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Image Credit: Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Cameras

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

Details like window panes and individual blades of grass were crisp, and Google continues to deliver superior images in low light. Frankly, at this price, there is no better camera for nighttime photography. Thanks in large part to Night Sight, the Pixel 6a generally captured brighter images in extremely dim environments, retaining greater detail even in shadows. The stationary bicycles in an exercise room at night were clearer in shots from the Pixel 6a than those from the iPhone SE, and I could even read the words on a sign in Google’s version. Apple’s decision to cut the night mode on its budget phone puts it at a real disadvantage here.

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

Google has the upper hand when it comes to versatility, though. Since it has an additional ultrawide lens (compared to the iPhone’s solo rear camera), the Pixel 6a made it possible to zoom out to grab expansive landscapes. And though it doesn’t have a telephoto lens, Google’s viewfinder interface makes zooming into distant subjects easier. Instead of having to pinch on the iPhone, you can switch between preset distances like 0.6x, 1x and 2x just by tapping the onscreen buttons.

Gallery: Pixel 6a camera samples | 27 Photos


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

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

Though Google did equip the Pixel 6a with some of the tools found on its flagships, like Magic Eraser to edit away photobombers, for example, features like Action Pan and Long Exposure are absent. That’s fine by me, since Magic Eraser is the most useful of the lot, and works as well on the 6a as on the Pro. You also get the ability to shoot in RAW, which you can’t do on the iPhone SE.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Performance, fingerprint sensor and in use

As the first A-series phone using Google’s own Tensor chip, the Pixel 6a’s performance should be pretty similar to its flagship siblings. In general, this was true — the 6a barely stuttered when jumping between games, editing photos, browsing Instagram and shooting videos. Just like my Pixel 6 Pro, though, the 6a tended to run warm when playing casual games such as HK Mahjong or the New York Times Crossword for more than 15 minutes. It never got alarmingly hot, but I did want to put it down after a while.

Occasionally, the Pixel 6a would take a few seconds to display information in an app, but that mostly happened in the first hours after I set up the phone, so I’ll chalk that up to early loading issues. I’m more concerned about the long-term stability of the Pixel 6a’s software, especially given all the problems plaguing the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro since they launched. I haven’t encountered anything major during my testing, but most of the bugs on the other two only started showing up weeks after our review period.

For now, I can only say the software behaves as expected, and that Google supports up to five years of Pixel updates. Switching wallpapers and applying new system-wide color schemes generated by Android happened without significant delay, and everything I enjoy about Pixel UI is here. I love being able to just tell my phone “Stop” to silence it when an alarm is going off. (Though, on my Pixel 6 Pro this usually takes around three increasingly frustrated attempts until I’m screaming at the phone.) I also appreciate Assistant features like Call Screening and Hold For Me, which make the excruciating experience of being on the phone a lot less painful.

Top down view of the sage and white Pixel 6a next to each other, on top of book on a wooden surface.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

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

Battery life

The A-series has long stood out for excellent battery life, and once again, the 6a is a winner. It clocked 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.

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

A woman holding up the sage Pixel 6a to her ear.

Sam Rutherford / Engadget

Wrap-up

I think it’s time we stopped 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 is easily one of the best phones for the money. Yes, it would be nice to get a faster, brighter screen and wireless charging, but those aren’t a given on a midranger. If you can’t live without a higher refresh rate and can spend no more than $500, the Galaxy A53 is an alternative, though be warned that its performance is questionable. In the US, there is no better Android phone under $500 than the Pixel 6a.

Key specs

Spec

Pixel 6a

Display

6.1-inch 2,400 x 1,080 (20:9) OLED, 429ppi, 60Hz

Dimensions

6.0 x 2.8 x 0.35 inches / 152.2 x 71.8 x 8.9 mm; 6.3 oz / 178 grams

Processor and Storage

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

Rear cameras

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

Front camera

8MP, f/2.0, 84-degree FOV

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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