Takeaway: The Google $449 for Pixel 6a It is the power of an economical phone, equipped with a vibrant OLED display and a sharp camera that processes shots using best-in-class artificial intelligence. Everything is powered by the company’s proprietary Tensor chip, which is optimized for maximum performance and the longest battery life from your Android phone. In the week I spent using it as my primary phone device, I’ve found that the synergy between Google’s hardware and software provides smooth visuals in demanding 3D games and seamless multitasking—without the crashes that are common even on mid-range Android smartphones.
Looking beyond the Android scene, the Pixel 6a competes with $429 for iPhone SE (2022). These two smartphones under $500 don’t feel like entry-level, as they pack flagship-level processors — making them competitive with mid-range phones for twice the price. The Pixel 6a does everyday tasks better and is the best phone of the year.
Ergonomic design with a large vibrant screen
The Pixel 6a’s compact body measures 6 x 2.8 inches and weighs just 0.4 pounds. Its candy bar-like shape makes it easy to hold and operate with one hand while providing plenty of vertical space for more information at the top. The edges are curved to better fit your hand—a welcome addition in the age of square, cramped metal iPhone cases. From the front, only the OLED display and aluminum frame bezels are visible. Google cut costs by swapping the back glass on the Pixel 6 for a plastic cover.
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On the left side, you’ll only find a single hole for the SIM tray, and on the right is a power button just above the volume button. The flip of the phone reveals the Pixel’s distinctive camera bumper, which is more compact than its more expensive counterpart. During my time with 6a, I survived falls off tables and pockets of my pants without staining or scratching. And I had no trouble typing texts or making calls after submerging it in the tub to test its IP67 water and dust resistance rating. While its materials may be less durable than the more expensive Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, the 6A is still a solid phone.
The 6.1-inch color OLED display pushes an average brightness of 750 nits — more than most phones at this price point. This large, high contrast screen brings environments to life with vibrant color, whether you’re viewing a photo you’ve taken or watching videos. Without any distracting slits of screen space, I could focus more on whatever game I was playing. This meant that in top-down games like Stardew Valley, I could see a larger portion of the map, and my field of view in Call of Duty was nice and wide. While the iPhone SE drops the notch of its big sibling to give you a full-screen picture, it feels lost on a ripped 4.7-inch screen with a resolution of 1334 x 750 pixels (non-HD) that’s noticeably dull at maximum brightness of 625 nits. The Pixel 6a’s 1080 x 2400, 60Hz OLED display beats it, and on the surface, it’s almost on par with $799 for iPhone 14except for the fact that it cannot become bright.
There’s plenty of room to go around the Pixel bloat-free Android launcher. Combined with gesture navigation, the experience is friction-free; Swipe left to see the Google News feed, swipe up to view all your apps, and swipe down from the top for a quick list. Although the Pixel is limited to the same 60Hz refresh rate as the iPhone SE, it felt faster when opening the app drawer or scrolling pages. While other budget Android phones like Samsung A53 It has a 120Hz screen, and its processing power can’t match that of Google Tensor.
Google Tensor provides powerful Android performance
Whether on paper or in use, the octa-core Tensor chip that powers the Pixel 6a (the same chip on the $899) flagship Pixel 6 Pro is a beast. I experienced no slowdowns and fewer than a few crashes when switching between demanding apps. Editing videos was fast, and I played graphics and resource demanding games at high visual settings without a noticeable drop in frame rate. The Pixel uses this extra computing power to not only improve playback, but also exclusive features like live text or audio translation as well as Play Now, which passively limits which songs the device plays in the background without draining the battery.
Both Google and Apple share the same powerful chips of their flagship phones with their entry level models. This brings Tensor head-to-head with the A15 Bionic, the most powerful mobile chip in the phone. In the jeepbench 5 task-handling tests I used, the iPhone SE’s A15 Bionic yielded 1722 single and 4,546 multi-core scores to the Pixel’s 1052 and 2,946. So while the Pixel 6a judges its closest Android competitor, the Samsung Galaxy A53 (which scores 681 and 1778), it’s still Apple has a much more powerful chip. But in most everyday uses, the difference is almost imperceptible.
Browsing the web, opening pages, viewing animations, and launching apps is almost the same on phones. In fact, clearer text and visuals on the Pixel’s larger 2,400 x 1080 pixel screen look better. But crack open a video editor and the power gap will play. Where the Pixel can export an edited video in 46 seconds, the iPhone SE displays the same clip in just 22. And when offloading resource files for heavy apps like Diablo Immortal or Call of Duty Mobile, the iPhone SE worked an average of 5MB per 1MB on the Pixel for faster installs.
