Monday, 15 August 2022

Google Pixel 6a

To some degree, as time moves on, you do get the feeling that a Pixel is a Pixel in the same way that an Apple user might say that an iPhone is an iPhone. Like a comfy pair of slippers, regardless of hardware variations, attributes and upgrades, the software experience is consistent and reassuring. So the question is, right now, how does the newly-released budget-orientated Pixel 6a fit in with the range?

I don't try to hide the fact that I'm right in bed there with Google and a Pixel advocate! I'm generally very supportive of most things Google does and eagerly await the newest Pixel as it arrives. It feels as though it's been put out there to challenge Apple's iPhone SE (2022) on price, but there are significant differences (apart from the obvious in software) in hardware too.

The iPhone is smaller, by some margin, has a lower-resolution LCD display (with no Always on Display) and smaller battery - though it does gain an advantage with wireless charging. No, I don't think that's the main competition. There's not really a Samsung model of the same size with similar features at a similar price, which takes us out to OnePlus (maybe the Nord series), Redmi, Realme, and any number of far-east branded devices. You know - I'm not really sure that there really is direct competition here, taking all elements into consideration.

The Pixel 6a is certainly a mid-ranger (other than chipset) and the most useful comparisons to be drawn here are probably against other Pixel phones from Google, how they stack up for features and whether or not the differences are reflected in the pricing to attract Joe Public. But first, let's have a gander at the package and device.

There's no charger in the miniscule, slim box nor earphones, (for 'tis the way it seems to be going) there is a USB-C to USB-C cable, USB-C to USB-A adapter, SIM Card Tray pokey tool, and a box with some papery bits which nobody ever looks at! Google PR have supplied a translucent case with the phone, which would set the user back another £25 but sadly, I'm not impressed. If you need a case (which I'll come to) I'd suggest a cheap-as-chips clear TPU, which will do a better job. The Google one is slippery, thick and made of some nasty material which makes the user's hands dry. Anyway, I'm sure some will like it and appreciate the extra protection.

The back of the phone is made of plastic and, as such, affords the user really good grip in the hand without a case at all. This will obviously depend on time of year and level of natural sweat/moisture in the skin, but for me, here, I'm very tempted to use the phone au naturel! Certainly around the house. The housing for the camera is a 'strip' across the phone near to the top, just like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, but smaller. And that makes a huge difference as I was never very comfortable holding the phone in my hand with that 'ledge' in the way, even when cased. It felt clumsy and awkward. Here, it protrudes much less and comes across more like a design feature than anything functional.

Otherwise, the back (Chalk white here, though there's also Charcoal black and Sage green) is devoid of anything notable except for a faint Google 'G' in the middle. It slightly curves around to meet the aluminium frame which heads off around the edge with various antenna cut-outs along the way. On the left of the phone there is a SIM Card Tray (one NanoSIM but an eSIM can also be used), up-top just a microphone hole, on the left a solid-feeling volume 'rocker' and power button and at the bottom, two grilles (one is a microphone, not speaker) each side of the USB-C port.

The front curves as slightly as the back towards the flat front Gorilla Glass 3 protected screen which has small bezels - and a little extra on the chin. There's a selfie camera cut-out top-centre which is not as small as some, but also not as big as many, which sits below the other speaker, pairing up as the earpiece for telephone use.

The 178g phone feels very well made, solid, sturdy and robust. It has been rated IP6/7 for dust/water so can be used in all-but extreme conditions without much concern. Don't use it as a football though - this is no Nokia XR20! In terms of overall size, it's a bit taller and wider than my Pixel 5 here, but really not by much. It's smaller than the Pixel 6 (and 6 Pro of course) and is the better for that as a pocket-friendly phone. It's very similar in size to the Pixel 4a 5G in most dimensions.

