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Google Pixel 6A review: Tensor makes it a smart choice for $449

For a few years running, the Pixel A-series phone was a no-brainer: always the best Android phone in its midrange class. With the Pixel 6A, things are a little different. Google is shifting its priorities for its Pixel phones, and competitors like Samsung have closed the gap. The 6A still has the best performance and camera quality at its price, but it’s not quite the shoo-in that it once was.

As is tradition for the A-series, the 6A offers most of what the Pixel 6 does — and to a lesser extent, the Pixel 6 Pro — for a much lower cost: $449 instead of the Pixel 6’s starting price of $599. You don’t get wireless charging, a glass back panel, or a faster screen refresh rate. But you do get the same core features as the flagship models. In previous years, that meant the very same class-leading camera as the pricier models but usually a less robust processor. That’s not the case this year; instead, you get Google’s custom-built processor, Tensor.

Tensor enables some AI and machine learning driven features, like better real-time transcription and HDR video recording at the camera’s highest resolution and frame rate. But mostly, the chipset enhances things that Pixel phones could already do, like live translation, by running them more efficiently so you can use them more without running your battery down.

Most importantly, it means you can actually keep using this phone for more than a few years, which is a more typical shelf life for a sub-$500 phone. It offers the best longevity among midrange Android phones, rivaled only by the iPhone SE for pure return on investment value. The SE may well get software updates a year longer than the 6A, but the Pixel offers a much better screen compared to the SE’s comparatively puny 4.7-inch display.

Keeping Tensor as the 6A’s core feature is a hint at where Google is steering the Pixel series for the future. As for the here and now, it makes the 6A into an excellent midrange phone. It doesn’t offer the very best screen for the money — that honor goes to the Samsung Galaxy A53 5G. But it is the best performer for under $500 (at least among options available in the US). On top of that, it’s a comfortable size with unfussy software and a great camera, and it should keep running well for years to come. That’s worthy of an A grade for sure.

Hero shot of the Google Pixel 6a on a grey background with some rocks

The 6A features a reasonably sized 6.1-inch screen.

The Pixel 6A is the smallest of the three 6 series phones, but maybe the best way to describe it is that it’s the least big. Next to the Pixel 6 Pro with its 6.7-inch screen and the 6.4-inch Pixel 6, the Pixel 6A feels downright petite. I contest that its 6.1-inch screen is the best compromise between a small (read: reasonably sized) phone and the gigantic phones everyone else seems to want, but that’s just my own personal hill to die on.

The screen on the 6A is a 1080p OLED panel with a standard 60Hz refresh rate, a step down from the 6’s 90Hz screen. After using a 120Hz screen for a while, I definitely notice the difference going back to 60Hz. I’d never see it without having the faster refresh rate to compare it to, but motion looks jerkier and it gives the phone a less than polished feel. Still, LCD panels are quite common in the $500 and below class, so the richer contrast of an OLED is welcome here. It’s not terribly comfortable to use outside in direct sunlight, either, but it gets bright enough to be usable.

The Samsung Galaxy A53 5G, also $449, is the 6A’s closest competitor in the US. Its screen is also a 1080p OLED but has a 120Hz refresh rate. It’s also bigger, at 6.5 inches, which a lot of people find appealing. The 6A beats the A53 in a few ways, but as far as the screen goes, it’s all Samsung. So, should you consider the A53 over the 6A? It depends.

Generally speaking, the A53 prioritizes the surface-level specs, including that fancy screen, but its processor isn’t as snappy. It feels more like a budget phone with a few elevated components rather than the other way around. Day-to-day performance is just a little more sluggish, and that’s only going to degrade over the next three or more years. For longevity and the very best performance, the 6A is the way to go. But if a big screen is important to you and you only plan on keeping your phone for a few years anyway, then the A53 is the better choice.

Shot of Pixel 6A’s pronounced, horizontal camera bump.

The 6A’s horizontal camera bump doesn’t protrude as far as the 6’s.

The Pixel 6A doesn’t just borrow the 6’s processor; it carries over the entire design language Google introduced with the 6 series. The horizontal camera bump on the back panel protrudes a bit less, but otherwise, it’s the same distinct design. I can’t say I love it. The black rails and camera bar contrast so harshly with the soothing sage green on the back panel. I didn’t mind the design when it debuted on the 6 and 6 Pro. But I’ve been disliking it more and more over the past year, and I have a feeling it’s not going to age well.

