TheTakeaway: Google’s $449Pixel 6a is a powerhouse of a budget phone, equipped with a vibrant OLED screen and a sharp camera that processes shots with best-in-class AI. Everything runs off of the company’s proprietary Tensor chip, which is optimized to squeeze the most performance and longest battery life out of an android-phone. In my week of using it as my primary handset, I found the synergy between Google’s hardware and software provided fluid visuals in demanding 3D games and seamless multitasking—without the crashes common on even 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 pack flagship level processors—keeping them competitive with mid-range phones double the price. The Pixel 6a pulls off everyday tasks better and is the best phone of the year.
A Comfortable Design Houses A Large, Vibrant Screen
The Pixel 6a’s compact body measures just 6 x 2.8-inches and weighs just 0.4 pounds. Its lanky candy-bar-like shape makes it easy to grip and operate with one hand while providing plenty of vertical space for more information at the top. Edges are curved to better fit your hand—a welcome addition in this era of chunky, squared-off metal iPhone enclosures. From the front, just the OLED screen and aluminum frame edges are visible. Google cut costs by switching out the back glass on the Pixel 6 for a plastic cover.
On the left side, you’ll find just a sole pinhole for the SIM tray, and on the right is a power button just above the volume rocker. Flipping the phone over reveals the signature Pixel camera viewfinder, which is more compact than on its pricier siblings. During my time with the 6a, it survived falls from tables and my pants pockets without so much as a smudge or scratch. And I had no issue typing out texts or placing 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 pricier Pixel 6 or Pixel 6 Pro, the 6A is still a robust phone.
A colorful 6.1-inch OLED screen pushes out an average 750 nits of brightness—more than most phones at this price point. This large, high-contrast display brings environments to life with lifelike colors, whether you’re looking at a photo you’ve captured or watching videos. Without any distracting notch cutting into screen space, I could focus more on whatever game I was playing. This meant, in top-down games like Stardew Valley, I could see a larger portion of the map, and my first-person field of view in Call of Duty was nice and wide. While the iPhone SE ditches the notch of its big siblings to give you a full-screen picture, it feels wasted on a squished 4.7-inch screen at 1334×750 pixels (non-HD) that’s noticeably dimmer at a max brightness of 625 nits. The Pixel 6a’s 1080×2400, 60-hertz OLED screen outshines it and, on the surface, is nearly on par with the $799 base iPhone 14save for the fact that it can’t get as bright.
There’s plenty of space to navigate around Pixel’s bloat-free Android launcher. Paired with gesture navigation, the experience is frictionless; swipe left to see your Google News feed, drag upwards to shows all of your apps, and pull down from the top for a quick menu. Even though the Pixel is capped at the same 60-hertz refresh rate as the iPhone SE, it felt noticeably faster opening the app tray or swiping pages. While other budget Android phones like the Samsung A53 have up to a 120-hertz display, their processing power can’t match that of the Google Tensor.
Google Tensor Provides Powerful Android Performance
Both on paper and in use, the octa-core Tensor chip powering the Pixel 6a (the same one on the $899 Pixel 6 Pro flagship) is a beast. I experienced no slow downs and less than a handful of crashes when switching between demanding apps. Editing video clips was snappy, and I played graphic- and resource-demanding games at high visual settings without perceptible drops in the frame rate. The Pixel uses this extra computing power for not only improved operation, but also exclusive features like Live Translation of text or audio as well as Now Playing, which passively identifies songs the device hears in the background without draining battery.
Both Google and Apple have shared the same powerful chips of their flagship phones with their entry-level models. This pits the Tensor head-to-head with the A15 Bionic, which is the strongest mobile chip in a phone. in the Geekbench 5 task-processing test I used, the iPhone SE’s A15 Bionic put up 1722 single- and 4546 multi-core scores to the Pixel’s 1052 and 2946. So while the Pixel 6a rules over its nearest Android competitor, the Samsung Galaxy A53 (which scores 681 and 1778), Apple still has a far stronger chip. But in most everyday use, the difference is imperceptible.
