Google Pixel 6a reviewon May 17, 2023 at 10:55 Tech Advisor

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At a glance

Expert’s Rating

Pros

Top drawer performanceSmaller sizeOutstanding cameraSolid battery lifeGuaranteed software updates

Cons

Rear plastic scratches easilyCharges slow and hotOnly 60Hz display

Our Verdict

A superlative mid-range phone and one of the best value Android phones you can buy, the Pixel 6a crams in the best bits from the more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro at a very attractive price, but you might be tempted by the newer Pixel 7a.

Price When Reviewed

£399

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Phones aren’t as small as they used to be but the Google Pixel 6a is about as compact an Android phone as you can get these days. This is one of the best things about it, along with its excellent performance, camera, and its affordable price.

The Pixel 6a is Google’s 2021 cheaper version of its Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones. The 6a keeps some of those devices’ more expensive features but ditches others to drive the price right down to a very palatable $349/£349/€409.

A few corners have been cut and there are other mid-range phones out there that offer higher specs, but having used the Pixel 6a daily as my main phone, I think it’s one of the best phones you can buy for the money – and the Pixel most people should buy instead of the Pixel 6 or 6 Pro.

As of May 2023, there is also now the newer Pixel 7a to consider. It has some neat upgrades, but it’s more expensive than the Pixel 6a, which is now sold for less than it launched at.

Design & Build

Two-tone colour optionsPlastic back easily scratchesSolid premium feelIP67

If you don’t like the look of the original Pixel 6 then you are out of luck with the 6a, which looks like someone clicked and dragged the top corner of it down in Photoshop and shrunk the whole thing a little.

If it’s the smallest phone available that you want, the 6a isn’t it. At 152.2mm (to be precise) it’s taller than the 138.4mm iPhone SE 2022 and the 131.5mm iPhone 13 mini.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

The 6a is still a large phone, it’s just not as large as most other slab smartphones out there, especially the gigantic Pixel 6 Pro. Its angular and boxy design still feels good to hold thanks to rounded aluminium edges, but I still can’t reach the top of the screen with a thumb when using one-handed (I do have quite small hands, but still).

The screen is flat rather than curve edged, and my black review unit is largely unremarkable save for that camera ‘bar’ design on the back just like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. It protrudes much less than its bigger brothers, which is a relief.

The difference on the 6a is the two camera sensors are housed in a small pill-shaped blob on the left of the black bar that’s camouflaged by also being black, with a circular flash on the right. On the other Pixel 6 models, the lenses are spread out across the length of the bar.

You can pick from three colour options that have two-tone designs with the small strip above the camera a different colour to the larger section below. I reviewed the charcoal colour which is dark grey on the bottom and lighter grey on the top.

Google

A big downside to the 6a is the durability of the rear panel, which is made of a composite plastic rather than durable glass. My charcoal unit picked up an enormous number of scratches after less than a week. Two weeks in and the thing looked more battered than phones I’ve had for over a year, and I am especially careful with my phones. I imagine the green (Google calls it sage) colour will also show scratches, but maybe the white (chalk) would hide them better. The white would also better hide fingerprints and smears, which the charcoal does not.

I wasn’t sent a case initially, so I used the phone without one in London and on holiday abroad. Google says there’s Gorilla Glass 3 on the display and this got no scratches, but the back looks a bit of a mess. It’s also very hard to photograph this to show you:

Henry Burrell / Foundry

The phone scratching easily is a minor niggle with what is otherwise a very well-built phone that feels more premium than it costs and packs in IP67 dust and water resistance.

I then used Google’s official case for a while, and while I like the feel of the surprisingly sturdy plastic design, it remains to be seen if it eventually discolours like the cases for the 6 and 6 pro reportedly have.

Screen & Speakers

6.1in AMOLEDOnly 60Hz refresh rateExcellent colour and brightnessStereo speakers

The screen is a 6.1in AMOLED, putting this phone in the ‘small’ phone camp – not actually small like phones used to be, but more compact than most modern Android slabs.

That screen unfortunately only has a 60Hz refresh rate. Other phones at this price have higher refresh rates that make content scroll smoother, such as the £399 Nothing Phone (1) with 120Hz and the £369 OnePlus Nord 2T with 90Hz. Google could surely have stretched to this but probably wants to upsell buyers after such a feature to its 90Hz-toting Pixel 6.

Thankfully the display of the 6a is excellent with very good brightness, with things only hard to see in the harshest direct sunlight. I missed a higher refresh rate at first, but I soon forgot that it was a 60Hz screen. It’s a very good panel with excellent colour reproduction and sharpness that’s miles better than the 720p display on the $429/£419/€529 iPhone SE 2022.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

There’s a black bezel all the way around the flat panel with a touch more to the chin than the top of the phone, and a selfie cut-out camera in the centre at the top of the screen.

The stereo speakers can play audio at a decent clarity and volume and are good enough for podcasts in the kitchen or making video calls.

