Google Pixel 6a is the best phone of 2022 — here's why

Google Pixel 6a with best of year tag
(Image credit: Future)

Of the many phones that have crossed my desk the past 12 months, none have impressed me in quite the way that the Google Pixel 6a has. I could detail many of the phone's positive traits — the cameras, the machine learning-powered features and so forth — which certainly make up a big reason why I consider the Pixel 6a to be one of the best phones of 2022. 

But I think on a higher level, the Pixel 6a appeals to me because it addresses two seemingly contradictory truths about my personality — 1) I demand the finer things in life and 2) I am a notorious cheapskate.

The bourbon I drink must have a rich, complex flavor that can only come from oak-aging and expert craftsmanship. But if you think I'm paying that much for a drink, you're nuts. I eat at the finest restaurants and stay at the poshest resorts... in my price range, which I assure you has ceiling so low, you've got to crouch to fit in under it. I dress for success... so long as we define "success" as "bought at significant markdown." In other words, the things I enjoy had better exude quality, but not so much quality that the price tag cotains too many zeroes.

This describes the Pixel 6a in a nutshell. It has some fantastic features you would expect to find in a premium phone, but you're not going to be paying the kind of price that premium phone would demand. What's not to like about that arrangement?

So we can talk about some of those stellar Pixel 6a features — and believe me, we will — but let's just marvel at that $449 price Google charges for this phone. That puts an excellent phone in your hands for less than $500. For the cost of an iPhone 14 Pro or Galaxy S22 Plus, you could buy two Pixel 6as — one to use as your daily device and the other just for taunting your spendthrift enemies.

But if money were the only object here, we'd be singing the praises of any one of a number of forgettable sub-$200 Android phones. The Pixel 6a's price is so appealing precisely because of all the value you're getting for your dollar. You may be shelling out $449 for this phone, but you're getting far more in return.

Google Pixel 6a: The cameras are key

Take the cameras, which produce the kind of photos you'd expect to see from much more expensive flagships. The hardware itself is nothing to write home about — Google uses a 12.2MP sensor for the main camera and a second 12MP shooter for the ultrawide lens — but the Pixel 6a is able to take advantage of the same photo processing tools available to other Pixel devices. As a result, images are sharp and detailed, even when you zoom in using the phone's digital zoom.

Google Pixel 6a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Recently, we conducted a Pixel 7 vs. Pixel 6a camera face-off to see if the more expensive flagship Pixel took better photos than Google's budget offering. It did... but only marginally so. Yes, the Pixel flagship handle low-light and portrait photos better than the cheaper Pixel 6a, but otherwise, you really have to strain to see the difference in quality.

Consider this shot of some hard-boiled eggs and toast. The glistening yolk looks the same in both shots, and both photos produce the same quality of color, whether it's the purple of the grape jam or the brown grain of the table. Yes, there's more of a blueish cast to the hardboiled egg in the background of the Pixel 6a shot, but that's not something you're likely to notice unless you're hunting for differences.

If the Pixel 6a can hold its own going up against more expensive camera phones, it's more than a formidable option against devices in its price range. The iPhone SE (2022) is $20 cheaper than the Pixel 6a, and its shot of this vegetable stand is perfectly acceptable. But the Pixel 6a offers richer colors, particularly with the wood panelling on the stand itself. We'll also note that the Pixel 6a has a night mode, something the iPhone SE lacks.

In addition to photo capturing capabilities, you also get a set of neat photo editing tools, highlighted by Google's Magic Eraser. This lets you remove unwanted people and objects from photos with just a tap. The Pixel 6a added a new wrinkle to Magic Eraser's tool chest, letting you camouflage objects in photos so that they don't distract from the subject.

Google Pixel 6a: The benefits of Tensor

Magic Eraser is powered by the Google-designed Tensor processor, and yes, it's the same chipset that powers the Pixel 6 family. (The Pixel 7, released after the Pixel 6a, uses Tensor G2 silicon.) Tensor isn't a performance powerhouse, but it does feature a very sophisticated machine learning-powered core that supports a number of features that use artificial intelligence to the fullest.

These include on-the-fly translation capabilities, an interpreter feature that lets you carry on conversations with someone who speaks another language and the ability to say some voice commands without having to first use the "OK, Google" wake word.

Google Pixel Event Tensor chip screenshot

(Image credit: Google)

Put another way, your Pixel 6a is capable of the same things that a Pixel flagship can do, only you're paying at least $150 less for your phone. There's that talk of price again, fellow cheapskates.

It also helps that the Pixel 6a doesn't look like a budget phone. Instead, it's adopted the appearance of the flagship Pixels, with a distinctive horizontal camera bar stretching across the back of the phone. I realize that design isn't to everyone's taste, but it certainly appeals to my eye, and I like the fact that there's very little visual distinction between Google's flagship phones and its lower-cost A-series devices.

The Pixel 6a isn't a flawless phone. Like other Google handsets, it turned in a poor time on our battery test, in which we have phones surf the web continuously until they run out of power. (That said, battery life holds up a bit better in everyday usage.) And while the phone may not look different from a flagship Pixel at first glance, hold the device and you'll notice the cheaper materials. Hey, you have to make some trade-offs for a phone that costs less than $500.

Google Pixel 6a tops a crowded field

As I wrote a little while back, this is a golden age for midrange phones, with the Pixel 6a leading a trio of great options that include the iPhone SE and Samsung Galaxy A53. Any one of these phones can make the case that the days of having to spend $800 or more for a quality handset are long gone — midrange phones have everything the average smartphone user needs from performance to photo capabilities to longevity.

And as good as those other sub-$500 phones are, the Pixel 6a is the standout of the bunch. And that warms the heart of a cheapskate like me.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.