Gadget

Google Pixel 6a Review | The best Android phone under $500

The takeaway: Google’s $449 Pixel 6a is a powerful budget phone equipped with a vibrant OLED screen and a crisp camera that processes photos with best-in-class AI. It’s all powered by the company’s proprietary Tensor chip, which has been optimized to squeeze the best performance and longest battery life out of an Android phone. In the week I used it as my primary phone, I found the synergy between Google’s hardware and software to deliver smooth visuals in demanding 3D games and smooth multitasking — without the crashes common even with mid-range Android smartphones.

Looking beyond the Android landscape, the Pixel 6a competes with the $429 iPhone SE (2022). These two sub-$500 smartphones don’t feel entry-level, as they’re equipped with flagship processors — keeping them competitive with mid-range phones at twice the price. The Pixel 6a is better at everyday tasks and is the best phone of the year.

Google Pixel 6a smartphone

Pixel 6a smartphone

Google Pixel 6a smartphone

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Key specifications

screen: 6.1-inch OLED (2400×1080)
PROCESSOR: Google Tensor
Storage: 128 GB (non-expandable)
RAM: 6 GB

The comfortable design includes a large, vivid screen

The Pixel 6a’s compact body measures just 6 x 2.8 inches and weighs just 0.4 pounds. Its slim monoblock-like shape makes it easy to grip and operate with one hand, while providing plenty of vertical space for more information at the top. The edges are curved to fit your hand better—a welcome addition in this era of chunky, boxy metal iPhone cases. From the front, only the OLED screen and the edges of the aluminum frame are visible. Google cut costs by replacing the Pixel 6’s back glass with a plastic coating.

On the left side, you’ll find just one SIM card slot, and on the right, there’s a power button just above the volume rocker. Flipping the phone over reveals the Pixel’s signature camera viewfinder, which is more compact than that of its more expensive siblings. During my time with the 6a, it survived drops from tables and my pants pockets without even a smudge or scratch. And I had no trouble texting or making calls after submerging it in the sink to test its IP67 water and dust resistance rating. While its materials may be less durable than the more expensive Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, the 6A is still a solid phone.

call of duty on google pixel 6a

Trevor Raab

The 6.1-inch color OLED screen delivers an average of 750 nits of brightness – more than most phones at this price point. This large, high-contrast display brings your environment to life with lifelike colors, whether you’re viewing a photo you’ve taken or watching videos. Without any distracting notches in the screen space, I could focus more on whatever game I was playing. This meant that in top-down games like Stardew Valley I could see more of the map, and my first-person field of view in Call of Duty was nice and wide. While the iPhone SE ditches its bigger siblings’ notch to give you a full-screen picture, it feels wasted on a squashed 4.7-inch 1334×750-pixel (non-HD) screen that’s noticeably weaker at max brightness of 625 nits. The Pixel 6a’s 1080×2400, 60Hz OLED screen dwarfs it, and at first glance it’s almost on par with the base $799 iPhone 14, except for the fact that it can’t get as bright.

There’s plenty of room to navigate in the Pixel’s seamless Android launcher. Combined with gesture navigation, the experience is seamless; swipe left to see your Google News Feed, swipe up to show all your apps, and swipe down from the top for a quick menu. Although the Pixel is limited to the same 60Hz refresh rate as the iPhone SE, it feels noticeably faster when opening the app panel or swiping through pages. While other budget Android phones like the Samsung A53 have up to a 120Hz display, their processing power can’t match that of the Google Tensor.

Google Tensor brings powerful performance to Android

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

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Both Google and Apple share the same powerful chips on their flagship phones with their base models. This pits the Tensor against the A15 Bionic, which is the most powerful mobile chip in a phone. In the Geekbench 5 task processing test I used, the iPhone SE’s A15 Bionic produced 1,722 single- and 4,546 multi-core scores versus the Pixel’s 1,052 and 2,946. So while the Pixel 6a reigns supreme over its closest Android rival, the Samsung Galaxy A53 (which scores 681 and 1,778), Apple still has a much stronger chip. But for most everyday use, the difference is imperceptible.

