Do the delights balance out the frustrations?
Most reviewers will agree that smartphones have been getting a bit boring of late, none making you particularly annoyed or wildly excited. Foldables apart, they all look similar, do most things well, and therefore reviews are now mostly about figuring out things a particular phone does a little better, or worse, than its price competitors.
Google’s Pixel 6a, which I have been using as my daily driver for the past two weeks, is a refreshing departure from this norm, in good ways and bad. From frustration to delight, the Pixel 6a took me through a gamut of emotions and I’m already dreading writing the conclusion.
The design is striking and distinctive.
The last smartphone Google released in India was the Pixel 4a, all the way back in 2020. So it was with great anticipation that smartphone nerds awaited the launch of the Pixel 6a. Priced at Rs 43,999, the Pixel 6a is not quite a flagship, because it’s part of Google’s ‘a’ line that focuses on delivering value while sacrificing some bells and whistles. But what makes the Pixel 6a a novelty in the ‘a’ line-up is that it features the same flagship grade Tensor chipset from Google’s own chip design team that also finds its place in the Pixel 6 and the Pixel 6 Pro.
The body is a relatively compact slab featuring a 6.1” 60 Hz AMOLED screen. Although it’s easy to use one-handed, the slippery back and sides means that you will need to get a case. It’s definitely no Oppo Reno 8 when it comes to ergonomics. The back shows off the strikingly attractive Pixel design featuring a good-looking plastic panel and the signature black camera bar.
This is also where we see the first major downgrade – the Pixel 6a reuses the ageing, small, 12.2 MP Sony IMX363 as its main sensor, instead of the new sensors found in the 6 and the 6 Pro. This is a unit that has been featured in Pixel phones dating back to 2017. There is also a 12 MP ultrawide sensor.
The signature camera bar houses the camera sensors.
The single variant comes with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB of storage. The battery is 4410 mAh, and while there is no charger in the box, the maximum charging speed is a now-very-slow 18W. Tragically, in a departure from the a-series phones, Google has chosen to remove the headphone jack from the Pixel 6a.
Setting up the Pixel 6a was an exercise in frustration because the phone refused to register my thumbprint. Despite multiple tries, it kept failing, and this brings me to my main grouse: the fingerprint sensor. There is no polite way to say this. It’s garbage, the worst biometric authentication method I have used on a smartphone. While writing about the iPhone 13, I complained about FaceID, but I will opt for it every day and twice on Sunday compared to the Pixel 6a’s fingerprint sensor.
I did eventually manage to register my fingers, but even then the sensor was slow and unreliable, and every time I needed to unlock the phone in a hurry, it would simply refuse to work. I even tried the ‘register the same finger twice’ trick and that did little to improve things. It was an endless source of frustration and I eventually started using the phone permanently unlocked, to get around it.
It is simply baffling that Google would use a bottom-tier part like this on their phone, when phones costing less pack far better fingerprint sensors.
Now the good news is, that’s the end of the bad news. I don’t really have any other major complaints about the phone. Just like most other smartphones, the Pixel 6a is fast and smooth and loads apps and switches between apps with nary a hiccup.
The 60hz AMOLED screen won’t set any performance charts on fire, but still does a solidly competent job. The brightness is adequate, the contrast is very good, and the colours are reasonably accurate. The 60Hz refresh rate feels primitive and jerky, when you come from a 120Hz screen, as I mentioned in my iPhone 13 review, but I realise that after using a 60Hz screen for a few days, it feels smooth enough, as long as you don’t pick up a 120Hz device in the meantime. It’s not luxurious, but it’s good enough.
The plastic back looks premium.
The stereo speakers do a very good job, offering a good amount of detail and bass heft. It’s a smidge short of the iPhone, but not too far off. Combined with the AMOLED screen, watching videos on the Pixel 6a is a pleasure. The phone also has good haptics, even if not quite the best-in-class.
The Pixel 6a runs stock Android 12, though Android 13 is just around the corner. Pure stock Android is what makes the Pixel 6a quintessentially an American smartphone. While Chinese smartphone makers like Xiaomi and the BBK cousins spoil you with endless tweak-ability and options, the Pixels hew closer to a more rigid iPhone-like approach. The inability to switch my back button to the right and other such minor frustrations abound, but I doubt most people would care very much about them.
The Material You aesthetics, the absence of bloatware, and the general lack of cruft makes using the Pixel 6a a light, pleasurable experience, although I personally prefer the more tweakable Android skins.
