When Google releases an A-series phone, it inevitably passes on some of its photographic prowess to its sole mid-range shooter. The Pixel 6 has joined the family and has many familiarities compared to other Pixel phones.
It’s not just how it looks, it’s how it works, and the synergy extends to the camera, but only to a point. Google retained some of its more complex tools for the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, but added a new one that, at least for now, is exclusive to the 6a.
It’s the phone that appeals to tighter budgets with its $449 price tag, as well as anyone who doesn’t want or need all the bells and whistles. The camera still plays a big part in presenting the value-for-money principle that makes the Pixel 6a appealing, as long as you accept compromises along the way.
Design and build
Google’s design language for the Pixel 6 flagships ushered in a new look and feel that continues with this device. Since few markets have even seen the Pixel 5a, the Pixel 6a is effectively the “A” suite for everyone outside of the US and Japan.
The most obvious design trait is the strip housing the rear camera array, although it’s worth noting that its edges don’t protrude as far as other Pixel 6 phones. Cases can protect the strip more easily because the lips may protrude enough to create a bumper that protects the lenses. I always advise putting a case on any phone, but even when it comes to mid-range models, it’s worth having peace of mind. It’s nice to see Google taking extra protection seriously enough to include IP67 water resistance – the same as the Pixel 5a and 6 devices.
The back looks like glass, but it’s not. It’s just the kind of plastic that shows up well, especially with the colors (charcoal, chalk and sage) which also mirror the other Pixel 6 phones. Flip the phone to the front and a 6.1-inch OLED display faces you with the same resolution as the Pixel 6 (not the Pixel 6 Pro). You lose a faster refresh rate because Google reduced it to 60Hz here, and I’m not sure why, given that 90Hz clearly would have been possible.
Otherwise, modest specs put the phone in clear mid-range territory, like 6GB of RAM, 128GB of internal storage, and a 4,410mAh battery. You get the same Google Tensor processor as the other Pixel 6 phones, so it’s reasonable to expect solid performance, especially since this chipset powers the features that make a Pixel different from other Android phones.
It was great to see Google opting for a totally different image sensor for the main cameras of its two flagships, starting all over again with the Pixel 6a. The main camera (27mm equivalent) uses the same 12.2-megapixel Sony IMX363 image sensor that Google has perpetually used since the Pixel 3. Besides the cost savings, this is another example of the company that thinks its software computing can do more. out of the aging sensor.
This makes imaging results somewhat predictable, even more so when you add the 12-megapixel ultra-wide camera (17mm equivalent), which is the same Sony IMX386 sensor fitted in the other two Pixel 6 flagships.
There’s no telephoto lens, and while the main camera is decent with 2x digital zoom, it gets progressively worse once you get past that. Zooming with this phone feels like stepping back in time with the Pixel 4 or 5. No true Super Res hybrid zoom here, unfortunately.
Given the familiarity with the hardware, Google’s software will be anything but confusing. The camera interface will look familiar to any Pixel user, including the highlight/shadow and color temperature sliders. Calculating photo rendering kicks in once you’ve captured a photo, even if you don’t know how Google does it.
The new Motion modes introduced in the other two Pixel 6 models, like Action Pan and Long Exposure, are missing the action. You can shoot RAW in any mode, but again, no manual mode of any kind, which I didn’t expect, would debut in a mid-range Pixel anyway.
What’s cool is that Magic Eraser, the feature that can remove people and objects from photos, works great here. You’ll find it under Tools in Google Photos and can try it out with any photo you have in your Photos library, not just images you’ve taken with the Pixel 6a. A newer one is Camouflage – exclusive to 6a right now – which can automatically change the color of an object to better blend in with the rest of the image. For example, if you have a photo that lacks a lot of color, but there is a bright sign or an object that stands out too much, this mode can completely desaturate or recolor it to blend in better.
Other basic Pixel principles also apply. Double-click the power button to launch the camera from a locked state. Make a flip gesture in the camera app to switch between rear and front cameras. You can also use Quick Tap if you’re using a third-party camera or editing app and want to launch it faster. Configure it in the settings to launch it by simply double tapping the back of the phone.
I used the word predictable earlier, and to me, that’s how the Pixel 6a fires. Despite the older components inside, it’s more than possible to get great shots with it. Just a warning that Google’s software tends to render images more aggressively here than in previous phones. Coming from a Pixel 6 Pro to the 6a, I could see the contrast in what the software was doing. Google took a more subtle approach with the Pro, whereas here it’s almost as if it’s sped it up.
This is where shooting RAW + JPEG can really come in handy. If you don’t like Google’s work, fix it yourself in Lightroom or another app. The f/1.7 aperture helps in low-light shots, although the image stabilization isn’t as effective, which is probably why the sharpness kicks in to mask any shaking in your hands. Dynamic range is solid, although details lose some of their vibrancy compared to the Pixel 6.
The good news is that Google’s Real Tone is built into the camera, capturing the varieties and subtleties of skin tones and skin tones. This goes for both sides, which means selfies with the front camera also handle them equally.
There are no major surprises here given how common this image sensor is for Pixel phones. I’m not sure the results here will be that different from the Pixel 6, except the latter offers better detail. I’ve never had a chance to test and shoot with the Pixel 5a, but I suspect the images compare closely to what the 6a can do.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Mid-range phones vary widely when it comes to ultra-wide shots, especially when thrown in varying conditions. I’ve long liked Pixel phones for low-light shots with the ultra-wide, and felt pretty good with them here too.
Video has never been Pixel phones’ forte, but at least there are serviceable parts you can use with the 6a. The Tensor chip helps process video faster, allowing for fairly smooth 4K video with HDR+. While it won’t beat what an iPhone 13 or Samsung Galaxy A53 will do on the video side, it’ll be fine if your needs are modest.
The usual features apply, such as Cinematic Pan, Slow Motion and Time Lapse. Shoot with both lenses in 1080p or 4K at 30fps or 60fps. Speech enhancement only works with the front camera to better extract your voice in a busier or louder environment. It works well, but it would be better when third-party apps use it as well.
A reliable mid-range
It’s perhaps a testament to Google’s software pedigree that a phone like the Pixel 6a is a valid choice as a competent shooter. This is despite using image sensors that are long in the tooth and not using the same primary found in other Pixel 6 devices. It’s not that this phone will blow you away with the way what it derives from is that it handles most shooting situations well for the standards you might apply to mid-range handsets.
The competition, especially when you look beyond Apple and Samsung, is tightening in this space, and Google is benefiting from a lack of consumer knowledge about Vivo, Xiaomi, Oppo, and even OnePlus to some degree. The Pixel 6a won’t necessarily impress seasoned mobile photographers, but it likely would for those who don’t typically opt for flagships.
Are there alternatives?
The iPhone 13 and 13 Mini certainly come to mind as alternatives, although you’ll pay a lot more to go with either. For something less taxing on your wallet, the Samsung Galaxy A53 comes with similar specs and decent shooting capabilities, even though it does the same thing Google does, which is recycle the same camera components. .
The Pixel 6 itself presents itself as a very viable alternative if you’re willing to pay an extra $150. That’s still less than the aforementioned iPhones and within reach of what a mid-range phone sells for. You get a better image sensor for taking photos, though you lose Camouflage as an editing tool, unless Google updates the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro to get it too.
Should you buy it?
Yes, especially if you’re upgrading from a Pixel 3a or 4a. This phone will feel like a bigger step up from the two. At $449, it’s a pretty good deal for what you get, and ideal when you want good photos without needing the latest frills.