|The just-launched Pixel 7a is not only Google’s newest budget-minded Android smartphone. With a 64-megapixel main camera sensor it’s also the highest-resolution Pixel to date!|
After years as a devoted fan of Sony’s criminally-underloved Xperia line, I finally made the leap to Google’s self-produced Pixel phones almost six years ago now. Although my Xperias were great phones, the Google Pixel 2 XL remains my favorite handset to date, and so when my carrier finally forced an upgrade after a few years, I stayed with Google once more for the Pixel 5a.
A week ago, another carrier-induced upgrade coupled with a no-brainer discount prompted me to switch to the just-launched Google Pixel 7a. And seeing as it’s brand new, I thought I’d give a photographer’s perspective on this phone after my first week of real-world use.
A little background on why I bought the Pixel 7a
I’ve been an Android user almost from the start, gravitating first to Sony and then Google for their near-stock OS implementations and timely updates. It was their reputation for shooting great photos that first piqued my interest in Pixels, coupled with their broader US-market availability.
And I have to say, since making that leap I’ve found that reputation to be well-deserved. Even if Google’s camera hardware has tended to lag behind its rivals, its software smarts have nevertheless seen my Pixels turn out consistently great photos in most respects.
That’s not to say everything has been all roses, however. My Pixel 5a had several annoying issues from the start, including a barely-usable fingerprint sensor, a slow-to-launch camera and all-too-frequent software stutters and lockups.
|Although its rear is largely plastic, the Pixel 7a has an aluminum midframe and a strong family resemblance to the flagship 7-series. Google says recycled materials constitute 21% by weight.|
It was with a little trepidation, then, that I ordered my Google Pixel 7a. Sure, it’s been very widely lauded by reviewers both from sites dedicated to Android and those with a broader remit, but that was also true of my Pixel 5a, a phone that left me feeling rather conflicted. Still, I bit the bullet and made the order. And (spoiler alert!) after a week in action I have to say I’m happy that I did so.
How it compares
So what’s new in the Pixel 7a? As compared to the previous-generation Pixel 6a, there’s a next-generation Tensor G2 CPU and GPU, 8GB of RAM (2GB more), a faster 90Hz screen and wireless charging. But by far the biggest changes are in its cameras, all three of which have been upgraded.
Key among the camera tweaks, there’s a new 64-megapixel, Type 1/1.73 (7.4 x 5.5mm) 25mm-equivalent main camera. This is not only a huge step up in both size and resolution from the 12.2-megapixel, Type 1/2.55 (5.1 x 3.8mm) chip in the Pixel 6a, but also beats the 50-megapixel chips in the flagship Pixel 7 and 7 Pro for native resolution.
The flagships do still win in having larger sensors and Laser AF, while the 7 Pro also exclusively features an additional 5x telephoto camera. But where the Pixel 7a has an edge over the flagships is in its pricing. It’s available immediately in one of four colorways – Sea Blue, Charcoal Grey, Snow White or (a Google Store-exclusive) Coral Pink – for just $499, or $549 with additional antennas for Verizon’s mmWave 5G networks.
Compared to Apple’s iPhone series, the Pixel 7a sits midway between the prices of the third-gen iPhone SE and the rather long-in-the-tooth iPhone 13. Both iOS rivals have much lower-res 12-megapixel cameras, with just a single camera in the SE and a secondary ultra-wide lens added to the iPhone 13.
As well as being lower-res than Google’s offering, the iPhone SE’s sole camera uses a significantly smaller Type 1/3 (4.9 x 3.7mm) sensor. The iPhone 13’s main camera, meanwhile, is based around a rather larger Type 1/1.9 (6.8 x 5.1mm) main sensor. But that advantage is reversed at the ultra-wide angle, as the Pixel’s secondary camera is a little larger: around 1/3.1-inch vs 1/3.4-inch from Apple.
It’s 64 megapixels! (kinda-sorta)
It’s important to note that while it features a 64-megapixel sensor, Google does something which a fair few phone manufacturers also do: it limits the resolution at which images can be saved to just 16 megapixels, even as it promotes that much larger number in its marketing materials.
|Although it can only output images at a quarter of its sensor resolution, the Google Pixel 7a’s main camera still delivers scads of detail, along with consistently attractive color and exposure.|
While I understand the reasoning – the much greater file sizes of native resolution images would quickly fill up your storage space – the decision to market it this way still feels just a little dishonest, doubly so because you can’t access the sensor’s true resolution even if shooting in Raw format or using a third-party camera app.
That doesn’t mean you won’t get any benefit from the high sensor resolution, though. When using its Super Res Zoom feature, the Pixel 7a will provide a 2x digital zoom by cropping in to its native sensor resolution, without the need for a separate telephoto camera.
