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Pixel 6a review: A sub-£400 phone brimming with Google’s best features

The more affordable and compact version of the flagship Pixel 6 is a small wonder

The Pixel 6a comes in three colours variants: charcoal, chalk and sage

Available to pre-order today, the Google Pixel 6a is a more affordable and compact version of the flagship Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro phones launched late last year.

At just £399, the Pixel 6a dials back some of the most premium hardware features of the more expensive models, while cramming in all of the clever Google software features that make Pixel phones worth shouting about.

That means its comes with the luscious and customisable Material You interface, a glut of clever photo-editing features, adaptive battery management that squeezes more life out of a single charge, live language translation, and the full set of Google Assistant smarts.

The Tensor chip has 5G connectivity baked in, and Google also promises at least five years of security updates, meaning you could feasibly still be using the Pixel 6a during the great heatwave of 2027.

Design-wise, the Pixel 6a feaures a more palm-friendly 6.1in screen, and takes cues from its larger siblings. The camera bar is back, this time protruding just a single millimetre from the rear of the phone, which combined with the flat display and rounded bezels gives the device a more flush and muted appearance.

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How we tested

We put the Google Pixel 6a through its paces for two weeks leading up to the phone’s launch, paying close attention to software features, build quality and camera capabilities. Here’s what we thought.

Google Pixel 6a: £399, Google.com

The bezels resemble those found on the standard Pixel 6 handset

  • Dimensions: 71.8mm x 152.16mm x 8.85mm
  • Camera bump: 1.08mm
  • Weight: 179mm
  • Display: 6.1in OLED, full HD, 60Hz
  • Camera (rear): 12MP main with OIS, 12MP ultra-wide
  • Camera (front): 8MP main
  • Storage: 128GB
  • RAM: 8GB
  • 5G? Yes

There’s a pang of nostalgia you get whenever you take a dusty old phone out of the drawer to donate to a new home. This writer felt it when they handed down their used Pixel 5 to a nephew. Launched in 2020, the 6in Pixel 5 was positively petite compared to the current Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro flagships, which are giant specimens at 6.4in and 6.7in. Like rival Samsung, the search giant went big in 2021, leaving small-handed people grappling with the slate-sized devices. The Pixel 5 was perfectly sized and comfortable in the palm. You could pinch it between your thumb and middle finger and spin it back and forth, a bit like a big fidget spinner. The nephew almost left empty handed.

But of course, as an ageing, last-generation, discontinued phone, the Pixel 5 is lightyears behind the fancy, Tensor chip-powered, supersized Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro devices. Going back just isn’t a viable option for mid-size phone fans who value performance, security and reliability.

The Pixel 6 (top) is just 0.3in bigger than the Pixel 6a, but that third of an inch makes a big difference to how the phone feels

Enter the Google Pixel 6a, an affordable mid-range version of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro devices with a smaller form factor, a 6.1in full HD OLED display and a near-identical software experience to the larger phones that came before it. Like the more premium pair of phones it has the same Tensor chip inside it, which Google says is the brain behind the Pixel’s raft of machine-learning party tricks. Let’s recap a few of those and what they actually do.

Pixel 6a features

Live Translate: Translates text in the real world by pointing your camera at it. Interpreter mode repeats anything you say out loud in one of 11 languages, then repeats the other person’s response back to you in your own language. This genuinely feels like something from Star Trek when you find an opportunity to use it.

Google Lens: Uses augmented reality to scan your surroundings and identify objects. We use this all the time for identifying houseplants and trousers and little bits of pottery we want to buy.

Magic Eraser: Can identify unwanted people and distracting objects in the background and lets you Photoshop them out or blend them in just by touching them. There are third-party apps that already do this without Tensor, but on the Pixel 6a it works seamlessly within the Photos app and will automatically recommend edits whenever it can. Sometimes it gives wonky results if there’s a busy background, but it’s generally a useful tool for sprucing up holiday pics.

Face Unblur: Fixes blurry faces when your subject is in motion. We have incredibly stationary friends so this doesn’t get much use in the real world, but it works well enough in testing.

Night Sight: Uses what’s effectively a long exposure to absorb more light in dark scenes to produce bright and vibrant night time photography. Most high-end phone cameras can manage this, though we find Google’s processing of night time pictures to be among the best.

Now Playing: Whenever music is playing somewhere nearby, your phone’s lock screen will display the title of the song. It’s basically Shazam, except it’s always running the in background. Press the name of the tune and you can instantly pop it into a Spotify playlist.

Pixel 6a camera

The Pixel 6a is £200 cheaper than the Pixel 6, and the camera is where most of those savings have come from. It retains the distinctive full-width camera bar of the larger phones, but drops the super high-resolution main sensor. Instead it has a 12MP main camera and a 12MP ultrawide camera, which still produce some really impressive photography.

