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Google Pixel 6a review: Right phone, wrong time

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
399
inc VAT

The Pixel 6a is an astonishing mid-range handset, but it should have launched earlier

Pros 
Google Tensor chipset continues to impress
Flagship-quality cameras
Sublime colour-accurate screen
Cons 
Regular Pixel 6 isn’t much more
Display is only 60Hz
No face unlock or microSD expansion
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Even by Google smartphone standards, the Pixel 6a was a poorly kept secret. It was mentioned in the company’s own product colouring book for Pixel superfans at the beginning of the year, but now it’s finally arrived in the UK.

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Announced at the Google I/O developers conference in May, just as the original Pixel 3a was three years ago, it’s essentially what you would expect from a Pixel ‘a’ series handset, which is to say the Pixel 6a is a scaled back version of the flagship Pixel 6, which we rather liked when we reviewed it in October last year.

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Google Pixel 6a review: What you need to know

But there’s a key difference this time. Google has taken a leaf out of the Apple iPhone SE handbook by matching the processing power of its flagship and making cuts elsewhere. The Pixel 6a uses Google’s own Tensor chip, giving it the same processing and graphical grunt as the full-fat Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. This is backed by 6GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage.

This isn’t just positive in its own right: it also means the Pixel 6a is just as fast as the flagship version, which is probably why Google has felt confident enough to promise at least five years’ worth of security updates. And given Pixel phones get access to new builds of the mobile OS first, that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Elsewhere, the Pixel 6a has a smaller 6.1in, 1080p, 60Hz HDR OLED display with Gorilla Glass 3 protection and an under-screen fingerprint reader. It has reverted to the 12.2MP main camera used on the previous three generations of Pixel, as opposed to the 50MP number that debuted on the Pixel 6, but this is supported by a 12MP ultrawide sensor and an 8MP selfie camera.

Google Pixel 6a review: Price and competition

Considering the mid-range £399 price, these cuts don’t sound too unreasonable, at least on paper. The issue, however, is that the Pixel 6 is nine months old by this point – with the Pixel 7 on the way – and so it now costs considerably less than it did at launch.

In fact, at the time of writing this review, the Pixel 6 is currently on offer for just £450. This is only a temporary deal, of course, but if savvy shoppers time it right, they can scoop up a flagship-level Pixel, with a larger, 90Hz display, 8GB of RAM and a superior 50MP main camera for just a little bit more.

The Pixel 6a also finds itself in dangerous territory when it comes to non-Google competition. The mid-range market has exploded this year, with excellent choices coming from the likes of the Xiaomi 12 Lite (£332), Samsung Galaxy A53 5G (£399) and the OnePlus Nord 2T 5G (£369). It’s also identical in price to the new Nothing Phone (1), although we’re yet to receive a handset for review so can’t comment on how the two compare.

Google Pixel 6a review: Design and key features

At first glance, the Pixel 6a doesn’t look too dissimilar from its siblings. It’s smaller in size, measuring 152 x 72 x 8.9mm, but retains the chunky horizontal camera bar from the regular Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. This stretches across the entire width of the phone but isn’t quite as thick as it is on the more expensive models.

Rather than describing it as plastic, Google says that the Pixel 6a has a ​​"thermoformed composite” rear and this is surrounded by an aluminium frame. The other Pixel models have glass-coated backs, which helps with scratch protection, although when placed next to each other you can’t really tell the difference.

Unfortunately, my initial review model had a small manufacturing defect. The rear panel was slightly misaligned with the frame, resulting in sharp protrusions on the bottom left and right corners of the handset. I discussed this with other reviewers at a recent industry event and I was the only one with this issue, so it’s possible that I simply got unlucky with an early production sample.

When approached for comment, Google said: “we can confirm, on background, that this is a one-off fault”. After getting in touch with them, I swiftly received a replacement handset which didn’t have this issue.

