Technology

Google Pixel 6a Review | Best Android Phone Under $500

The takeaway: Google’s $449 Pixel 6a is a budget phone powerhouse, equipped with a vibrant OLED display and a sharp camera that handles shots with best-in-class AI. Everything runs on the company’s proprietary Tensor chip, which is optimized to squeeze the most performance and longest battery life out of an Android phone. In the week I used it as my primary handset, I found that the synergy between Google’s hardware and software delivered smooth visuals in demanding 3D games and seamless multitasking – without the crashes that occur even on mid-range Android smartphones.

Looking beyond the Android landscape, the Pixel 6a competes with the $429 iPhone SE (2022). These two under-$500 smartphones don’t feel like entry-level, as they feature flagship processors, keeping them competitive with mid-range phones that cost twice as much. The Pixel 6a handles everyday tasks better and is the best phone of the year.

Google Pixel 6a smartphone

Google Pixel 6a smartphone

Now 13% discount

Key specs:

Screen: 6.1-inch OLED (2400×1080)
PROCESSOR: Google Tensor
Storage: 128 GB (not expandable)
RAM: 6GB

A comfortable design houses a large, vibrant screen

The Pixel 6a’s compact body measures just 6 x 2.8 inches and weighs just 0.4 pounds. The lanky, candy-bar-like shape makes it easy to grip and operate with one hand, while there’s plenty of vertical space at the top for more information. The edges are curved to fit better in your hand – a welcome addition in this era of sturdy, square metal iPhone cases. From the front, only the OLED screen and aluminum frame edges are visible. Google cut costs by swapping out the back glass on the Pixel 6 for a plastic case.

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On the left, you’ll find just a single hole for the SIM tray, and on the right, there’s a power button just above the volume rocker. Flipping the phone over reveals the signature Pixel camera sight, which is more compact than on its more expensive siblings. During my time with the 6a, it survived drops from tables and my pants pockets without a smudge or scratch. And I had no problem typing texts or making calls after submerging it in the sink to test its IP67 water and dust resistance. While the materials may be less durable than the more expensive Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, the 6A is still a rugged phone.

duty on google pixel 6a

Trevor Raab

A colorful 6.1-inch OLED display provides an average brightness of 750 nits – more than most phones in this price range. This large, high-contrast screen brings environments to life with true-to-life colours, whether you’re looking at a captured photo or watching videos. Without any distracting notch cutting into the screen space, I was able to focus more on the game I was playing. This meant I could see a larger portion of the map in top-down games like Stardew Valley, and my first-person field of view in Call of Duty was nice and wide. While the iPhone SE ditches its big siblings to give you a full-screen view, it feels wasted on a crushed 4.7-inch display with 1334×750 pixels (non-HD) that’s noticeably weaker at a maximum brightness of 625 nits. The Pixel 6a’s 1080×2400, 60-hertz OLED display tops it all, and at first glance it almost matches the $799 base iPhone 14, except it can’t get quite as bright.

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There’s plenty of room to navigate Pixel’s bloat-free Android launcher. Combined with gesture navigation, the experience is frictionless; swipe left to see your Google News feed, drag up to see all your apps, and pull from top to bottom for a shortcut menu. While the Pixel is limited to the same 60 hertz refresh rate as the iPhone SE, it felt noticeably faster when opening the app drawer or swiping pages. While other budget Android phones like the Samsung A53 have a screen of up to 120 hertz, their processing power can’t match that of the Google Tensor.

Google Tensor offers powerful Android performance

Both on paper and in use, the octa-core Tensor chip powering the Pixel 6a (the same on the $899 Pixel 6 Pro flagship) is a beast. I experienced no lags and less than a handful of crashes when switching between demanding apps. Editing video clips was snappy and I played graphic and demanding games with high visual settings with no noticeable drops in frame rate. The Pixel uses this extra computing power not only for improved performance, but also for exclusive features such as Live Translation of text or audio and Now Playing, which passively identifies songs that the device hears in the background without draining the battery.

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Both Google and Apple have shared the same powerful chips from their flagship phones with their entry-level models. This puts the Tensor against the A15 Bionic, the strongest mobile chip in a phone. In the Geekbench 5 task processing test I used, the iPhone SE’s A15 Bionic placed 1722 single- and 4546 multi-core scores on the Pixel’s 1052 and 2946. So while the Pixel 6a reigns supreme over its closest Android competitor, the Samsung Galaxy A53 (which scores 681 and 1778), Apple still has a much stronger chip. But with most daily use, the difference is not noticeable.