The camera bump has shrunk to one millimetre

In daylight, you’ll struggle to spot much of a difference between photos taken on the cheaper Pixel 6a versus the more expensive phones – Google’s software is incredibly effective when it comes to processing photography – but at night you’ll notice poorer clarity and granier images. The more expensive phones’s 50MP sensor draws in bucketloads of light, even at night, but the 12MP sensor on the Pixel 6a is physically limited by its size and so can’t provide the same level of fine detail in the dark.

Unsurprisingly, with the Pixel 6a you also don’t get the impressive 4x optical zoom capabilities of the Pixel 6 pro, but are instead limited to the same 2x digital zoom found on the Pixel 6. Whereas optical zoom uses a physical lens to grab more photons from further away, digital zoom effectively just crops in on whatever you’re shooting using the camera’s sofware, so you lose some detail.

Pixel 6a display

The Pixel 6a has a full HD, 6.1in OLED display. It’s bright, sharp and vibrant in all lighting conditions we’ve been testing in – including the UK’s recent and catastrophically bright sunshine – and offers natural colour reproduction and rich contrast during video playback.

The 60Hz display is dated, but helps extend the battery life of the Pixel 6a

The 60Hz refresh rate is pedestrian compared to other mid-range budget phones, meaning its not as silky smooth-scrolling as rivals, but we think it’s a worthwhile trade-off to keep the battery life nice and high. Still, when the even cheaper Xiaomi redmi note 10 pro (£199.99, Argos.co.uk) offers a 120Hz display for less than £300, the 60Hz display of the £399 Pixel 6a feels distinctly lacking – on paper at least, most users won’t spot the difference.

Pixel 6a interface

One of the biggest draws of Pixel phones is the Material You interface, a highly customisable and stylish set of themes that colour match your chosen wallpaper with app icons and certain in-app colour schemes. Widgets – dashboard information on your home screen displaying upcoming appointments, an analogue clock, the weather or other useful at-a-glance info – will automatically adapt to suit your theme, giving Pixel phones a uniquely unified and coherent design aesthetic.

Read more: Pixel 6 pro vs Pixel – which is best?

In-screen fingerprint unlock has trickled down from the more expensive Pixel phones, allowing you to access the device by pressing your thumb against the display. One major shortcoming of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro is the lack of facial recognition, and while it’s unsurprising that the cheaper Pixel 6a doesn’t have this feature, it still feels like a drawback versus cheap phones with face unlock, like the Samsung Galaxy A53. The Pixel 6a’s fingerprint scanner is zippy at least, and in our tests it matches the Pixel 6 pro for unlock speeds.

Pixel 6a and Google Assistant

Here’s where the Pixel 6a pulls ahead of the rest of the budget smartphone pack. For £399 you get the full brunt of the Google’s AI smarts and capabilities, in the most feature-rich version of Android that you can get. That includes everything the Google Assistant can do with a quick “Hey Google”, from controlling your lights to giving you live traffic updates and map directions, to reminding you of flight departure details, popping up with boarding passes when you need them, identifying songs playing in the background, and transcribing or translating spoken words.

Material You takes your theme and carries it through to other UI elements on the phone

If you’re in the US, the Google Assistant can do even more fun stuff, like wait on hold for you, give you average wait times for business numbers, and screen your calls for you. In the UK, it’s way less helpful as a receptionist, but is still the best virtual assistant you can get, running virtual rings around Siri and Alexa in terms of pure functionality and usefulness.

Pixel 6a battery life

Battery is another area in which Google’s software smarts come into play. The adaptive battery feature learns which apps you use and when, and powers down apps you rarely use to help conserve energy and extend the time between charges.

Google claims a 24 hour battery life, but this is highly dependent on how addicted to your phone you are. In our tests it comfortably made it to the end of the day with half a charge remaining, even with sustained use.

Google ducked face ID in favour of an under-display fingerprint scanner

The verdict: Pixel 6a

The 6.1in Pixel 6a is a pocket-friendly phone, in the figurative sense as well as the literal one. For £399 it unlocks access to the full suite of Pixel-exclusive features, while trimming away some of the super high-end hardware that makes pricey flagships of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 pro.

Based on hardware specs alone, there are better mid-range Android phones in this price category. Features like the 12MP camera sensor and 60Hz OLED display are beat by the Samsung Galaxy A53 (£379.99, Argos.co.uk), but that phone lacks the most up-to-date and Pixel-exclusive features, as well as neat interface design touches with Material You.

We’d have liked to have seen Google compete with budget Android competitors on price as well as features, but the Pixel 6a is remains a brilliant phone and a stunning balancing act, bringing the tech giant’s best features to a smartly designed and premium-feeling device costing less than £400.

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