The Google Pixel 6a has won laurels as one of the best affordable budget phones if you live in the US market. For $450, it offers an outstanding design, a pair of reliable cameras, clean software, some neat exclusive tricks, and plenty of Tensor firepower.

Google’s Tensor chip is plenty powerful to handle even the most demanding workflow. In my own experience, it hasn’t made me struggle with any aggressive background task management, and I haven’t encountered any worrisome lags either. Gaming, however, is something where the Pixel 6a falters, and in some rather strange ways.

A capable chip on paper and in practice

On paper, Tensor is nothing short of a behemoth and should technically outperform the best processors on the market. The Tensor chip includes two high-end Cortex X1 cores for the heavy lifting, a pair of mid-range Cortex-A76 cores and four Cortex-A55 cores for less demanding tasks.

Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

If you compare it to the Snapdragon 888, the Qualcomm chip offers one Cortex-X1 core, three Cortex-A78 cores and four Cortex-A55 cores. The core architecture of Samsung’s Exynos 2100 is no different either. Anyway, The Galaxy S21 — which came out in 2021 — beats the Pixel 6a in AnTuTu, GFXBench Manhattan 3.1 (on screen), and Geekbench 5.

Compared to newer phones like the Galaxy S22 that rely on the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, the Tensor chip in the Pixel 6a is a long way behind. Comparing it to the A15 Bionic in synthetic benchmarks gives a similar story.

But we’re often told that benchmarks aren’t the real story of how a phone performs. This is especially true for the Pixel 6a. I’ve been using the phone heavily as a daily driver for the past few weeks and haven’t encountered a single performance-related red flag. The phone was able to run anywhere between 15 to 20 apps in the background with ease.

Running the GFXBench benchmark test on the Pixel 6a.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

It’s a flagship chip by design, but it doesn’t really keep up with the flagships from Apple or Qualcomm. Of course, a lot also depends on the thermal hardware and display technology capabilities if one plans to compare the Pixel 6a’s gaming performance to any other flagship phone. This is exactly where the Pixel 6a falls down.

What it’s like to play on the Pixel 6a

I started with casual, less demanding games like The fighting cats, Bistro Heroesand Stardew Valley. The Pixel 6a breezed through these games without any noticeable heat or battery drain. Games ran smoothly and barring internet issues, there were no hiccups during the gaming session.

However, things change when you move on to more demanding games. From the start, I couldn’t help but notice that things felt slow. Games take longer to load and additional assets also take longer to install, even compared to mid-range Android like Nothing Phone 1 powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon 778G+.

Injustice 2 on the Pixel 6a.
Ugly blank bars on Pixel 6a while playing Injustice 2. Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

You may also encounter a strange scaling problem in some games. Look at the empty bars on either side of the screen (image above) while playing Injustice 2. Mortal Kombat was no exception. But before we delve into the title-by-title experience of challenging games, here’s what players should keep in mind.

You’ll have to compromise on either the graphics quality or the raw frame rate numbers. If you want the best visual experience, better stick to moderate to high fps presets instead of Ultra or Extreme graphics quality options.

Even in a room with the temperature set at a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the CPU temperature rose 11 degrees F after just 15 minutes of gaming PUBG spin-off A new country. As for the graphics settings, playing the game with the graphics settings set to Ultra (the maximum allowed is Extreme) and the frame rate set to Max (the maximum possible is 90 fps), the gaming experience was acceptable.

Apex Legends on Pixel 6a.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

However, frame drops are still seen from time to time. I also noticed stuttering during intense fight scenes. Another annoying aspect is that almost every UI element seems to load slower than expected, especially if you’ve played the same game on another Android flagship or iPhone.

This becomes especially annoying if you play as Genshin Impact throws a massive 16GB installation package your way. Unpacking and installing even the heavy update packages takes longer than it should for a processor as capable as the Tensor.

In a room with the temperature set to 73 degrees Fahrenheit, even unpacking the first download package for Diablo Immortal caused a lot of heat within a few minutes. Then there are system limitations. For example, you can’t set the image resolution to Ultra, and image sharpening doesn’t really make a noticeable difference.

Diablo Immortal game on Pixel 6a.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

As for the core experience, I maxed out the game’s antialiasing, visual effects, shadows, environmental detail, and monster detail and came away with a mostly positive experience. There were a few flickers, again during the intense combat scenes, and the CPU temperature shot up to 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

A rudimentary version of the Gamebench test revealed that framerate stability was a paltry 60% to 65% for taxing games like Call of Duty: Mobile and Shadowgun Legends. Any title outside of this category, such as Genshin Impact, Fortniteand Apex Legendsgives worse results.