(You can then apply a further 4x digital zoom for an effective 8x total zoom on the main camera, but this will come at the expense of image quality since, beyond the native sensor resolution, there’s nothing for the camera to rely on beyond clever guesswork to enhance detail.)
|The Pixel 7a’s 2x zoom is achieved by cropping the central 16 megapixels from the 64-megapixel image sensor and outputting it at 1:1 resolution, rather than with a dedicated telephoto lens.|
And when shooting at wide-angle, Google’s 4:1 pixel binning arrangement will yield lower noise levels and a crisper image on a per-pixel basis than would likely be the case if providing the full sensor resolution.
Still, I’d really like to see Google allow for native-res imaging, even if only for Raw files and third-party camera apps. I’ve paid for the hardware, after all; it should be my choice how I use it, and rivals like Apple and Samsung already allow just this on some models.
Dual main cameras, but with an intermittent camera selection bug
As well as the main 25mm-equivalent camera with the aforementioned 2x zoom achieved by cropping, the Pixel 7a has a secondary, ultrawide camera with a 14mm-equivalent focal length. This has a native resolution of 13 megapixels and that’s the size you’ll get when shooting Raw files too. JPEGs, however, are routinely upsampled to 16 megapixels, matching the main camera’s resolution either when pixel-binned or used in telephoto mode.
|The 14mm ultrawide lens can pack in a whole lot of subject from quite close up, but you’ll definitely notice its characteristic distortion as you near the corners.|
The ultrawide camera isn’t quite as crisp as the main camera, but still provides pretty decent levels of detail. I did stumble on one very annoying bug in Google’s camera app while using the wider camera, however.
After shooting with it successfully for a while, I noticed that my framing was suddenly changing radically, as if the image was being cropped post-capture. I’m not the first to have seen this issue with the Pixel series, as I found multiple users reporting the same problem a couple of years ago with the Pixel 5.
What seems to be happening is that Google’s camera app somehow gets confused and switches to shooting with the main camera at the moment of capture, despite having shown you a preview of framing with the ultrawide camera. Once it happened it recurred for shot after shot until I rebooted the phone. Hopefully Google can squash this recurring bug soon.
Rounding out the camera setup, there’s also a 13-megapixel selfie camera with a 20mm-equivalent focal length. This defaults to a more natural 28mm-equivalent field of view in Google’s camera app unless you enable the 0.7x ‘zoom,’ and saves its images at 12-megapixel resolution regardless of the focal length crop setting used.
I’d term the selfie camera acceptable, but not great. Results from this lens are noticeably less crisp than those from the other two, and it gets decidedly soft in low light. But with that said, it does the job for video calling and the occasional selfie.
|Shots from the fixed-focus front camera aren’t as crisp and detailed as those from the two rearward-facing cameras, but they’ll still suffice for casual selfies.|
Quick, accurate autofocus and attractive imagery
Autofocus is only available with the main camera, as both the ultrawide and selfie cameras are fixed-focus types. I found AF to be quick and confident, and accurate the overwhelming majority of the time.
That’s good news, because with Google’s camera app there is no option for manual focus in all but the Night Sight mode, and even there it’s just a choice of AF or fixed near/far manual focus. Of course, you can use a third-party camera app if you need manual focus, but this is really something that should be offered in the default app, even if hidden behind a switch or menu.
I found white balance and auto exposure to be very good with both rearward-facing cameras. With the front selfie camera, exposure and color were a tad less accurate, especially in difficult lighting. The good news is that the stock camera app offers sliders for white balance, exposure and contrast at a tap of the screen, so it’s very easy to tune to your taste or artistic intent.
Swift both for photography and general usage
Performance is definitely a strength of the Google Pixel 7a. Sure, there are faster phones out there at the flagship level, and both the Tensor G2’s CPU and GPU portions trail these by some way. But for a mid-range phone aimed at the budget-minded, the performance is better than most.
Google’s camera app starts up within less than half a second, versus my Pixel 5a which even at its best took around a second to launch (and often longer, causing me to miss shots more than once). And the phone is much snappier in other respects too, both when opening/using apps and when rebooting. Nor does it seem to close apps as quickly when in the background as did my Pixel 5a.
And although there’s not a dedicated burst mode in Google’s camera app, there is an equivalent in what Google calls Top Shot mode. This will, by default, enable itself whenever an appropriate subject is detected. (You can also manually enable or disable it, if preferred.)
In Top Shot mode, the Pixel 7a will shoot a burst of images at around 24 frames per second for roughly 2.5 seconds, and then automatically choose what it considers to be the best frame in the series. If you disagree, you can manually select a different frame (or frames), and the results will be saved as standalone JPEGs.
Handheld long exposures and ‘bokeh’ you can adjust post-capture
The Night Sight mode is worthy of a little more discussion as it’s quite a handy feature. It functions not only with the phone mounted on a tripod or otherwise kept still, but also when shooting handheld.
Multiple-minute exposures are possible when tripod-mounted; when shooting handheld, the Pixel 7a will allow exposures to a maximum of seven seconds and prompt you to keep the phone as still as you can manage.
|Night Sight disabled||Auto Night Sight||Max Night Sight|
The camera’s auto mode will enable Night Sight when it deems appropriate, or you can enable it manually with either a two-second exposure time or a longer time whose limit varies with shooting conditions. Either approach works well, yielding low noise and plenty of detail.
