Google has taken a page out of Apple’s own book, with the Pixel 6 being powered by its own chipset. And we expect to see many other companies do the same actually. We’ve heard of OPPO, Xiaomi and others potentially working on their own chipset too.
Google actually announced this chipset back in August, a full two months before the Pixel 6 was officially unveiled. And we learned a lot about it then. But now that the phone is available, we know a whole lot more about this new Tensor SoC. So here’s everything you need to know about the Tensor SoC that is powering the Google Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
What is Tensor?
Tensor is not a new name for Google. It has made machine learning processing chips called “Tensor Processing Units” or TPUs. Which are used in its data centers. And has done so since 2017. Which is where the name came from for this chipset for the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.
As mentioned before, this is Google’s first smartphone chipset, but it is not new to making chipsets.
Why is Google following Apple’s lead?
Here on the Android side, we typically make fun of Apple for copying Google or Android things. But that’s how things work. Without competition, Android (and iOS) wouldn’t see any meaningful changes. Though these days we could argue that neither does.
But with chipsets, Google is starting to follow Apple’s lead here. Apple started making its own chipsets for the iPhone in 2010, with the iPhone 4. And has continued ever since. So Apple has been making its own chipsets for iPhone, iPad, and even its watches and headphones for well over a decade. Then it decided to move into making them for Macs last year.
Now Google, is looking to do the same.
Google has been making chipsets for a few years, not quite as long as Apple. But it makes Tensor chips for its servers. And now it is moving into smartphone chipsets. But why? Well it allows Google to even more of the ecosystem. And do more of what it wants to do. By controlling every aspect of the Pixel 6, from the silicon to the software, Google is able to push out updates faster and longer. As well as optimize the phone to run better on lesser hardware. Which in-turn can improve the battery life too.
That is a big reason why we see the iPhone using such a tiny battery. Not because the chip inside isn’t powerful (quite the contrary), but Apple can optimize the entire phone to hell. And now Google can do that with the Tensor SoC. But only time will tell if that will indeed be the case here.
How powerful will the Tensor SoC be?
Google has only confirmed to us that they will be making the TPU for the Tensor SoC for some Artificial Intelligence goodies, as well as the new Titan M2 security module. Other aspects of this chipset are currently not confirmed, and are just speculation or rumors.
According to a report that surfaced in early August, Samsung is set to be manufacturing the new chipset for Google. Which should come as no surprise, as Samsung is one of the few companies that can actually produce chipsets on a massive scale.
It’s also been reported that it will be manufactured on a 5nm fabrication process. Which means that it will be on par with the latest from Samsung and Qualcomm – Exynos 2100 and Snapdragon 888 respectively. That should mean that the Tensor SoC is going to be pretty powerful actually. So those worried about a Google-made chipset being slower, don’t be. Especially with all of the optimization that Google is going to do here.
Here are the specs that are currently available for the GS101 or Whitechapel chipset. These are subject to change and won’t be official until the Pixel 6 is announced.
|Process Technology||5nm FinFET (Samsung)|
|CPU cores||4x 1.8GHz Cortex-A55|
3x 2.25GHz Cortex-A76
1x 2.8GHz Cortex-X1
|AI & ML||in-house NPU|
|5G modem||Samsung’s in-house 5G Modem|
or Snapdragon X55 5G Modem
|Additional Chips||Titan M Security Chip (codenamed ‘Dauntless’)|
Pixel Visual Core
Pixel Neural Core
|Display help||Up to 120Hz QHD+|
Will it be secure?
Google spent years working on the Titan M security module that is in the current Pixel smartphones. So there’s no way they would just leave that out of the Tensor SoC. Once more, we’ve seen evidence of this, in code for the new Pixel 6 devices.
With Tensor, we are getting the Titan M2 security module, and Google notes that it delivers “the most layers of hardware security in any phone.” Which makes the Pixel 6 series stand out from other Android smartphones.
Would this change result in longer updates?
Updates has always been a problem for Android smartphones. Not only how long they are supported, but also how quickly they get updates. That might change with the Tensor SoC. Why? Because Google won’t need to wait on Qualcomm to release the binaries for the chipset, to start working on the update. That is one of the biggest reasons that updates take so long on Android. Qualcomm releases the binaries, but they start with their latest chipsets first. And sometimes don’t even release them for the older, lower-end chips. Which is why these $200 phones may not even see a single update. It’s not necessary the OEMs fault (other than for using an old chipset), but Qualcomm or MediaTek’s.
