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 a long time ago. Unfortunately for the web giant, it is not enough to make good devices to become a hardware giant. Unable to maintain consistency from one generation to another, to decline its products in several versions (storage, color, etc.) or to provide sufficient stock 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 it announced in early 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, 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 formidable smartphone for the photo

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 photo.

Because yes, the strength of the Pixel 6a, like that of all the other Pixels, is its incredible photo 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 he is capable of. You will see that at 459 euros, it greatly exceeds what we are used to seeing.

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
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
Photo taken with Pixel 6a main camera. // Source: Numerama

Of course, on paper, the Pixel 6a isn’t perfect. Its small sensors naturally offer less 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 about it given the photographic quality of the Pixel 6a? True to form, Google relies on software algorithms to compensate. The photo previewed in the “Camera” application rarely has anything like the final result, since Google software improves everything you photograph. A magic trick that photo 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.

Taken with the main Pixel 6a camera, details are surprisingly good for a small sensor. // Source: Numerama
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, the Pixel probably recorded an alternate version where you had your eyes peeled. A passer-by is embedded at the last moment, circle it so that Google removes it from the image. It’s called the “magic eraser” and it’s amazing. Note also the work of Google to better take into account the different skin colors and not to offer a device only designed for whites.

magic eraser
Boats ? What boats? // Source: Numerama screenshots

Is the Pixel 6a as good at photos as the other Pixels? If the absence of some functions, such as the “Motion” mode of 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 keep memories of pleasant events, you will not find better under 500 euros. Perfection is not there, especially in ultra wide-angle where the Pixel 6a does not perform as many miracles as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, but it is difficult to find better value for money at such a price. This is the main reason why we would recommend a Pixel 6a over a similarly priced Xiaomi or Oppo, which are usually more powerful.

The Google Pixel 6a camera module is on the back, in a rectangular block in the form of a bar. // 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 a few key points.

Let’s start with the design. The Pixel 6a is not strictly speaking a clone of the Pixel 6, since it is 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 pleasant to handle than its big brother. We can always criticize it for having too big edges, which makes it a little wide in the hand, but its 178 grams compensates well. It is a pleasant smartphone to handle, without being a “mini” device. Don’t get me wrong, 6.1 inches is still big.

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

The second common point between the Pixel 6a and the Pixel 6 is its “in-house” processor: the Google Tensor chip. It is the third device to be entitled to it after the two Pixel 6s at the end of 2021. This “custom” chip, whose design was designed by Google engineers, has quite special looks. Presented as “top of the range”, it incorporates elements corresponding 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 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 come 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 amounts to saying that an iPhone is “100% made in the USA”, because it is imagined in Cupertino. Pixels may 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 able to come close to the promise of 100% in-house, but even 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 the Pixel 6a and the Pixel 6: they are water resistant (IP67 here, the device withstood our boat day well), rather enduring (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 exist in a 128 GB version. If you want to take a lot of photos, you will have to buy cloud storage. If you want to store a lot of games, well 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 sight. 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 is obvious is the lack of fluidity of 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. When you are used to 90 Hz or 120 Hz, going back hurts, the system animations are less beautiful. If you’re coming from an old device, then you probably won’t notice anything.

Another change that bothered us, but we readily admit that it is a matter of habit: there is no wireless charging on the Pixel 6a. It’s quite stupid, especially since some of its competitors, such as 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 provided in the box. The rest of the changes are quite minimal, such as the absence of the “Motion” mode in the camera, but we have already told you about it.

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 make it extremely fragile. Two of Numerama’s editorial staff have a Pixel 6, they both broke it by dropping it. Given the design of the Pixel 6a, we do not see how this could not happen again (especially since its Gorilla Glass is less solid). A word of advice: put on a shell and a protective film.

The verdict

Under 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 pretty 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 rivals. Of course, in terms of technical characteristics, there are plenty of devices (Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, etc.) that do better. But the target 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 to choose between the Pixel 6a and the 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. It only lacks a few details to be flawless.

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