The Pixel 6a is a small, powerful Android phone that’s more wallet-friendly next to Google’s other devices. It isn’t as revolutionary as other A-series handsets we’ve seen, but it remains a great phone in 2023 for those who prefer great software rather than big spec sheets. The only real complications are the introduction of the Pixel 7a and the fact the upgraded Pixel 6 can now be found at quite a discount.
- Lovely small form-factor
- Reliable camera for the price
- Google’s excellent software
- 60Hz display feels slow compared to the rivals
- Slow to fully charge
- Excellent Android experienceClean, well-designed software without any bloatware. Plus the promise of five years of updates.
- Strong rear camerasTwo 12-megapixel rear cameras take excellent photos thanks to Google’s smart processing
- Capable internalsTensor chip, 8GB RAM and 128GB storage
The Pixel 6a is Google’s 2022 affordable smartphone and the most budget-conscious entry in the Pixel 6 series.
However, Google takes a slightly different approach to many of the best cheap phone rivals. This is a modest phone that focuses on the overall experience, rather than having a standout, headline-grabbing spec or feature.
It’s also a far more compact device than rival handsets, making it an excellent option for buyers who prefer a smaller phone, although it has since been usurped by the newer, more capable (and slightly more expensive) Pixel 7a.
Design and Screen
- Compact design feels great to hold
- The Sage colour has a lovely finish
- You miss out on a fast 90 or 120Hz display
Google switched up its design philosophy with its Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro handsets, moving away from the simplistic approach it had adopted before and into a more interesting direction. It also continued this trend with the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro in late 2022. I have been a fan of the standout look of recent Pixel devices, and I’m glad to see Google continuing in this direction.
The Pixel 6a looks very much like a more compact Pixel 6 or Pixel 7. It has the same visor covering the dual rear cameras, the same two-tone colour scheme, and the same boxy finish. If you dislike the flagship Pixel design, then I very much doubt that this device will win you around.
My review unit, which I’ve been using for the past two weeks, is in the Sage colourway and in my opinion it looks great. The pastel green graduates into a darker finish further down the phone, and the green colouring itself is one of the more tasteful hues I’ve seen this year. If you’re looking for something a little more subtle, then there are black and white options, too.
The biggest difference visually between the Pixel 6a and the regular Pixel 6 is the size. The Pixel 6 wasn’t a huge phone, but the 6.1-inch display here makes for a far dinkier device that will appeal to those alienated by the growing size of most modern smartphones. The Pixel 6a isn’t as compact as the iPhone 13 Mini, but it’s a similar size to the Galaxy S23 and iPhone 14. It’s rare to see a decent phone of this size at the £399 price, with many rivals such as the Nothing Phone (1), Realme GT Neo 3T and OnePlus Nord 2T coming in much larger.
While I’m a fan of the 6a’s dimensions, I’m sure there will be some who will be instantly put off. This device isn’t going to be the best choice for those who would like to partake in hefty bouts of mobile gaming. Thankfully, the rival devices mentioned will be excellent alternatives.
Despite sitting at the lower end of the market, the Pixel 6a is well built. The phone sports a glass (Gorilla Glass 3) exterior on both the front and rear of the device, while an alloy rim adds a degree of rigidity. Google has kept the IP67 rating, too, which delivers some proper protection against water and dust – something you won’t find on much of the competition, aside from the iPhone SE.
However, the 6.1-inch display is both great and something of a disappointment.
In many areas, it has impressed me. The 1080p OLED panel delivers a wonderful punch of colour in its default Adaptive mode, while those who prefer a more muted look can opt for the Natural setting. The use of OLED allows for deep blacks, and this comes across well when streaming HDR content on YouTube and Netflix. It’s far from the brightest screen around, but even on the sunny days that I was using the phone outdoors, the screen remained viewable. I’m not a huge fan of the janky auto-brightness, but that’s an issue I have with most Android phones.
Having said all of that, the Pixel 6a’s display misses a big feature you’ll find on the OnePlus Nord 2T and the Nothing Phone (1): a fast refresh rate display. The 60Hz panel here lacks the zip of a 90Hz or 120Hz version, and having come to this device from the Nothing Phone (1), I immediately noticed the slowdown. These faster displays refresh more times every second, and as a result produce a smoother image that gives the phone a faster feel.