Games on the Pixel 6a are very smooth and score highly on the 3DMark GPU Wildlife Test. This tied the phone’s average 40.5fps to 89 percent better results than all other devices. In Call of Duty mobile on high settings, there was occasional stutter when multiple animated effects — like flying sparks and swaying coat tails — taxed the phone. However, its in-game graphical performance was consistent, without major drops or artifacts, on par with mid-range Android devices. Meanwhile, the iPhone SE averaged 46 fps in the same test. In my time with the iPhone, I didn’t see any of the occasional visible hiccups like on the Pixel. While this phone’s smaller screen may not be the most immersive, the strength of the SE is undeniable. As a player, I didn’t stop at all because of this gap. On a larger TV, I’d expect 4K at 60fps. But the difference is minimal in phones with smaller screens. I preferred playing on the Pixel’s bigger and brighter screen, which offers a better window into virtual worlds.
As for battery life, the Pixel lasted a full 24 hours on my actual day-to-day messaging, mini-gaming sessions, and browsing social media channels. But in the battery drain test, which constantly streams live videos and comments on data at 20 percent brightness, the Pixel lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes on a full charge.
The camera for content creators
The Pixel’s 12MP ultra-wide and wide rear cameras make the most of Google’s image-processing technology with exciting, sharp colors. In the images below, you can see how the camera highlights the richer red tones in the pepperoni slice and the clearer background text on the canopy in the background. The iPhone SE’s single camera, on the other hand, isn’t slack, but its warmer tones almost look like there’s a filter in its shots. Likewise, daytime shots on the Pixel accurately convey life-like colors like the dark black of the T-shirt as the iPhone SE created an image that made the T-shirt look gray. Switching to shooting in low light, the SE’s lack of night sensors left dark shots taken without the flash too noisy to use. Night Sight on the Pixel 6a comes out clear and brings out a nice amount of color from an almost black room.
→ Google Pixel 6a and iPhone SE camera samples
With Pixel, you have more variety and shooting modes. Tensor also extracts more detail from photos, so you’re less likely to lose it in shadows and bright highlights. And unlike the iPhone SE, it can shoot in RAW format for more editing freedom. The Pixel’s built-in editing tools aren’t Photoshop, but the phone has similar AI-assisted technology as Magic Eraser. This tool makes it easy to quickly circle and remove objects with one click. I used Impact to provide clean results – removing distractions like wires, picture spoilers, and litter on the floor. But every once in a while, it will fill in the area you replaced with a distracting pattern or leave a visual pomp like the reflection of a cropped object (as you can see with the paper towel below). In other phones, you need a third party app to remove unwanted objects from the photo, and it leaves you with much worse results.
The Pixel captures video at up to 4K at 60 fps or 1080p at up to 240 fps, which is better than most budget phones. Even closer to $500, these beat around 4K 30. Still clips I took without a tripod were shake-free, but the Pixel has pan and pan options — stabilization. I found these modes to be effective, and they even eliminated the nasty wobble of a clip I had picked up while jogging. But since this capture technology works to stabilize your shots, it compresses exports to 1080p resolution. Meanwhile, the iPhone offers a competitive 4K 60 resolution but with weaker zoom performance and fewer shooting modes.
Pixel 6a is the best Android phone you can get for under $500. Its optimal size and well-balanced power shrug off everyday tasks and power the latest games. Google’s strategic cuts allow for a premium view and camera so it doesn’t feel like a compromise. But if you’re someone who pushes graphics to their maximum settings and/or often edits video, the speed and power of the iPhone SE (2022) with the A15 chip is unmatched. For most people, the Pixel 6’s larger screen, sleek body, and stronger dual-lens camera make it a better choice.
Hunter Fenollol, our resident expert on all things consumer technology, from the smart home to virtual reality gaming headsets, has years of knowledge creating product explanations, in-depth reviews, and buying guides to help you get the most out of the latest electronics. Throughout college, he has covered and reviewed the latest releases of tools for sites such as Tom’s Guide, Laptop Magazine, and CNN Underscored. If he doesn’t have the latest hardware, you can find Hunter at one of Long Island’s many beaches, in Manhattan, or gamble for his pay.
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