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Moving on, the Pixel 6a is IP67 rated against dust and water ingress, meaning it should survive a dunk up to a depth of 1m for up to 30 minutes, and the front is coated in a protective layer of Gorilla Glass 3. The phone comes in a choice of three colours: Sage, Charcoal and Chalk (pictured here).

The rear-mounted fingerprint sensor has been removed and in its place lies an under-screen scanner, which I found to be a bit inconsistent. A message would sometimes display on the screen asking me to hold my thumb in place for a little longer before it unlocked – which wasn’t ideal.

We’ve also entered our third year since Google last incorporated face unlocks. Your guess is as good as mine as to why Google still refuses to add this feature - all of its rivals have been supporting this unlock method for years now, so its absence here is jarring.

There’s no space for a microSD card, either, which means that if you end up completely filling your on-board storage, you’ll either have to start deleting stuff or pay for a Google One subscription. You’re stuck with just the one nano-SIM slot, too.

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Google Pixel 6a review: Display

Predictably, the Pixel 6a’s display is the smallest of the three Pixel phones, measuring 6.1in. It’s still a HDR-certified OLED panel, however, with the same total resolution as the regular Pixel 6 (2,400 x 1,080) – the only key difference is that the refresh rate is stuck at just 60Hz.

This is a shame, especially when we get to the benchmarks. Because otherwise, the Pixel 6a’s screen is phenomenal, with colour performance that surpasses the competition. It even gives more expensive flagship handsets a run for their money.

There are three display modes on offer – Natural, Boosted and Adaptive – and colour purists are going to want to enable the Natural setting at the first opportunity. With this mode selected, our colorimeter recorded a practically faultless average Delta E score of 0.73 when tested against the sRGB colour space – every single colour was bang on the money. You certainly don’t see that very often.

Maximum brightness was measured at 857cd/m2 in auto mode with a torch shining on the ambient light sensor. Outside of this setting, the manual brightness slider peaked at a respectable 500cd/m2 and I recorded HDR playback at 760cd/m2.

Google Pixel 6a review: Performance and battery life

The most exciting addition this year is the introduction of Google’s homebrew Tensor processor. This is a 5nm, octa-core chipset clocked at 2.8GHz and in the case of the Pixel 6a, works alongside 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage.

Since it never launched in the UK, I sadly don’t have the Pixel 5a benchmark test results for comparison, but suffice to say the performance gains between the now two-year-old Pixel 4a 5G and the new Pixel 6a are colossal.

In the Geekbench 5 CPU stress-testing benchmark, the Pixel 6a’s Tensor chip outperformed the Pixel 4a’s piddly Snapdragon 765G by roughly 75% in both single- and multi-core processing. These are broadly the same scores as those achieved by the Pixel 6, with the 6a absolutely smashing its similarly priced rivals – only the Xiaomi 12 Lite’s multi-core result is the outlier here.

Gaming performance has taken an even greater leap forward, although this is where the Pixel 6a’s 60Hz screen lets the side down. Representing an increase of 114% in the GFXBench Manhattan 3 on-screen test, the Pixel 6a is capable of producing higher frame rates in games, not that you’ll ever get the chance to see it. 60fps is all you can possibly hope to achieve on a 60Hz display.

Battery life is the only area where the Pixel 6a hasn’t done so well. This was to be expected – we found Tensor to be especially power hungry in our Pixel 6 review – but the Pixel 6a’s battery score is diminished by roughly three hours. Still, a result of 20hrs 47mins is very good, and should be enough to last you nearly two days on a single charge.

The slow 18W charging is a bit of a bummer, too. The regular Pixel 6 supported a maximum power delivery of 30W (with wireless and reverse wireless charging) so it’s a bit disappointing not to see that here.

Google Pixel 6a review: Software

Software is one of those big areas where Pixel devices really come into their own. These phones are usually the first Android handsets to receive core updates, and you can even beta test new versions as part of Google’s preview program, with Android 13 doing the rounds as we speak.

But the Pixel 6a, like the Pixel 6 before it, launches with Android 12. At the top of the list of new features is “Material You”, a UI revamp with a list of new customisable app icons, widgets and colour schemes. There’s a lot of choice here, and you can even match the colour and style of the Google app icons on the home screen with your chosen theme.

