Google Pixel 7a review: The mid-range champion

Google Pixel 7a review

The Google Pixel 7a is a rarity. It is a mid-range phone that outperforms its specifications in many areas, making it difficult to pass especially when the price starts at $499.

This calls into question the future of the A series because the line between Pixel 7a and Pixel 7 blurs so much that the two devices are almost indistinguishable from each other. That’s $100 cheaper for this phone, but even if you look beyond Google’s lineup, there are several reasons why this might be a better choice for those on a budget.

Design and build quality

The Pixel 7a is right in line with Google’s current design language, including the strip that houses the rear camera array. A brushed metal finish helps it stand out even more, although it has limited protection as it sticks out. Instead of glass, the back panel is made from polycarbonate materials, which may make it less susceptible to cracking, but still prone to fingerprints and smudges. I didn’t have a case for my test unit, but I’d recommend getting one.

Google Pixel 7a

It’s nice to see a mid-range phone get a 90Hz refresh rate for the screen for smoother browsing. It’s off by default, and you can turn it on in the settings, where somewhat surprisingly, it doesn’t drain battery life as much as you might expect. The 6.1-inch OLED is the same panel as the Pixel 6a, though this time it’s 200 nits brighter. Google has also managed to improve the fingerprint sensor and bring Face Unlock to the Pixel 7a, although the latter only works for unlocking the screen, not for any biometric passwords on other apps.

Google Pixel 7a

Below, the phone runs on the same Tensor G2 processor as other Pixel 7 phones, opening up a number of functional features available to those two. This also applies to an increase in RAM to 8GB with the familiar 128GB of storage. Pixel 7 has an edge as there is a 256GB variant.

Despite a smaller 4,385mAh battery, it works more efficiently here thanks to the Tensor G2, which lasts a few more hours per charge on average. Plus, Google finally brings wireless charging to the A-series here with only 5W of charging power, so it’s slower than your average charger.

Camera features

Knowing Google’s habit of sticking with familiar hardware, I was surprised to see it go with a new camera module in both the rear and front cameras. If this is a sign of things to come, we could start to see a greater emphasis on hardware to match software in future Pixel devices.

This time around, the Pixel 7a gets a new 64-megapixel (26mm equivalent) main camera, a Sony IMX787 sensor which also marks the first time an A-series phone gets a Quad Bayer Type 1/1.73 sensor with 0.8m . It also has an f/1.9 aperture and optical image stabilization. The ultra-wide 13-megapixel (14mm equivalent) has a field of view of 120 and an aperture of f/2.2. It also uses a Sony sensor, the IMX712. The 13-megapixel front camera, which has an ultra-wide focal length equivalent to 20mm, is also new to the Pixel line.

Google Pixel 7a

As always, there’s no telephoto lens (only the Pixel 7 Pro has one), so you have to rely on Google’s secret sauce in the form of Super Res Zoom to save cropped photos without pixelation ruining them. That goes all the way up to 8x zoom, with a 2x shortcut always available in the camera app, which is significant because previous Pixel A-series phones have always been left out of Google’s hybrid zoom capabilities.

Software features

Google’s style has always been to splash its software prowess from flagships to A-series phones to develop a stable shooter at a more affordable price point. That premise remains the same, only that the gap appears to be closing rapidly.

Google Pixel 7a
Night view

All the standard on-screen controls apply, whether it’s the sliders for highlights/shadows and color temperature, or the automatic help that kicks in, like how Night Sight can activate within the camera’s main mode in low light conditions. Google has also nicely introduced Long Exposure mode as an extra in the interface, although no sign of Action Pan from the flagships yet. Nor do you get Cinematic on the video side.

Google Pixel 7a
Prolonged exposure

You can shoot in RAW, but not full resolution in either RAW or JPEG, so the main camera always shoots pixel binning at 16 megapixels. Unfortunately, no manual controls.

Google Pixel 7a
Shot in RAW, edited in Lightroom.
Google Pixel 7a
Magic eraser

The other software features available in Google Photos also stand out, led by the Magic Eraser for removing people and objects from images. Camouflage, which debuted in the Pixel 6a, also returns, along with the Unblur and Portrait Blur tools introduced in the Pixel 7 flagships. Google has added an extra one called Sky, where you can apply color tone changes to the sky in any photo.