Specs & Performance

Same Tensor chip as Pixel 6Superbly fast6GB/128GB only

Where the Pixel 6a shine is in performance. That’s because Google decided to cram its Tensor processor into it, the same chip used in the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro.

Paired with 6GB RAM, the 6a absolutely flies through everything and is a mid-range phone with genuine flagship performance. It’s the first time Google has opted to put the chip from its main phones into its A series model the same generation, and it’s worth the trade-off in other places, such as in the 60Hz screen.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

There’s only one model available with 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. This is plenty enough for my usage but there’s no microSD slot for expandable storage should you ever fill it up. As with every other Pixel, this is also only a single SIM phone, which is a downside – so many Android phones have dual SIM slots and so should Pixels. That said, there is an option to add a second line as an eSIM, which is halfway there if you do want or need two numbers.

We usually run benchmark tests on all phones we review at Tech Advisor using apps such as Geekbench 5, but the Pixel 6a unit I received would not download them. In the Play Store, they showed as not compatible.

Google told me it had blocked benchmarking apps on the review units ahead of launch “to avoid benchmark and device spec leaks”. A spokesperson said I was free to sideload the apps instead, which I did for Geekbench 5 and GFXBench, which measure CPU and general performance respectively. The below chart shows how the Pixel 6a stacks up against phones of a similar price.

A lovely upgrade from the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro is the in-screen fingerprint sensor, which I found to be far more responsive. It works every time without fail, and I didn’t have to retrain it with my thumbprint at all.

Battery Life & Charging

Charges hotLimited to 18WNo wireless charging

The Pixel 6a has excellent battery life but charges quite slowly at a maximum of 18W. I say maximum because there’s no charger in the box, only a USB-C to C cable, so you’ll have to buy a charging brick with a USB-C output, or use another charger (there’s no wireless charging). The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro also ship without chargers but have a maximum speed of 30W. From empty, the 6a charges to 22% in 15 minutes, 42% in 30 minutes, and to 100% in one hour and 50 minutes.

The OnePlus Nord 2T is cheaper than the Pixel 6a but comes with an 80W charger in the box that charges to 100% in 30 minutes, which makes Google look stingy on both included accessories and speed.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

I juiced the 6a with various chargers and found it consistently charges quite hot. I don’t know if this is because some of the chargers could output more than 18W, but when a phone ships without a charger and with no instruction in the box or in the phone’s software about what kind of cable or brick to use, this is the experience most people will get when they grab the nearest (or cheapest) charger.

A phone shouldn’t be this hot when charging. Over time such heat could lead to battery degradation, but this is impossible to tell right now. At the moment, the 6a has solid, all-day battery life. Even roaming abroad on 4G all day while taking tons of photos never saw me dip below 20%.

Cameras & Video

12.2Mp main camera12Mp ultrawideSuperb stills processing

While Google gave the Pixel 6a the Tensor chip from its premium phones, the same cannot be said of the camera. In fact, it’s the first time an A-series Pixel is not getting the same main sensor as the corresponding regular Pixels, and that is a shame – the 50Mp sensor on the Pixel 6 is outstanding.

Instead, the 6a has a 12.2Mp f/1.7 Sony IMX363 sensor with optical image stabilisation. This is the same sensor Google used from the Pixel 3 to Pixel 5 era.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

I personally would have rather had the newer 50Mp lens and a lower-powered processor, but Google has changed its approach. The good news is the main camera on the 6a is still phenomenally good – it just isn’t quite as good as the Pixel 6 or 6 Pro in the detail it can capture, but Google’s post-processing in software is so good, that differences are barely noticeable.

In even more good news, the ultrawide 12Mp f/2.2 Sony IMX386 lens is the same one used in the pricier 6 models.

As expected, still photos are top drawer and easily compete with phones three or four times the price. I compared several similar shots I took on holiday with those taken on my wife’s iPhone 13, and I consistently preferred the daylight shots of the Pixel. They sport the contrasty processing Pixels are known for where the iPhone has leant more recently into natural shades, sometimes to a fault.

In low light, the iPhone was much better than the Pixel, better at handling difficult sunset scenes and rendering detail better. The Pixel’s Night Sight for pitch black photos is still good, but it’s a few generations behind the iPhone now, particularly on the 6a with the older main sensor.

But the iPhone 13 costs a lot more than the Pixel 6a. I would happily use the 6a as my only camera on a day-to-day basis – it’s that good. Add to that the very capable ultrawide that doesn’t fish-eye scenes like cheaper phones do, and it’s a very capable setup for a mid-range smartphone (miles better than the iPhone SE 2022).

There’s no zoom lens, so you have to rely on digital zoom from the main sensor but that’s standard for mid-range phones. Google’s Super Res Zoom feature can zoom in up to 7x, but results are quite blotchy and grainy on inspection as all digital zoom tends to be, but the 2x zoom is solid and passable for social media shots.

The 8Mp f/2.0 selfie camera has a decent 84 degree field of view and takes solid selfies, though the portrait mode struggles to pick up strands of hair and doesn’t seem to be as consistent with results as it is from the main rear camera.

