Google Pixel 6a test: at 459 euros it excels in photography

Numerama tested the Google Pixel 6a, the mid-range version of the Pixel 6 released last fall. Smaller but equipped with the same chip, this smartphone has it all.

If Pixel sales correlated with the quality of its products, Google would have caught up with Samsung and Apple long ago. Unfortunately for the web giant, making great devices isn’t enough to become a hardware giant. Unable to maintain uniformity from one generation to the next, to reject its products in multiple versions (storage, color, etc.) or to provide sufficient inventories to its suppliers, Google today remains a “small” in the smartphone market, on despite the recent release of its excellent Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.

To raise the bar, Google will launch the Pixel 6a at the end of July 2022, the mid-range smartphone that it announced at the beginning of May (oh, an inconsistency), at a price of 459 euros. This is the successor to the Pixel 4a, our favorite mid-range smartphone for several years. And if you’re wondering where the Pixel 5a went, Google gave up on launching it in France, despite the high demand for its predecessor (a demand it never managed to fill). Another inconsistency that strategically doesn’t make sense… While we waited to find out if it will be easy to find the Pixel 6a in stores, we tested this promising device for a week.

A formidable smartphone for the picture

How to define the Pixel 6a? If we wanted to be very popular, we would explain that it is a Pixel 6 smartphone with the Pixel 5 camera (and 200 euros less, the Pixel 6 costs 649 euros). There are of course other differences that we will list after this first part dedicated to the image.

Because yes, the strength of the Pixel 6a, like all the other Pixels, is its incredible photo quality. We wanted to start this test by showing you several pictures taken with the device and its two 12.2 Mpix (f/1.7 aperture) and 12 Mpix (ultra wide angle, f/2.2 aperture) sensors, just to show you what he is capable of. You will see that at 459 euros it greatly exceeds what we are used to seeing.

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Photo taken with the main sensor of the Pixel 6a. Despite the speed of the boat, it is perfectly sharp and the colors are perfect. // Source: Numerama
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Portrait shot with Pixel 6a. Look at the precision of the splash, perfectly frozen. You can then adjust the bokeh effect in the application, everything is virtual. // Source: Numerama
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Photo taken with Pixel 6a main camera. // Source: Numerama

Of course, on paper, the Pixel 6a isn’t perfect. Of course, its small sensors offer less sharpness than the giant sensors of other flagships (48 Mpix, 50 Mpix, 108 Mpix), like the Pixel 6 itself. But can we really complain about that, given the photographic quality of the Pixel 6a? As usual, Google relies on software algorithms to compensate. The image previewed in the “Camera” application rarely has anything like the final result, as Google software enhances everything you photograph. A magic trick that photo purists will hate but will delight others. Pixel 6a makes the ugly beautiful. It’s not pure photography, but it’s great enough to be shared with pride on social media.

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Taken with the primary Pixel 6a camera, detail is surprisingly good for a small sensor. // Source: Numerama
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This photo was taken at night, with very little light. The Pixel 6a altered reality to make it look like there was light. // Source: Numerama

Another strength of the Pixel 6a is its ability to edit a photo after taking it. Do you close your eyes? Don’t panic, Pixel probably recorded an alternate version where you had your eyes peeled. A passer-by is embedded at the last minute, circle it so Google removes it from the image. It’s called the “magic eraser” and it’s amazing. Also note Google’s work to take better account of the different skin tones and not offer a device designed only for whites.

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boats? Which boats? // Source: Numerama screenshots

Is the Pixel 6a as good at photos as the other Pixels? If the absence of some features, such as the “Motion” mode on the Pixel 6, is regrettable, we can easily say yes. If you are looking for a good smartphone to take vacation photos, photograph parties or preserve memories of pleasant events, you will not find better under 500 euros. Perfection isn’t there, especially at ultra-wide, where the Pixel 6a doesn’t perform as many miracles as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, but it’s hard to find better value for money at such a price. This is the main reason we’d recommend a Pixel 6a over a similarly priced Xiaomi or Oppo, which are usually more powerful.

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The Google Pixel 6a camera module is on the back, in a rectangular block in the shape of a rod. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

What Pixel 6a and Pixel 6 have in common

In the next two parts, we’ll walk you through what the Pixel 6a and Pixel 6 have in common, then discuss their differences. The two smartphones share a lot (like their design) but differ on a few key points.