The 6A includes 128GB of storage — with no card slot for expansion — and 6GB of RAM. That’s the only variant, and it has 2GB less RAM than the base model Pixel 6. For day-to-day use, this doesn’t seem to impact performance. The system feels responsive as I jump between tasks, and apps stay open in the background long enough not to frustrate me.

It handles heavy tasks well, too — better than the A53 5G does. The phone runs graphics-intensive games like Genshin Impact fairly smoothly, with some dropped frames here and there. There’s also very little lag in the camera app, even firing off multiple portrait mode shots back to back. Both the (pre-Tensor) Pixel 5A and the 6A let me take about four portrait mode shots in quick succession before they need to buffer and lock out the shutter button. The 5A needs a full four to five seconds to process the shots, but with the 6A, I can start shooting again in about a second. That could mean the difference between getting the shot you wanted or watching the moment pass you by with a grayed-out shutter button. It’s also well beyond what I’d expect of most midrange smartphones, and Tensor is surely helping to make the difference here.

The Pixel 6A’s fingerprint scanner has been the subject of a lot of speculation — specifically along the lines of “maybe it won’t be as terrible as the one in the 6 and 6 Pro.” I’m not convinced that it’s any better. Using the 6A and the 6 side by side, I can see the 6A sensor responding quicker sometimes. But, just as often, it’s the same speed as the Pixel 6. It also feels just as prone to asking me to rescan my fingerprint or press my finger a little longer. In any case, the Galaxy S22’s sensor feels a touch faster than either of the Pixels’ — and since Samsung’s sensor is ultrasonic rather than optical, it doesn’t fill your dark bedroom with blinding light when you use it. If you were hoping that the 6A would address that Pixel 6 shortcoming, then I’m sorry to say you’ll be disappointed.

The 6A’s haptics are nice. They’re subtle but reassuring as you’re typing and tapping. However, something about the phone’s design (I strongly suspect the camera bump) makes it sound as loud as a foghorn when it’s sitting on a wooden table and a notification sets the vibration off. I can hear it across the house. I turned vibrations down a notch but that hasn’t really helped. I guess I’d just get used to finding something soft to put the phone down on when I wasn’t using it. Or put a case on it like a sensible person.

There’s a relatively small 4,410mAh battery powering the Pixel 6A, but the tight relationship between hardware and software (presumably) contributes to its very good battery performance. It got me through a day and a half of moderate use, and it handled a full day of heavier use with a bit of gaming and a conference call, no problem. It’s big battery energy from a little battery.

The Pixel 6A carries an IP67 rating for water resistance, making it a little less robust than the IP68-rated Pixel 6 and 6 Pro — but not much. That’s on par with the Galaxy A53 5G and better than most phones at this price. (Motorola’s Moto G Stylus 5G doesn’t offer any rating for water resistance.) But the bad news is that the headphone jack that held on for so long in the Pixel A-series is now gone. There’s no charger included in the box, either. Those are becoming just as scarce as headphone jacks lately.

Close-up of 6A’s rear dual lenses.

There are two nice cameras and zero nonsense macro sensors on the 6A’s back panel.

The Pixel 6A’s 12-megapixel f/1.7 main camera is borrowed from the Pixel 5A, with a couple of Tensor-enabled benefits. The 12-megapixel ultrawide camera is the same as the one on the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, and it’s good but unremarkable.

It’s more symbolic than anything that the 6A doesn’t use the new 50-megapixel sensor from the Pixel 6 because, in reality, photos from that new high-res sensor aren’t dramatically better than that of the older camera. Photos from the 6A look like photos from a Pixel camera: contrasty with a slightly cool white balance and vivid colors that don’t cross into oversaturated territory. If you like the Pixel photo aesthetic, then you’ll like the 6A’s camera. If you prefer warmer tones, then you’ll be happier with the Samsung Galaxy A53 5G. Tensor enables a few interesting camera features on the 6A, which are sometimes good, but they’re not so good that they’ll change your mind about how you like your images processed.

