Google’s Pixel 6a is a budget device with the heart of a flagship

It’s probably hyperbole to credit Google’s Pixel A devices for single-handedly keeping the broader line alive during some admittedly lean times. Let’s be honest, much of that goes to Google’s very deep pockets — when you’re one of the world’s largest companies, what’s a little sunk-cost fallacy between friends?

The budget devices have, however, been a lifesaver, buoying the line when the Pixel division was still desperately attempting to find its footing. It’s safe to say that — after several false starts — Google finally found success with the Pixel 6. It was the first time in the line’s history the company could credibly claim that it had released a flagship.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

A new hardware design, coupled with the company’s first in-house Tensor chip and some solid new camera hardware, combined well with several generations of software improvement. The Pixel 6a, happily, shares more DNA with the Pixel 6 than with the Pixel 5a. The biggest connective tissue between the products is Google’s broader overall strategy of a roughly six-month release cadence. First you drop the flagship; then half a year later, you arrive with its budget equivalent.

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It’s an approach that seems to be working well. You appease the early adopters with the initial product and eventually a number of the new features trickle down into its namesake. By the time that arrives, you’re already ready to start hearing about its successor. It’s no coincidence, of course, that the company teased the Pixel 7 alongside the 6a announcement. It’s a tacit reminder that, while the 6a actually looks pretty good, something even better is on the way. It’s the tyranny of choice effectively monetized.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s an important part of Google’s approach, because the 6a is a largely effective exercise in cutting the correct costs. It’s still a midtier/budget handset, don’t get me wrong — but it’s a budget/midtier device with the heart of a flagship.

The build materials are the most immediately apparent. The 6a is more plasticky than its immediately successor. That’s mostly a big issue if you’re someone who carries your device around without a case. Those people exist. I’ll never understand them, but they exist. You do lose a bit of durability on the front of the device, with a downgrade from Gorilla Glass Victus to Gorilla Glass 3.

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The screen size has been scaled down as well, from 6.4 inches to 6.1 inches (still a 1080p OLED, though at a sightly higher pixel density), with a 60Hz refresh rate vs. the 6’s 90Hz (neither goes up to 120, mind). Honestly, for many, the smaller screen is probably something of an improvement. The 6 is a big phone. This is much more reasonable for a wider spectrum of hands.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s no wireless charging on board, and predictably, the camera gets a notable hardware downgrade, knocking the 50-megapixel wide and 12-megapixel ultrawide dual sensors down to a pair of 12-megapixel wide/ultrawide.

Google has insisted for several generations that hardware doesn’t matter nearly as much as software when it comes to smartphone imaging. The last few Pixel devices were a repudiation of that theory, however. One might argue that it’s truer today than it was a few generations ago, but great smartphone shots still require the right marriage of the two. That said, you can still capture quality shots on the 6a — a fact that is helped along by some impressive software advances made over the years, including features like Magic Eraser. Also key is the inclusion of the same Tensor chip found in the Pixel 6, which delivers many of those key additions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The new (well, newish) chip delivers impressive power gains, when stacked up against the 5a. The 6a sings by midtier device standards. The on-board 6GB of RAM is a downgrade from the 6’s 8GB, but it should get the job done. Storage is the same at 128GB, though there’s no 256GB upgrade option. The battery, meanwhile, gets a slight decrease in mAh, from 4,614 to 4,410, but that’s going to get you through more than a day, no problem.

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The most impressive thing about the Pixel 6a, however, is the price. The 6 was an extremely reasonable $599, and the company has managed to shave another $150 off. Good luck finding more bang for your buck.