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Google Pixel 6a — 5 reasons to buy and 3 reasons to skip

Google pixel 6a reasons to buy and skip
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Google's latest budget phone has arrived, and it's not going too far to say that the early Pixel 6a reviews have been glowing. People who've tried out Google's new device like the value it delivers for $449 — particularly the performance of its cameras and the fact that it's powered by the same Tensor chipset found in the more expensive Pixel 6 flagships.

The Pixel 6a is certainly an impressive midrange phone — but is it the right phone for you? That's no longer a rhetorical question, as Google Pixel 6a pre-orders are underway. The phone officially goes on sale this Thursday (July 28).

We've spent some time with the Pixel 6a, so we know what Google's phone has done well and where it falls short. For most people in the market for a midrange phone, the Pixel 6a will be the device to get. But there are also some very good reasons to maybe look elsewhere if you're considering a new handset.

Here are the reasons to buy the Google Pixel 6a, and why you might want to sit this update out.

Google Pixel 6a: Reasons to buy

Top-notch cameras in an affordable phone

Google Pixel 6a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The argument for Google's Pixel A Series phones has always boiled down to this compelling sales pitch — get Google's best-in-class camera capabilities in a device that costs a fraction of what you'd pay for a flagship phone. The Pixel 6a takes up that argument and runs with it, already landing among the best camera phones — and certainly the best one you can get for less than $500.

You get a 12.2MP main camera and 12MP ultrawide angle shooter with the Pixel 6a, and if those hardware specs don't excite you, remember that the Pixel 6a benefits from Google's flair for computational photography. Zooms remain much more clear than you'd expect from a digital zoom, thanks to Google's Super Res Zoom feature. Unlike some notable phones in the price range — looking at you, iPhone SE (2022) — the Pixel 6a even has a night mode to take sharp pictures when the lights are low.

In our Pixel 6a review, we put Google's phone up against the iPhone SE to see which midrange device took the better photos. It was a tight contest — the iPhone SE is pretty good at taking pictures, too, even with its single rear camera — but in the end, the Pixel 6a won the day with superior portrait, selfie, and low-light shots.

Taking photos is a big reason why so many of us tote around smartphones, and the Pixel 6a proves you don't have to pay up to ensure that your photos come out looking like a million bucks.

Now powered by Tensor

Google now makes its own mobile chipsets, and after introducing the Tensor silicon to its Pixel 6 flagships in the fall, the chip now heads to the Pixel A Series line. Put another way — you can get a phone powered by the same chipset found in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro for anywhere from $150 to $450 less than what those phones cost.

Google Pixel Event Tensor chip screenshot

(Image credit: Google)

Tensor's benefit isn't necessarily performance — though the Pixel 6a handily outmuscled the Exynos 1280-powered Samsung Galaxy A53 in our testing — but more about features that benefit from machine learning. The much-loved Magic Eraser tool from the Pixel 6 makes its way to the Pixel 6a, letting you remove distracting objects and people from photos with a tap. Magic Eraser even gets a new capability with the Pixel 6a — it can change the color of objects to something less distracting so the focus of the photo remains on the subject. 

Translation and transcription features are available on the Pixel 6a, too. You can even issue a handful of verbal commands to the Google assistant without having to use the "Hey Google" wake words.

All of these features are part of the Pixel 6a thanks to the presence of the Tensor chipset, making this probably the smartest sub-$500 phone you can buy.

A bright display

We knew about the Pixel 6a's promised photo features and its Tensor chipset heading into our testing process. But the one feature that took me by surprise when I reviewed the phone was how good its screen was. Maybe it's because budget phones aren't exactly known for their stellar screens, but the Pixel 6a stands out from the competition.

Google Pixel 6a review

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For starters, it's very bright — we measured the Pixel 6a at 778 nits, which tops both the iPhone SE (550 nits) and Galaxy A53 (693). A bright screen is half the battle, as it's easier to make out details when you're using your phone in broad daylight.

The OLED panel that the Pixel 6a uses isn't as colorful as the Galaxy A53's display. But colors are more accurate, according to testing. And at 6.1 inches, the Pixel 6a's screen hits that "just right" sweet spot between a display that's too tiny and one that's comically oversized.

Wide availability

If you wanted to pick up a Pixel 5a when that phone debuted last year, you didn't have many options. Google sold that phone through its own store, while the only carrier offering the 5a was Google Fi. The phone's release was limited to the U.S. and Japan.

The Pixel 6a is enjoying wider exposure. In addition to those two countries, you can also buy the phone in the U.K., Canada, Germany, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Singapore and Taiwan; it will eventually come to India, too. And here in the U.S., all three major wireless carriers are offering the Pixel 6a, which is also available from retailers like Amazon and a handful of smaller discount carriers, too.

Immediate access to Android updates

As with any Google phone, a big reason to get the Pixel 6a is because Google oversees both the hardware and the software. That means you can count on getting Android updates very quickly after they become available

Google Pixel 6a on bench

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

For instance, the Pixel 6a runs Android 12 currently, but it will get Android 13 when that software update arrives later in the year. Even better, there won't be as big a waiting game for that update as there can be with other Android phones. And Google's feature drops frequently deliver new capabilities to its recent phones, the Pixel 6a included.

Google Pixel 6a: Reasons to skip

Poor battery life

Google Pixel 6a on desk

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

There's no getting around the fact that the Pixel 6a didn't last very long on our battery test, in which we have phones surf the web continuously over cellular until they run out of power. We ran the test multiple times on the Pixel 6a, which lasted an average of 6 hours and 29 minutes — about 3.5 hours shy of the average for smartphones.

It's possible that there's something about the Tensor chip that's ill-suited for our battery test. Both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro turned in below-average times, too. Still, the iPhone SE (9:05) and Galaxy A53 (9:49) both outlasted the Pixel 6a by several hours, so there are longer-lasting budget phones out there.

The Pixel 6 only costs a little bit more

Don't get us wrong — at $449, the Pixel 6a is a great value, and if you can only spend $500 or less on a phone, this is a great one to buy. But if your budget is a little bit more flexible, it's worth noting that the Pixel 6 only costs $150 more, and you're getting better cameras, a bigger screen with a faster refresh rate and not as much plastic with that device.

Google Pixel 7 pricing at IO 2022

(Image credit: Google)

It's also hard to ignore that the Pixel 7 is coming later in the fall. We already know that phone will have a fresher Tensor system-on-chip, and it could boast other improvements as well. If Google holds the line on pricing, with the entry-level model still costing $599, it could be worth waiting to see how big of an improvement the Pixel 7 is over the Pixel 6a.

Samsung offers longer software support

Google promises five years of Pixel software updates for the 6a, which is certainly generous. But that just covers security updates. Dig into the fine print on Google's website (opens in new tab), and you'll learn that the Pixel 6a is only guaranteed to get Android updates through July 2025.

That's better than most midrange Android phones, but it's not the most extensive support. Samsung now promises four years of Android updates for phones including the Galaxy A53. And it matches Google's five years of security updates, too. If you plan on holding on to a phone for as long as possible, the Galaxy A53 may be the better bet.

Google Pixel 6a outlook

If you're mulling over whether to pick up the Pixel 6a, it comes down to what you're looking for in a phone. If a relatively inexpensive device that boasts superior cameras and a bright screen ticks all the boxes for you, the Pixel 6a is the phone to buy. But if you're looking for more features — especially battery life — you'll want to consider other options before making that Pixel 6a purchase.

Next: You can read about how to use the magic eraser feature on Pixel phones or check out the best Google Pixel 6a cases.

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.