One of the most impressive of these features is called Face Unblur. In low light, cameras need to use slower shutter speeds to get a bright enough exposure. If your subject is moving even a little, then getting a sharp photo of them becomes very tricky. Face Unblur uses information from the ultrawide camera to supplement the main camera’s brighter exposure, putting it all together with a little machine learning magic to give you a final image with the right brightness and — in theory — a sharp photo of your subject’s face.

Baby holding a bee toy looking at camera

Fine details are pretty soft from noise reduction, but Face Unblur helped remove obvious motion blur.

Face Unblur happens automatically, and you’ll only know it was in use after the fact. And it works! The results are still a little soft and noisy if you look closely but without obvious motion blur. It’s a shame that it doesn’t appear to work with portrait mode, though, since that’s how I take pictures of my kid most of the time.

Another thing that Tensor enables is the ability to use HDR during video recording, even at the highest frame rate and resolution setting: 4K / 60p, in this case. The difference is subtle, though. I shot a backlit video with the Pixel 5A at 4K / 60p and compared it to the 6A with the same settings. The 6A brings back a little more detail in highlights, and it looks a little better than the 5A’s footage, but I’m not sure I’d know the difference without seeing them side by side.

One Tensor feature that’s available on the 6 and 6 Pro but missing from the 6A is Motion Mode. Google spokesperson Rebecca Pineiro says it isn’t enabled because of the 6A’s “hardware differences” from the 6 and 6 Pro. This is a feature that mimics the creative blur effects of long exposure and panning photography techniques — things that typically take time, special equipment, and practice to perfect. The 6 and 6 Pro can do a convincing impression of both effects with just one press of the shutter. It’s fun, and it stinks that the 6A can’t use it.

Still, the 6A presents a sophisticated set of camera features for a midrange phone, and in terms of raw capabilities, it’s still the best in its class. Tensor adds a couple of interesting new features, but the foundation that the 6A’s camera is built on was already a strong one.

Pixel 6A’s app drawer with search bar.

Android 12 on the Pixel 6A is mercifully free of major bugs.

The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro launched with Android 12, and it wasn’t exactly the best experience for early adopters since the first versions of the software were buggy. With Android 13 around the corner, Google seems to have figured out its Android 12 issues, at least on the Pixel 6A. I haven’t encountered any noticeable bugs or disruptive quirks using the phone as my daily driver for the past couple of weeks. I made calls, listened to Spotify on Bluetooth earbuds, took pictures and video, and navigated across town without a problem. And it is, of course, stock Android, meaning there’s no duplicate apps or unwanted features to clutter up the UI. (Looking at you, Samsung.)

The 6A will get five years of security updates, the same as the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. Google wouldn’t confirm to us how many OS platform upgrades the 6A will get, but the 6 and 6 Pro are promised three. Samsung offers a very strong update policy for the A53, promising four OS upgrades and the same five years of security patches. It’s worth noting that the Pixel should get monthly updates from Google throughout its life span, but Samsung tends to put its phones on a less frequent update schedule as they get older — just two security updates a year for the oldest supported devices.

And, of course, there’s 5G. Verizon will sell a version of the phone with support for superfast mmWave 5G for $50 more. The version of the 6A sold directly from Google and at other retailers will just support sub-6GHz 5G, which is fine; that flavor of 5G is improving fast, and mmWave is kind of a sham anyway.

Pixel 6A home screen with an analogue clock widget.

Google is all-in on Tensor, and it makes the 6A the best option under $500 on Android.

The Pixel 6A is a flagship phone with some of the nicer features stripped back — that’s one approach to building a midrange phone. The other approach is to invest a little more in those nice-to-have features, like a fast refreshing screen, but to include a cheaper processor and sacrifice a bit on performance. That’s the route that Samsung took with the Galaxy A53.

The road that Google took makes sense to me, at least. The Pixel 6 series phones make a bold statement, from their unusual design to the custom chipset. They’re phones for people who want phones that do really cool stuff. The Galaxy A53 is a little different. It’s for someone who wants the biggest and best display they can get for their money and who doesn’t mind giving up a little bit of processing power to get it. I know which category I fall into, and you probably know where you stand, too.

So, if a really big screen isn’t a priority and you (like me) prefer a sensibly sized phone that might actually fit in your pocket, then the 6A is easy to recommend. It offers excellent performance, its camera system is reliable, battery life is very good, and it’ll receive frequent software updates for many years to come. That’s hard to beat for $449.

Photography by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

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