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Google Pixel 6a First Impressions

Posted July 31, 2022 | Android | Google Pixel | Mobile | Pixel 6a | Windows

My review unit Pixel 6a arrived today, and we spent a lovely afternoon photographing trains before I got home and finally installed and configured all my apps. It was a bit rushed since we had friends visiting and a schedule to keep, but I’m glad I was able to get some real-world experience with the 6a’s retro camera system.

But before we get to that, let me step back for a moment and describe the unboxing. Actually, the pre-unboxing, to invent a term, since my initial reaction to the boxed Pixel 6a and the protective case that Google was nice enough to include was immediate and unforgettable: this is one small phone. No, not iPhone SE (4.7-inch display) small. But certainly iPhone 13/13 Pro (6.1-inch display) small.

iPhone 13 Pro (left) and Pixel 6a (right)

And, I know. I should be used to that size, since I’ve been using an iPhone 13 Pro since late last year. But as I noted in What’s New in Android 13? Not Much, I intended to temporarily switch back to my Pixel 6 Pro so I could spend more time with the feature-complete version of Android 13 that’s now available. And I did so, only to learn that Google would send a Pixel 6a for review. So that lasted about 4 or 5 days, I guess, since the Pixel 6a just arrived this morning.

Anyway, it’s small. It’s something with which I’ve been struggling with the iPhone, which I also feel is a bit too small, while the iPhone 13 Pro Max (with its 6.7-inch display) is too big. On the Pixel side of the fence, Google now offers three flagship-class handsets, each with its own display size: Pixel 6a (6.1-inches), Pixel 6 (6.4-inches), and Pixel 6 Pro (6.7-inches). And so maybe the middle Pixel 6 model is my ideal size, but I suspect many will prefer the Pixel 6a for its more portable form factor. Certainly, the Pro is too big, but I got it for its additional (telephoto) lens.

And to be clear, it’s not just the general size of the device, or its display, that is smaller. It is noticeably less thick than the Pixel 6 Pro—I don’t have a Pixel 6 to compare it to—and the iPhone, and its now-iconic rear camera bump is not as prominent, which, combined with the new lens treatment, really improves the look impressively. But like its stablemates, the Pixel 6a can of course lay on a table or other flat surface and never wobble because that camera bar extends across the entire upper back of the handset.

As with the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, the Pixel 6a is available in three colors, and because green is my favorite color, I was delighted that I could request the Sage version, which is what I would buy. It is a very pleasant combination of three colors, top-to-bottom, with a light yellow-green on the top and a pale mint green below the camera bar.

The camera bar, of course, is black, as are the sides of the device, and that creates some nice contrast as well. I also like the materials used everywhere: this is the first Pixel A-series to not include some take on solid polycarbonate, which I loved, but my understanding is that the “3D thermoformed composite back” is, in fact, some form of plastic. And I think it looks and feels great, as does the “tactile alloy frame” that makes up the sides.

There were no surprises in the initial setup. As noted, we had to leave quickly but I was able to get the phone set up with no third-party apps installed before we had to head out. I have also spent time experimenting with the fingerprint reader which, for me at least, has been reliable and fast. We’ll see how that goes over time, but there are reports of some people having weird issues, including a particularly scary one where others can authenticate to your account with their fingers. But that’s not been my experience.

With the case on

Out in the world, I was as impressed by the Pixel 6a’s camera system as I always am when it comes to Pixels. This new entry-level Pixel foregoes the new lenses found in the Pixel 6 Pro (main, telephoto, and front-facing) and Pixel 6 (main) and instead delivers a dual-lens system (with 12 MP main and ultra-wide lenses) on the back that will be familiar to Pixel 4a 5G, Pixel 5, Pixel 5a, and some other older Pixels, and combines it with the front-facing lens found on the Pixel 6.

The results were predictable and almost entirely positive. The Pixel 6a took stunning outdoor shots and rich, contrasty shots inside the train we visited. These photos are demonstrably more colorful than anything taken with the iPhone, but most are not unrealistic from an HDR perspective. I’d call them just a bit color-bumped. I really like how they look.

I’ll take more shots, of course, and will compare the quality with the Pixel 6 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro later in the review cycle. But the big differences, of course, are that the Pixel 6/6 Pro both include a new 50 MP main (wide) lens that should be superior to the aging part in the Pixel 6a, and the Pixel 6 Pro includes a 4x telephoto lens that the other Pixels lack. But the ultra-wide—which isn’t wide enough, in my opinion—is common across all three handsets.

When we got home from our train visit, I set out to manually install and configure all of the apps I’d been using on the Pixel 6 Pro. Since people ask, yes, there are easier ways to do this, but I kind of enjoy going through this process and wanted to get a clean install experience anyway. Honestly, it didn’t take all that long, maybe 30 minutes. And now my home screen is pretty much the way I want it, and I can use this everywhere going forward.

And I will. And will report back soon.

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