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Thursday, September 16, 2021

What Google is signalling by adopting Tensor chip for Pixel 6

Google is ditching Qualcomm over its custom Tensor SoC for its new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones this fall.

Written by Anuj Bhatia | New Delhi |
Updated: August 4, 2021 6:31:27 pm
google pixel 6, pixel 6, pixel 6 pro, tensor chip, tensor chip pixel 6, google custom processor, pixel 6 india price, pixel 6 pro specsThe Tensor processor will power Google's new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro smartphones. (Image credit: Google)

Google’s next-generation Pixel 6 series will not be powered by Qualcomm processors. The decision might not impact the chipset giant’s bottom line much but it could signal another major shift in the semiconductor industry. Monday’s announcement also marks Google’s official debut as the new entrant in designing custom silicon for its upcoming Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro which will be launched later this year in at least eight countries. India, where Pixel devices have not had a good run so far, is not among the first-wave countries.

It has been rumoured for a while that Google was working on its own silicon for future hardware products. The new chipset, previously said to be codenamed “Whitechapel”, is called the Tensor SoC. The name comes from the Tensor Processing Units (TPU), the AI chip that powers its data centers.

The announcement of this custom-built processor designed for Google’s next flagship phones puts Mountain View in the league of Apple and Samsung which have smartphones with their own processors. It is a big change for Google in terms of strategy as well as its overall direction as a premium smartphone player.

google pixel 6, pixel 6, pixel 6 pro, tensor chip, tensor chip pixel 6, google custom processor, pixel 6 india price, pixel 6 pro specs Google is following Apple’s move by using its custom mobile processor to power its smartphones. (Image credit: Google)

Although Google isn’t revealing full details around the Tensor SoC now, the custom chip leans heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. It combines a mobile TPU for AI-led operations and a new Titan M2 security chip. Beyond that, we really don’t know anything about CPU, GPU, or other key metrics. We also don’t know who helped Google design the custom chip, or if TSMC is involved in manufacturing the processor.

“Tensor was built for how people use their phones today and how people will use them in the future. As more and more features are powered by AI and ML it’s not simply about adding more computing resources, it’s about using that ML to unlock specific experiences for our Pixel users,” Google hardware chief Rick Osterloh said in a blog post announcing the new chip.

Going by Osterloh’s statement, it is clear that Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors which previously powered Pixel phones aren’t suitable for features that Google wants to showcase in the Pixel 6. For instance, the new Tensor processor radically improves the photography and speech recognition features on the newer flagships.

For Qualcomm, losing Google as a customer isn’t a big loss. The Pixel range represents a small portion of the global smartphone market share pie, so the impact of the Pixel 6 and the Tensor processor on the San Diego-based chipset titan will be minimal. But Google’s decision to develop its own custom SoC will symbolically hit Qualcomm, the leading manufacturer of mobile chips for virtually all smartphone brands, including Samsung.

The question that needs to be asked is what will Google achieve by selling its Pixel 6 with the Tensor processor over Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip. Does the switching of chips in a phone matter to Google?

For Google, not integrating its hardware ambitions with the software prowess is a waste of opportunity. The unification of hardware and software made Apple a clear winner in the hardware space and the success of the iPhone is proof. Google wants to own core technologies that go into making a modern smartphone. Just having control over the Android operating system and the Play Store is not enough to sell an expensive Pixel phone in the market, where the competition is cutthroat. Google knows this well and which is why it was never able to market the Pixel phones as the legit competitor to the iPhone, despite having excellent cameras and a lead over Apple in AI.

With the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Google wants to control the primary technologies in a phone — silicon, hardware, software, cameras, and battery. The processor, or the brain of the smartphone, is critical to the performance and battery life of a phone. Google’s Pixel phones have suffered from slow performance over the course of time and poor battery life. The control over the silicon means Google is in full in charge of how it wants to design its smartphones, a similar strategy adopted by Apple.

google pixel 6, pixel 6, pixel 6 pro, tensor chip, tensor chip pixel 6, google custom processor, pixel 6 india price, pixel 6 pro specs Both the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro come with a new design language and a new camera system. The Pro has three cameras, with a 4x optical telephoto lens. (Image credit: Google)

This also means Google no longer has to launch products, keeping Qualcomm’s pace at developing processors in mind. It is fully independent and can take decisions on its own, be it negotiating with chip manufacturers on when to supply new processors for a smartphone or providing five years of regular software updates to Pixel owners instead of three.

By no means, the launch of Tensor SoC indicates Google is done with Qualcomm yet. Google hasn’t indicated if it plans to use the custom processor over the Snapdragon chip in the mid-range Pixel phones in the future. It’s also not clear how powerful the new Tensor SoC is compared to Apple’s A-series chips. For now, what we know is that Google spent four years developing the Tensor system-on-chip (SoC) and its decision to cut off Qualcomm from supplying processors for its flagship smartphones is surely a bold move.

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