It’s hardly a surprise that Google has decided to leave off the fast display. The Pixel 6 only has a 90Hz panel, rather than 120Hz, and it remains a feature Apple adds only to its top-end phones. Still, it does make the rival devices a better choice if the feature is a priority for you.
- Two rear 12MP cameras that both take good pictures
- No huge upgrades from the previous A-series phones
It was telling that Google barely mentioned camera upgrades on unveiling the Pixel 6a. The features that are new mostly arrive as a result of the benefits afforded by the Tensor chipset.
But previous Pixel A-series phones have always impressed for photography skills, and the 6a continues in that vein – it just doesn’t really push it forward.
Like the flagship Pixels, the Pixel 6a impresses greatly when it comes to producing accurate skin tones and churning out strong pictures in low-light scenes. Both skills are aided by the Tensor and AI elements it builds into the photo-processing pipeline.
Most snaps taken with the Pixel 6a remain better than I’d expect at this price. For example, a dog’s fur stands out with sharp detail, without feeling oversharpened. The phone’s HDR skills also level out the colour far better than competing handsets such as the Nothing Phone (1), delivering more definition to bright and dark spots.
In typical Pixel fashion, the photos shot outdoors with the Pixel 6a are rich, colourful and packed with dynamic range. Landscape shots with bright skies really pop off the display; nothing is too exposed or underexposed. There’s less saturation here to shots taken with a Samsung phone, but there’s more punch to colours – especially greens and reds – than you’d get with the iPhone SE. Indoor shots can often lack some of that punch, though, with a number of snaps I took looking far more grey and washed-out than they should have.
The Pixel 6a has some other neat tricks up its sleeves that make it a good pick for those looking for an excellent camera system on a budget. Magic Eraser is a smart editing feature that removes unwanted guests from snaps; it works well, and I found myself using it a lot to neaten up photos. The Night Sight mode is another Pixel stalwart, pulling lots of brightness out of lower-light shots that would usually be far too dark to use.
There’s no telephoto zoom here, but the digital zoom is far better than that on other phones I’ve used – you can get a little closer to a subject with the Pixel 6a without your photo turning into a blurry mess. In addition, there’s a 12-megapixel ultrawide that adds some versatility to your shots; but the photos aren’t as nice as those from the main camera, so we suggest you use it only when it’s needed.
The Pixel 6a’s video recording is also quite good, although most of the features are typical for the Pixel series. You can record footage at up to 60fps in 4K resolution, and there’s a clever Cinematic Pan mode that adds some smooth pans to your video.
- The same Tensor chip as the Pixel 6 Pro makes this a great performer
- 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage
- 5G support
Google has taken a similar approach to the Pixel 6a as Apple does with its SE line. Instead of building, or buying, a cheaper mid-range chip to power the phone, it has simply plucked the same Tensor SoC from 2021’s Pixel 6 Pro. This makes sense for Google; Tensor has been built to its spec and designed to make the most of the Android build running on these phones.
Tensor features the M2 security chip built in, which works with the in-display fingerprint sensor. It has a focus on Machine Learning and AI elements, allowing the Pixel exclusive features such as Face Unblur and Magic Eraser.
What Tensor isn’t is a performance beast. In benchmark tests, the Pixel 6a beat the single-core score of the Nothing Phone (1), but delivered similar scores in multi-core tests – and that phone uses a mid-range Snapdragon chip. You’ll find only 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage in the Pixel 6a.
The amount of RAM might seem ungenerous compared to rival devices (you can get the Nothing Phone (1) with 12GB), but this hasn’t proved much of an issue during my fortnight using the Pixel 6a. Apps have remained in memory throughout the day, and multitasking has been snappy. However, the 128GB storage offering isn’t as easy to dismiss, especially since there’s no SD expansion. If you like to keep a lot of content – such as games, movies, RAW photos, and so on – offline, then you might fill up that allowance rather quickly.
The size of the phone, and the fact that it lacks a super-quick 120Hz display, means the Pixel 6a isn’t likely to be top of the list for those big into mobile gaming. Still, the Tensor chipset can comfortably handle intensive titles on the Play Store. I loaded up Call of Duty Mobile on both the Pixel 6a and the Nothing Phone (1), and it loaded far quicker on Google’s handset.
