won’t scratch that small-phone itch that some folks have, but I think it’s a pretty ideal size. I’m happy to see Google taking criticism regarding the size of its phones to heart.
Joining the two-tone plastic panels on the back is a textured aluminum frame that wraps around the camera visor. It’s gritty and feels durable, offsetting the glossy back that can be a little slippery without a case. It’s not a perk that gets mentioned very often, but the camera visor also means the phone sits flat when on its back, and you can tap around the screen without it see-sawing around — surprisingly handy at times.
Left: The camera strip/visor on the 6a doesn't project out nearly as far as the Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro's do. Right: And it's the smallest of the three, slightly smaller than the Pixel 5a.
The fun textured power button on the Pixel 5a is sadly a thing of the past. I found it handy for identifying the button by touch at night, and I think it was a potentially helpful accessibility feature, but it was short-lived. As with all Pixels, the power button is on the right side just above the volume rocker, letting you access all three buttons with your thumb (or index finger, if you’re left-handed).
The SIM tray lives on the left side, set in the phone’s frame. Microphones live in a hole on the top frame and in one of the grilles on the bottom — the other is a speaker.
Google has confirmed to us that the Pixel 6a has an IP67 rating, same as last year. While a footnote originally on the Pixel 6a spec page implied it was IP7X rated, that is apparently in error.
The Pixel 6a doesn’t have a flashy high-refresh-rate screen, just a standard 60Hz OLED. Again, it’s a little smaller (and a touch sharper) than the Pixel 5a’s display was, but it’s not an across-the-board upgrade.
Brightness is fine indoors, of course, but even outside on the brightest possible day (if you don't expect a ton of contrast).
I’m known for being particularly picky about display quality, and the Pixel 6a’s screen is a step back for me to the 2017 era when the OLED lottery was in full swing. My review unit has a pretty strong gradient visible in dark gray colors at low brightness. And since Google’s Material You abhors true black backgrounds in favor of dark gray, that means this defect is staring back at me in a noticeable and distracting way basically every night.
The OLED lottery is still a thing that all phones using the technology are subject to in varying degrees, but this is a bigger regression in uniformity than I’ve observed in a long time. Off-angle viewing shows a rainbow of distortion and internal reflections faster and more visibly than the Pixel 5a does. I’m sure that uniformity issues will vary from unit to unit — to be fair, I’m picky about this sort of thing, and you probably won’t notice it — but it looks to me like Google may have slightly downgraded the objective quality of the display between generations a little.
This should all be the same color — dark theme at night is a bad time when your screen isn't great.
Besides those issues, color reproduction looks good to me, and I didn’t notice any issues with things like banding. Google’s remapped gray values do have a slightly distorted “hump” somewhere around 15% brightness that might result in a wonky graph of the display’s gamma at across brightness levels, but I didn’t have problems with crushed blacks or noticeable banding when watching dark content at night.
Brightness isn’t category-leading, but anecdotally it gets about as bright as the Pixel 5a did, which is more than enough to use outside in daylight. Automatic brightness was pretty reliable as well — some Pixels get confused by certain spots in my house, and the Pixel 6a didn’t choose wrong for a challenging situation as often as the prior Pixel 5a did, with one exception: Gaming. Turns out, if you have an in-display ambient light sensor and you’re touching the screen constantly, you’re probably going to block it sometimes.
This isnt't a con (all bezel-less phones do it to some degree), but in the right lighting you can spot where the under-display sensors live.
Set in the display is an optical fingerprint reader, and it seems to be pretty reliable, though I still run into the same issue I do on the Pixel 6, where it will take longer than expected to say “no,” and it’s not quite as fast or consistently reliable as some other phones with in-display readers are.
Other hardware and what's in the box
One thing I’m glad to see Google improve on the Pixel 6a is the haptic feedback. You know when you tap around the screen, perform a certain action, or get an alert, how your phone will shake in your hand or pocket? Google still has a ways to go when it comes to the variety and “texture” of these sensations, but the subjective quality of what little variety you do get is quite good on the Pixel 6a. By all that, I mean to say, haptic feedback feels sharp and gratifying, whether you’re unlocking the phone, tapping around on the software keyboard, or swiping apps out of memory.