Image quality

Main camera

With different hardware underneath combined with Google’s software computation, the Pixel 7a seems to have taken a leap forward from its predecessor. Not only is Night Sight twice as fast as before, but all images are rendered faster regardless of mode. While I would have liked more granularity throughout, I really can’t fault what I captured using a phone that costs a lot less than a typical flagship these days.

Google Pixel 7a
Taken with Google Pixel 7a

Google has also wisely recognized where some caution was needed. The automatic night sight within the Camera mode (which is optional) does not always activate in low light conditions when it thinks there is enough light to do without it. There will be times when he intervenes unnecessarily, but I can’t say he’s ever really ruined a photo. However, sometimes less is more, and it’s nice to have the ability to disable that on-screen tool.

Google Pixel 7a
Taken with Google Pixel 7a.

This all seems like a welcome change from the sometimes aggressive approach taken with the Pixel 6a. This phone does a better job of locking focus and not over-sharpening the final composition. Even with RAW, the results were better after working on them in post-production. Dynamic range is excellent for a mid-range phone, with few I can think of that consistently come close the way the Pixel 7a does.

2x zoom

Portrait mode is limited by the lack of a telephoto lens, but again the digital zoom is surprisingly effective. This is true even when zooming in 2x on any subject, somewhat negating the lack of real optics to help you get close. The long exposure is a welcome addition in the way it invites experimentation, I just wish there was a way to manually control exposure length.

Google Pixel 7a
Portrait mode

Ultra wide

This is a fixed focus lens, so you lose a macro mode for shooting up close. Despite this, ultra-wide fits well in most situations. Just like the main camera, however, low-light shots get worse the further away the subject is. The field of view is wide enough to get far into the frame, so perspective often won’t be an issue. It just depends on what you’re shooting and the angle you want to take.

Google Pixel 7a review

The good news is that dynamic range is rich even with these photos. Google tends to lean towards more contrast by default with its camera, which you can always adjust using the sliders, but I liked not having to worry so much about dramatic differences in light within the same frame.

Video functionality

Unlike still photography, nothing has changed dramatically on the video side with the Pixel 7a. You can still record in 4K at 60fps, although you have to drop it to 30fps when using the ultra wide angle lens. If you really need the widest angle and fastest frame rate, then you need to shoot at 1080p/60fps. Dynamic range isn’t quite as well balanced here, leaning a bit too much towards contrasting tones that don’t always sound realistic.

That’s not to say that all footage is bad, just that sometimes you’ll need to adjust the brightness. Unfortunately, there’s no way to control both shadows and highlights as you might with still images, so the tools available give you less to work with. Speech Enhancement now works with both the rear and front cameras, giving you some flexibility in how you capture audio.

A superb mid-range shooter

It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Pixel lineup that the Pixel 7a is a competitive mid-ranger given the history of the A-series. What stands out is how much the line blurs between the 7a and 7, raising questions for me about what Google intends to do about it. Does it remove the Pro suffix from its flagship and only release one phone in one size, letting the A-series take over as the smaller alternative? Or is it looking to increase what the flagships offer to put some distance between them and the cheaper A-series?

Google Pixel 7a

It’s hard to tell until the Pixel 8 series comes out, but for now, the Pixel 7a stands out as one of the best phones you can buy under $500. When your camera needs are modest or you want a competent shooter you can rely on without paying a small fortune, it’s hard to see one that works better top to bottom for the price.

Are there alternatives?

The obvious alternative would have to be the Samsung Galaxy A54, which also follows a similar path where Samsung is looking to maximize what it can bring to its mid-range lineup. It offers an extra lens, as well as more manual controls, but may not exactly match the software to produce the same quality images.

The Vivo V27 Pro also has more than Samsung, but it’s hampered somewhat by a darker software update cycle than Google and Samsung’s promised pledges. You also can’t rule out the iPhone 14 if you want a larger phone that retains much of the same camera capability as its Pro siblings.

Should you buy it?

Yes, even if you’re considering upgrading from the Pixel 6a. Google filled several feature gaps here, making this crafted and well-rounded phone feel like a more affordable option.

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