There are a handful of smaller, quality of life changes, too, including new translation options – such as live translating in the recorder app – and new Google Assistant features. Google’s digital butler can now wait on the line if you’re put on hold during a call, display current and projected wait times for toll-free phone numbers and can even transcribe automated voice messages and menu options in real-time.

Google Pixel 6a review: Cameras

On the flip side, there’s not a lot that’s new in terms of camera hardware. The Pixel 6a’s primary camera is the same 12.2MP (f/1.7) sensor previously used by the Pixel 4a 5G and Pixel 5, while the 12MP (f/2.2) wide-angle unit is identical to the one found in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. An 8MP (f/2) selfie camera sits inside a central hole punch notch on the front of the phone.

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That’s disappointing, but it’s worth noting that previous Pixels punched well above their weight in the photography stakes. So, when you consider that the Pixel 6a borrows various sensors from past releases, there’s no reason to believe things have changed for the worse here.

Especially since Pixel-specific camera features including Magic Eraser – which allows you to digitally remove objects in the background in the camera app – make a return, alongside Face Unblur and Real Tone. The latter is baked into Google’s camera algorithms and helps to produce more natural-looking skin tones in portrait images.

Sure enough, the Pixel 6a’s cameras continue the trend set by Google in providing high-end smartphone photography at reasonable prices. The main camera captures a sense of depth and detail that’s simply unmatched by its competitors, with impressive capabilities in low lighting conditions as well.

The Pixel 6a’s scenic images are simply stunning, producing sharp, intricate details and accurate exposures every time you press the shutter button. On a sunny weekend walk around Valentines Park in London, the Pixel 6a captured sun-dried foliage beautifully, with a pleasingly neutral colour rendition to boot.

Still images are just as impressive as light levels dim, too. The Pixel 6a did a tremendous job brightening the overall scene without altering the tint of the image, and it kept the light bloom from nearby street lamps to a minimum as well.

The Pixel 6a’s ultra-wide camera isn’t quite as impressive, but there’s still a lot to like. With a wide 114-degree field of view, you can squeeze plenty of stuff into the frame, and I preferred the quality of the Pixel’s images compared to the Galaxy S22 Plus, but the caveat here is that there is a slight loss in detail over the primary camera.

It’s also worth taking a minute to talk about the Pixel 6a’s portrait mode. Just like we saw with the Pixel 6, Face Unblur works really well, taking images from both the main and ultra-wide cameras and combining them to reduce blur on a moving subject. There’s a good amount of background blur reduction, too, with crisp outlines – even separating individual strands of hair from the rest of the scene.

As for video, the Pixel 6a is capable of recording up to a maximum 4K resolution at 60fps. All modes are fully stabilised, and footage looked very good in my tests, recording judder-free video with a good amount of detail, even in dark conditions.

Google Pixel 6a review: Verdict

So there’s plenty to like about the Pixel 6a, then. Not that you should be surprised – after all, Google’s pedigree is well-documented at this point – but the Pixel 6a should still be applauded for squeezing this much stuff into a handset this affordable.

Very few phones can match the calibre of images it’s capable of capturing, and those that can are typically flagships costing twice as much as the Pixel 6a. Performance is also spot-on, not to mention that it uses one of the most colour-accurate displays I’ve ever laid eyes on.

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But it’s not without fault. The Pixel 6a’s battery life is weaker than its predecessor (but still good) and the lack of a microSD slot and face unlock continues to be an annoyance.

What’s most bizarre, though, is its timing. The nine-month-old Pixel 6 has dropped in price since launch and currently isn’t far off what Google is charging for the Pixel 6a. If you can spare the extra cash, you’re better off going with Google’s flagship – if anything just for the slightly larger 6.4in 90Hz display and 50MP main camera.

However, if your wallet simply can’t stretch past the £400 mark, then the Pixel 6a 5G can’t be beaten.

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