There is one other way that tactile feedback matters, and that’s the hardware buttons. This is an attribute that weirdly varies on Pixel phones over the years, with buttons that vary from crisp to frustratingly mushy and lacking in feedback. While Google hasn’t delivered the sort of push-button dopamine explosion it did for the Pixel 4a, the volume and power buttons on my unit were tactile enough. However, AP’s Ryan Whitwam said the buttons on his were unsatisfying, so the experience may still vary from unit to unit.
Sound via the earpiece and bottom right speaker port. Note the uneven void behind the earpiece — half that grille is for show.
The Pixel 6a has stereo sound through its earpiece, but it suffers from the same issue the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro did, where that sound can feel imbalanced depending on the frequency, with the earpiece sounding a little bit shrill and quieter in the mid-range. Of course, there’s no real low-end to speak of either way. Audio through the built-in speakers is probably fine for the occasional alert or speakerphone call, but if you want to do a bit of YouTubing in bed, you’re better off with headphones — and you’ll have to go wireless, as Google has unfortunately and finally given up on the headphone jack in the Pixel 6a.
I’m nothing if not nitpicky, and I have one last complaint about the earpiece: The void behind it is visibly uneven through the too-coarse grille in a way I find intermittently distracting when there’s enough lighting to see inside it. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro had the same issue, and while the dark accents used on the 6a do more to hide it than some of the lighter-colored Pixel 6 Pro’s metallic finishes do, it’s still one of those little things Google should have done differently.
Google's new cases are what they are — you're better off going third-party.
Google’s case woes continue with the Pixel 6a, and I don’t recommend the company’s own. Google provided one with the review kit (though retail units won’t come with one), and it’s the same style as last year’s Pixel 6 and 6 Pro cases. Again, mine arrived slightly warped out of the box. Google says that if that happens to a customer, they’ll replace it, but Google’s cases are basically designed to be defective, so you’re better off picking up a third-party case.
As is common these days, the Pixel 6a doesn’t come with a charger. There’s a USB Type-C to C cable, an adapter for a Type-A cable, a SIM ejector, and the typical warranty/quick start info. Since the Pixel 6a can use any USB Power Delivery-compliant charger to hit its maximum 18W speeds, this isn’t necessarily a point against it, but I do think a charger is still useful to include at this price point, where people may still be upgrading from a phone that used a different standard — Micro USB persisted for far too long, and some folks coming from an iPhone may not have a lot of Type-C chargers yet.
Sometimes I find myself questioning whether Google sees the Pixel as a platform or a product. There’s a subtle distinction between the two concepts (and it’s too detailed to get into here), but the impact is clear when it comes to software. Pixels are arguably the Android testbed, and Googlers on the Android team have said as much themselves. This double-edged sword carries a mild disadvantage and a big benefit, both of which can be summarized together: You get features first.
This means every Pixel owner is unarguably a little bit of a beta tester, as the Android Police comments section is prompt to remind us whenever an issue crops up. Last year when the Pixel 6 series landed with Google’s first in-house chipset, that fact came to bear in the form of basic features (like being able to even use Wi-Fi or place calls) randomly breaking with subsequent updates. Initial reviews were positive, but plenty of issues reared their head after more customers were able to test it in a wider variety of circumstances. All this means that buying a Pixel is, objectively speaking, a risky proposition. Google itself has been known to break features and functionality you rely on with updates, often without any recourse or solution but to wait (or replace your phone).
If your phone is a mission-critical device, I think objectively speaking, the Pixel’s reputation makes it a poor choice — or, at least, a gamble. But if you can deal with dumb issues cropping up once in a while, the rest of the Pixel software experience makes up for it.
I’ve used almost every manufacturer’s version of Android, and while the era of change-for-the-sake-of-change is (mostly) over and you don’t really have to worry about companies breaking expected behaviors just to look unique, I still think the Pixel’s software experience is my favorite out there. A big part of that is because of Google’s focus on what it calls ambient computing. While we’re a long way off from some of the more esoteric products Google’s shown off in videos and demos, the Assistant’s deep integrations and platform benefits on Pixels are profoundly useful in a very passive, omnipresent way. Automatic call screening is a feature that I’d pay an actual subscription to use on other phones, and Google’s Assistant Voice Typing feature is probably the best transcription system out there.