The battery life has been excellent. In fact, even on days of very heavy and long usage, I failed to kill the battery, with the phone crossing 7 hours of screen-on time without breaking a sweat. Here I must mention stock Android 12’s annoying changes to battery use info that forced me to use a separate app – AccuBattery – to measure this number. The long battery life does somewhat make up for the lack of fast-charging or wireless charging though at least one of these would have been nice to have at this price point.
The compact size makes it easy to use one handed.
Pixel phones have always been known for their cameras. Until the Pixel 6 and the 6 Pro, Google had been using the same sensors since 2017, finetuning their algorithms to squeeze out the best performance. And it is these very sensors that find a place in the Pixel 6a. But in the five years since these cameras made their debut, sensors in general have gotten much bigger, with even cheaper phones featuring sensors substantially larger than the ones found on the Pixel 6a. So I was very curious to see how they held up against the competition.
In short, they win some, and they lose some. I’ll start with the latter first.
The USB-C port.
The laws of physics mean that despite the brilliance of Google’s computational photography team, the small sensors in the Pixel 6a suffer when it comes to low light. When shooting with the main sensor, if you can somehow hold the phone steady – with a tripod or otherwise – for the time it takes for Night Sight to do its work, you get excellent results with great colours and well-judged white balance. But when you’re shooting handheld, you end up with fuzzy shots half the time because the exposure is simply too long, and this means that you can’t really depend on it all the time. The results are more or less the same with the ultrawide.
However, give it a little bit of light, and it’s a different beast altogether. Photos are beautifully well-judged in terms of exposure, colours, dynamic range and contrast. Add to this the fact that the Pixels offer the very best camera interface of all the phones I’ve used, with the ability to not only adjust exposure but also colour temperature and shadows. The HDR can sometimes overcook brightly lit landscapes – as is the case with most phones – but a quick pull down on the shadows slider takes care of that and gives you a superb tone map.
Give the cameras a little bit of light and they shine.
Now let me come to the crowning glory, the thing that sets the Pixel 6a apart – skin tones.
When it comes to taking pictures of people, especially the range of skin tones you see in India, there is simply no better phone camera. As long as there is some amount of light, the skintones the Pixel 6a produces are markedly superior to those from any other phone, including the iPhone 13, which otherwise does a very good job. Google talks up the Real Tone feature in their cameras, where their algorithm is designed to work well with skin tones of people with colour, and they were not overselling it. In terms of colour, contrast and texture, the Pixel 6a produces far and away the best skin tones I have seen from a phone camera. If you enjoy taking pictures of people, this is the phone to buy.
When it comes to landscapes and objects, there are other phones that can match up to and exceed the Pixel 6a, but when it comes to portraits, the Pixel 6a is the undisputed champion.
Even though the Pixel 6a does not have a telephoto lens, the digitally zoomed 2x photos from it are often superior to those from phones with dedicated telephotos, when it comes to pictures of people.
There is no phone that handles skin tones as well as the Pixel 6a.
The ultrawide performs creditably, with colour science very closely matching the main sensor. I’m disappointed that it lacks autofocus, but that’s somewhat standard at this price range. The selfie camera does some of the same magic with skin tones as the rear cameras, but the lack of autofocus means they may not be the sharpest selfies you’ll take.
Video performance is reasonably good, but when the light starts to fall, video performance goes to pieces. The small sensor really shows its limitations when you try to capture low light video.
In short, the Pixel’s cameras are sensationally good for taking pictures of people and a mixed bag when it comes to everything else.
The ultrawide does a creditable job.
Should I buy it?
It’s very simple – are you into photography? Do you take a lot of pictures of people? Do you have Rs 43,999 to spare? Then this is the phone to buy. No question. Nothing else comes close, at this price or any other price.
Yes, it’s not the best value – a sub Rs 40,000 price would have made a lot more sense – but for this very specific, and popular, task, the Pixel 6a is the best smartphone that you can buy in India.
If you don’t take very many pictures of people or don’t really care about the camera very much, or if you shoot more videos than photos, then this is not the phone for you. There are many others that offer better features and performance for less money. But the thrill of taking pictures with a phone and seeing skin tones that look very close to what you’re seeing with your naked eye, you need to experience this phone to truly understand that magic. I am going to miss the camera on this phone once it goes back, and despite the frustrations with the fingerprint sensor, I am tempted to buy one for myself.
The Google Pixel 6a was sent to the reviewer as a loaner unit for review purposes. The unit will be returned on completion of the review. Google has been given no advance information about the content of this review and exercises no copy approval.
Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.
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