Sunday, June 23, 2024
Smart Phones

Google Pixel 7A review: a better deal

For the past couple of years, there’s been a very simple flowchart to follow when shopping for a midrange phone: if you want the best screen, get the Samsung phone. If you want the best camera, get the Google Pixel phone. This year, it’s even simpler: get the Google Pixel 7A. If you absolutely must have the best screen in the class, consider the Galaxy A54 5G, but for most people, the 7A is the best choice. 

The Pixel 7A includes a handful of important upgrades, but on its spec sheet, there’s one that I think is the most important: a brighter, smoother-scrolling 90Hz screen. It’s not quite as nice as the Galaxy A54 5G’s 120Hz display, but it no longer means you’re putting up with a screen that’s just “meh” if you opt for the Pixel A device. We look at our phone screens roughly 20 billion times a day, so that’s a big quality-of-life improvement.

Like last year’s Pixel 6A, there’s a 6.1-inch OLED panel, an IP67 rating for robust dust and water resistance, and Google’s custom chipset du jour — this time, Tensor G2. It’s backed up by three years of OS upgrades and five years of security updates.

This time around, there’s an updated camera, wireless charging (a first for a Pixel A phone), and more RAM to help make the most of its powerful chipset. That brings the total price to $500, a significant jump from the 6A’s $450, but these upgrades are worth your time and help nudge the Pixel 7A to the front of the midrange class, not just a “buy it for the camera” alternative. 

The Pixel 7A’s bezels mean it’s almost as big as the Pixel 7 with a significantly smaller screen.

The 7A is slightly bigger than the Pixel 6A, even though they’re both built around 6.1-inch screens. It’s only a little smaller than the Pixel 7, with its 6.3-inch screen, thanks to the 7A’s thicker bezels. It has a sturdy aluminum frame, a Gorilla Glass 3 panel on the front, and composite plastic on the back. My review unit is coral, which is a Google store exclusive, and unlike the Pixel 6, there’s nothing “kinda” about it. It’s coral as heck.

The IP67 rating means that the phone is sealed against dust and is protected against some water immersion, so you don’t have to sweat it if the 7A falls into a puddle. It was the pocket of a not-at-all waterproof jacket when I got soaked in a rainstorm at the playground, and it fared just fine. It’s a step up for the midrange class, where plastic frames are more common and IP ratings are by no means guaranteed. 

The screen is a 6.1-inch 1080p OLED panel with a 90Hz top refresh rate — not quite as smooth as the 120Hz displays on the A54 and most flagship phones, but if you’re coming from a standard 60Hz display, it will look a little more polished. The 90Hz setting is off by default, which is probably a battery-saving move, so if you want to experience it, you’ll need to turn on “Smooth Display” in the display settings. I think it’s worth the minor hit to battery performance; it’s noticeably smoother and makes the 60Hz setting look choppy. Google says that this display gets 25 percent brighter than the 6A’s in its peak brightness mode under direct sunlight, and I can use it comfortably outdoors.

The 7A’s in-display fingerprint scanner still feels a beat slower than others in the class — that’s been a sore spot for Pixel owners over the past couple of years. In fact, I set up fingerprint unlocking on two Pixel 7As, and after running through the initial scanning, both phones gave me an error and said my fingerprint hadn’t registered. It worked fine the next time I tried on both phones, but it was very irritating to my perfectionist nature. In any case, the fingerprint scanner is joined this year by face unlock (imported from the Pixel 7 and 7 Pro). Having both enabled makes unlocking the phone painless: one or the other works quickly, and you can be on your way.

There’s a 4,385mAh battery in the 7A, a slight decrease from the 4,410mAh cell in the Pixel 6A. Google claims the 7A can go up to 72 hours on a single charge, but that’s in Extreme Battery Saver mode. Throughout my testing, I used the phone in extreme not-saving mode with the screen refresh rate at 90Hz and always-on display… always on. 

The Pixel 7A is the first A-series phone to offer wireless charging.

With those things enabled, battery stamina feels like it’s just average. On a day of moderate use with about 3.5 hours of screen-on time, the 7A was down to 25 percent by bedtime. Adding a power-hungry activity like an extended gaming session would definitely drive the battery down faster and make a late-day recharge necessary. When you swipe down the notification shade, you’ll see an estimated time of day when the battery will be fully drained. This estimate seemed incredibly optimistic every time I looked at it, so best not to put too much stock in it.

The 7A has fast-ish 18W wired charging (no charger included in the box, naturally) and, new this year, 7.5W wireless charging. The latter is quite rare in the midrange class, and it’s nice to have the convenience of just setting it on a charger at the end of the day. It looks fancy on the pricey Pixel Stand, but the 23W fast charging speeds Google’s wireless charger offers are overkill; my basic Qi charger worked just fine with the 7A.

The Pixel 7A uses the same custom Tensor G2 chipset that’s on board the flagship Pixel 7 and 7 Pro. I feel the same way using the 7A that I did using Apple’s 2022 iPhone SE last year — this $500 phone performs better than it has any right to. It easily handles challenging tasks like rendering 3D game graphics. Apps load quickly and stay open for a reasonable amount of time; I was pleased to find the Delta app still open in the background with my boarding pass displayed after 20 minutes of doing other things on the phone.