Since the Pixel 6a has the same Tensor chipset that the much more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro do, you get basically all of the AI-powered perks the latest generation of Pixels can enjoy. That means you get other Assistant-powered features like Direct My Call and Wait times, real-time translations, plus all the new camera features like Real Tone color processing, Magic Eraser, and Face Unblur, though the 6a doesn't get the Motion Mode photos. The Recorder app, which transcribes conversations in real time, has been particularly handy for my job. Google also releases new features for its phones every three months as part of so-called Feature Drop updates, and unlike a lot of manufacturers, it even brings big new features to older phones when it can (though the Pixel 6 and later Tensor generation chipsets will likely mark a dividing line for heavy AI/ML-related changes). And with five years of security updates, it won’t be unsafe to use or strictly require replacement for a long while.
On top of that, you get Google’s version of Android 12, which means perks like Material You’s beautiful dynamic theming. Some changes in Google’s version of Android, like the bloated-feeling quick settings menu, are more polarizing, but the Pixel software experience feels uniquely consistent and well-designed, not to mention just more fresh than most other software skins these days.
Ultimately, I like Google’s version of Android, and I think you probably will too. Just keep in mind that Google has a habit of breaking pretty basic functionality with updates, and if that’s not okay, you might want to look elsewhere.
Performance and battery life
Like the Pixel 5a, Google again gave the Pixel 6a the same chipset that the more premium Pixels get. This time that means it’s using the same Tensor chipset the $900 Pixel 6 Pro has, and it’s more than fast enough for just about any workload. It runs around twice as fast as the Pixel 5a in synthetic benchmarks, but in more anecdotal use, it feels about as snappy as most $700+ phones.
Because Google doesn't do any dumb background app optimizations, like some smartphone companies do, you don't have to worry about things like prematurely killed apps or delayed notifications. Apps further back in your multitasking list might get pushed out of memory in some circumstances — anecdotally, I was interrupted a few times while reading a longer story in a news app, and when I went back to the app an hour or so later to finish, my story would reload from the top. But you shouldn't have to worry about apps that need to be running being pushed out of memory, like music apps during playback, wearable or fitness-tracking apps, etc.
Like the prior Tensor-powered Pixels, the Pixel 6a can run a little hot under load. Using the phone in a hot car or under direct summer sun, you can figure out by touch pretty quickly exactly where the chipset lives inside the phone. I didn’t run into any issues with it throwing an error because it got too hot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if using the camera for very long in full sunlight on a warm day ends up being problematic. Games can stress it a little too.
On that note, titles like Fortnite were playable at their default settings, with the occasional (if still slightly frustrating) stutter. I also want to point out that automatic brightness is guaranteed to perform terribly when your finger basically blocks the under-screen sensor — be sure to disable it. Pixels on Android 12 ostensibly have a Game Dashboard, but it’s both obnoxious to access and I couldn’t get it to trigger on my Pixel 6a. Google says the Pixel 6a won't get the feature until its Android 13 update, which is weird. Games also tank the battery life, so don’t expect much longevity if you play a lot.
Hard to win without Max to carry me.
I also ran into an issue using a 2-in-1 USB Type-C DAC/power adapter in my car, which I use to keep my phone powered and playing music while using the display for Assistant driving mode navigation. (I’ve got an old car without Android Auto.) The Pixel 6a got pretty confused with it and I’d have to unplug and plug it back in repeatedly or disconnect and reconnect the charging cable repeatedly for it to recognize and use it correctly for audio output. And since there’s no headphone jack, there’s no other source of wired audio to fall back on. The older Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro have the same trouble with 2-in-1 DACs/chargers ever since Google broke then re-enabled USB DAC functionality for Pixels. The only other devices I’ve run into with similar problems are OnePlus phones.
As in the case of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, I did have some connectivity issues. A few times, my phone was unable to connect to cellular data after leaving Wi-Fi, requiring a reboot. Cell signal was also notably worse than the Pixel 5a. (Rumor has it that the Exynos modem in the Tensor isn’t quite as good as Qualcomm’s.) I asked Google about this, and was told that the company is aware of the connectivity issues and it’s continuing to improve its software stack. Like other Pixel's, this is dual-SIM courtesy of an ESIM, and it supports DSDS.
