A Little Polish and This Phone Would Be Perfect

Rating:

7/10

?

  • 1 – Does not work
  • 2 – Barely functional
  • 3 – Severely lacking in most areas
  • 4 – Functions, but has numerous issues
  • 5 – Fine yet leaves a lot to be desired
  • 6 – Good enough to buy on sale
  • 7 – Great and worth purchasing
  • 8 – Fantastic, approaching best-in-class
  • 9 – Best-in-class
  • 10 – Borderline perfection

Price:
Starting At $499

Person holding the Google Pixel 7a-2
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

When it comes to Android phones, I always tend to reach for a Pixel. Sure, performance tends to suffer over time, but it’s hard to beat the features Google holds exclusive and the overall quality of the Pixel’s software. All of that stays true with the Google Pixel 7a, but corners were cut.

Here’s What We Like

  • Premium performance
  • Fantastic camera quality
  • Distinctive design
  • Wireless charging

And What We Don’t

  • Battery life isn’t great
  • Cheap-feeling build
  • mmWave 5G costs an extra $50 ($549 total)

How-To Geek’s expert reviewers go hands-on with each product we review. We put every piece of hardware through hours of testing in the real world and run them through benchmarks in our lab. We never accept payment to endorse or review a product and never aggregate other people’s reviews. Read more >>

Design: It’s a Pixel but With Less Polish

  • Dimensions: 6 x 2.8 x 0.4in (152 x 72.9 x 9mm)
  • Weight: 193.5g (6.8oz)
  • Display: 6.1in FHD+ (1080×2400), OLED at 429ppi, up to 90Hz refresh rate
  • Cover glass: Corning Gorilla Glass 3 with fingerprint-resistant coating
  • Build materials: 3D thermoformed composite back with tactile alloy frame and visor
  • Port: USB Type-C 3.2 Gen 2

Google first introduced its now quickly identifiable Pixel redesign in 2021 with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro. The following summer, the search giant’s A-Series budget line received the same facelift and large rear camera bar. As the Pixel 6a was more affordable than its two flagship siblings, it was no surprise that Google used cheaper build materials (such as plastic over glass) while keeping an almost identical appearance.

Jumping forward to the Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro launch in late 2022, Google kept the distinctive look but made the camera bar almost entirely metal instead of glass. Following tradition, that design change has made its way to the Pixel 7a.

Taking a look around the Google Pixel 7a, you’ll find a mostly flat Corning Gorilla Glass 3 display (that slightly tapers off into the sides of the phone), a 3D thermoformed composite (aka plastic) back, and a metal alloy frame (which I suspect is aluminum). The phone’s USB-C port is on the bottom of the device next to one of the two speakers, a physical SIM card slot is on the left, and volume and power/sleep buttons are on the right.

Under that front glass is an FHD+ OLED display that looks great when the brightness is pushed past 50%. Below that, the screen is a bit dull. Thankfully, despite the phone being set to 60Hz out of the box, you can turn on Smooth Display and set the refresh rate to 90Hz “for some content.” You take a small battery hit with this setting, but it’s worth the tradeoff. When the Pixel 7a was left at 60Hz, I felt like there was lag in some apps.

My main annoyance while using the Pixel 7a over my week-long testing period has been with its build quality. The longer you hold the handset, the more you notice the plastic back. Google appears to be going for a glass appearance to match the more premium Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, but the texture feels cheap, and it holds onto all sorts of fingerprints and debris (especially around the camera bar).

Thankfully, with the Sea colorway that I have been testing, it was hard to see built-up lint unless you looked closely. I’ve been told that it’s very noticeable on Charcoal devices.

But the main build quality issue I experienced had to do with the seams where all of the different build materials met. This includes where the glass screen meets the metal frame, where the plastic back connects to the frame, and especially the corner where the composite back meets the frame and the raised camera bar.

All of the seams are rough enough to be annoying, but I’m also not worried about cutting myself. It’s more of a detractor from the overall build when using the device, especially when you hold it up to your face while on a phone call. If some of the angles were more uniform, this probably wouldn’t be a problem.

I will note that I’ve talked to several other reviewers about their review units, and according to them, they are not nearly as sharp and apparent as those on my unit. So while there’s a chance that my device wouldn’t normally pass QA, no matter who I talked to, they all said the build wasn’t as polished as Google’s flagships.