Since the Google 5a failed to arrive in the UK, and the Pixel 4a arrived without 5G, the Pixel 6a is the first compact A-series Pixel phone with 5G to hit the UK market. At this price and above, 5G is pretty much an expected feature, so it’s good to see Google include it here. The feature won’t change how you use your phone – but 5G will be welcome on those occasions that you want to quickly download something and you’re in a 5G area. Other connectivity options include Wi-Fi 6 and 6E and Bluetooth 5.2.
The Pixel 6a came running Android 12 initially, though it was one of the first devices to be updated to Android 13 when it arrived in late 2022. The version here is the same one you’ll find on the Pixel 6 and newer Pixel 7, complete with the deeper customisation options that deliver greater control of the look of the homescreen.
For me, Google’s version of Android is the best – at least when it comes to look and usability. Some of the features lack depth compared to rivals, especially the expanded Battery Saver modes found elsewhere, but the software is so well designed and slick in use that this is forgivable.
Google also throws in a smattering of Pixel-exclusive features, which I love. Now Playing, for example, displays whatever song is playing in the background on your lockscreen, and the Recorder app transcribes recordings better than any other solution I’ve tried. It’s these small extras that make it difficult for me to leave a Pixel phone for other Android alternatives.
Another benefit is the five years of promised software updates, ensuring the phone should still be in receipt of new features and patches for far longer than rival devices at this price.
- No charger included, just a cable
- No wireless charging
- Maximum charge speed of 18W
Inside the Pixel 6a sits a 4410mAh battery. This is smaller than the battery included in the Pixel 6 (4614mAh), the Pixel 6 Pro (5000mAh) and the Nothing Phone (1) (4500mAh). However, the Pixel 6a has a more compact, slower display than those phones, and as such consumes less power over the course of a day.
I’ve been using both the Pixel 6a and the Nothing Phone (1) a lot over the past few weeks, and Google’s device has consistently outlasted the latter, leaving me with about 5-10% extra by the end of a day. Standby times are also boosted over much of the competition at this price, with the phone losing only about 3-5% if left unplugged overnight.
It seems that a slower display also helps out when streaming. An hour of Netflix viewing only consumed 7% of the battery, which is notably less than the Nothing Phone (1).
Where the Pixel 6a falls behind the pack is in terms of its charging skills. Not only has the device been supplied without a bundled charger, but that maximum 18W charging speed is meagre compared to much of the Android competition. A full 0-100% charge using a 35W charger took the Pixel 6a 1hr 45mins, while the Realme Neo 3T can get to 100% in barely 35 minutes. If you tend to only charge your phone overnight, this won’t be an issue; but for those looking to quickly top up during the day, it will be an issue.
There’s no wireless charging, either; Google has kept that feature exclusive to pricier Pixels.
Should you buy it?
You’re after a small Android phone that doesn’t cost too much: I’m a big fan of the size of this phone and the way it feels in use. If you’re tired of sizable handsets, then this is a viable option – and the camera and smart software only help its case.
You want a big, fast screen: You can find other phones in this price range with faster, smoother 120Hz panels; the Pixel 6a’s 60Hz panel feels a little slow in comparison
The Pixel 6a is an easy-to-recommend Android phone in 2023 that doesn’t break the bank. You’re getting plenty of phone for the money with this device, especially if you’re after a more compact device that will pick up updates for years to come.
There’s nothing revolutionary here, and Google’s decision to focus a little less on hefty camera upgrades means the Pixel 6a isn’t quite the budget smartphone shooter it could have been.
Arguably, the biggest rival to the 6a is the bigger Pixel 6. With the release of the newer Pixel 7 range in late 2022, retailers are selling off the last Pixel 6 stock at as little as £440. Even though I prefer the size of the 6a, if I were spending my money I’d opt for the regular Pixel 6 as a result of its better camera and improved screen.
How we test
We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry-standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Used as our main handset during the test period
Camera tested in a variety of situations with all modes
Tested with synthetic benchmarks and real world use
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Like the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, the Pixel 6a does not come with a charger. It only comes with a USB-C to USB-C cable that you can plug into your own charging brick.
The Pixel 6a does not have wireless charging and has a max 18w charging speed when plugged in.
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