With the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro set for a full launch in October, the July reveal of the Pixel 6a (some nine months after the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro) may feel like a late addition to last year’s portfolio. Where does the Pixel 6a fit into Google’s smartphone plans over the next few years? How does it tell the story that Google wants to portray? And how can it make the device one that consumers will want to buy?
The Pixel 6A Is Not For The Six Family, But The Seven Family
First of all, this is clearly one of Google’s smartphones. With the launch of the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Google managed to define a unique physical look for its smartphones. The Camera Bar offered both symmetry in construction, drew the eye to the tidy layout of camera lenses and offered a simple solution to both ‘desk rocking’ seen in phones with an island of camera lenses, and a comfortably physical ridge to help hold the large screened devices.
Google leaned heavily into the capabilities of the Pixel camera at the launch of the device, and the Camera Bar made sure that a message of ‘this camera is different’ was in place. Yet the Camera Bar’s biggest advantage is that it identifies the Pixel in popular culture, in the same way as Apple’s notched iPhone was a noticeable silhouette.
Which leads to the Pixel 6A. While it is remarkably late to the Pixel 6 family, arriving in late July compared to the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro’s launch nine months previously, it will be on sale as the Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 7 are fully launched and hit the shelves. With the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro presumably retiring from the product line, Google is going to have a solid ‘stepped’ profile of a smaller device in the 6a, the regular device in the Pixel 7, and the flagship in the Pixel 7 Pro.
That makes for a better mix than the discounted Pixel 6 Pro and Pixel 6 approaching their end of the retail life competing price-wise against the Pixel 6a.
The Pixel 6a Is Part Of The Six Success
Yet the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are an important part of the Pixel 6a story. There was a feeling that the Pixel 6 and especially the Pixel 6 Pro broke through a ceiling when they were released last year. There was greater public recognition, there were more network offers, and there was more coverage in the mainstream press; in some cases, the Pixel 6 pro became the natural comparison to the iPhone rather than Samsung’s Galaxy S21.
These Pixels also saw Google debut its mobile Tensor chip, giving Google a silicon platform it could work on in a much more Apple-like way. It could customise the inner workings of the chipset to allow for more efficient processing in a number of areas such as machine learning. One obvious area where this had a positive impact was the camera processing and post-production editing of images – and yes we’re back to the value of that camera bar as an identifier of the difference in the handset.
The Pixel brand over the last year is well established in a number of areas. The Pixel 6a takes that success and looks to translate it to the mid-range market. Previously the mid-range market was where the Pixel 4 and Pixel 5 handsets would sit. That wasn’t the case with the Pixel 6 family… until now.
The Pixel 6a established the new smartphones in one of the most competitive spaces.
The Pixel 6a As A Signpost
Unlike Apple’s iPhone team, which only has to justify any changes to the board, Android is a much more interesting landscape. It’s not as fractured as many make out; the vast majority of manufacturers turn to Google’s additional services to round out the Android Open Source offering before adding their own UI layer, apps, and services to their own handsets.
But the space is essentially overseen by Google. That’s not unusual, after all the personal computer space has a similar relationship with Microsoft and Windows… the base OS is offered, some services are bundled that manufacturers have to take, and the rest is a ‘have at it’ process of design, innovation, decisions, and interactivity.
Of course, the last few years have seen Microsoft setting out its own vision of Windows through the Surface hardware platform with a sense of “we think this works very well…” hanging in the air.
Now translate this onto the Pixel platform, and you can see Google using Pixel to speak indirectly to manufacturers on what it believes a smartphone should be. Last year’s Pixel 6 Pro defined the flagship, the Pixel 6 in the so-called ‘flagship killer’ space, and now with the Pixel 6a Google has the ‘mid-range’ definition on the market as well.
Notably, the Pixel 6a holds on to the same top-end processor as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro… although Google has the advantage that it is using its own chip design and does not have a large SKU to choose from. Nevertheless, the idea of keeping as much processing power on the handset – useful for intensive machine learning-based tasks – is front and centre.
Following the September update, the Pixel 6a comes with Android 13, and the promise of OS support for three years, and ongoing security updates for five years. Google wants the Pixel 6a to show that long-term support, especially on security issues, should be the norm and not the exception, even at this price point.
It’s also worth noting the areas that Google has sacrificed. The display eschews the rush to fast-refreshing technology instead of sticking to a 60Hz refresh, and RAM is dropped to 6 GB.
The camera is also physically downgraded, leaving the 50-megapixel sensor for the larger phones instead going with the same 12-megapixel sensor seen in the Pixel 3, 4, and 5, handsets. Google is of course leaning into post-processing, hence retaining the more powerful chip to improve the images instead of the physical options.
I wonder if Android 13 is biased towards these options…
Finding A Home
Google’s Pixel 6a is more than a good mid-range smartphone, it’s probably the best smartphone under $399 this year and it challenges the competition to match it.
It certainly offers a lot of value for money to consumers, who pick up a handset that is the clearest implementation of Google’s vision of Android. Of course each manufacturer is going to take their own devices in their own directions, but they can’t stray too far from the path defined by the Mountain View team.
The Pixel 6a is just as important as a signpost as it is a smartphone.
Disclaimer: Google UK provided a Pixel 6a for review purposes.