The front panel is an OLED, 6.1" 1080p with a 20:9 ratio returning 429ppi. I'm comparing it here with my Pixel 5 for brightness, colours, saturation, all aspects that I can view, and I can't tell the difference really. If I were pushed I would say that the 6a is a tad brighter, but there's really not much in it. Where there is a difference is in the refresh-rate of the screen, the 5 having 90Hz and 6a, stuck back down on 60. I still can't tell the difference when pushing the units in all the usual test-scenario ways, so those who can must have better and/or younger eyes than me. Taking that into account, I think it's been a smart money-saving decision. Outside in sunlight, the screen is perfectly usable as the auto-brightness ramps up, just like the Pixel 5. No complaints about the screen - it's very nice.

The fingerprint scanner on the Pixel 5 is superb. Capacitive, instant, perfect. First time, every time. Unfortunately, optical scanners under glass, such as that on the Pixel 6a, have still not come of age and that processing time is, quite simply, a lag. Don't get me wrong, it works 100% of the time, but you just have to leave your finger in place for the best part of a second for it to do so. Some may not be bothered by this, but coming from the old-fashioned way, it does irk slightly! To make matters worse, Google still haven't brought us simple Face Unlock, which so many competitors have done, which would have made a huge difference. Many phones now bypass the irritation of slow fingerprint scanners because when you look at the screen you're in anyway. Apparently Google are working on this but are still concerned about the security aspects. Perhaps it will come as a software update - after all, the camera is there waiting.

As usual, the Pixel software gives us an Always on Display, which is great. Not customisable in the way that Samsung and Co. offer users, but it works very well and the choices in place made by Google about what to show (clock, day, date, month, weather, notifications, fingerprint scanner target, battery info.) are good ones. There's also the fabulous Now Playing of course, which can be enabled in Settings - where Google will identify (within the parameters of their directory) what music is playing around you. Very useful and addictive!

You also get supporting features like Double-tap-to-wake and Lift-to-wake, user-assignable double-tap-the-back of the phone (within certain boundaries) though I noticed that whilst my Pixel 5 has a torch option for that, the 6a doesn't. I have the Pixel 5 on Android 13 Beta, so that might be significant.

The Backup/Restore worked pretty well from the Pixel 5 (as I’d expect from Pixel-to-Pixel) and apart from some quirks (even odd ones like my Wallpaper and Share defaults in Google Feed), it gets me up and running just like I was on the 5, very quickly. Plenty of Apps now auto-sign-in (like Reddit, I noticed this time - no user-input needed at all, like Netflix has done for ages), so they’re getting towards the Apple standards. Keep it going!

When I fired up the phone I was presented with Android 12 and June 2022 Google Security Update (it's now the middle of August). The updates will come and eventually slot in with existing schedules for other Pixel phones. When new hardware is released, this always happens as Google irons out early bugs and only add the fixes to the mainstream when they are confident. The fabulous part about this topic is the commitment from Google going forward, trying their best to ensure that their new hardware keeps up with what Apple are doing. Guaranteed Security updates to July 2027 for the Pixel 6a - and Android 15 (or maybe even 16 by the time we get to Autumn 2025).

Another difference between the Pixel 5 and 6a is that the latter is armed with the Tensor chipset, like the 6 and 6 Pro. To be honest, I always felt as though the SnapDragon 765G (7nm) was perfectly functional in terms of speed of operation for the Pixel 5 but the Tensor (5nm) brings other benefits to, working closely with upcoming features in software to ensure the user gets the best experience as Google pushes out changes and upgrades. So, some future-proofing for sure which will eventually mean the Pixel 5 will age. There's also 6GB RAM instead of 8GB on the Pixel 5, but that's fine. I don't see any issues with multi-tasking between open apps or stuff not being kept open in the background long enough. It's well-balanced.

