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’s sales were related to the quality of its products, Google would have caught up with Samsung and Apple a long time ago. Unfortunately for the web giant, making good devices isn’t enough to become a hardware giant. Unable to maintain consistency from one generation to another, to decline its products in multiple versions (storage, color, etc.) or to provide sufficient stocks to its suppliers, Google remains today a “small” on the smartphone market, 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 announced in early May (oh, an incongruity), 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 has gone, Google has given up on launching it in France, despite the high demand for its predecessor (a request it has never been able to fulfill). Another inconsistency, which strategically makes no sense … While waiting to find out if it will be easy to find Pixel 6a in stores, we tested this promising device for a week.

A terrific smartphone for photos

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 obviously other differences that we will list after this first part dedicated to the photo.

Because yes, the strength of the Pixel 6a, like that of all other Pixels, is its incredible photographic quality. We wanted to start this test by showing you several shots 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 it is capable of. You will see that at 459 euros it far exceeds what we are used to seeing.

Photo taken with the Pixel 6a’s main sensor. Despite the speed of the boat, it is perfectly sharp and the colors are perfect. // Source: numerama
Portrait made 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
Photo taken with Pixel 6a’s main camera. // Source: numerama

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

Shot with the Pixel 6a main camera, the details are surprisingly good for a small sensor. // Source: numerama
This photo was taken at night, with very little light. The Pixel 6 altered reality to make it seem like there was light. // Source: numerama

Another selling point of the Pixel 6a is its ability to edit a photo after taking it. Close your eyes? Don’t panic, the Pixel probably recorded an alternate version where you had your eyes open. A passerby is embedded at the last moment, circle it so that Google removes it from the image. It’s called “magic eraser” and it’s amazing. Also note the work of Google to better take into account the different colors of the skin and not to offer a device designed only for whites.

magic eraser
Boats? Which boats? // Source: Numberama screenshot

Is the Pixel 6a as good with photos as the other Pixels? If the absence of some features, such as the Pixel 6’s “Motion” mode, is regrettable, we can safely say yes. If you are looking for a good smartphone to take vacation photos, photograph parties or keep memories of pleasant events, you will not find better under 500 euros. Perfection isn’t there, especially in ultra wide-angle cameras where Pixel 6a doesn’t work as many miracles as 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 why we recommend a Pixel 6a over a similarly priced Xiaomi or Oppo, which are usually more powerful.

The Google Pixel 6a camera module sits on the back, in a rectangular bar-shaped block. // 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 and then discuss their differences. The two smartphones share a lot (like their design), but differ in some key points.

Let’s start with the design. The Pixel 6a is not strictly a clone of the Pixel 6, as it is a more “compact” version. With its 6.1-inch screen, compared to the 6.4-inch on the original model, Google’s mid-range smartphone is much more pleasant 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 the 178 grams of it compensates well. It is a pleasant smartphone to handle, without being a “mini” device. Don’t get me wrong, 6.1 inches is still great.

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

The second commonality between Pixel 6a and Pixel 6 is its “in-house” processor: the Google Tensor chip. It is the third device to be eligible after the two Pixel 6s at the end of 2021. This “custom” chip, the design of which was designed by Google engineers, has a rather particular appearance. Billed as “top of the range”, it incorporates elements corresponding to the best Snapgragon chips of 2019-2020, while developing some aspects related to artificial intelligence much more. It is thanks to her that a Pixel 6a is able to translate the content of a video or a call in real time, to transcribe a voice recording or to recognize a song without you having to open Shazam. It is very significant to see Google equipping its least expensive smartphone with the same chip as its most expensive smartphone, a bit like Apple with its iPhone SE.

However, we wanted to go back 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 USA”, because it was imagined in Cupertino. Pixels can use a Google chip, but it’s not made by Google (only Samsung and TSMC can make 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 fake and some people around us have fallen into the trap. Samsung is probably the only manufacturer that can come close to the 100% promise internally, but it can’t.

The 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 water resistant (here IP67, the device withstood our day on the boat well), quite durable (we always closed the day above 30%), they will receive several years of updates, they have a very colorful Android interface and, it’s still silly, they only exist in a 128GB version.If you want to take a lot of photos, you will need to purchase cloud storage. If you want to store a lot of games, buy another smartphone.

What the Pixel 6a doesn’t do

Let’s now turn to the game of differences, which at first glance is not easy. After several days of use, several are detected.

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

What’s noticeable is the Pixel 6a’s lack of smoothness, despite its Google Tensor chip. How to explain it? The smartphone suffers from its small amount of RAM (6 GB) and, more importantly, its 60 Hz screen. When you are used to 90 Hz or 120 Hz, going back hurts, the system animations are less beautiful. If you are coming from an older device, you probably won’t notice anything.

Another change that has bothered us, but let’s admit right away that it’s a matter of habit: on the Pixel 6a there is no wireless charging. That’s pretty dumb, especially since some of its competitors, like the Nothing Phone (1) or the iPhone SE, take advantage of it. It must be charged with a USB-C cable, bearing in mind that the charger is not provided in the package. The rest of the changes are pretty minimal, like the absence of the “Motion” mode in the camera, but we’ve already told you about them.

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

Last point, solidity. It’s a problem we didn’t anticipate with the Pixel 6, its slightly curved curves making it extremely fragile. Two of the editors of Numerama have a Pixel 6, both broke it and dropped it. Given the Pixel 6a’s design, we don’t see how this can’t happen again (especially since its Gorilla Glass is less solid). A tip: wear a shell and a protective film.

The verdict

Under $ 500, the Google Pixel 6a is arguably the best smartphone on the market. Equipped with photography, it offers an extremely well-balanced formula between beautiful design, good OLED screen, satisfactory performance, one-day battery life, and long-term upgrades. It will be recommended much more easily than the iPhone SE or Nothing Phone (1), two of its direct rivals. Of course, in terms of technical characteristics, there is no shortage of devices (Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, etc.) that perform better. But the Pixel lens is more “lifestyle,” not necessarily focused on Qualcomm’s latest processor or death-killing ultrafast charging.

We also answer another question: which device to choose between Pixel 6a and Pixel 6? The second is more complete, but costs 200 euros more (649 against 459 euros). For us, the answer is obvious, the Pixel 6a is Google’s best value for money. Only a few details are missing to be flawless.

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