There’s also a separate Long Exposure mode which aims to blur areas of subject motion while still rendering crisply anything that was relatively static, avoiding blur from camera shake. (Note, though, that the related Action Pan mode seen on some past Pixels has been removed here.)
Again, Long Exposure mode does a surprisingly good job. I have to say that there’s still something slightly unnatural-feeling about the motion-blurred areas compared to a regular long exposure, although it’s hard to put into words. But it certainly works well enough to pass cursory inspection and honestly I’m nitpicking here.
Finally for the computational special effect modes, there’s a Portrait mode which aims to simulate the look of bokeh blur that you get with a large camera sensor, which can’t otherwise be achieved with a tiny smartphone sensor. You can adjust the strength of the bokeh effect – that is to say, the degree of background blurring – in the Photos app after capture.
|Portrait Blur disabled||Auto Portrait Blur||Max Portrait Blur|
I found that the Pixel 7a did a pretty decent job of determining subject distance and mimicking the look of out-of-focus blur. As with Long Exposure mode, if you look closely enough with the right subjects the effect doesn’t feel entirely natural, but it’s convincing enough most of the time. And you don’t necessarily have to apply it pre-capture, either. The effect can be added to your shots at review time from within the Photos app, too.
Post-capture tools to fix your pics, even if shot on another camera
Incidentally, the Photos app has a few other useful tools as well. The most attention-grabbing of these is Google’s Magic Eraser tool, which looks for people in the background of your photos and then attempts to erase them much like you might do manually with Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill tool.
|Google’s Magic Eraser tool automatically locates distractions and suggests you remove or ‘camouflage’ them. (The latter option changes colors other than skin tones to be less obtrusive.)|
The Magic Eraser tool will outline any detected ‘background’ folk automatically, whereupon these can be erased en masse or, by tapping on them, selectively. You can also manually draw in areas that you want erased.
As an alternative to erasing these unwanted subjects, you can opt to have them ‘camouflaged.’ This aims to make them less noticeable by changing the hue and/or reducing the vibrance of their clothing, while retaining natural skin tones.
Both tools have varying degrees of success depending upon the complexity of your shot, with the Magic Eraser quite prone to leaving haloes of the removed subject. But given their ease of use it’s definitely worth giving them a try. (And the Photos app will frequently suggest that you do so, saving you even having to open the tool.)
One strange quirk, though, is that the automatic subject detection varies between the Magic Eraser and Camouflage functions, so you sometimes have to draw back in subjects for camouflaging even though they were automatically suggested for removal.
Another very useful tool in the Photos app is the Photo Unblur feature. This works not only for photos shot with the Pixel 7a, but also those from your earlier phones or even from standalone cameras. It can’t work miracles, but when handling light to moderate blur from camera shake, subject motion or incorrect focus, it can make an unusable photo into a usable one.
(Incidentally, there’s a related feature on other recent Pixels called Face Unblur which works automatically prior to capture by combining data from both the main and ultrawide cameras into a single shot, but I’ve yet to confirm if the Pixel 7a has it. It’s not mentioned on the spec sheet and I’ve yet to see a Pixel 7a shot with it either, nor is it something whose use can be manually invoked.)
There’s also an interesting tool called Portrait Light which attempts to add the look of an artificial light source to your portrait photo post-capture, allowing you to put that source wherever you want it. It’s fairly convincing, but do note that it won’t override strong light sources that are already in the shot like the shine on my forehead here.
|Out-of-camera JPEG||Portrait Light, Top Right||Portrait Light, Bottom Right||Portrait Light, Bottom Left||Portrait Light, Top Left|
And one last tool called Color Focus will allow you to desaturate backgrounds while keeping fully-saturated color solely on your human foreground subject, which can help to better draw your attention towards them.
So what do I think of my new Google Pixel 7a? Thus far, I’m pretty thrilled with it. As a phone, it’s swift, feature-packed and has a very clean, consistent and logical OS implementation. It’s also reasonably attractive – as much as any phone-shaped rectangle can be, anyway – and the hardware features all work well, including the in-screen fingerprint sensor which constantly failed me on my Pixel 5a.
About the only significant hardware shortcoming is a rather weak battery life, which means charging every night is a must. The lack of a dedicated telephoto camera is also a pity, but par for the course at this price point.
It’s more of a shame that you can’t access the main camera’s real resolution; that’s something I’d like to see Google make optional. It also really needs to identify and squash the ultrawide camera’s cropping bug, which is annoying but can be fixed with a phone reboot.
In most respects I think this is a really good phone for the money, and I’m very happy indeed with it.
But these are all relatively minor complaints, honestly, and they’re offset in my mind by a whole raft of tools that help you to get better photos or improve them post-capture. In most respects I think this is a really good phone for the money, and I’m very happy indeed with it.
If you’re in the market for a new Android phone and don’t want to spend a truckload for a flagship model, I’d say this is probably your best bet for an affordably-priced handset with a solid camera.