In a nutshell: Google's midrange champ, the Pixel 6a, might be better value than it looks at first blush. Following some speculation that the phone might secretly have a 90 Hz panel, a developer found a way to overclock it from 60 Hz to 90 Hz with a mod that seems to be pretty reliable.
It all started when some curious developers noticed that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6a share an integral piece of display hardware: something that their software recognizes as the s6e3fc3, which the developers thought was the panel or its controller. In theory, then, if the Pixel 6 supports a 90 Hz refresh rate, the 6a should, too, and could be limited to 60 Hz by software, not hardware.
Working from this theory, a developer called TheLunarixus came up with a way to see if the Pixel 6a's panel was overclockable. He took the 6's display driver and software package and blended it with the 6a's version of Android 13, then flashed the results to his 6a. With that, the option to enable the 90 Hz mode appeared in his 6a's developer settings, and when he switched it on... it worked.
He shared the software package he had pieced together and his fellow enthusiasts, including Sean Hollister at The Verge who was able to replicate the result. There were some minor issues posted to Twitter that Lunarixus was mostly able to troubleshoot, with the exception of a persistent problem with the panel's color calibration, or lack thereof. Several users complained about a green tint that appeared after the mod was installed, even before the 90 Hz mode was enabled.
UPDATE: I flashed a new vendor_boot image sent by @TheLunarixus and now my Pixel 6a can run at 90Hz! The green tint/calibration issue is still very very noticeable on my unit, though @MaxWinebach says it isn't there on his. pic.twitter.com/beM2vmTTo9--- Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) August 11, 2022
Otherwise, the testing so far has shown that the Pixel 6a can reliably overclock its panel to 90 Hz without causing any catastrophic hardware failures. TheLunarixus is quick to point out that the mod leaves the panel's default voltages and power consumption intact, which makes damage to the hardware unlikely.
But one question goes unanswered: is this a typical overclock that takes advantage of the hardware's headroom, or was this a feature that Google decided to disable in software? Unfortunately, neither Google nor Samsung, the panel's manufacturer, have answered that question yet.
Further investigation revealed that the s6e3fc3 device isn't the panel after all, but most likely the driver for the controller. It's still unclear if there are similarities between the Pixel 6 and 6a's panels, which do differ in both resolution and size.
For the time being, we'd recommend against trying this mod out for yourself unless you have a spare three-month old Pixel 6a somehow. On the upside, TheLunarixus says that he's working on a simple ROM for the mod that would make it almost plug and play, and it might be worth considering then.
Image credit: Thai Nguyen