What I'm not very happy about is the heat that the Pixel 6a generates when under load, gaming heavily, copying files from one place to another, updating large batches of Play Store Apps (like the onslaught during initial setup) and, more worryingly, when charging. The phone doesn't get so hot that you can't hold it, but it's certainly very, very warm under load which doesn't happen at all with the Pixel 5 - nor did I notice it with the 6 or 6 Pro. Trickle-charging at 18W helps of course (and doesn't incur these heating problems), but then Google are up against many newcomers from the east where Fast Charging is all the thing. Current champion being the Poco F4 GT racing from 0-100% in 17 minutes with zero heating issues when doing so. And if Google are not going to provide a charger, people are going to expect to use whatever charger is handy - which could be a 100W unit!

Talking of charging, there is no Qi Wireless charging here with the Pixel 6a (like all a-series Pixels), which is present with all the main Pixel phones. For a few quid on the price, I don't really see why not - but then I'm no phone engineer. It's got a plastic back, too, and 18W charging which would lend itself to nice, slow, overnight charging on a Qi stand by the bed. Shame.

The battery is a 4,410mAh unit which is bigger than my current champion for battery life, the Pixel 5, which has 4,080mAh. The Pixel 5 battery remains stunning, even two years on from new. I haven't treated it with cotton wool either. All those adaptive-this and saving-that functions I turned off long ago to try to ensure notification continuity. I've charged it all night, every night too, so it's been sat on a Qi charger long after it would have got to 100% - and it is still fabulous. I usually conduct two tests on batteries, my 10% Reading Test and Average Day for Me test.

The 10% Reading Test is just that - read stuff on the phone's screen, news, social media, books, whatever you like - just no heavy use of video, music or gaming etc. Start off with the phone freshly charged and time how long it takes to get to the 90% mark. Yes, I know, these gauges are not hugely accurate, and everyone will do it differently, and it might perform differently between 100-90% than 50-40% - so I conduct a series of these over time and consider the playing field relatively level. Anyway, the result is that with the Pixel 5 I can get about two and a half hours and the Pixel 6a, about the same. So that's great!

The Average Day for Me test is very good, with about 32 hours between charges with 2-3 hours of screen-on-time, or 24 hours with 6 hours SoT. This is not as good as the Pixel 5 which can be relied on for more like 48 hours and 4-6 hours of SoT. So, if pushed with the Pixel 5, a user could be frugal and last 2 long days - with the Pixel 6a, more like a day and a half or so. Still, very decent returns though and streets ahead of tests done over the last couple of years with, for example, Samsung phones. It just seems that the Pixel 5 does better for longer, if needed.

Where the Pixel 6a leaves the 5 behind is with the speakers. The sound output from the Pixel 6a is very good, if not maybe quite up to the Pixel 6 Pro level. I would say that they are every bit as good as the Pixel 6's though. They offer a loud enough output for personal use with excellent stereo separation, producing a wide and engaging soundstage when held 12-18" in front of the listener. OK, so in isolation if you listen to each of the speakers separately you can tell that the bottom-firing (right) speaker is louder and richer, but balanced in software, away from the test-bench, it sounds just fine.

The Pixel 5 sadly had one of the speakers firing from behind the screen which always resulted in a muffled mess to many users, so it's a win for the Pixel 6a on volume. There's no system-wide sound enhancement on either phone, so what you get is what you get through the speakers, unless you dabble with equalisation via apps to add this functionality, such as PowerAmp. Overall, I'm very impressed with the sound output via speakers of the Pixel 6a, a step up from the 5 and even, I think the Pixel 6 (though I don't have one to hand in order to hear it again).

Turning to headphones, there's no 3.5mm Audio-Out socket so I'm testing with a DAC-equipped dongle and all was well. It’s a shame Google doesn’t ship its £10 dongle in the box anymore, mind you. But price is key here, so… Testing with my Sony WH1000-XM4 headphones for Bluetooth audio next, which is loud and fabulous quality - a great experience with Bluetooth 5.2 onboard. It's also working well with Bluetooth speakers, pairs quickly, remembers devices etc. all of which we've now come to expect.