Browsing the web, opening pages, viewing animations, and launching apps is virtually the same on the phones. In fact, the sharper text and visuals on the Pixel’s larger 2400x1080p screen looks better. But crack open a video editor and the power gap comes into play. Where the Pixel can export an edited video clip in 46 seconds, the iPhone SE renders that same clip in just 22. And when unpacking resource files of heavy apps like Diablo Immortal or Call of Duty Mobile, the iPhone SE worked at a rate of 5 megabytes to every 1 megabyte on the Pixel for faster installs.
Gaming on the Pixel 6a is plenty smooth and earned a high score on the 3DMark GPU Wildlife Test graphics benchmark test. This pegged the phone’s 40.5-frame-per-second average at 89 percent better than the results from all other devices. In Call of Duty mobile at high settings, there was an occasional stutter when multiple animated effects—like flying sparks and swaying coat tails—taxed the phone. However, its in-game graphical performance was steady, without major drops or artifacts, on par with mid-range Androids. 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 as on the Pixel. While that phone’s smaller screen might not be the most immersive, the SE’s power is undeniable. As a gamer, I wasn’t turned off in the slightest by this gap. On to larger TV, I expect 4K at 60 FPS. But on phones with smaller screens, the difference is negligible. I preferred gaming on the Pixel’s bigger, brighter screen, which provide a better window into the virtual worlds.
As for battery life, the Pixel lasted a full 24 hours in my real-world usage of sending messages throughout the day, bite-sized gaming sessions, and browsing through social media feeds. But in our batteries drain test, which constantly streams live video and comment data at 20 percent brightness, the Pixel lasted 8 hours and 43 minutes from a full charge.
Camera For Content Creators
The Pixel’s wide and ultra-wide rear 12-megapixel cameras make the most of Google’s image-processing technology with sharp and punchy colors. In the photos below, you can see how the camera brings out the richer reds in the pepperoni slice and sharper background text on the umbrella in the background. On the other hand, the iPhone SE’s single camera is no slouch, but its warmer tones almost look like there’s a filter on its shots. Similarly, daytime snaps on the Pixel accurately relayed life-like colors like the darker blacks of a tee shirt where the iPhone SE created an image that made the shirt look gray. Shift over to low-light shooting, and the SE’s lack of night-sensor hardware left dark shots taken without flash too noisy to be usable. Night Sight on the Pixel 6a comes out clear and extracts an impressive amount of color from a nearly pitch-black room.
→ Google Pixel 6a & iPhone SE Camera Samples
With the Pixel, you have more shooting variety and modes. Tensor also extracts more details 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 freedom for editing. The Pixel’s built-in editing tools are not Photoshop, but the phone does house similar AI-assisted tech like Magic Eraser. This tool makes it easy to circle and remove objects quickly with a tap. I used the effect on provided clean results—removing distractions like wires, photobombers, and litter on the ground. But once in a while, it would fill in the area I replaced with a distracting pattern or leave a visual goof 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.
The Pixel captures video at up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second or 1080p at up to 240 FPS, which is better than most budget phones. Even closer to $500, those devices top out around 4K 30. Stationary clips that I shot without a tripod were free of jitter, but the Pixel does have panning and moving-stabilization options. I found these modes effective, even taking away the vicious bobbing of a clip I took while jogging. But since this tech crops in on the capture to stabilize your footage, it compresses exports down to a 1080p resolution. Meanwhile, the iPhone offers a competitive 4K 60 but with a weaker zoom-in performance and less shooting modes.
The Pixel 6a is the best Android phone you can get for under $500. Its optimal size and balanced power rips through everyday tasks and runs 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 often edits video, then the speed and strength 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.
Hunter Fenollol, our resident expert of all things consumer tech, from smart home to VR gaming headsets, has years of knowledge creating product explainers, in-depth reviews, and buying guides to help you get the most from the latest electronics. Throughout college, I have covered and reviewed the latest gadget releases for sites like Tom’s Guide, Laptop Magazine, and CNN Underscored. If he’s not elbow-deep in the latest hardware, you can find Hunter at one of Long Island’s many beaches, in Manhattan, or gambling away his paycheck from him.