All versions of the 7A include sub-6GHz 5G, while only the version sold by Verizon in the US will include mmWave 5G. Guess what? It costs an extra $50 for a total of $550. Most of us are unlikely to spend any meaningful amount of time within range of a mmWave signal, so paying extra for a future we probably won’t use much straight-up sucks. If you’re on Verizon and it’s feasible for you to buy the unlocked 7A directly from Google (it does trade-ins and financing, too!), I highly encourage you to go that route and save $50.

As is traditional with A-series phones, the Pixel 7A has a high-quality camera.

The Pixel 7A includes a new 64-megapixel main rear camera with optical image stabilization. That’s more pixels than the 50-megapixel sensors on the 7 and 7 Pro, but don’t get too excited — the sensor is physically smaller than the one on the flagships. It’s accompanied by 13-megapixel ultrawide and selfie cameras. 

In previous generations, the A-series Pixel phone had the same camera hardware as the flagships. That’s not the case anymore, but it doesn’t really matter: the 7A offers the best camera system you can buy on a $500 phone. The basics are there; you’ll get reliably good photos in nice light or crappy indoor lighting. It has its weak points, and sometimes the super-smart Pixel camera gets a little too clever, but it’s an impressive overall package for the money.

In good lighting, the Pixel 7A turns in high-quality images with Google’s signature cool and contrasty look. It knows how to play the hits when there’s a blue sky and green grass in the frame, but it doesn’t go overboard. In low light, Google’s faster Night Sight mode brings out an impressive amount of detail in very dim conditions.

In moderate lighting, I got an above-average hit rate of sharp photos of moving subjects — namely, a toddler. Face Unblur occasionally jumps in and uses some extra image info from the ultrawide camera to sharpen up a slightly blurred portrait. It doesn’t work miracles, but it’s nice to have. But most of the time, the Pixel 7A is just smart about shutter speed, keeping it fast enough to freeze my subject as long as he wasn’t moving too much. 

Portrait mode photos using the 2x zoom mode look crunchy.

There’s no telephoto lens on the 7A — not that I’d expect one at this price — so it relies on “Super Res” digital zoom to reach up to 8x magnification. The results at 8x are predictably unpleasant, but I’m also disappointed by the quality at 2x zoom. That’s one of the focal lengths available in portrait mode, and the images it produces look crunchy and noisy. Google isn’t using the lossless crop zoom that the 7 and 7 Pro use at 2x — that’s a technique that uses the middle of a high-res sensor to produce a magnified image without the upsampling of digital zoom. After several rounds of disappointing results from the 2x setting in portrait mode, I quit using it altogether.

The main camera shoots up to 4K/60p, producing detailed clips with capable stabilization. There’s no video portrait mode, which is kind of a bummer. That’s not a feature I’ve seen in another midrange phone, and Google’s take on it in the 7 and 7 Pro still feels every bit the first attempt that it is. But the 7A surely has the processing power to keep up with a video bokeh mode, and I missed being able to use it.

A lot of the photo features Google is big on now are ones you won’t encounter until you review your images in Google Photos. That’s where I saw a few instances of the Pixel 7A camera getting a little too clever. It will automatically enable Top Shot — where it saves a quick burst of images — in some unusual instances. I saw this happen once in selfie mode where the subject (me, obviously) was barely moving and once when I was taking a photo of a mural. The resulting photos are fine, but they’re not the kind that benefit from being able to pick the best image from a batch.

There’s Magic Eraser, too, which can do a convincing job of removing people from the background of your shots, given the right scenery. It did a good enough job of taking my (patiently waiting) husband out of the background of a portrait of our son. In another instance, it offered to remove “people” from a photo; the people were actually two plastic dolls. I guess AI still can’t do it all.

The Pixel 7A is the best midrange Android phone — not just the midrange phone with the best camera.

While the Pixel 6A was the best midrange Android phone if you care most about the camera, the Pixel 7A is the best midrange Android phone — period. The screen isn’t quite as nice as the Galaxy A54’s, but it’s improved enough to satisfy most people. The camera doesn’t always nail it, but it’s impressively capable for this class. And even though it’s pricier than last year’s model, it comes with some serious upgrades not often seen in this class, like wireless charging.  

The Pixel 7A is the best midrange Android phone — period

The Galaxy A54 has the bigger, smoother-scrolling display, and it does come with the promise of four OS upgrades in its lifetime, which is one more than the 7A. But the 7A’s flagship-grade processor puts it ahead in terms of performance now and likely well into the future. Tensor G2 is up against heavy competition in the flagship class, where it sits alongside the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, but it’s easily one of the best processors you’ll find on a midrange phone. 

After a couple of years of A-series devices that felt a little phoned-in, Google has proved that it’s still paying attention to its midrange Pixel. Camera, performance, charging, display — nearly every aspect of this device has been improved a little bit. It’s not the cheapest midrange phone out there, but it’s a heck of a good deal.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge



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