Connectivity isn’t the only objective downgrade, either. The biggest blow to the spec sheet compared to the Pixel 5a is made to battery life. I’d argue that it’s still good, with my own testing showing over six hours of screen-on time over two days during normal use, and the phone can just about hit two days on a charge. But the Pixel 5a had both a bigger battery and (seemingly) a chipset that consumed less power, reaching over 10 hours of screen-on time at a charge for me, lasting up to three days for me in normal use. The Pixel 6a still has decent-to-good battery life, but longevity isn’t as incredible as the Pixel 5a’s was, and I sort of wish Google had tossed in a larger battery, so the difference isn’t as stark.
18W charging isn’t particularly fast, especially for a 4,400mAh battery, and I wish Google had opted to include the ever-so-slightly-faster 21-23W charging that the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro offer. But charging speed is an intermittent frustration if you’re coming from another phone that can top up faster — you can’t plug in for a few minutes on your way out the door and expect much. There’s also no wireless charging, but as a mid-range phone, I think Google made the right call by giving that up and keeping other more important specs.
The Verizon version of the Pixel 6a will support mmWave, but other models will be sub-6GHz 5G only. The phone is also Wi-Fi 6e compatible and had no issues with performance on my 6e network, peaking at around 430Mbps. I haven’t had the opportunity to test Bluetooth performance in an RF-congested environment (I broke my foot a few weeks ago), but performance at home was good, with few instances of cutting out and multi-room range.
The Pixel 6a’s cameras are a mix of old and new. The main camera uses the familiar IMX363 sensor used in the Pixel 5a, 5, and earlier, while the wide-angle switches to an IMX386 — the same sensor used in the wide-angle camera of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
Although the Pixel 6a doesn’t have the big primary sensor that the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro do, Google spent over five years tuning its processing for different versions of this primary sensor. Yes, when you get down to it, this is a very old sensor, but processing matters a lot more than hardware, and Google knows exactly how to use it to its utmost.
As other camera solutions have matured, I think the Pixels have a specific weakness that evolves from their greatest benefit: contrast. Pixels do an excellent job preserving (or maybe even exaggerating) how much the details in an image “pop,” and that processing does a great job with people, scenes, and natural settings. But if your subject is substantially uniform — like taking a photo of a sign, paper, or some other more utility-before-art use case — the Pixel will drop the ball and manufacture contrast that isn’t there. It’s a corner case, but one you should be aware of.
Google’s AI-powered camera features are both amazing and well-known at this point. Google’s Real Tone processing does a better job at capturing skin tones than most cameras do, and Magic Eraser can be equal parts fun and terrifying, removing parts of photos and dynamically filling content to suit the gap. With the Pixel 6a, Google is debuting a new Camouflage feature that gives you a new way to tune out distracting details: Changing their color to stand out less.
This is probably more useful in other situations.
There’s no telephoto camera here, so all the “zoom” you get is purely digital. Google’s Super Res Zoom does offer better processing than most software zoom solutions, but I would still urge you not to push things much past 2x — and even then, the quality drop is noticeable. At the more extreme end, results can be pretty awful.
Google's Super-res Zoom isn't as good as a dedicated telephoto camera, and it's better in some situations than others.
For low-light photography, it’s tough to beat a Pixel. While a bigger sensor can help bring down exposure times, Google’s Night Sight feature works surprisingly well even with moving subjects, capturing details that a Samsung or OnePlus phone wouldn’t catch. And Google’s Astrophotography mode may not be objectively very useful, but it’s nothing short of fun. It’s no James Webb Space Telescope, but you can capture some incredible shots. Plus, the Pixel 6a doesn’t have the same annoying lens flare issue as the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, so you don’t have to worry about the moon ruining your photos.
If you’re big into underwater photography or diving, Pixels are also specifically tuned for that, which could be handy. Selfie quality is decent, even in relatively challenging lighting, and you won’t have any issues with video calls. The same goes for “normal” video. I’m not a videographer (and, frankly, I don’t have interesting pets, kids, or anything else that has me recording video regularly), but I did notice the camera overheat when recording 4K video after around 10 minutes, though 1080p video had no problem. Quality should about match what you get on prior Pixels.
It did a decent job of hiding the noise of the AC (it was HOT), and dynamic range is okay even though lighting was intentionally not ideal.
While the Pixel 5 and 5a were slow to open their camera apps and slow to process images once captured, the Pixel 6a has that same Tensor chipset that the more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro do. That means it opens much more quickly and processes photos nearly instantaneously, in comparison.
