Not every Google Pixel smartphone makes its way into India. And the Pixel 6a is the first in two years to be made officially available here. Skipping the higher-end versions of this series, the scaled-down Pixel 6a comes in at Rs 43,999, at which price point it has an ocean of competition to deal with – not that Google cares very much as the tech giant is not really getting into the hardware selling game in India. That means it doesn’t manufacture in the country and is encumbered with taxes and duties with a resultant impact on the eventual price.
In its home country, the U.S., the Pixel 6a makes for amazing value at $450 because the number of brands in that region is so much smaller than in India. An entire army of Chinese brands releases, on an almost weekly basis, rather good phones into the Indian market that swallows them fast. The Pixel’s positioning is very different in India because of this. All the same, Indian users like the Pixel phones because of their sheer ‘Google-ness’ and the clean experience they get using these phones. Chinese phones tend to come with a crowd of pre-loaded apps (and associated notifications) that the companies monetise, making it possible to offer the phones at lower prices.
The Pixel 6a has a distinctive look. The back is made of a synthetic material that looks and feels all the world like glass, and even attracts finger smudges the same way. The camera module sits behind a black strip, making the phone stand out as different. The camera components happen not to stand out and that’s probably both good and bad. It doesn’t make the phone wobble much on a flat surface, but it also means there’s no large new sensor hidden there. In India, the Pixel 6a comes in ‘Chalk’ and ‘Charcoal’, in keeping with Google’s typical reluctance to bring any other colour variants into the country. This phone has a premium build.
The 6a is a fairly comfortable phone to hold. It has a 6.1-inch screen, so is significantly more compact and less hefty than the typical fare with displays of 6.7 inches. The metal rails frame a screen that has reasonably slim and even bezels. The front glass has just Gorilla Glass 3 protection, lagging behind other phones in this price category.
The 3.5 mm headphone jack is no longer around and that may annoy a decreasing number of users. There are some loud dual speakers. Also gone is the physical fingerprint sensor that is now replaced by a sensor on the display, which turns out to have quite a problem, according to reports by several reviewers globally. Startlingly, it unlocks the phone with unregistered fingerprints. Our unit didn’t have this issue. Instead, the sensor is certainly noticeably slow and often doesn’t unlock with a single tap. Users who rely heavily on fingerprint sensors may want to reconsider their options.
The OLED FHD screen is reasonably good to look at and has nice colours. There’s a slight colour shift if one tilts the phone. The one complaint going around, however, is that it doesn’t have a high refresh and stops at 60Hz and one can’t help but compare that with the 120Hz that has become hygiene on mid-range phones. Of course, the difference is mostly going to be noticeable to those who have been using the faster screens. For someone who hasn’t encountered one, all will be as usual.
The 6a runs on Google’s own Tensor chip -- just like the higher-end phones in this series. This 5nm chip is roughly equivalent to Samsung’s Exynos 2100 and is actually manufactured by Samsung but customised by Google. The phone works with just 6GB of RAM which for phones in India is on a level with budget phones. The phone performs smooth enough and like the iPhone, has good integration on its side. It may not need a great deal more RAM but it does need more storage as it has only one variant with 128GB. There is no memory card slot, and in fact, no place for a second physical SIM though one can use an E-SIM. There’s a 4,410mAh battery with 18W charging - no charger in the box. Battery life is surprisingly good. The phone does get warm under several conditions but no safety-related issues have come up yet.
If there’s a lot that the Pixel 6a is missing, there are some things it does come with that set it apart. And that would be the software experience. Navigating the phone feels fluid and smooth and most of all, squeaky clean. Everything on it is Google-made. Users appreciate this so much, that they are willing to accept several compromises to get that. The Google Assistant is front and centre on this phone, which is in every way clean and quintessential Google. The device will get three years of Android upgrades and 5 years of security updates. It currently works on Android 12 with the Android 13 beta already available for it. The phone also has an M2 Titan chip that ensures security.
A software camera
Nowhere is it clearer that the 6a is all-software than with the camera. An older camera sensor used as far back as on the Pixel 2 has been used on this phone. The camera specs also don’t sound impressive. The primary lens is 12MP with a 12MP. The front camera is 8MP. But the interesting fact is that the camera results in great images. Noise that’s evident on the viewfinder disappears in the final, dark and night images are filled with light, there’s clarity, detail, sharpness and good dynamic range and contrast.
The Pixel’s camera has always been one that is consistent and reliable, requiring the least amount of effort from the user. The magic of algorithms ensures photos look clean and with adequate exposure and contrast. The Pixel’s camera is not always fast and often needs the user to stand quite still for a while because of all the software work in the background and because many images are being captured to boil down to one, but the dependability is enough to make the slower speed tolerable. All of this continues on the 6a, which still doesn’t have the larger number of cameras that other Android phones come with such as a macro, a telephoto, etc.
The front camera is workable and doesn’t do a bad job with skin tones. There’s a specific feature called Real Tones that works on this aspect. Other features include Night Sight, which can let a user see in almost total darkness, as has been demonstrated on previous Pixel phones. There’s also a Magic Eraser feature that lets one remove unwanted objects in an image. This may leave behind a big smudge, but it can be enjoyed all the same.
The Pixel 6a’s two major strengths -- the clean, safe software and the reliable camera -- combine well with generally good performance to make it worthwhile for some users. But the high price, unproven service and customer care and compromises such as low storage and screen refresh, will put off others.