Although I do tend to use a case on whichever phone I’m daily driving, this is the first device in a long time that I prefer using with a case. Google included its official case with my review unit, and it perfectly covers up the various rough seams I had trouble with. The soft-touch material is also more pleasant to hold over Google’s 3D thermoformed composite back.

My only real complaint with Google’s case is that the section around the power and volume buttons isn’t stiff and can easily be lifted away from the Pixel 7a. It’s not the end of the world, but I did notice the case snagging on occasion when taking the phone out of my pocket.

Performance: Tensor G2 Is all Power

  • Processor: Google Tensor G2
    • Titan M2 security coprocessor
  • Memory: 8GB LPDDR5
  • Storage: 128GB UFS 3.1
  • Charging: 18W fast wired charging, 7.5W wireless charging
  • Connectivity: 5G sub6 (premium models include mmWave), WiFi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3
  • Water/Dust resistance: IP67

Copying a move out of Apple’s playbook, Google is including its in-house CPU, the Tensor G2, in all of its phones—no matter if they’re the premium, mid-range, or budget option. So instead of a discounted Qualcomm Snapdragon processor bought off the shelf, you get all of the power found in the top-of-the-line Pixels in the Pixel 7a.

Paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of non-expandable storage, you have a very capable phone. I did experience dropped frames every now and again, but it never detracted from the experience. The hiccups typically appeared when switching between high-resource apps, including the camera.

Google finally brought wireless charging to its A-Series this year. The feature has become standard in most budget and mid-range smartphones released in the last two years, so most were rightfully annoyed when it was missing from the Pixel 6a. Unfortunately, the company decided to cap the wireless charging speed to 7.5W, which is ridiculously slow when other Android handsets (including the Pixel 7 flagships) can do over 20W.

As a result of the slower speed, despite my having wireless chargers scattered all around, I chose to plug the Pixel 7a when it needed to be juiced up. The trickle charge is fine overnight, but if you need to top off quickly, you’ll need to grab a power adaptor that can supply at least 18W.

In terms of software updates, expect Google’s standard five years of security patches. Although I couldn’t find a mention of how many OS updates the Pixel 7a will receive, other Pixel handsets have been promised three years.

But the icing on the cake is all of Google’s Pixel-exclusive features. My favorite is still Now Playing, which automatically listens to music playing in the background and displays the title and artist on your lock screen. There are also Google Assistant-powered call assist features that sit on hold for you, screen incoming calls from unknown numbers, and so much more.

These features would likely be gimmicks by a lot of other companies, but Google has continued to build out its AI capabilities, and they’ve only gotten better over time. They’re all features that I miss when reviewing other Android smartphones or using my iPhone.

Fingerprint Sensor and Face Unlock: They Work Well

Now matching the flagship Pixel 7 and Pixel 7 Pro, the Pixel 7a features an under-display optical fingerprint sensor and Face Unlock. While either can be used to unlock the phone, only the fingerprint sensor is a true biometric security feature, so it’ll need to be used to unlock password managers and other sensitive menus.

In terms of performance, both worked well—especially when used in conjunction. Over the week of testing, I can only recall two instances where the fingerprint sensor failed to recognize my thumb on the first attempt. This is so infrequently that I would rather blame my finger placement or another factor over the sensor failing.

And when I had Face Unlock enabled (I had it off for half the week for battery testing, see below), I enjoyed seeing the small animation around the front-facing camera that indicated that it had identified me and unlocked the handset. If you want, you can have the Pixel 7a bypass the lock screen entirely when it sees you, but I kept that feature turned off.

Battery Life: I Hope It Gets Better

Other than my thoughts on the Pixel 7a’s build quality, my biggest complaint about this phone is its battery life. If I had to sum up my experience, I would have to say battery life is all over the place. On a good day, I saw roughly three and a half hours of screen-on time with heavy usage. This isn’t great, but it’ll get you through the day, though you might need to throw it on the charger here and there.

But what was really odd is that I saw insane battery drain while the phone was in standby, but only at night. For example, in less than eight hours, with the phone flipped over so the display wouldn’t light up, I saw a >30% battery drop. I was able to replicate this several nights in a row, so I don’t think it was a misbehaving app or rouge background process. The good news is that I never experienced that significant drain during the day.

Like with the build quality issues, I talked to several other writers reviewing Google’s latest budget handset to see if they were experiencing similar issues. This time around, I wasn’t alone. While we all had slightly different issues, several of us noticed significant battery drain when the Pixel 7a’s Face Unlock and other front-facing camera features were enabled.