Let’s start with the design. The Pixel 6a isn’t strictly a clone of the Pixel 6, as it’s a more “compact” version. With its 6.1-inch screen, compared to 6.4 inches for the original model, Google’s mid-range smartphone is much more comfortable to handle than its big brother. We can always criticize it for having too large edges, which makes it a bit wide in the hand, but its 178 grams compensates well. It is a comfortable smartphone to handle without being a “mini” device. Don’t get me wrong, 6.1 inches is still big.

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Pixel 6 on the left, Pixel 6a on the right. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

The other common point between the Pixel 6a and the Pixel 6 is its “in-house” processor: the Google Tensor chip. It is the third device entitled to it after the two Pixel 6s in late 2021. This “custom” chip, the design of which was designed by Google engineers, has a very special appearance. Presented as “top of the range”, it incorporates elements similar to the best Snapgragon chips of 2019-2020, while developing certain aspects related to artificial intelligence much more. It is thanks to her that a Pixel 6a is able to translate in real time the content of a video or a call, to transcribe a voice recording or recognize a song without you having to open Shazam. It is very significant to see Google equip its cheapest smartphone with the same chip as its most expensive smartphone, a bit like Apple with its iPhone SE.

However, we wanted to return to a lie that can be found in several places in Google’s communication with its Pixels. The brand presents its smartphone as the first “100% Google”, which is equivalent to saying that an iPhone is “100% made in the USA”, because it is imagined in Cupertino. Pixels can use a Google chip, but it’s not made by Google (only Samsung and TSMC can produce such sophisticated chips). The other components of the Pixel 6a (screen, battery, modem, etc.) also come from other suppliers. This marketing slogan annoys us because it is false and some people around us have fallen into the trap. Samsung is arguably the only manufacturer capable of coming close to the promise of 100% in-house, but even it can’t.

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Pixel 6a recognizes music all the time, it also has an optical fingerprint sensor. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

Other points in common between Pixel 6a and Pixel 6: they are waterproof (IP67 here, the device withstood our boat day well), quite durable (we always ended the day above 30%), will receive several years of updates, have a very colorful Android interface and, it’s still silly, only comes in a 128GB version. If you want to take a lot of photos, you need to buy cloud storage. If you want to save a lot of games, buy another smartphone.

What the Pixel 6a doesn’t do

Now let’s move on to the differences game, which is not easy at first glance. After several days of use, more are discovered.

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Pixel 6 on the left, Pixel 6a on the right. Its camera module is thinner. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

What is obvious is the lack of fluidity in the Pixel 6a despite its Google Tensor chip. How to explain it? The smartphone suffers from its small amount of RAM (6 GB) and above all from its 60 Hz screen. Once you’re used to 90Hz or 120Hz, it hurts to go back, the system animations are less beautiful. If you’re coming from an old device, you probably won’t notice anything.

Another change that bothered us, but we’ll readily admit it’s a matter of habit: There’s no wireless charging on the Pixel 6a. That’s pretty stupid, especially since some of its competitors, like the Nothing Phone(1) or the iPhone SE, benefit from it. It must be charged with a USB-C cable, while taking into account that the charger is not included in the box. The rest of the changes are quite minimal, such as the absence of the “Motion” mode in the camera, but we already told you about it.

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The Google Pixel 6a has an OLED screen. // Source: Louise Audry for Numerama

Last point, solidity. It’s a problem we didn’t anticipate with the Pixel 6, its slightly curved curves make it extremely fragile. Two of Numerama’s editors have a Pixel 6, they both broke it by dropping it. Given the design of the Pixel 6a, we don’t see how this couldn’t happen again (especially since its Gorilla Glass is less solid). A word of advice: put on a shell and a protective film.

The verdict

Below the 500 euro mark, the Google Pixel 6a is undoubtedly the best smartphone on the market. Gifted with photography, it offers an extremely well-balanced formula between beautiful design, good OLED screen, satisfactory performance, one-day battery life and long-term updates. It will be recommended much more easily than the iPhone SE or the Nothing Phone(1), two of its direct competitors. In terms of technical characteristics, of course, there are plenty of devices (Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, etc.) that do better. But the goal of the Pixels is more “lifestyle”, not necessarily focused on the latest processor from Qualcomm or the ultra-fast charging of death that kills.

Let’s also answer another question: which device should you choose between Pixel 6a and Pixel 6? The other is more complete but costs 200 euros more (649 vs. 459 euros). For us the answer is obvious, the Pixel 6a is Google’s best value for money. It just needs a few details to be flawless.

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