When India last saw a Pixel ‘a’ series phone, the key feature of these devices was to get Google’s impressive camera (and its accompanying software) on a device that was significantly cheaper. Two years since the last model though, Google’s strategy with the Pixel 6a seems to echo a change in the company’s overall strategy.
While Pixel phones retain impressive cameras — among the best in the Android market — they are now about a new chip called Tensor. While past models retained camera specs from the more expensive Pixel variants, the Pixel 6a retains the Tensor chip from the more expensive Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, neither of which will be sold in India.
Also read: Google Pixel Buds A review: A good fit for tech enthusiasts
The Pixel devices have been about Google showing off what an Android phone can be, and with the Tensor chip, it arguably does that better than even the best camera could have done. The ₹43,999 (MRP) of the Pixel 6a puts it in the premium range in India, but the Tensor chip inside is worthy of that title.
All about the AI
The first Tensor Processing Units (TPUs) Google designed were meant to accelerate artificial intelligence (AI) processing in data centres. So it’s no surprise that the Tensor chip inside the Pixel 6a does the same for the phone.
Everything that uses an AI algorithm, like Google Assistant, voice typing, transcription etc. are all faster than any other Android phone. In fact, Google Assistant picks up the ‘Hey Google’ voice command even from a few metres away if ambient noise is low enough.
The chip also enables features like Speech Enhancement, Real Tone, Magic Eraser and more, some of which are useful, while others most often feel gimmicky.
For instance, the Magic Eraser feature allows users to remove subjects from photos by highlighting them after they’re clicked. While it sounds like a pretty useful feature, in practice, the results are hardly ever a replacement for real photo-editing tools like Adobe Photoshop etc. The end result can even be comical at times.
On the other hand, speech enhancement is a feature that really works. It uses an AI algorithm that detects the user’s voice while shooting a selfie video, and suppresses background noise in order to make the voice clearer. It feels like an extension of AI-driven noise cancellation on the Pixel Buds true wireless headphones, though the end result is much better on the Pixel phone.
Real Tone, on the other hand, is a feature that aims to enhance skin tones in photos of individuals with a dark complexion. It does work in the sense that photos look more pleasant, but it’s not necessarily the natural skin tone that such an individual would have. It’s a welcome change than oversaturated colours in selfies and other photos though.
That said, while the Tensor chip does enhance the speed of AI-driven features, it doesn’t do anything for the AI algorithms themselves. In my experience, Google Assistant still misses the Indian accent at times, and features like ‘live translation’ and transcription are far from completely dependable when you’re having conversations in Hinglish etc. These are features that are ‘nice to have’ but not perfect enough to really dictate our buying decisions right now.
The Pixel 6a also has some notable misses from its more expensive variants. The Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro can freeze moving objects in a photo, but according to Google, that feature requires more RAM than the 6GB that the Pixel 6a has. In the US, Pixel phones can also automatically convert interactive voice response (IVR) calls to text-based options, which doesn’t seem to be available in India.
The Automatic Call Tree feature, in which Google uses AI to automatically transcribe an IVR call into text-based questions and answers, is also available only for users who chose the US-EN (US English) in their language settings.
Perhaps the biggest letdown about the Pixel 6a is that it's a flagship class device that doesn't support 5G connectivity. It's unclear whether this is software locked though, since Pixel 6a devices in the US do support 5G.
Android at its best
You could argue that the lack of a 50MP camera (which is on the Pixel 6 series) is a downer, but the two 12MP are more than able too. They take good low-light images, vibrant photos in well-lit situations, and produce good detail too.
The only niggle, if there is one, is that the Night Sight mode (specially designed for low light shots) is still quite slow. Given that Night Sight is itself an AI-driven feature, it seems to be the one feature that isn’t affected by the new Tensor chip. To be sure, Apple’s low-light mode has the same issue, though compared side-by-side, the Cupertino edition is just slightly faster.
What’s heartening about this device is that the Tensor chip doesn’t only enhance AI features. It actually handles the Android software quite well. The user interface (UI) feels fluid on the Pixel 6a, with little to no stutters and lags. You can see some frame drops in games like Pokemon Go at times, but it’s hard to fault the processor for that.
The Pixel 6a doesn’t have a high frame rate screen, mind you, but the UI still feels like you’re using a high-end device. Would a 90 or 120Hz display have been smoother? Perhaps. But there’s nothing to complain about. I use the iPhone 13 Pro along with this device, and though that phone feels more fluid and faster, the Pixel doesn’t really leave much to complain about. In comparison, the Nothing Phone (1), which costs about Rs. 32,000, feels quite noticeably slower and weaker.
The Pixel 6a also has decent battery life. It lasts a work day quite easily and for light users it may even do a little more than 10 hours sometimes.
In sum, the Pixel 6a is among the best Android phones I’ve used in a long time. You could argue that its core features — the AI — wouldn’t impress or be useful to every Indian user, and you would be right, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s just a very dependable and able Android phone.
The only thing that deters me from recommending this device is the fact that Google’s devices have been plagued by many hardware issues in the past, and issues like that won’t present themselves till a phone has been used for at least a few months.
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