Browsing the web, opening pages, watching animations and launching apps is much the same on the phones. In fact, the sharper text and graphics on the Pixel’s larger 2400x1080p display look better. But open a video editor and the power gap comes into play. Where the Pixel can export an edited video clip in 46 seconds, the iPhone SE renders that same clip in just 22 seconds. And when extracting source files from heavy apps like Diablo Immortal or Call of Duty Mobile, the iPhone SE worked at 5 megabytes to every 1 megabyte on the Pixel for faster installs.

google pixel 6a screen

Trevor Raab

Gaming on the Pixel 6a is very smooth and scored high on the 3DMark GPU Wildlife Test graphics benchmark test. This brought the phone’s average of 40.5 frames per second to 89 percent better than the results of all other devices. In Call of Duty mobile on high settings, there was an occasional hiccup when multiple animated effects, such as flying sparks and waving coat tails, strained the phone. However, in-game graphics performance was stable, with no major drops or artifacts, comparable to mid-range Androids. Meanwhile, the iPhone SE averaged 46 FPS on the same test. In my time with the iPhone, I didn’t see any visual hiccups like I did on the Pixel. While that phone’s smaller screen might not be the most immersive, there’s no denying the SE’s power. As a gamer, I was not in the least turned off by this gap. On a larger TV, I would expect 4K at 60 FPS. But on phones with smaller screens, the difference is negligible. I preferred gaming on the Pixel’s larger, brighter screen, which offers a better window into the virtual worlds.

As for battery life, the Pixel lasted 24 hours in my real-world use of messaging throughout the day, bite-sized gaming sessions, and browsing social media feeds. But in our battery consumption test, which constantly streams live video and commentary data at 20 percent brightness, the Pixel lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes on a full charge.

Camera for content creators

The wide and ultra-wide 12-megapixel cameras on the back of the Pixel make the most of Google’s image processing technology with sharp and punchy colors. In the photos below, you can see how the camera brings out the richer reds in the pepperoni slice and the sharper background text on the umbrella in the background. On the other hand, the iPhone SE’s single camera is no slouch, but the warmer tones almost seem like there’s a filter on the photos. Similarly, daytime photos on the Pixel accurately portrayed true-to-life colors, such as the darker black of a T-shirt where the iPhone SE created an image that made the shirt look gray. Switch to low-light shots, and the SE’s lack of night-sensor hardware meant dark shots without a flash were too noisy to be usable. Night Sight on the Pixel 6a is bright and pulls an impressive amount of color from an almost pitch black room.

→ Google Pixel 6a and iPhone SE camera samples

pepperoni pizza on the table outside

With the Pixel, you have more shooting variety and modes. Tensor also extracts more detail from images, so you’re less likely to lose them in shadows and bright light. And unlike the iPhone SE, it can shoot in RAW format for greater editing freedom. The Pixel’s built-in editing tools aren’t Photoshop, but the phone includes similar AI-assisted technology like Magic Eraser. This tool makes it easy to quickly circle and delete objects with a tap. I used the effect to get clean results: removing distractions like wires, photo bombers, and trash on the ground. But occasionally it would fill the area I replaced with a distracting pattern or leave a visual slump like the reflection of the cut object (as you can see with the paper towel below). On other phones, you need a third-party app to remove unwanted objects from an image, and they’ll give you much worse results.

using eraser on google pixel 6a

Trevor Raab

using eraser tool on google pixel 6a photo

Trevor Raab

The Pixel captures video at up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second or 1080p at up to 240 FPS, which is better than most budget phones. Even closer to $500, those devices hit about 4K 30. Stationary clips I shot without a tripod were jitter-free, but the Pixel does have panning and motion stabilization options. I found these modes effective, even the mean bobbing of a clip I took while jogging. But because this technology pulls in the recording to stabilize your footage, it compresses the export to 1080p resolution. Meanwhile, the iPhone offers a competitive 4K 60, but with weaker zoom performance and fewer shooting modes.

The verdict

The Pixel 6a is the best Android phone you can get for under $500. Its optimal size and balanced power rip through everyday tasks and run the latest games. Google’s strategic cuts make for a top-notch screen and camera, so it doesn’t feel like a compromise. But if you’re someone who pushes graphics to the limit and/or frequently edits video, the speed and power of the iPhone SE (2022) with the A15 chip is unmatched. For most people, the Pixel 6a’s bigger screen, slimmer body, and stronger dual-lens camera is the better choice.

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