I ran several bug reports and passed them off to Google PR when communicating about these odd battery issues. As I think the problems are software or optimization-related, I really hope Google can squash a bug or two in future firmware updates and improve the battery life. Of course, never buy a device with the promise of a future fix.

Cameras: Still Some of the Best at This Price Point

Zoom levels in the Google Pixel 7a camera app
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

The Google Pixel 7a features three cameras: one standard and one ultra-wide around back and a fixed-focus selfie lens around front. As with previous Pixels, you can take great photos with this phone, even with this handset using a different set of sensors than previous generations, thanks in part to the company’s computational photography smarts.

Rear-Facing Cameras

Back of the Google Pixel 7a focused on the rear cameras
Justin Duino / How-To Geek
  • Main: 64MP, ƒ/1.89 aperture, 4K60, Super Res Zoom up to 8x, 80-degree FOV
  • Ultra-wide: 13MP, ƒ/2.2 aperture, 120-degree FOV

The Pixel 7a features a 64MP primary sensor that is 72% larger than the Pixel 6a’s. The size difference allows the camera to bring in 44% more light, which in return makes for a better (and sharper) image. The secondary ultra-wide lens was bumped up to a 13MP sensor.

Looking through the photos I took with the phone, I was happy with the overall reproduction of whatever subject and/or scene I was attempting to capture. Most shots did tend to skew to the cooler side of the spectrum, but I was happy with how the phone handled bright and dark environments.

While I know most people enjoy having the extra flexibility of an ultra-wide lens, I would have preferred a dedicated zoom lens. Looking at the edge of the ultra-wide shots, you’ll see distortion, almost as if they were captured using a fisheye lens. The look doesn’t detract from the overall image, though, as long as the subject is centered in the frame.

The Pixel 7a can capture up to 8x “Super Res Zoom” images, but I never pushed it past the 2x digital zoom. Despite these shots cropping in on the scene, I found that Google’s processing power kept the image sharp and looking great.

Front-Facing Camera

Top portion of the Google Pixel 7a display showing the How-To Geek website
Justin Duino / How-To Geek
  • Selfie: 13MP, ƒ/2.2 aperture, 95-degree FOV, fixed focus, 4K30

The Pixel 7a’s front-facing camera does a great job of capturing selfies when in good lighting. Step into a dark room, though, and quality drops off pretty significantly. Even with Night Sight (long-exposure) enabled, images come out soft and grainy.

Portrait mode works pretty okay on Google’s budget handset, but what I said about lighting applies here too. In some scenes, I noticed that the handset struggled especially hard around my hairline. If you look at the last photo in the above gallery, you’ll see a significant gap between my hair and where the digital bokeh begins.

Should You Buy the Google Pixel 7a?

Back of the Google Pixel 7a in a person's hand
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

In a vacuum, it’s extremely easy for me to recommend the Google Pixel 7a. For just under $500, you get an Android smartphone with all of the performance you might need and an amazing camera that you can take anywhere.

But, of course, other budget-friendly phones, like the Samsung Galaxy A54 5G, offer a similar mix of cost to performance. You can also grab this phone’s more premium sibling, the Pixel 7, on sale for almost the same price as the Pixel 7a. It all comes down to what software experience you prefer and if there are any promos happening when you’re looking to buy.

The Google Pixel 7a is available to order today, starting at $499 in Charcoal, Sea, Snow, and Coral (all pictured below). Note that the Coral color is exclusive to the Google Store, so you’ll have to pick one of the other colorways if you choose to buy from a carrier like AT&T, T-Mobile, or elsewhere.

Additionally, in the U.S., if you want mmWave 5G, you’ll need to shell out an additional $50 to Verizon.

Rating:
7/10

?

  • 1 – Does not work
  • 2 – Barely functional
  • 3 – Severely lacking in most areas
  • 4 – Functions, but has numerous issues
  • 5 – Fine yet leaves a lot to be desired
  • 6 – Good enough to buy on sale
  • 7 – Great and worth purchasing
  • 8 – Fantastic, approaching best-in-class
  • 9 – Best-in-class
  • 10 – Borderline perfection

Price:
Starting At $499

Here’s What We Like

  • Premium performance
  • Fantastic camera quality
  • Distinctive design
  • Wireless charging

And What We Don’t

  • Battery life isn’t great
  • Cheap-feeling build
  • mmWave 5G costs an extra $50 ($549 total)

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