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Second Impressions: Google Pixel 6a

Posted August 1, 2022 | Android | Google | Google Pixel | Hardware | Mobile | Pixel 6a | Windows

Moving past the first impressions, what strikes me most about the Pixel 6a is how well it captures the Pixel 6 experience, but at a much lower price. This $449 handset lacks features like a high-refresh display and wireless charging, but that’s expected. What it delivers on is flagship-class performance, the biggest pain point with previous A-series Pixels. So it’s possible that Google has found the magic formula for competing at this price point.

We’ll see. And, for sure, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But my first 24 hours with the Pixel 6a have been notably positive. My biggest concern—and it’s not really that major—is battery life. I pretty much fully charged the Pixel 6a before heading out to see some trains yesterday, and while that event took longer than expected—about three hours out in the world vs. two—the battery drain was curious: the phone was down to just under 50 percent when we wrapped things up. I did pictures, but not that many/

So I’ll keep an eye on that one, for sure. But other than that, the Pixel 6a has met or exceeded my expectations. The experience is pure Pixel and basically identical to that on my Pixel 6 Pro, just with a smaller (and blessedly flat) display. It’s a bit easier to use one-handed, of course, and experimenting with the case on and off, I would absolutely get a thinner third-party case because this device’s thin and light form factor would really shine through. The Google case is probably protective enough, but it’s bulky and takes away the phone’s svelte lines.

The photo experience, as noted yesterday, is excellent, and this sort of begs the question about what it is, exactly, that Google is doing with its higher-end handsets. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, for example, have a 50 MP Octa PD Quad Bayer wide lens with optical image stabilization (OIS) capabilities, and that lens should be superior in every way to the old-school 12 MP lens in the Pixel 6a. But I feel like Google worked for so long to optimize its camera software for the older part that the differences aren’t all that noticeable in most conditions. And the ultra-wide lens, which isn’t all that ultra-wide, is the same across the Pixel 6, 6 Pro, and 6a, minimizing the overall difference further. That’s in need of an upgrade on the higher-end Pixels, for sure.

I will of course be testing that more, but some low light shots last night and this morning’s dog walk, under overcast skies with tiny not-quite-rain drops of water in the air, were both good tests of how this camera system reacts in less-than-ideal conditions. And was a nice reminder of how good the Pixel camera experience can be. What I’d really missed, as I’d been using an iPhone for several months, was the ability to touch a piece of sky through the viewfinder and have the camera adapt to that and deliver a gorgeous shot. On an iPhone, those blue or gray sky areas are overexposed and washed out.

Performance, as expected, has been great, though I can’t claim to have pushed it much. The phone didn’t get hot while I installed and configured all my apps, something I’ve experienced with other handsets. And the A/V experience seems stellar, with surprising even and loud stereo sound in both music and videos.

Google, like its competitors, no longer provides a power brick in the box, but you’ll get the best results with an 18-watt (or higher) charger. That said, the Pixel 6a can only “fast” charge at up to 18 watts, which I’ve argued is not fast-charging. The iPhone 13 Pro charges at 23 watts, though the difference is greater because Google throttles charging on its Tensor-based phones for some reason. Other phones can now charge at 65 watts or more, and quite quickly.

The Pixel 6a’s software prowess is, of course, of interest. This handset supplies the same clean but Pixelized Android 12 software image as its stablemates, though you can’t yet upgrade it to the Android 13 Beta. (I heard there was a so-called day-one update that, among other things, would help get Pixel 6a handsets on the beta, but I don’t believe I’ve received it yet.) It is perhaps saying something that the differences I detect between Android 12 and 13 are minuscule to non-existent. All I have to do, really, is turn off app notifications as they come up. That should take a few days.

In short, the Pixel 6a delivers on the things I loved about all the previous A-series Pixels but combines that with what I think is a better mix and performance and functionality than was the case in the past. The Pixel 5a and 4a with 5G were fantastic phones, but their mid-market processors gave them an artificially short shelf-life. But the Pixel 6a appears to be a keeper and should be viable for much, much longer.

We’ll see. But in using the Pixel 6a over the past day, I routinely found myself ruminating on what a pleasant experience it provides. This isn’t just a low-cost competitor to Apple’s tiny iPhone SE, it can take on the more expensive iPhone 13 too. In short, it’s the Pixel A-series that Google never made before. Whether the world wakes up to that is another matter, of course. But I feel like Google made the right compromises here.

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