Surfing the Internet, opening pages, watching animations and launching applications is almost the same on phones. In fact, crisper text and visuals look better on the Pixel’s larger 2400x1080p screen. But open a video editor and the power gap comes into play. While the Pixel can export an edited video in 46 seconds, the iPhone SE renders the same clip in just 22. And when unpacking resource-heavy apps like Diablo Immortal or Call of Duty Mobile, the iPhone SE clocks in at 5 megabytes for every 1 megabyte on Pixel for faster installations.

google pixel 6a display

Trevor Raab

Gaming on the Pixel 6a is very smooth and earned a high score on the 3DMark GPU Wildlife Test graphics benchmark test. That put the phone’s 40.5fps average 89 percent better than all other devices’ scores. In Call of Duty mobile on high settings, there was occasional stuttering when multiple animated effects – such as flying sparks and swinging coats – put a strain on the phone. However, its in-game graphics performance was solid with no major drops or artifacts, on par with mid-range Android. Meanwhile, the iPhone SE averaged 46 FPS on the same test. In my time with the iPhone, I didn’t see any of the occasional visual hiccups like I did with the Pixel. While this phone’s smaller screen might not be the most compelling, the SE’s power is undeniable. As a gamer, I wasn’t excluded from this gap in the least. On a larger TV I expect 4K at 60 FPS. But on phones with smaller screens, the difference is negligible. I preferred to play on the Pixel’s larger and brighter screen, which provides a better window into the virtual worlds.

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

Camera for content creators

The Pixel’s 12-megapixel wide and ultra-wide rear cameras make the most of Google’s technology to process images with sharp, vivid colors. In the photos below, you can see how the camera brings out the deeper red tones in the pepperoni slice and sharper background text on the umbrella in the background. On the other hand, the iPhone SE’s single camera isn’t lazy, but its warmer tones make it look like there’s a filter on its photos. Likewise, the Pixel’s daytime photos accurately rendered realistic colors like the darker shades of black on a T-shirt, where the iPhone SE produced an image that made the shirt appear gray. Move on to low-light photography, and the SE’s lack of night sensor hardware left dark photos taken without flash too noisy to use. The Pixel 6a’s Night Sight comes out clear and pulls an impressive amount of color out of an almost pitch-black room.

→ Examples of Google Pixel 6a and iPhone SE cameras

pepperoni pizza on an outside table

With Pixel, you have more variety and shooting 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 more editing freedom. The Pixel’s built-in editing tools aren’t Photoshop, but the phone does feature similar AI-assisted technology like Magic Eraser. This tool makes it easy to circle and quickly remove objects with a touch. I used the effect on the provided clean results – removing distractions like wires, photobombs and debris on the ground. But every now and then it filled the area I replaced with a distracting pattern or left visual crap 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 leave you with much worse results.

using eraser on google pixel 6a

Trevor Raab

using photo eraser on google pixel 6a

Trevor Raab

The Pixel captures up to 4K video at 60fps or 1080p at up to 240 FPS, which is better than most budget phones. Even closer to $500, these devices top out at around 4K 30. The still clips I shot without a tripod were judder-free, but the Pixel has panning and motion stabilization options. I found these modes to be effective, even eliminating the vicious shake of a clip I shot while jogging. But because this technology is included in the capture to stabilize your footage, it compresses the exported files to 1080p resolution. Meanwhile, the iPhone offers a competitive 4K 60, but with weaker zoom 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 handle everyday tasks and run the latest games. Google’s strategic cuts allow for a premium display and camera so it doesn’t feel like a compromise. But if you’re someone who pushes graphics to their maximum settings and/or frequently edits video, then the speed and power of the iPhone SE (2022) with the A15 chip is unmatched. For most people, the Pixel 6a’s larger screen, sleeker body, and stronger dual-lens camera make it the better choice.