The Pixel 6a also loses the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro's Motion Mode photo capture modes. They aren't that objectively useful, letting you capture or exaggerate motion blur in photos, but they are fun. While I wish they could be included, I suspect the feature may require throughput or other features not available on the older camera sensor.
Should you buy it?
Yes, absolutely. If you can accept the Pixel’s reputation for software issues (some of which can be pretty severe!) and you don’t live in an area where you have to deal with poor cellular coverage, the Pixel 6a is probably the single best bang-for-your-buck phone you can get right now.
Given the inclusion of the Tensor chipset, I’m surprised Google didn’t have to raise prices this year, but we’re getting the 6a at the same $450 price that the Pixel 5a launched at. Google did make this phone slightly smaller and easier to heft, but that also means a smaller battery. Paired with what appears to be a more power-hungry chipset, you don’t get the legitimately incredible battery life the Pixel 5a offered; it’s merely “good.” The camera is also about the same as the Pixel 5a’s, so you don’t benefit from the huge upgraded primary sensor used on the Pixel 6, but it’s still pretty great.
~$500 is something of a smartphone no man’s land — carrier subsidies make more of a dent the more expensive a phone is, and those buying a phone outright usually spend less. That puts the Pixel 6a up against things like older flagships that are still being sold at a discount. Compared to something like the Galaxy S21, you get a better (if more situationally limited) camera, better performance, and longer updates. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy A53 5G, which has a $450 MSRP, the Pixel 6a delivers a better camera, better performance, and arguably better software features. If somehow you’re seriously considering buying a Motorola phone in this the year of our blog 2022, the similarly-discounted 2021 Moto Edge is… a phone you could buy.
The most important comparison might be against Google's own Pixel 6. If you can make do with slightly less RAM, a camera downgrade, and a slightly less smooth display, the Pixel 6a is basically the same phone in a smaller package, and the phone I'd recommend to most people first. Then there's the new iPhone SE, and I don't even think it's a competition. Yes, the iPhone is faster, but that's the only benefit it offers — the Pixel 6a wipes the floor with it.
Steve Jobs famously said, “If you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will,” and Google has taken that to an extreme with its a-series phones. As good of a phone as the Pixel 6 was, the Pixel 6a arguably delivers almost an identical experience for even less. Feature regression is really the name of the game for the mid-range, and features here have been downgraded. But I’d argue Google made just the right choices — there’s really very little difference between the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6a outside a slightly better camera and a slightly smoother screen. 99% of people buying a Pixel should get the Pixel 6a.
I hold final judgment for later, but, like many a-series Pixels before it, the Pixel 6a seems like a shoo-in for our Editors Choice smartphone of the year. But at a minimum, it’s easily earned our Most Wanted accolade.
Q: How does the Google Pixel 6a compare to the Samsung Galaxy A53?
Pricing before discounts for the two phones is the same, but you can expect to see more discounts and carrier promotions on the Samsung side than Google's. The Pixel 6a has a better but less flexible camera configuration and better performance. The Galaxy A53 has better battery life, a smoother 120Hz display, better signal strength, and will likely have fewer bugs and issues with software updates. I think the 6a is the better buy, because I like Google's software and the Pixel camera, but it's not an easy victory, and your priorities could swing things the other direction.
Q: How does the Google Pixel 6a compare to the Google Pixel 6?
The two phones share a design language and a lot of DNA — as well as their Tensor chipset. The Pixel 6 has a bigger and smoother display, a little more RAM, and a larger primary camera sensor, which can mean better low-light performance and better "zoom" through a sensor crop. For $150 less, you arguably don't give up that much, and it's a trade I'd take.
Q: How does the Google Pixel 6a compare to the 2022 iPhone SE 5G?
We're an Android-focused site, so consider the source, but I think in terms of specs the 2022 iPhone SE doesn't really compete with the Pixel 6a. Apple's a15 Bionic chip is unarguably going to be much faster, and battery life on the SE is a little better, but the base $430 model has less storage, less RAM, a worse and less flexible camera, a worse display, proprietary charging, and a dated design that is already awkward to use in some apps. You are getting a whole lot less for your money if you go for the iPhone — it's up to you if being a blue bubble is worth using a worse phone.