Google currently promises three years of security and OS updates for the Pixel smartphones. Meanwhile, Apple is still updating the iPhone 6S to iOS 15, which came out in 2015. That’s at least six years of updates there. But with the Tensor SoC, Google is promising five years of updates.
But that doesn’t mean that your Pixel 6 will get updated to Android 17. No. The way it is worded, is that Pixel 6 will get five years of security updates and three years of OS updates. So still a bit of catching up to do, when compared to Apple. But it is a step in the right direction.
That’s yet another advantage of being able to control everything about your phone. Pixel already gets updates on day one, for the most part. So fast updates isn’t a problem for the Pixel. But how long it gets supported is. And we will most likely see much longer-term updates for Pixels starting with the Pixel 6.
What about the camera? Can the Tensor SoC improve the Pixel camera experience even more?
If you’re old enough to remember the Nexus, you probably remember how terrible the cameras were on those phones. That changed with the Pixel in 2016. Making it one of the best smartphone cameras available, and that really took a leap forward with the Pixel 2 in 2017. Now that Google is using its own chipset, that could get even better.
The Tensor SoC does have a dedicated TPU for AI and machine learning, which is what Google relies heavily on for its camera. Along with computational photography. Which could take the camera to the next level.
Not to mention the fact that Google is bringing us a new camera sensor this year. While it did not confirm the exact sensor that is being used, Google did say it was new. So you can say goodbye to that 12-megapixel sensor it has used for the past four years. On the Pixel 6, there will be a main sensor and ultra-wide. With the Pixel 6 Pro adding a telephoto lens. Which will be folded like most smartphones do these days for telephoto lenses.
Google has also confirmed that there will be some big changes coming to the cameras with the Tensor SoC. Like the fact that it will apply HDR to each frame in a video. Hopefully giving us better video recording on the Pixel 6 series. It will also work on facial blur better, among other things. Google definitely has a number of tricks up its sleeve for the Pixel 6’s camera still.
Here’s Samsung’s first 5G mmWave modem
When Tensor was first announced, there was nothing said about it featuring 5G. We were pretty sure it would have 5G, since carriers will not carry non-5G phones these days. And sure enough, it does.
Tensor is the first to use Samsung’s 5G mmWave modem.
That’s huge actually. Because, before this, all 5G smartphones that featured mmWave were powered by Qualcomm. Even on the iPhone side, Apple had to get Qualcomm modems for their phones.
This is going to mean more competition for Qualcomm too, but for Samsung it is a bit more interesting. Since Samsung does continue to use Qualcomm for its US smartphones like the Galaxy S21, Galaxy Z Flip 3, and others. Whereas it uses Exynos in other areas. mmWave is really only a big deal in the US. So this could mean we see the Galaxy S22 with Exynos across the board.
Now, if that happens, it’ll be a major hit to Qualcomm. After losing the Pixel this year, and then the Galaxy S22 next year. While Pixel is not a huge customer for Qualcomm, it does send a notice to other manufacturers that they can make their own chips too. And rely less on Qualcomm.
Tensor powers the all-new Google Pixel 6 Series
The Tensor SoC is available in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, which are now available for purchase. They offer a pretty good look of what to expect from Google when it comes to chipsets.
In our review, we found that the speed of Tensor was very similar to the Snapdragon 888 5G and even the Exynos 2100 – both of which power the Galaxy S21 series. That is pretty impressive for Google’s first time making a smartphone chip. Of course, they have made their chips in the past. But server chipsets are very different from smartphone chipsets.
If the Tensor SoC is this good on Google’s first try. Imagine how good it’ll be after a second or third try. Of course, we don’t yet know how this will age over say a year, or two years, or even longer. These days, people are keeping their phones for about 4-5 years. So that is pretty important.
But, Google using its own chipset has allowed it to lower the price of the Pixel 6, starting at $599. As it is not paying for Qualcomm’s chipsets which are often very expensive. And Qualcomm also charges royalties for using its chipsets. That also causes Qualcomm-powered phones to be more expensive.