They may not be bestsellers amongst the sea of Android phones, but Google Pixel smartphones tend to stand out from this sea of sameness courtesy the software smarts Google retains exclusive for the series. There’s also the camera that works its own brand of imaging magic.
They’re also rather pricey in India, which gave rise to the A-series like last year’s Pixel 6a, that distilled the Pixel goodness into a somewhat ‘budget’ offering – globally, that is. It lands right in the premium mid-range segment in India. Now we have the Pixel 7a, an almost separated-at-birth twin of the Pixel 7.
The Pixel 7a shares a lot with the Pixel 7, including the born-for-AI Tensor G2 chip and 90 Hz OLED displays, and at Rs. 43,999 (launch offers take it down to below 40,000) for the single 8GB/128GB option, skirts precariously close to the flagship 7’s often discounted sale pricing. The lines are getting blurred, and that’s not altogether a good thing, as I’ll explain.
In the hand, the Google Pixel 7a is nearly indistinguishable from the Pixel 7, particularly in the Snow (white) colorway I tested which was a dead ringer for the white Pixel 7 from last year. The Sea (blue) colorway is the one to get if you want to brandish the most distinct color of the series. It retains the same minimalist, two-tone look as the Pixel 7, with a 3D thermoformed composite plastic (which feels like glass but isn’t) back and a metallic Robocop-style visor that houses the camera setup. This visor is made of the same tactile alloy material as the side frame and merges into it from both sides, leaving just the narrow antenna bands.
Google has swapped out the Pixel 7’s 6.3-inch display for one that measures 6.1-inches, which makes the 7a easier to hold and use in one hand. Slight corners have been cut to hit the lower price point, such as the use of Gorilla Glass 3 instead of Gorilla Glass Victus, or the IP67 water rating instead of the Pixel 7’s IP68, which leaves the phone slightly less durable but only matters if you intend to submerge the phone regularly. For regular use, the 7a should hold up just fine.
Around the front, the smaller screen on the 7a packs in the same resolution (1080x2400 pixels) and the same 90Hz refresh rate as the Pixel 7, but it feels smaller still with the thicker bezels, something you’d notice only if you had a Pixel 7 around for comparison. It’s a big step up from the previous generation 6a though, which had a 60Hz display that was clearly an outlier in its price segment – everything from scrolling Twitter or Instagram to animations was smooth, and the responsive stock Android UI felt even more so.
It’s a good screen, with good colors and contrast, though not the brightest in the segment. But it handled being used outdoors in the abnormally hot Bengaluru summer capably. Elsewhere, the haptics are good (if not a step down from the Pixel 7) for the segment, and the audio is a tad muted for my liking. The fingerprint sensor, often the bane of the Pixel series, works fine, but it’s not the fastest off the block.
Performance too, is along expected lines, with Google's Tensor G2 chipset with 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage, the same package that powers the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro. The single storage variant could be an issue for those who shoot a lot of video. In 2023, 128GB isn’t what it used to be.
Google calls it their flagship chipset, but really, this is not a chip that compares in pure performance terms with something like the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 (or for that matter, last year’s Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1). It’s let down by slightly inferior graphics, which causes the phone to heat up and throttle performance in gaming sessions beyond 20 minutes or while you’re editing/exporting a video on the phone. The phone ran hot when pushed, almost uncomfortably so for the summer. Then again, we’re seen similar issues on the rest of the Pixel 7 lineup, so this is something for Google to think about for the Tensor G3.
To be fair, if you’re using it for calls, WhatsApp, photos and browsing, the 7a works just fine in everyday use, though, and where it lacks in raw performance, it more than makes up by tapping into the same machine learning algorithms and software-specific features like Top Shot, Photo Unblur, Magic Eraser and Long Exposure. The software experience is virtually identical to the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, and that frighteningly good voice dictation is reason enough for scribes like me to always carry a Pixel in my pocket. Of course, software is core to the Pixel experience, and it ships with no bloatware and a promise of five years of security updates, which is a year better than Samsung’s gold standard of four years.
The Pixel 7a packs in a 4385mAh battery, similar to the Pixel 7 but a minor step down from the 4410mAh variant on its predecessor. On most days of regular use, the phone could last a day or a little over 5.5 hours of screen time, which isn’t shabby for a phone this size. The phone battery optimization techniques get better over time, so I expect this number to push upwards over time. Push the Pixel 7a with any graphics intensive tasks, and you’re likely to be reaching for the cable a lot sooner. The phone charges at 18W, which is glacially slow by Android standards in 2023. On the flip side, the A-series finally sees the inclusion of wireless charging support but at 5W charging, this is strictly for overnight charging.
Leading the charge on the camera department is a new 64MP Sony IMX787 sensor, a big step up compared to the 12MP sensor on the Pixel 6a (the Pixel 7 has a 50MP Samsung GN1 sensor). Then there’s the 13MP ultrawide on the 7a with a wider 120-degree field of view, as compared to the Pixel 7’s 12MP sensor with a slightly narrower 114-degree field of view.
Know this, that the Pixel 7’s sensor is physically larger and with a larger pixel size, so comparing only megapixels between the two doesn’t show you the full picture. The Pixel 7’s larger sensor pulls in more details in well-lit shots, but the colors and white balance on the 7a were more often than not better than the pricier Pixel 7.
In fact, in low light shots, while the Pixel 7 aggressively reduced noise at the expense of details, the Pixel 7a opted to retain details (and some amount of noise) for a much more usable final image. Onto the ultrawides, where the 7a matches the details and colors of the Pixel 7, although the Pixel 7 does better in low-light shots, at least in terms of details.
All said, the Tensor G2 and Google’s tweaking of camera algorithms both do well to prop up the Pixel 7a’s imaging performance to go toe to toe with the superior camera hardware on the Pixel 7. On the video front though, the Pixel 7 pulls ahead, particularly in low-light shooting.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first - should you buy the Pixel 7a or the Pixel 7? The Pixel 7a offers nearly everything that was good in the Pixel 7 at a little less. That’s for sure. It even manages to match or surpass the Pixel 7 in some shooting scenarios.
On the other hand, particularly if you’re a smart buyer who’s not in a rush to buy a phone, you’ll find the Pixel 7 discounted occasionally to within sniffing distance of the Pixel 7a, and the bigger display, better design and durability, slightly faster charging and a larger camera sensor might sway you towards Google’s proper flagship.
Or you could wait for the Pixel 7a to be discounted, which will happen if past events are any indication. Elsewhere, you have options like the OnePlus 11R for performance and fast charging enthusiasts, or the Nothing Phone (1) for something that stands out.
Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.
Also read: Pixel 7a to Bard: key updates from Google I/O