Apex Legends however, it turned out to be an exception. Framerate drops were far and few between and I didn’t notice any major stuttering even with the framerate set to Ultra and dynamic shadows enabled. As for the frame rate, it stayed in a stable range of 60 during the test rounds.

Playing Asphalt 9 on Pixel 6a.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

The battery temperature also reached the 107 degree Fahrenheit mark in just 10 minutes of play Diablo Immortal. Needless to say, heating is a serious issue and hard to ignore, even if the gaming experience is rewarding, barring a few stutters. The battery drain situation is also worrying, as the phone burned through 13% ion fuel in just about 10 minutes.

Tensor problem

The Pixel 6a can handle “almost” any demanding game you throw at it with ease, and you won’t find the experience subpar unless you compare the experience to a current-gen flagship like Galaxy S22 Ultra or iPhone 13 Pro.

Pixel 6a stress test.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

Aiming for extreme frame rates with HDR visuals? Lower your expectations. If you’re looking for a smooth gaming experience with minimal stuttering, frame drops, and crisp visuals, the Pixel 6a will serve you well. Just make sure you don’t sit in the sun while playing a game like Genshin Impactotherwise, things get toasty pretty quickly.

Another problem is throttling. With 20 CPU threads active for 15 minutes, Tensor dropped to 54% of its peak performance. In comparison, the Poco F4 – which technically has a two-year-old Qualcomm chip – never dips below the 90% mark. Check out the Google Pixel 6a CPU throttling graph in the image above.

Tensor, a story of bad optimization

Running the CPU throttling test for separate test durations of 15, 30, and 45 minutes also yielded a performance graph that steadily declined from start to finish without any significant spell of stability. Now compare the Pixel 6a’s skewed graphics (read: bad throttling) to the relatively stable output from the Poco F4 in the image below:

Performance test showing Poco F4 throttling.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

Even the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, which has a bad reputation for poor performance optimization and thermal management, fared much better than the Tensor. When running the same throttling test on the Galaxy S22 Ultra, the CPU frequency never drops below the 80% mark and there are no red bars for alarming temperature spikes either.

There are also optimization issues. Gamebench, which offers the most comprehensive set of tools for testing game performance, was incompatible with the build of Android 13 (64-bit, ARMv8 architecture) running on the Pixel 6a. Similarly, trying to run some of 3DMark’s demanding tests returned an error for inexplicable reasons.

Annoyingly, the native game control panel that is exclusive to the Pixel phones has also disappeared from the Pixel phones. The feature allows you to monitor metrics such as FPS count and set performance profiles. After being exclusive to the Pixel 6 and its Pro sibling, it started rolling out to the Pixel 6a in August, but is no longer available.

Pixel 6a back panel.
Pixel 6a burns too quickly. Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

I tried to enable it while running Android 13 stable (with the August security patch) and also after signing up for Google’s Android 13 beta program, but I couldn’t find the feature. On the other hand, FPS counter and third-party performance monitoring apps are either grossly inaccurate or not optimized for chips other than those made by Qualcomm or MediaTek.

You can push the Pixel 6a, but you don’t have to

The Pixel 6a is a very strange gaming phone. It comes armed with a pretty powerful processor and that ideally shouldn’t let you down no matter what game you throw at it. But alas, that’s not really the case because there are caveats you should be aware of.

The Pixel 6a’s dominant gaming problem isn’t a lack of raw firepower, but poor optimization for the Tensor chip. It explains why some benchmark tests fail, games have stability issues, throttling is common, and heat management is pretty bad.

Diablo Immortal on Pixel 6a.
Nadeem Sarwar/Digital Trends

I’ve tested phones like the Poco F4 5G and the Nothing Phone 1, both of which have a less powerful processor than the Tensor, but a significantly better experience in terms of gaming smoothness and thermal management. Then comes the throttling problem.

You can technically max out the graphics settings in most demanding games and still get a smooth experience, but the heat in the top half would be hard to ignore. However, if you temper your expectations just a bit in terms of graphics quality and keep things just one notch below the Ultra or Extreme settings, you’ll have a great time playing games on the Pixel 6a.

The only other phone in the US market that can match the Pixel 6a’s gaming prowess is the iPhone SE (2022). The rest of the mid-range competitors from Motorola, TCL and Samsung can’t match the capabilities of the Tensor chip in the Pixel 6a. That means the Pixel 6a still has hope for a gaming phone in this price range, but assuming we get a Pixel 7a in 2023 with Tensor 2, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Editors’ recommendations