Google is getting ready to take a page out of Apple’s own book, with the Pixel 6 being powered by its own chipset. And we actually know quite a bit about this chipset already. Partly thanks to Google providing the details in a Tweet storm on August 2.
We know that it will be called the Tensor SoC. Which is not the name many expected, and it’s honestly a pretty bad name. But it is what Google will call it, until they decide to kill it in a few years.
Now, this would not be the first time that Google designed its own chipset. As it does design its own chips for its servers for Google Cloud. But for smartphones, this would be a first for Google. Apple has been designing its own chipsets for all of its products for nearly a decade. And just moved its own chipsets over to the Mac last year, with great success. And now Google is looking to do the same.
Google did confirm the new chipset, and its name. But we don’t know everything about it yet. It will launch in the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro later this year. So here’s everything you need to know about the Tensor SoC and which is Google’s first smartphone chipset.
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||2x 2.8GHz Cortex-A78|
2x 2.6GHz Cortex-A76
4x 2.0GHz Cortex-A55
|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 full HD+|
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.
When Google confirmed a lot of details about the Pixel 6, we also learned that it will use the Titan M2 security chip. So yes, the Tensor SoC will be secure. In fact, it could be one of the more secure chipsets in an Android smartphone right now.
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 could push updates to five years. In fact that was reported earlier this month to be happening.
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.
It’ll most likely come with a 5G modem
Technically, we don’t know if the Pixel 6 will have 5G. But it would be very hard for Google to launch a phone in 2021 without 5G support. Especially if it wants to continue selling on all of the US carriers.
The reason for this is, because we have not heard anything about a 5G modem. Now since Google is using Samsung to manufacture the GS101 silicon, it is likely that it’ll use a 5G modem that Samsung already makes.
This is important because while the modem is usually on the SoC or at least connected to it, it isn’t always manufactured by the same company. For instance, the iPhone 12 has an Apple-made chipset, but a Qualcomm modem on-board.
The bigger question mark is whether it will support mmWave 5G. So far, only those smartphones with Qualcomm chipsets have supported mmWave chipsets. And that even includes the iPhone 12 series. Which is likely due to the same reason why CDMA phones were all Qualcomm-powered, back in the day.
The Pixel 6 will without a doubt have 5G, but the specifics might be a bit interesting this year.
You’ll see the Tensor SoC on the Pixel 6 this fall
Google confirmed that the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro will both be powered by this new Tensor SoC, and they’ll be coming this fall. We still don’t know when exactly that will be. But in the past, Google has held its hardware event either in the last week of September or the first part of October. So it’ll likely be after all of the other flagships are out.
You won’t see it on any other smartphones, at least not yet. It’ll only be on the Pixel 6. And that is because Google is marketing it as “made for Pixel”. So we’re going to see a lot of optimization between Android, the Pixel Experience and the Tensor SoC on the Pixel 6 this year.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Tensor SoC make it to other Pixel devices in the future, or a form of the Tensor SoC. As Google could make its own chips for the Pixel Buds and even the Pixelbook. In fact, it could be the same processor in the Pixelbook, since it is running Chrome OS and Android apps. And that is very similar to the Pixel 6.
Either way, this fall is going to be a very exciting time for Pixel fans out there. As we’re going to get a very powerful Pixel 6 smartphone. That is likely more powerful than what the Snapdragon 888 could have offered.