Aside from basic still photo shooting (which, let’s face it, is 99% of all mobile photography for 99% of people) the 6a also has every single camera software feature from the Pixel 6 except for the long exposure motion mode.      

Magic Eraser can cleverly erase people or things from photos even if it does require a little patience as sometimes it gets it wrong. It’s best to have a plain background or the smarts get confused and blur the wrong colours together, but it’s still impressive on the whole.

A new feature is Camouflage, which rather than deleting things from images instead changes their colour to better blend into a scene. Big orange beach ball distracting from smiling faces on the beach? Turn it the colour of sand. It’s a slightly weird feature but it does work well.

Built in too are very good features like Face Deblur, which does exactly what it says very well. The camera works by taking several shots either side of when you actually tap the shutter button. If your subject moves their head a little resulting in blur, the phone can tell this and automatically uses all the image data to correct it.

This is also part of the feature Top Shot, which records a short video to go along with your image if the phone reckons it’s worth it, autoplaying of which can be toggled off in the Photos app when looking through photos.

Real Tone is also a very good feature that better reproduces skin tones accurately thanks to Google’s work to tune its processing algorithms. Other phones overprocess some skin tones inaccurately, so the Pixel is a good choice in this regard.

Throw in 4K video recording at 60fps and it’s a well-featured camera app. There’s even a speech enhancement mode that isolates vocal audio and cuts out background noise, though only works on the selfie camera, so it’s a handy feature if you are recording a video message for someone at the side of a motorway. Or something.

Software & Updates

Clean Android 12 (at launch)Three years of Android updatesFive years of security updates

Google offers five years of security updates for the phone, so its final update will land in July 2027 in theory. There’s only three years of Android platform updates though, so the 6a will only get those until July 2025 – likely Android 15, as the 6a is launched with Android 12, not Android 13.

You will get new versions of Android before third-party manufacturers though.

Android 12 is a joy to use. It looks great and performs just as well as on a Pixel 6 Pro – no mean feat. The included new ‘Nature swept’ wallpapers are right up my street (see one in action below), and the colour picker that takes four colours from whatever wallpaper you have and lets you select it as the icon and accent colour for the whole OS is superb.

Henry Burrell / Foundry

It’s rolling out to more Google apps like Gmail too, so there’s a real unity to the whole aesthetic. I prefer running the phone in dark mode.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

The always on display is my favourite of any phone, with simplicity the best thing about it. It shows time, date, and weather, with full notification banners if you so choose too. There’s also the excellent Now Playing feature that cleverly listens to whatever music is playing and displays the track and artist, all from an offline database stored on the phone. You can tap the song and start streaming it from several streaming services, not just Google’s own YouTube Music.

Google’s voice-to-text smarts and the Live Transcribe feature in its Recorder app are present and excellent in an area Google trumps Apple, which is playing catch up with its dictation feature in iOS 16.

Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry

Price & Availability

The Pixel 6a costs $349/£349/€409 and is available to buy from Google in the US, UK, and Europe.

It’s also on sale unlocked in the US now at Best Buy and Amazon.

In the UK you can pick it up from Amazon, Carphone Warehouse, Mobiles.co.uk, EE, Vodafone, and John Lewis.

Check out our full where to buy the Pixel 6a article for the US and UK.

I recommend it over the $429/£419/€529 iPhone SE 2022, which trumps the 6a with wireless charging and software OS update support but that’s about it. Everything about the Pixel is better – screen, camera, design.

Samsung’s Galaxy A53 5G is £399/$449/€449 but has terrible performance, while the £399/€469 Nothing Phone (1) has outstanding design but display issues and an inferior camera to the Pixel. It’s a crowded price bracket, but the Pixel comes out on top.

You might be tempted by the newer Pixel 7a, which is more expensive than the 6a but adds a new camera sensor, 90Hz display, and wireless charging.

Check out all your options in our best mid-range phones chart.

Verdict

Despite the higher price than previous A-series Pixels, you’re only paying slightly more for the Pixel 6a, a superb mid-range phone with a flagship-level processor, truly outstanding main camera, 5G, the latest version of Android, five years of security support, and a more pocket-friendly design.

Downsides are the slow charging speeds on a phone that charges hot, the easily scratched rear plastic material, and the 60Hz display lagging behind similarly priced phones. Yet, this is a Pixel, which means it has a superlative Android experience and camera with a software polish and premium hardware feel you won’t find on other brands in this price range.

If you want a newer (but more expensive) phone you might consider the Pixel 7a.

Specs

Android 126.1in 60Hz gOLED displayGoogle Tensor chip6GB RAM128GB storageRear cameras:12Mp IMX363 main lens with OIS12Mp IMX386 ultrawide lens8Mp IMX355 selfie camera4400mAh battery18W wired charging5GStereo speakersWi-Fi 6Bluetooth 5.2NFCIP67Gorilla Glass 3 display71.8 x 152.16 x 8.85mm178g

Mid-range smartphones, Smartphones

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