With the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro poised for a full launch in October, the unveiling of the Pixel 6a in July (about 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 in the coming years? How does it tell the story that Google wants to portray? And how can it make the device consumers want to buy?
The Pixel 6A isn’t for the Six family, it’s for 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 provided both symmetry in construction, drawing attention to the uncluttered layout of camera lenses, and providing a simple solution to both the “desk swing” seen in phones with an island of camera lenses, and a comfortable physical edge around the large, shielded devices.
Google leaned heavily into the Pixel’s camera capabilities at the launch of the device, and the Camera Bar ensured that a “this camera is different” message was in order. But the Camera Bar’s greatest advantage is that it identifies the Pixel in popular culture, in much the same way that Apple’s notched iPhone was a striking silhouette.
Which leads to the Pixel 6A. While it’s remarkably late for the Pixel 6 family, arriving in late July compared to the launch of the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro nine months earlier, it will be on sale when the Pixel 7 Pro and Pixel 7 are fully launched and in the shelves are. With the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro supposedly withdrawing from the product line, Google is getting 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 that are nearing the end of their retail lives and competing with the Pixel 6a in price.
The Pixel 6a is part of the six successes
Still, the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro are an important part of the Pixel 6a story. There was a sense that the Pixel 6 and especially the Pixel 6 Pro broke through a ceiling when they were released last year. There was more 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 instead of Samsung’s Galaxy S21.
With these Pixels, Google also debuted its Tensor mobile chip, giving Google a silicon platform on which to operate in a much more Apple-like way. It could tweak the chipset’s inner workings 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 camera processing and image post-production editing – and yes, we’re back to the value of that camera bar as identifying the difference in the handset.
Last year’s Pixel brand is well established in a number of areas. The Pixel 6a takes that success and seems 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 needs to justify changes to the board, Android is a much more interesting landscape. It is not as broken as many claim; the vast majority of manufacturers are turning 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 managed by Google. That’s not unusual, after all, the PC space has a similar relationship with Microsoft and Windows… the base operating system 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, in recent years Microsoft has laid out its own vision of Windows through the Surface hardware platform with a sense of “we think this works really well…” hanging in the air.
Now translate this to the Pixel platform and you can see Google using Pixel to talk indirectly to manufacturers about what it thinks should be a smartphone. 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 also has the “mid-range” definition on the market.
The Pixel 6a, in particular, sticks to the same top-of-the-line processor as the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro…although Google has the advantage of using its own chip design and not having a large SKU to choose from. Nevertheless, the idea of keeping as much computing power on the handset as possible – useful for intensive machine learning-based tasks – is paramount.
After the September update, the Pixel 6a will ship with Android 13 and the promise of OS support for three years and continuous security updates for five years. Google wants the Pixel 6a to show that long-term support, especially with security vulnerabilities, should be the norm, not the exception, even at this price.
It’s also worth noting the areas that Google has sacrificed. The screen avoids the rush for fast-paced technology rather than sticking to a 60Hz refresh, and the RAM has dropped to 6GB.
The camera has also been physically downgraded, instead using the 50-megapixel sensor for the larger phones with the same 12-megapixel sensor found in the Pixel 3, 4 and 5 handsets. Google naturally relies on post-processing and therefore keeps the more powerful chip to enhance the images rather than the physical options.
I wonder if Android 13 is biased towards these options…
Find 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 great value for money to consumers, who pick up a device that is the clearest implementation of Google’s vision of Android. Of course, each manufacturer is going to steer its own devices in its own direction, 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 a smartphone.
Now read how Google’s Pixel Watch will help redefine the smartwatch space…
Disclaimer: Google UK provided a Pixel 6a for review purposes.