The Pixel 6a is a wake-up call for mid-range phones – iPhone SE, we’re looking at you

Putting together a capable mid-range phone is easier said than done. For an entry-level phone, the focus is only on the essentials, while higher-end flagships are given carte blanche to offer just about every feature possible. Mid-range phones, however, require a complex balance between these two extremes. They’re not cheap enough to get away with major compromises, nor do they have the luxury of including all the high-end specs. Each phone manufacturer follows a different playbook to combat this conundrum, but the phone I’ve been using for two weeks may have cracked the code perfectly: Google Pixel 6a.

The new Google Pixel 6a is a premium phone in every way except its price. When I first picked it up, I was surprised by its refined experience and build quality. It was almost impossible to tell that it was half the cost of high-end flagship smartphones. And at a starting price of $449, it’s exceptionally good value and hard to fault. The reason Google accomplished this feat is because of how it approached its latest mid-range phone.

For its best-selling A-series phones, Google worked from the start to cut costs and focus on replicating the Pixel experience with a slower Qualcomm chip. Previous A-series phones, therefore, often felt and looked a far cry from their superior, more expensive siblings, as aside from slick performance and camera software, they lagged by nearly all respects. The Pixel 6a, on the other hand, is nearly indistinguishable from the Pixel 6 and that’s thanks to Google’s new internal silicon, Tensor.

Tensor chip, Google event October 19, 2021 (Image credit: Google)

Tensor gives Google the freedom to deliver consistent performance across price segments and channel its resources into improving other aspects of the phone. More importantly, Tensor allows Google to work backwards from its high-end Pixel 6 and compromise on a few extra and cosmetic features to bring down the price while nailing the essentials. And that’s why the Pixel 6a can go hand in hand with the Pixel 6.

The only areas Google has cut corners on are those that most buyers in the under $500 category don’t care about or those that don’t matter in day-to-day use. The glass back of the Pixel 6, for example, gives way to a high-quality plastic back. However, to maintain that same look and visor-like camera strip on the back, the plastic has a glass-like texture and finish, which is surprisingly nice to hold and not fake or cheap at all. Similarly, wireless charging has been dropped, but it has a massive 4,410mAh battery (the Pixel 6 has 4,600mAh) with 18W fast charging that can last two days even when in use. intensive.

The Pixel 6 also benefits from that stunning edge-to-edge, always-on, incredibly bright display on the front. It’s 0.3 inches smaller, but has the same Full HD resolution. It lacks the higher 90Hz refresh rate, although reports suggest it’s supported and a software update may be enough for Google to enable it.

Google Pixel 6a (Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

One of the main trade-offs with the Pixel 6a is its older-gen camera. But since much of the Pixel’s photographic prowess relies on software, that’s no problem, and the 6a takes detailed, crisp photos day or night. As a Pixel 6 owner, I can tell you that there’s not much to distinguish the 6a’s cameras from Google’s flagship unless you put them side by side. More importantly, it is compatible with almost all smart software tools, such as Camouflage and Night Sight.

Of course, at the center of Google’s midrange home run is the custom Tensor chip, which should ensure smooth performance and software updates for years to come. For years, Google has been making mid-range phones. Now it has become a more affordable flagship. This all manifests in frustrating evidence of the distance behind Apple’s mid-range option, the iPhoneSE is despite being years ahead in silicon design.

For its mid-range phone, Apple’s strategy is to recycle outdated modules to reduce the cost, then add a few more modern capabilities, like wireless charging. The iPhone SE has a half-decade-old design, a single medium camera on the back, and a small 4.7-inch screen. Considering what Google has accomplished after the switch to in-house chips, the $429 iPhone SE is inexcusable.

Google Pixel 6a (Image credit: Laptop Mag/Sean Riley)

The Pixel 6a is also a step ahead of what Samsung is doing with its mid-range lineup, like the Galaxy A53 5G. It tries to exclusively offer a few premium features like 120Hz refresh rate in its price segment. However, in doing so, it not only compromises the practical core components, such as a slow Qualcomm processor, but also settles with superficial and low-quality extras like depth and macro camera lenses, that only to fill a list of specifications.

The Pixel 6a is the mid-range phone to beat and more often than not, you can easily find it on sale for $400. The first chapter of Google’s Tensor journey has proven, despite a series of flops, that there’s still hope for the Pixel lineup, especially given the $400-$600 price range is expected to see the fastest growth. And along the way, it may even end up forcing its competitors, who have slacked off, to up their game.

About Franklin Cheatham

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