When it comes to Pixel cameras, you can expect the same top quality from the whole line. The camera software is where it all happens and the results are excellent, even in challenging light conditions. It remains great fun to shoot a low-light photo, quickly switch to the review and watch as the magic is applied and your photo is transformed from a dingy mess into something much, much better! The main camera is a 12MP f1.7 unit with OIS and is supported by another 12MP wide-angle snapper with an f2.2 aperture. There's 4K video shooting available at 60fps (with OIS) and an 8MP selfie round the front.

There's the usual excellent Portrait Mode of course, Night Sight and Google Lens for other fancy functions, the ability to shoot in RAW if you like (plus JPEG too) and some limited ability to turn off the auto/AI stuff for those who really want to - though this is no Sony Xperia virtual-dSLR! So, bells and whistles to be found elsewhere but what Google does and does well, is making the absolute best out of what it's presented with by using a world of experience via algorithms to ensure that we the users end up with the most usable and pleasing results. And it works. Kudos.

My colleague at Phones Show ChatSteve Litchfield, concluded in his YouTube Short that even though the camera is a generation behind the Pixel 6/6 Pro units it's well-tuned and excellent. For a deep-dive into all the nitty-gritty, samples and analysis I'm going to point you once again towards our friends at GSMArena where they do all that and conclude much as we have, that for phone photography, you can't go wrong these days with a camera in a Pixel.

To round up some of the odds and ends, connectivity seems solid with GPS locking onto locations quickly, holding on and refreshing well, WiFi is reliable in tests here (with 6e available for anyone who can make use of it), similarly the 4G (sadly I don't live in the right location to test 5G but others report it working well) for voice and data, and NFC hooks up as it should to other equipment, with Google Pay being the most useful application of the system these days, it seems!

I guess I should mention that there's no microSD Card slot for users here, though I'm sure if you're reading this you will know that Google has been trying to abandon that system for years now and force people to do everything online, connected at all times. On a similar theme, there's only 128GB of storage onboard with no option for more. I think a 256GB version for an extra £50 would be a great option which many would take up. There's also no HDMI-Out support, again, Google wanting us online, not using cables! Shame.

What you do get here, of course, is a version of Google's own software which integrates perfectly with all of their own apps and services. It may not be the same 'Vanilla' of old (now reserved for remaining Nokia AndroidOne devices it seems) but even with what Google are doing with Pixel phones over and above, you still get the feeling of inclusion at every step along the way. Close to the beating heart of what they are doing. What they are trying out, access to betas, for good and bad, guinea pig as you might feel.

It's a different approach to Apple where customers expect a finished and perfectly functioning experience on Day 1 - with a Pixel it's much more a question of being along for the ride, test stuff out and see what sticks! Feeling like a part of that evolution is really rewarding, whine as we might when things go wrong or Google decide to drop a project when we think it has legs. You're either onboard with the mentality or you're not!

The Pixel 6a is a nicely-sized phone, not too big for most, has a nice feature-set, a good sized battery, nice screen, great cameras, decent speakers and a very good build with water and dust resistance. A very capable mid-range phone, if you want to label it on price. Yes, there are some niggles, as outlined above, but here we are now at the price - in the UK it's £399. And that's just where it should be, no doubt settling down in a few months to £349.

For what it is, it's an absolute steal - and as I said at the outset, really doesn't have a rival, certainly in the Android world. And the jewel in the crown is the long, long support offered to purchasers who can have the confidence in Google that they won't be abandoned after a year or so, of which some others have been guilty.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for the detailed review. I just wish the 6a had wireless charging, so that I could listen with my wired headset (via dongle) while the phone charged on a pad. Not to be. 🙁

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    Replies
    1. Agreed. I guess something has to go for the price-point. The Qi Coil seems to works very well though Kurt, to be fair. WOuldn't help wired listening though, I grant you. Bring back 3.5mm eh!

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